Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Quick Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Music composed by James Newton Howard
Conducted by Pete Anthony
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, Philip Klein, John Ashton Thomas, Peter Boyer
Choir performed by London Voices, Trinity Boys' Choir
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London
Soundtrack running time: 77 minutes
Available on WaterTower Records

The Wizarding World takes a darker turn with The Crimes of Grindelwald. And in the US, it also took a darker turn with critics and at the box office. Returning to provide some musical continuity is James Newton Howard. He continues musical ideas from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) to highlight big moments, but are used sparingly. For this film, he introduces themes for Leta, Dumbledore, Nagini and the big bad, Grindelwald.

Darker material mixes with the large action opening of The Thestral Chase. In this track, we hear the obligatory Hedwig's theme, a choral memory motif, and first statements of Grindelwald's theme before ending with the Fantastic Beasts fanfare. Newt and Leta is a playful and tender cue, while Dumbledore features some magical signatures and also introduces Dumbledore's flighty theme.

More of the magical sounds are present in The Kelpie, which lets Howard's majestic writing shine. Newt and Jacob Pack for Paris is a lighthearted cue, featuring choir, Parisian flavor and a return of Jacob's theme and the Fantastic Beasts theme. Nagini introduces her mysterious theme which stays in the lower end of the orchestra. The friendship theme returns along with a twisting circus reprise of the Fantastic Beasts theme.

We get more magical creature underscore at the beginning of Newt Tracks Tina before it changes moods to a full statement of the friendship theme. Queenie Searches for Jacob underscores Queenie's emotional scene complimented nicely with choir. Irma and the Obscurus starts with a longing string section before it crashes into a booming section for chanting choir and orchestral dissonance. Blood Pact combines aspects of both Grindelwald and Dumbledore's theme and the memory motif.

Newt's heroic theme finally appears in Capturing the Zouwu, with another reference to the friendship theme. The Fantastic Beasts theme is arranged in the magical Williams style of swirling strings and celeste in Traveling to Hogwarts. If I recall correctly, this moment in the film is replaced with a tracked version of Hedwig's theme. Leta's theme gets a proper expansion in Leta's Flashback, heavily featuring harp and chorus and an extended emotional piano solo. Salamander Eyes features the friendship theme with strings and piano solo, one of the score's stronger cues. Matagots is a really fun action track, with swashbuckling brass shining through as Newt's heroic theme bursts through the dissonance.

Your Story is Our Story is mostly ominously quiet underscore, with Grindelwald's theme lurking in the low strings. Leta's Confession carries much of the dramatic weight of the scene, using a slower reprise of the Fantastic Beasts theme, while Leta's theme naturally carries much of the track. Vision of War features a dark and string section, dissonant choir and otherworldly sounding orchestral and percussion techniques. 


Spread the Word builds through most of the dramatic cue with choir and a string ostinato as we follow the decisions of several main characters. Wands into the Earth starts with the memory motif and eventually builds to some great brass interplay, large choir and a grand statement of the Fantastic Beasts theme. Restoring Your Name returns to the more somber underscoring which uses several past themes. We hear Dumbledore's theme and Fantastic Beasts theme before turning to darker side with Obscurus and Grindelwald while building to an explosive orchestral ending. 

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the lively beginning of the end credits, featuring much of the music from the trip to Paris and a bold statement of Newt's heroic theme. The album also includes three piano solo arrangements of major themes: Dumbledore's Theme, Fantastic Beasts Theme and Leta's Theme. These aren't included in the film, but a nice way to appreciate the material written for the film.

In general, I find this score (and film) lacking something. Much of the magical atmosphere from the first film has been dropped in favor of Grindelwald's ominous takeover. Much of the film's problems seem to come from the writing and direction, in my opinion. While not always displaying a magical sparkle, James Newton Howard's score carries much of the emotional weight. The lack of dialogue in the extended flashbacks and finale give plenty of times to highlight the score.

The use of past themes seem more like cameos than integrated into the film itself. I'm glad the Fantastic Beasts theme is used, but with Newt, Tina and Jacob basically sidelined through the film, much of their respective material isn't touched. In addition, the newer themes are fine even if they don't make much impact outside their scenes. Grindelwald and Dumbledore's themes didn't make much of an impression in the film (or much in the album), but Howard can expand on that in the future films. The score is still worth a listen. Howard matched the darker tone of the film, but without the fantastical elements, the score just doesn't pop like the last.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Music Behind the Ride: Soarin'

When Disney California Aventure opened in 2001, one of the opening attractions was Soarin' Over California.  In this edition of Music Behind the Ride, I'll explore the music used and the versions around the world. 

