Sunday, October 25, 2015

Quick Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies
Music composed by Thomas Newman
Music conducted by Thomas Newman 
Music orchestrated by J.A.C. Redford
Music recorded at 20th Century Fox (Newman Scoring Stage)
Album running time: 48 minutes
Available on Hollywood Records

Seeing Thomas Newman as the composer at the end credits of a Steven Spielberg movie does feel strange. In their 4 decade history, The Color Purple (1985) and Bridge of Spies are the only films without a score by John Williams. Film score fans will immediately notice the stylistic differences, but I’m sure the casual viewer won’t notice. But how did Newman do in this venue? Here’s the album rundown.

While the beginning of the film has no original score, the album begins with Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow – a very brief cue with the Russian choir element in a very dire mood reminding us of location and Cold War time period. Sunlit Silence begins with a noble horn call with brass ensemble and snare drum entering. The rhythmic section afterwards is the most Newman-esque of the score. It follows with a serene string and woodwind piece – James Donovan’s theme. The theme expands to have that Americana sound and not just representing Donovan, but the American idealism. A piano appears with the strings is a rising and falling pattern. The warm string sound featured in many Newman scores shines through. Ejection Protocol sets the mood with solo low flute before the charging motif from the previous track takes over. We get a sense of urgency as stopped horns add a layer of dissonance.

Standing Man has an almost glassy atmosphere before the warm strings enter along with a woodwind choir. Rain brings us back to an urgent mood with charging strings and light percussion tapping over a wailing clarinet. A bleaker world is set up in Lt. Francis Gary Powers with an otherworldly sound and choir. The action picks up and drops off to feature vocalists.

The Article returns us back to the noble brass ensemble in a major key. The second half of the cue features dissonance and percussion. The Wall contains some darker choir moments this time in a mournful adagio in a powerful sequence as the Berlin Wall is built shutting Berlin apart. Private Citizen is a little wispy to start, before the piano comes in adding minor harmonies. The Impatient Plan is a brief cue maintaining a high tension with choir and sustaining strings. West Berlin has strings that swell as new intriguing elements are added in until we’re back to the charging motif heard earlier. Friedrichstra├če Station begins with the piano pattern and charging motif, both heard earlier.

As the negotiations for Lt. Powers and accused spy Rudolf Abel ramp up, they meet at the Glienicke Bridge (the titular bridge of spies). It features a piano solo and has the orchestra have a stopping and starting feel. There is an uneasy quality to the orchestral swelling, as a solo clarinet or piano drop in intermittently. The tension continues to be high for the duration of the track with high strings sustaining. It is hard to tell where and when harmonies shift and it never settles on an even minor key, but keeping suspense with moving pedal tones and dissonance. The ensemble swells with military brass and percussion entering.

Homecoming brings the Americana and patriotic feel back to the score. The theme for Donovan returns in a touching piano solo and then for the most of the track. At this point the theme sounds familiar even though we hardly heard it in the score! This expansion of ideas suits this theme, an almost hymn-like melody. The oboe and English horn moments are purely Newman and make the track the sole standout of the album. Bridge of Spies (End Title) package some material from the film in a nice suite. Starting with the piano motif we transition into the charging string motif with an added Russian choir. James Donovan’s theme has a lengthy reprise as the album ends.

Bridge of Spies is an interesting film for a subject that hasn’t been covered much in films or television. Like Lincoln (2012) before it, it is mainly men sitting in backlit rooms and talking. The action in ‘Bridge’ is brief as the film relies on the tension of drama of the Cold War negotiations. Because of the talking, most of the film’s music stayed under the radar and rather quiet. There were a few orchestral moments near the end – namely the lovely Homecoming, but most of the score is dramatic underscore. The film might get a bit of the ole’ Spielberg sappiness near the end, something that the music doesn’t push too far. Perhaps it was Spielberg that got the long sustained cues out of Newman, who is known for his multiple short cues. In fact, the last three track lengths are a little longer than the rest of the album combined. (I could be wrong, but Glienicke Bridge might be Newman’s longest CD cue since Meet Joe Black)

We don’t know what John Williams would have done with this film, if he were able to score it. Thankfully Newman doesn’t imitate a Williams score but keeps at his distinct style. These compositional techniques are sometimes overused by Newman, but aren’t too obvious or apparent in this score. While it’s pretty typical to not appreciate a Thomas Newman album without seeing the film, this follows suit. The ideas don’t get a chance to really flourish until the last few tracks. If the first half of the album doesn’t suit you, keep listening – a Thomas Newman score has a way of sneaking up on you.       

