Saturday, October 15, 2016

Quick Review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven
Music composed by James Horner & Simon Franglen
Music conducted by J.A.C. Redford, Carl Johnson
Music recorded at Newman Scoring Stage, 20th Century Fox
Album running time: 76 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

The making of the score to 2016's The Magnificent Seven is a little more interesting than the score itself.  

The film itself is a Western retelling of the original 1960 film (which of course was a reinterpretation of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai).  There were 3 following films in the 1960s-1970s and all were scored by the great Elmer Bernstein.  The Magnificent Seven theme is iconic in its own right, used in commercials, parodies and almost every Western pastiche that followed.  This score does reference the Bernstein theme (but more of the identifying rhythm) throughout the score...but more on that later.

More importantly, this is James Horner's final music for a theatrical film.  He had just completed Southpaw (2015) with director Antoine Fuqua and The 33 (2015) before his untimely death in June, 2015.  After reading the script, Horner started sketching themes and musical ideas to work on with collaborator Simon Franglen.  After Horner's death, Franglen and Horner's usual team consisting of music editors and orchestrators recorded those ideas as a present to director Antoine Fuqua.  From that moment, it would take a small group of collaborators to compose a new score for the film, while being sensitive and honoring the material that Horner composed.  One could boil that down to a new score containing the musical spirit of James Horner - worked on by the people that worked with him.  

Naturally the score is filled with many Horner-isms. It's hard to tell how many he would put in himself, or how many got added by Franglen and team.  The main theme, you could call it the New Magnificent Seven theme doesn't appear in its entirety until about halfway in the album.  Rather than a traditional rousing Western, the theme is noble and somewhat stirring.  

Most of the score fits the doubtful and slightly melancholic vibe set by our villain Bogue and his abuses on the town of Rose Creek.  His snakelike theme appears through many cues, but never latches as an intimidating theme on the album.  The many other reoccurring motifs are the echoing trumpet triplets (an effect that can be traced back to some of Horner's earliest film work).  The tinging percussion, female vocals, danger motif and breathy shakuhachi appear in multiple cues while guitar strums, banjos and hand claps add a bit to the Western flavor.  Of course, a major source of inspiration is the Elmer Bernstein rhythm which appears through many cues, but makes a broad statement near the end as it mingles with the New Magnificent Seven theme.  Those looking for the rousing Bernstein Western style will probably be disappointing, as this score is more minimal and modern in its approach.  

Those modern "gritty" moments don't have much to compare to the grandiose Western scores so many of us are accustomed to.  That isn't director Fuqua's contemporary approach.  While it works with the film, most of the score seems like a chore to listen to.  There are great moments - the Western swagger and sweeping melody does happen, just infrequently not large enough.  For a good sampling of the score, listen to Rose Creek Opression, Volcano Springs, Town Exodus/Knife Training, Seven Riders. The signs of Horner's touches are all throughout the score - something that makes it enjoyable to listen for.  Franglen and team crafted an interesting score, although it's a little too sloggish for me until the fantastic final cue where the score's identity finally shines through.  Still, it's a fitting farewell to one of the greats of film music.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Top 10 Scores Turning 10 in 2016

Back to our musical score time machine!  I know what you're thinking . . . 10 years ago wasn't 2006, was it?  Here's a look back at 2006 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 10!

Let's start the ranking!

10. V for Vendetta (Dario Marianelli)
Using a militaristic sound, Marianelli soaks dread into most of the score.  The more romantically scored moments are strong and show off the choir and solo piano.  The Tchaikovsky moments in the finale are worth listening for.      

9. X-Men: The Last Stand (John Powell)
This score is a full bombastic summer blockbuster.  Large orchestra and choir in many action cues with a new strong X-Men theme and fantastic theme for the Dark Phoenix subplot.  

8.  Cars (Randy Newman)
A mix of Americana, full Country, brass fanfares, electric guitars, derivative Newman/Pixar material and the usual Newman semi-schmaltz.  Director John Lasseter gives Newman plenty of room to paint the scene, as in the 'romantic' ride of Sally and Lightning McQueen.      