With Soarin' Over California, the extremely popular flying simulator incorporated the feeling of hang gliding over various California sights, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, Yosemite, Downtown Los Angeles and even returning to Disneyland.  Scents and the swinging ride vehicles are also used through the ride to match the locations.  The innovative ride system with the stunningly large Omnimax screen made the ride an instant hit.  

The queue for the ride led visitors past displays of aviation history and significant figures in its history.  Cues from a wide variety of film scores and composers are played through the queue hallways.  It's one of the few Disney park rides that plays such a mix of non-Disney film music.  Some of those films include:
Explorers (Jerry Goldsmith) 
The Right Stuff (Bill Conti)
Air Force One (Jerry Goldsmith)
Contact (Alan Silvestri)
The Rescuers Down Under (Bruce Broughton)
Apollo 13 (James Horner)
Dave (James Newton Howard)
Always (John Williams)
Hook (John Williams)
The Musketeer (David Arnold)
The Last Starfighter (Craig Safan)
Field of Dreams (James Horner)
Far and Away (John Williams)
The Rocketeer (James Horner)
Medicine Man (Jerry Goldsmith)

Not all are flight related, but have the inspirational orchestral sound Disney was looking for.  Once the seats have risen up, the ride video and the stirring Jerry Goldsmith score take over.  The 4 minute orchestral and synth score alternate between the opening fanfare and sweeping main melody.  The majestic brass and cymbal crashes are synched with the film, ending with the twinkling magic of returning home.  Story goes that Goldsmith left the ride in tears and was happy to compose the ride score.  Expanding into Walt Disney World's Epcot in 2005, it was renamed to Soarin'. The show building used an airport theme, taking you on Flight 5505 to California.  The queue music and ride video were identical to California Adventure.  Soarin' quickly became one of Epcot's most popular rides, with wait times easily up to two hours.

The biggest change was the closure, refurbishment and reopening in 2016.  Both versions of the ride were renamed to Soarin' Around the World.  Straying far from California, this new video travels past the Alps, over ice fjords, the Sydney Harbor Opera House, Neuschwanstein Castle, a herd of African elephants, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid, Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower at night before arriving at the Disney park of your departure.  Shanghai Disneyland's Soaring Over the Horizon is the same 2016 music and video but ends with the glowing skyline of downtown Shanghai.


With the ride video changing, Bruce Broughton arranged new music for the ride.  Thankfully, the main themes from Goldsmith's score are still present.  Broughton added more orchestra embellishments into the arrangement and also allowed the orchestration to change with the various locales.  The London Studio Orchestra recorded this new version at Abbey Road, and you can hear all the international flavor added, like the African drums and the Indian sitar, among the others.  The ride will expand again in summer 2019, with Soaring: Fantastic Flight at Tokyo DisneySea.


As far as recordings, Goldsmith's original ride score first appeared on the Music from California Adventure album in 2001.  It has since appeared on several Walt Disney World and Disneyland compilation albums.  Broughton's newer arrangement hasn't been released yet, so you'll have to go experience it yourself!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Honorary Oscars

The Academy Honorary Award is awarded by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Given as a Special Award since the 1920s, only a few composers have won for their lifetime work in the industry. At the time of their respective awards, none have received a competitive award - perhaps this could be seen as an Academy Award correction. With Lalo Schifrin's Honorary Award ceremony in November, 2018, let's look back at the previous winners and their past Oscar history.

Alex North (1910-1991)
Nominations for:
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Death of a Salesman (1951)
Viva Zapata! (1952)
The Rose Tattoo (1955)
Best Original Song: "Unchained Melody" from Unchained (1955) [lyrics by Hy Zaret]
The Rainmaker (1956)
Spartacus (1960)
Cleopatra (1963)
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
Shanks (1974)
Bite the Bullet (1975)
Dragonslayer (1981)
Under the Volcano (1984)
Honorary Academy Award 1985 "in recognition of his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for a host of distinguished motion pictures."