Monday, October 12, 2015

Quick Review: The Walk

The Walk
Music composed by Alan Silvestri
Music conducted by Alan Silvestri
Music orchestrated by Mark Graham
Music recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands
Album running time: 57 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

Based on the real life daring high-wire walk of Philippe Petit, the film is based on the same book that became the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire (2008). Always trying to seek technological innovations, director Robert Zemeckis uses IMAX 3D to put you in Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) place.

It also marks the 15th film collaboration with director Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri that first started with Romancing the Stone (1984) and most recently on Flight (2012).

The score supports the film nicely, dividing itself with two main themes – one uplifting “Walk Theme”, the sweet “Philippe’s Theme” and the “Heist Theme”. The film and album almost divide evenly up with those themes. Here’s a rundown of the album.

We begin with Pourquoi?, setting a rising string pattern against a piano motif. This is the Walk Theme, setting the prologue up as Petit recounts his story to the audience. The music surges in an uplifting moment before the swing drum set takes over. While the shift is jarring, this jazz section sets up our lead character’s “Heist Theme” and time period. While the beginning section seems very close to Thomas Newman’s work or Silvestri’s own Cosmos, the jazz section sounds like nothing we’ve heard from Silvestri before.

Young Philippe starts off with the piano section of the Walk Theme before introducing us to the circus-like waltz (Philippe’s Theme) for Philippe’s early wire walking work. It’s a lovely tune for strings, accordion and mandolin and it appears in a few select sweet moments throughout the film. Two Loves reveals the romantic side, a gentle tune for solo clarinet, strings and accordion. The solo piano takes over the melody and brings the strings back to finish off the track. The Towers of Notre Dame bring us back to the French style of clarinet, accordion and mandolin before shifting back to the Heist Theme heard earlier. A grander variation of the Philippe Theme grows and expands in orchestration.

“It’s Something Beautiful” echoes the Walk Theme, this time with a weighted feel as a pulse continues in the background. The track closes on a brief reprise of Philippe’s Theme. This track in particular seems very close to his musical landscape of Cosmos. Spy Work is where the Heist Theme gets its full statement, and it’s a fun old-time spy sound. The gravity (pun intended) of his walk is shown in Full of Doubt. The chimes marks the reveal of the World Trade Center towers, with a somber tone in the strings and brass.

Time Passes starts with the usual Silvestri ostinato-style strings and snare drum leading the charge. As the Walk Theme arrives, we get a repetitive electronic ticking pattern that carries through the rest of the track. The Arrow brings some suspense with an ostinato in the low strings before transforming into a comic section. The snare drum and tremolo string writing will certainly sound familiar to Silvestri fans. The drama continues in “We Have a Problem”, as the action section is full of Silvestri goodness. Electronic elements accentuate the orchestra and certain parts sound almost like a mix of James Horner and patterns from Cosmos.

The Walk returns us to the music from Pourquoi and clearly utilizes the Walk Theme. Strings keep some of the high-wire tension by maintaining their high notes as the piano motif enters. Voices enter as even more delightful melodies emerge. “I Feel Thankful” begins with Beethoven’s Fur Elise on piano as Petit continues his walk with each step as graceful as this source music expands with the full orchestra. The action ostinato returns with fragmented phrases punctuated by timpani and snare drum. Our main Walk Theme appears again, alternating with the action section. While this long track seems to have so many abrupt changes on the album, it fits the drama of the film.

“They Want To Kill You” begins serenely with the piano motif before the pace quickens with a steady percussion section and electronic pattern. The strings and horn have a great moment halfway through, a great Silvestri moment. “There Is No Why” brings us back to our main theme, this time coming through the emotional journey musically as in Cosmos, Contact or even The Croods. This track is a great introduction to the score and the slight magic feel the score has. “Perhaps You Brought Them To Life - Given Them A Soul” continues in the same style as the previous track. We get an orchestral crescendo to a lush section with a reprise of the piano motif and Walk Theme. Emotionally gratifying, the swelling finale eventually fades away, as if in the wind.

Besides latching onto the emotional core of a scene, Silvestri gets you to really love a score by the end of the film (or album). At first listen, it’s a bit disjointed - the same way it is in the film. But once Petit is getting ready for the climb until the end, it’s a marvelous listening experience. And the film is that, an experience. Director Zemeckis crafted a fine film, full of dazzling shots and story through visual effects. If this movie ends up near awards season, I wouldn’t be surprised if the score gets some recognition. Silvestri fans will no doubt recognize some of his most done stylistic choices, including similarities with the previously mentioned Contact, Cosmos and Forrest Gump. If the French accordion music/circus music turns you away at the beginning of the album, keep listening – a stirring and moving score lies ahead.