7. Blood Diamond (James Newton Howard)
Howard supplies the film with some emotional beats, dramatic tension and African style throughout.  His main theme is particularly notable in the finale.     

6. The Da Vinci Code (Hans Zimmer)
Strings are the focus in this mostly foreboding score.  Adding to the mystery religious-sounding elements are solo soprano, violin and cello.  While it's full of Zimmer-isms, the Chevaliers De Sangreal (main theme) is the highlight.

5. Mission: Impossible III (Michael Giacchino)
Using his best action and suspense spy chops, Giacchino added a modern edge while staying true to the Lalo Schifrin tune.  A countermelody, driving ostinatos and new themes work well but got improved on his next Mission film.      

4. Lady in the Water (James Newton Howard)
Here Howard shines in another Shyamalan film.  The orchestra, choir and piano often have a rippling/circular motion giving us a water effect.  Themes converge to a rousing climax in The Great Eatlon.  A great score to a bad movie. 

3. Superman Returns (John Ottman)
Ottman's addition to and adaption of Superman is probably best part of the film.  There are times where his new material shines, but when he tactfully uses the Williams Superman themes, it is magic. 

2. Casino Royale (David Arnold)
Another action score that reminds viewers of the past and the future.  It features less electronics than Arnold's previous scores, strong brass licks, ethnic location flair, and of course brief hints of the Bond theme until the very end.  

1. Pan's Labyrinth (Javier Navarette)
For this fairy tale within a horrific real world, the score is based on a haunting lullaby.  It is an often sparse score, using atonal brass and strings for some choice moments.  It is the way he transforms the lullaby so evocatively makes it a score that is hard to forget.           

Honorable Mentions:

United 93 (John Powell), The Illusionist (Philip Glass), The Queen (Alexandre Desplat)

Any favorites of yours from 2006 that I didn't include?  Comment below!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Quick Review: The BFG

Music composed and conducted by John Williams
Music recorded at Sony Scoring Stage 
Music recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy
Music edited by Ramiro Belgardt
Album running time: 64 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

Based on the 1982 book of the same name, John Williams and Steven Spielberg reunite for another film in their multi-decade collaboration.  (For those keeping track, this is film 27 together).

While this musical material is new, the whimsical and magical style can be traced back to several other of his film scores - namely Hook, Home Alone and Harry Potter.  His thematic style and orchestration lend themselves to live almost in the same musical world.

For The BFG, the main theme is for Sophie (highlighted of course in the concert suite at the end of the album).  This theme permeates the score, mostly used for sweeter moments.  The meaner giants, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher, among others, have a theme (which I'll just call Fleshlumpeater Theme).  There is a waltz-like theme for the traveling between worlds that I'll call Traveling Theme.  A lovely Friendship Theme, a Nightmare motif and a Queen motif round out the thematic material.   

Overture (unused in the film), is a lovely introduction to the score.  Harp glissandos and flighty flutes circle around a lovely statement of Sophie's Theme.  The Witching Hour begins in a slightly subdued and slightly spooky, representing London at Sophie's orphanage.  The clarinet takes over a lovely melancholy theme with low string interruptions.  As Sophie gets taken, the music grows larger and more menacing.  

To Giant Country begins with a low woodwind motif used for giants before the music opens up to the waltz-like Traveling Theme, fitting with The BFG's large strides and making it dance-like.  Dream Country, where The BFG bottles up dreams, is represented by Williams in an impressionist way.  Long melody lines, bell trees and harp glissandos give the dream-like feel of the magical place.  Parts of this track match the atmospheric/calmed sections of E.T. and A.I.  Sophie's Theme gets a few lovely reprises, with trilling flutes and racing strings accompany Sophie chasing dreams.  She does catch a nightmare, and Williams introduces his Nightmare motif.  It's unusual for Williams to have such a long track on the soundtrack, but this captures a long stretch of the film.