North was the first composer to receive this Honorary Award after his 15 nominations (and losses) to composers Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman, Victor Young, Ernest Gold, John Addison, Maurice Jarre, John Barry, John Williams and Vangelis.


Ennio Morricone (1928- )
Nominations for:
Days of Heaven (1978)
The Mission (1986)
The Untouchables (1987)
Bugsy (1991)
Malena (2000)
Honorary Academy Award 2006 "in recognition of his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music."

In 2016, Morricone won the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight (2015). Fun fact: this win made Morricone the oldest Oscar winner at 87, until 89 year old James Ivory won for the screenplay of Call Me By Your Name (2017).


Lalo Schifrin (1932- )
Nominations for:
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The Fox (1967)
Voyage of the Damned (1976)
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Best Original Song: "People Alone" from The Competition (1980) [lyrics by Will Jennings]
Best Original Song Score/Adaptation: The Sting II (1983)

Honorary Academy Award 2018 "in recognition of his unique musical style, compositional integrity and influential contributions to the art of film scoring."

Monday, November 5, 2018

Quick Review: First Man

First Man
Music composed by Justin Hurwitz
Music orchestrated and conducted by Justin Hurwitz
Soundtrack running time: 67 minutes
Available on Back Lot Records

After their Oscar winning success on La La Land (2016), Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle continue their collaboration with First Man. Based on the book of the same name, the film explores the life of Neil Armstrong - his family life, training and eventual moon landing in 1969.

Rather than the jazz influences in La La Land and Whiplash (2014), Chazelle and Hurwitz wanted to score it differently than anything they worked on before. Working with storyboards and the script, Hurwitz composed some main themes and sketched out some of the major sequences prior to the main scoring process. The instrumentation of the score is unique - Hurwitz employs the use of interesting retro electronics both as a melodic and rhythmic texture. He also liberally uses solo harp and theremin (performed by Hurwitz himself). The music often keeps the score from a personal point of view – Armstrong's family, and the loneliness that goes with space travel. The longest cues served as jumping off points for the rest of the score - the Apollo 11 launch and the landing sequence.

Two main themes support the film - Neil's theme and family theme. Both appear all through the score separately with a few tracks where they intertwine. A work theme as he prepares with NASA appears in handful of tracks.

I've decided to make a handy guide for the album as divided by main theme: Neil's theme, family theme, work theme and electronic tension.

Neil’s theme is highlighted in Armstrong Cabin, Houston, Sextant, The Armstrongs, Neil Packs, Apollo 11 Launch, The Landing, Quarantine.
Family theme is highlighted in Karen, It'll Be an Adventure, Baby Mark, Squawk Box, Docking Waltz, I Oughta Be Getting Home/Plugs Out, Contingency Statement, The Landing, Crater, Quarantine.
Work theme is featured in Another Egghead, Multi-Axis Trainer, First to Dock, Dad's Fine, End Credits.
Electronic tension is found in X-15, Good Engineer, Elliot, Searching for the Aegena, Spin, Naha Rescue 1, News Report, Translunar, Moon, Tunnel, Moon Walk.

The family theme seems to be the framework for Pat and Janet, Neil Packs and Home; while the melody in Apollo 11 Launch is derived from Neil's theme. While supporting the film, the electronic tension cues are easily the most skippable during an album listen. You might enjoy the vintage synth work he's crafted, but it's not my cup of tea. It's really The Landing and Quarantine that sum up Hurwitz's score. Neil's theme intertwined with the family theme bring all parts of the story of Neil Armstrong together.

The score is bold in its choices, and I'll give it to Hurwitz for that. The film and score don't have the overt heroics of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff (and nor does it need to). The film and score go for a personal look at Armstrong rather than "Moon Landing: The Motion Picture". The use of theremin is a neat idea and used well in context and the moments with solo harp are simple and effective. Even with the musically fine themes, I found the album a bit of a slog. Of course film music's main goal is to support the film (which it does), so you can't rate the score on album alone. Overall, what you get is a collection of short cues that feel like thematic statements rather than letting them evolve throughout the score.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Music Behind the Ride: Haunted Mansion

The Haunted Mansion is one of the most beloved rides at Disney properties around the world.  In this new feature Music Behind the Ride, I wanted to explore a classic attraction with some connections with film composers.  With Halloween approaching, I wanted to take a specific look at the 999 happy haunts and the music that accompanies them.

