Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Top 10 Scores Turning 20 in 2018

Welcome back to a trip on the Musical Time Machine!  For this edition, we're looking just 20 years the year 1998.  Here's a look back at the scores of 1998 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 20!

Let's start the ranking!

10. Deep Impact (James Horner)
Just as he did with Titanic, Horner brought much of the humanity into this disaster film.  Rather than focusing on large action cues, the simple piano theme carries most of the dramatic arc of the characters.  Many cues sound like unused material from Titanic and Apollo 13 (among other bits of Hornerisms).  Some cues like The Wedding and the choral finale are high points.

9. The Horse Whisperer (Thomas Newman)
Newman uses a lot of sweeping orchestral material in addition to the softer flowing moments and swirling minimalist textures.  The more exotic instrumentation lends nicely to the film's setting (dulcimers, fiddles, and all types of guitars), while piano gets featured nicely.  Several short underscore cues don't add up to much, but the longer cues give Newman time to explore.  The great moments in Montana and Rhythm of the Horse stand out.  

8. Saving Private Ryan (John Williams)
Spielberg wanted more musical restraint than John Williams normally provides a film.  Keeping the rawness of the film, there isn't much sentimental or heroic writing in the score. Sometimes the most powerful sound is no music in a film, and it probably has the least amount of score for Williams.  There are some beautifully evocative trumpet solos, and some reflective string writing.  The standout elegy Hymn to the Fallen, with wordless choir, is perfectly served for the end credits.  Its power is still shown when performed in concert or used in a tribute.

7. The Prince of Egypt (Hans Zimmer)
To accompany DreamWorks' first foray into animation, they turned to Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer.  With Schwartz writing songs, Zimmer created a score that accentuated the epic biblical story that added themes and arrangements of song melodies.  The credits read like a early who's-who of Zimmer's Media Ventures.  Lengthy tracks of score are dispersed among the original soundtrack (and collector's edition).    

6. Pleasantville (Randy Newman)
Newman brought a lot of charm to this delightful film.  He gets to show a more sentimental and nostalgic side, aspects that have also been touched on in some of his animated Pixar scores.  There are some lovely piano-led themes, and the score gives some of the magical touches to the film.  A great pairing of film director vision and composer.   

5. Les Miserables (Basil Poledouris) 
Poledouris adapted his composing style to the melodramatic and sweeping epic by focusing on strings and woodwinds.  The score tends to stay in the brooding, low registers.  Character themes appear and change as the story unfolds - grand, militaristic and somber, for example.  Interestingly, the soundtrack is divided into four suites (tracks) with long running times but with subsections within.  

4. Godzilla (David Arnold)
Independence Day and Tomorrow Never Dies showed off Arnold's large scale scores, but Godzilla seems even bigger.  Nothing is subtle - the monster motif (with choir), a large miltary theme, and over-the-top love theme. Of course, that's what makes this score so endearing.  At the unenthusastic box office reception, a score album was never released.  It took until 2007's La La Land Records release for it to finally shine.  It's bold, and tons of fun.  Shame action films aren't scored like this more often.

3. Meet Joe Black (Thomas Newman)
Meet Joe Black isn't a great film but it does have great visuals and a stunning score by Thomas Newman.  This score features some of Newman's most romantic themes and untypical long-phrased string melodies.  It still has some typical Newman trappings, but the highlight is the 10-minute long That Next Place.  [Bonus points if you only saw this movie to watch the Phantom Menace trailer.]

2. Mulan (Jerry Goldsmith)
Much of the epic scope and drama of Mulan comes from Jerry Goldsmith's score.  The rich textures, both Chinese and electronic, add greatly to the film.  Thematic material is strong (and are highlighted nicely in the Mulan Suite).  The songs and score really don't intermingle, with the soundtrack only using a handful of Goldsmith cues.  Would love to hear more of this score expanded and released in the future.

1. The Mask of Zorro (James Horner)
Zorro brought out Horner's most swashbuckling action score in years.  The album features several of the long, grand orchestral set pieces.  Horner deftly juggles all the action, sweeping romance, great themes and melodrama you expect with all the typical Horner panache.  Utilizing some of his old tricks in addition to the Mexican aspects keeps this score fresh and quite the ride to listen to. 