Sophie's Nightmare stays on the darker side, giving full statements of the Nightmare motif, my favorite being in the muted trumpets.  Building Trust is a particularly nice Williams track, fitting in with warm, gentle feelings associated with a Spielberg film.  The piano leads Sophie's Theme, eventually growing to the whole orchestra.  There's a bit of cartoon side to it near the end with Sophie's Theme being played in the woodwinds.  Fleshlumpeater brings us the 'villain' theme.  The mean giants do eat humans, but the music keeps them in a threatening/bumbling comic tone throughout.  (Most listeners know this style from Home Alone burglars, Jabba the Hutt's theme, or Gilderoy Lockhart in the 2nd Harry Potter score).

Dream Jars has some really interesting writing for flutes (many representing the dreams themselves).  It has an impromptu feel and might feel out of place without the film's visual.  A solo harp takes over for a bit, before leading into a quick reprise of Sophie's Theme.  The mean giants material returns in Frolic, and launches into a full-on Strauss-ian polka with a grand ending.  Blowing Dreams introduces the Friendship Theme, a lilting and lovely theme. The flitting flutes return and the orchestra shares some touching underscoring with solo woodwinds.  Snorting and Sniffing features Sophie's Themes in some new statements and add to the bumbling giant music heard earlier.  

Sophie's Future is another tender rendition of Sophie's Theme for flute and harp and later transitions into the Friendship Theme before returning to a bigger statement of Sophie's Theme.  A truly beautiful lullaby-style statement of both themes.  The slightly sad tone returns in There Was A Boy, with Sophie's Theme and the Traveling Theme making appearances.  The Queen's Dream opens with the Nightmare motif which returns us to a more action style with some reprises of Sophie's Theme.  This track also includes the Queen motif, a regal horn chorale.

The Boy's Drawings begins with the flighty flutes and transitions to Sophie's Theme, a few references to the Queen's motif and the Friendship Theme.  This darker backstory isn't in the original novel, but gives Sophie's motivation to round up the mean giants.  Meeting the Queen jumps into the snare drum and a regal variation of the Friendship Theme.  The Queen's motif obviously makes an appearance in that same horn chorale style.  Much of the Queen's scenes in the film are used with some British tune arrangements (used in Barry Lyndon and arranged by Leonard Rosenman).  

An airy version of Sophie's Theme starts off Giants Netted, while the strings charge along.  The Nightmare motif appears with the Fleshlumpeater Theme getting a full statement.  Even then, the mean giants are given music akin to Captain Hook as they receive their banishment.  Finale brings us back to a sweet and tender arrangement of Sophie's Theme on solo piano.  The Friendship Theme gets a reprise before the wistful ending.  Sophie and the BFG is a 8-minute suite of themes, each getting a chance to shine - Sophie's Theme, Fleshlumpeater, Traveling Theme, Friendship Theme, Nightmare motif - with Sophie's Theme taking one last bow as the flute flits off once more.  

Most of my criticism towards the score is more towards the film.  The BFG film is a bit of a puzzlement.  It is more of a serious film with serious topics of loneliness, loss of friendship and I guess the main moral is don't judge a book by its cover (?)  Of course being a Roald Dahl book, his made-up words are supposed to be funny but seemed to fall flat.  And of course the whizpoppers (ie farts) are completely odd in between the serious atmosphere.  (There is one that is actually funny because who can't resist?!)  After all, in Willy Wonka the main characters burp themselves down from the ceiling.  

All that said, John Williams brings his magical touch back with this score.  And of course, along with that touch are echoes of scores of years past.  Most filmgoers will instantly hear connections to previous works, and it might be hard to separate, but this new score does have a new identity.  On a technical musical level, Williams brings a new level of writing - both challenging and deceptively simple.  The parts for woodwinds could easily fit into his concert works, with the flute taking a majority of the solos.  His new themes work nicely in the film and the album, while somewhat out of order, is varied enough for an enjoyable listening experience.  Is this the score and film people will remember for years?  Probably not - it sadly doesn't reach the emotional level and iconic spirit as some of their best collaborations.  Still, grab a bottle of Frobscottle and listen to a touching and masterfully written score by the best!                    