The most important names in the creation of the attraction's music are composer Buddy Baker and Imagineer/lyricist X Atencio. Baker might be a familiar name to Disney fans with his music appearing all over the parks (he was WED's music director) and his various live action and animated film scores.  Atencio was instrumental in the creation of the Mansion's script and lyrics to Grim Grinning Ghosts.  Atencio also wrote the lyrics to the other Disney park classic song, Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me).



The song Grim Grinning Ghosts ties the whole ride together.  While the song with lyrics isn't fully used until the last scenes, the song's melody is placed throughout the ride.  Baker arranged these variations on the melody for each scene of mainly different tempos and instrumentation as to not let the tune get too repetitive.  The foyer features the melody played slowly on a funeral-style organ while the ride loading area features the melody on flute and tubular bells.  There are several parts of the rides that the music was purposely performed backwards and played forwards, giving it a slightly otherworldly feel.  The ballroom scene is more orchestral and melody is modified into a grand waltz.  I love the music as the ride enters the graveyard jamboree.  Around 40 different tracks were recorded for this portion, and the graveyard jamboree scene itself included a jazz ensemble, instrumental soloists, vocalists including the singing busts and the soprano opera singer.  All this happening from the line queue to the exit is a testament to Baker and the Imagineering team's attention to detail.  The ride opened at Disneyland in 1969 with Walt Disney World's version in Magic Kingdom opened soon after in 1971.  Tokyo Disneyland opened their ride in 1983.

In 2001 the Disneyland Haunted Mansion received a holiday season overlay called Haunted Mansion Holiday, based on The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  In addition to the Jack Skellington decorations, the ride's soundtrack was also changed.  Originally it featured new music by Gordon Goodwin, but the score was replaced in 2002 with film themes by Danny Elfman adapted by John Debney.  I believe some of Goodwin's score still appears in the ride.

Meanwhile, across the world the Haunted Mansion has some alternate incarnations and some fantastic music to go along with it.    

In 1992, Phantom Manor opened in Disneyland Paris.  The ride contains a darker theme with a storyline unlike the earlier versions.  We get a new bride storyline and and an entirely new orchestral score composed by John Debney.  Debney was no stranger to Disney, having been mentored by Buddy Baker and arranged several other park ride music in the 1980s.  Recorded by the London Chamber Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, Debney's gothic score fits more of the new romantic storyline.  The ride doesn't use narration, so the film-like score carries much of the story, and Debney utilized a solo female singer throughout the attraction's score.  Never straying too far from the original, elements of Grim Grinning Ghosts are still included in the score. The ride closed in 2018 for refurbishment, and will reopen in 2019 with updated effects and a possible updated storyline.

In 2013, Hong Kong Disneyland opened its own dark ride called Mystic Manor.  More inspired than based on the Haunted Mansion due to cultural sensitivities, we follow Lord Henry Mystic and his pet monkey, Albert.  The lighthearted trackless ride travels through the mansion's collection rooms with Albert unleashing many mystical artifacts.  The ride's score was composed by Danny Elfman (it's no surprise he was a fan of the original Haunted Mansion).  The magical score features choir, pipe organ and Elfman providing vocals as suits of armor.  The score changes instrumentation through the various rooms - from the Egyptian and Tiki rooms to the Chinese room.  Because of the basically new story and ride, references to Grim Grinning Ghosts don't appear.  
Elfman's portrait appears in Mystic Manor's queue area. 
As far as recordings, the song Grim Grinning Ghosts has appeared on several Disney compilations, but ride sound effects, background music and separate musical tracks have appeared on the limited edition 30th anniversary disc and 2009 The Haunted Mansion album currently sold in the Disney parks.  A 12-minute Phantom Manor suite is also included on the album.  The Haunted Mansion Holiday received an album in 2003, featuring handfuls of spooky Christmas carols, and music by Goodwin, Elfman and Debney.  As of this writing, Elfman's 5 minute Mystic Manor music hasn't been released - and I hope it makes it out!  It can be heard on various fanmade ride videos and his main theme is used in a collectible music box sold in Hong Kong Disneyland.

Happy Halloween!  Hope the music gets stuck in your head!  Oh, and beware of hitchhiking ghosts!