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Quick Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Music composed by Danny Elfman
Music conducted by Rick Wentworth
Music orchestrated by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker
Additional music by Chris Bacon, TJ Lindgren
Music recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London
Album running time: 76 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

2010's Alice in Wonderland was a great hit score for Danny Elfman, providing one of his best scores for director Tim Burton.  The film itself was a bit rocky, with questionable CGI and an overly complicated plot.  (It was, on the other hand, a massive 3D hit at the box here we are with the sequel).  This time, Burton is just producing and has The Muppets (2011) director James Bobin at the helm.  It is meant to match the look of the first film with bright colors still everywhere.

The main theme (Alice's Theme) was a breakout hit for Elfman and some of his best in recent years.  If you loved the theme and choir, Alice Through the Looking Glass has reprises galore.  The theme does go through variations aplenty, more so than the last film.  Also included prominently is the Little Alice Theme, used briefly in the last film.  Other returning themes include one for the Cheshire Cat and the Memory Theme (used at the end of the first film as she remembers her experiences in Underland).  For new themes, we get the Time Theme, a Russian-esque sound.  The elusive theme for the Hatter also makes appearances in spots outside of the Suite.   

Like the album for Goosebumps (2015), the score is arranged from tracks 1-20 as an album arrangement with the rest being "bonus tracks".  The album works as played, but below I've put them in correct film order for convenience.  Here's an album track rundown, perhaps giving you a sense of his thematic usage.  

The album begins with Alice, a 6 minute suite of the main Alice Theme in all its glory.  It transitions to the full statement of the Little Alice Theme, Time's Theme and the Memory Theme.  The latter theme (a bit reminiscent of Goldsmith or Shore is used for some of the poignant moments in the score).  Saving the Ship is the best cue on the album and weaves in Alice's Theme nicely.  It is heroic in moments, with standard Elfman strings and brass and bit more interesting orchestration.  Little Alice Theme even gets a brass-led variation at the finish.  

Watching Time is full of sliding strings representing the Cheshire Cat and clock-like material.  A ticking rhythm is throughout the cue as Time's Theme makes its first appearances.  It's a hard theme to catch, often blending into the orchestral texture. The cue ends with a strong statement of the theme.  Looking Glass begins with a few haunting reprises of the Little Alice Theme before getting into a flighty reprise of Alice's Theme among action sections in addition to solo vocals and organ.  To the Rescue is a short cue, starting with a fanfare and more of the Cheshire motif before adding a more somber choir section.

Hatter House begins with slowed down variations on sections of Alice's Theme. It's on the quiet side, a bit of melancholy is heard by instrumental solos, an ominous rendition of the Hatter's Theme, and ending with a pronounced statement of Little Alice's Theme.  The Red Queen stays in the low strings and woodwinds with some strong brass bursts before it picks up to action version of Alice's Theme. The Chronosphere breaks apart Alice's Theme to little bits, using it in a comedic setting.  The bulk of the track is epic action.  These large action parts are classic minor-key Elfman with swirling strings and choir.

Warning Hightopps returns to the reflective side, letting solo instruments take part of Alice's Theme.  Tea Time Forever is a bit darker, utilizing tolling bells but switching to a cartoony mood.  Oceans of Time is a sweeping cue, with the themes for Little Alice, Alice and Time all converging and blending.

Hat Heartbreak returns us to the celeste and some tender string underscoring.  Bits of the Hatter's Theme is tossed in, sometimes buried around other instruments.  Asylum Escape brings us back to Alice's Theme in full action mode.  Elfman's chance to bring the portions of the theme in this setting is a great choice.  Just like in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Elfman is showing his mastery of some great action material, using a large orchestra in new ways and still fitting in thematic material.  Hatter's Deathbed is a bit somber, with solos instruments taking parts of Alice's Theme.  A solo flute and then solo horn take over with Hatter's Theme.  Little Alice's Theme is taken over nicely with strings, harp and choir.  

Finding the Family is back to the sweet and tender celeste material heard earlier.  The music becomes a bit bolder with the entrance of the low brass.  Time Is Up is another great action cue - a big orchestral epic.  Time's Theme and Alice's Theme are tossed around throughout, and the action briefly stops for Little Alice's Theme.  World's End begins with a music box rendition of Little Alice's Theme and vocal soloist before a crescendo to the Memory Theme in its biggest statement yet.

Truth returns to the calm style from before.  Little Alice's Theme gets a touching reprise as does a sprightly Hatter's Theme.  There are some great moments in this track, led by Little Alice's Theme.  The Memory Theme gets a fitting reprise in Goodbye Alice, and that melody fills the entire track before the chord progression hints at Alice's Theme.  Kingsleigh & Kingsleigh is basically a choral reprise of Alice's Theme giving one last vocal "Alice!" before fading away. 

Seconds Song is a quick bit of a song that should remind listeners of Elfman's own singing on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Oz the Great and Powerful.  Friends United is a whimsical underscore with fragments of Hatter's Theme hinted at.  Time's Castle is a bit more mysterious (utilizing the Cheshire motif), ticking aspects before launching into Alice's Theme.  The Seconds shows off Time's assistants, using the metronome-esque metal sound to match their design.  Clock Shop is a dramatic moment of Time's Theme and a hint of Alice's Theme.  They're Alive provides some dark underscore for the backstory of the Red Queen.  Story of Time is a nice cue, with a mysterious rendition of Hatter's Theme blended with Little Alice's Theme.  Time's Theme makes a march appearance and Little Alice's Theme seems a bit more distant and daunting.  The album ends with the skippable pop song Just Like Fire (performed by Pink).            

For 'Looking Glass', Elfman added to his material from the first 'Alice', letting many old themes expand and have some variants.  Elfman purposely didn't add too many more new themes, instead expanding on themes relating to Alice's childhood (Little Alice) and the Hatter's theme.  His large action cues (Saving the Ship in particular) are some of the best material on the album.  

For track order, it will be something like: Track 2, 4, 5, 22, 6, 27, 23, 24, 3, 8, 11, 9, 12, 10, 26, 25, 13, 14, 7, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 1, 21

The Alice Theme is still the best part of both films and I'm glad it's reoccurring in this score.  The first Alice was one of Elfman's best recent scores and while this doesn't reach the same levels, plenty of aspects make this a great listen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Scoring the Series: X-Men

Scoring The Series continues with a look back at the X-Men films.  In the multiple films over the years, there have been six different composers.  Here are the credits to each film with some scoring photos tossed in.   

X-Men (2000)
Music composed by Michael Kamen
Conducted by Michael Kamen
Orchestrated by Robert Elhai, Michael Kamen, Brad Warnaar
Recorded and mixed by Stephen McLaughlin
Recorded by the L.A. Allstar Orchestra
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X2 (2003)
Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Damon Intrabartolo
Orchestrated by John Ottman, Pierre AndrĂ©, Rick Giovinazzo, Damon Intrabartolo, Frank Macchia, Christopher Tin
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Music composed by John Powell
Conducted by Pete Anthony
Orchestrated by Brad Dechter, Bruce Fowler, Randy Kerber, John Ashton Thomas, Suzette Moriarty, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kliesch, Conrad Pope, Walt Fowler, Ken Kugler
Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy
Recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony

Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams
Conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams
Orchestrated by Ladd McIntosh
Recorded by Joel Iwataki
Recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Music composed by Henry Jackman
Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith
Orchestrated by Stephen Coleman, John Ashton Thomas, Noah Sorota
Additional music by Chris Willis, Matt Margeson, Dominic Lewis
Recorded by Frank Wolf
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

The Wolverine (2013)

Music composed by Marco Beltrami
Conducted by Pete Anthony, Marco Beltrami
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rossano Galante, Mark Graham, Jon Kull, Dana Niu, Patrick Russ
Additional music by Buck Sanders, Brandon Roberts, Marcus Trumpp
Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Jeff Schindler
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rick Giovinazzo, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, John Ottman, John Ashton Thomas 
Additional music by Kristopher Gee, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, Lior Rosner, Marcus Trumpp, Edwin Wendler
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox) 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Jeff Schindler
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rick Giovinazzo, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, John Ashton Thomas
Additional music by Edwin Wendler
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)