Honorable Mentions:
Antz (Harry Gregson-Williams/John Powell), The Avengers (Joel McNeely), A Bug's Life (Randy Newman) Lost in Space (Bruce Broughton), Shakespeare in Love (Stephen Warbeck), Small Soldiers (Jerry Goldsmith), Star Trek: Insurrection (Jerry Goldsmith), The Thin Red Line (Hans Zimmer), What Dreams May Come (Michael Kamen)

Any personal favorites of yours from 1998 that I didn't include? 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Top 10 Scores Turning 30 in 2018

Back to our musical score time machine!  For this edition, we're looking at 1988!  Here's a look back at the scores of 1988 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 30!

Let's start the ranking!

10. Big (Howard Shore)
Shore nicely handled the comedy and drama of this now classic film. The score relies on a few lyrical themes typically on piano and strings.  He portrays the world of the characters with a wide-eyed innocence that makes this music a sentimental favorite.  This isn't the type of film or music Shore is typically attached to, but here it works so well.  His incorporation of Heart and Soul to his main theme is a great touch.

9. Scrooged (Danny Elfman)
Elfman lets his full identity show - this time with a Christmas twist that would appear several times later in his career.  This score elevates this Christmas film as it shifts around various tones and proved that Elfman could handle larger films.  It took until 2011 for a score release.       

8. The Accidental Tourist (John Williams)
The score is one of the most intimate of Williams and less known among his biggest admirers.  He primarily uses a single lyrical theme to follow the character, which he manipulates through orchestration to change the mood.  The often piano-led theme is primarily melancholic with a sweet romantic side.  

7. Rain Man (Hans Zimmer)
Taking a chance on a relatively new solo composer, director Barry Levinson allowed Zimmer to create a score that is a character just as much as the actors.  His mix of electronic keyboard effects and pan pipes melody is clearly the foundation of many future scores.  The impact of the score is still felt, with Zimmer performing the main theme at his live shows in 2016.   

6. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Michael Kamen)
Matching the grand absurd fantasy of Terry Gilliam's film, Michael Kamen brought wild action and Baroque instrument styles.  The orchestral writing is complex, comedic and melodic, showing some more sides to Kamen's versatility.  The album is currently out of print and the film is somewhat forgotten, but it's a delight.

5. Die Hard (Michel Kamen) 
Even as he's known for big action blockbusters, Kamen's score isn't as completely memorable as the film itself.  There are some nice character motifs among the action, and also maintain a portion of the film's suspense.  Most of the standouts of the score showcase Kamen's arrangements of holiday tunes and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  A score album was never released (took until 2002!), but these expanded releases give you a sense of the score as originally intended, before editing and incorporation of other film music.  

4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Alan Silvestri)
Continuing their strong collaboration, Silvestri and Zemeckis combined the detective noir with the animated world.  The score matches the film's nature perfectly, and so well that the music almost doesn't work as well without the film.  Silvestri incorporated a Carl Stalling-esque approach to the animated world and a jazzy noir approach for our live-action hero - it works well considering the juxtaposition.  The recently expanded release soundtrack lets more of his original vision shine.   

3. The Land Before Time (James Horner)
Horner continued his foray into animation (after An American Tail a few years prior).  With this score, it's of the most mature for an animated film.  Horner dug deep into classical masterpieces for inspiration (and perhaps more depending on who you ask) and created symphonic-like sections for the film.  The sentimental theme moments with choir is a particular standout of the finale.  This continues onto the very rare album, with long but fulfilling tracks.    

2. Willo(James Horner)
One of his most melodically rich scores, it also is an exciting fantasy and adventure score.  Staying atop lists of favorite Horner scores, it still has a few detractions with the borrowed action theme, overuse of both the shakuhachi and danger motif.  Even within the expertly scored swashbuckling action, Horner was able to find some emotional magic for our main characters.  It's a score I find myself returning to over and over again.

1. Beetlejuice (Danny Elfman)
It is impossible to detach Elfman's score from the film.  This is a perfect example of composer and director being exactly in sync.  His zany stylistic choices still give work even with the film switching from offbeat horror to comedy.  The instrumentation and thematic material are still identified with Elfman today.  This score demonstrates that Elfman can summarize the style of the film within the first minute, making his main titles some of the most enjoyable around.    

Honorable Mentions:
Dangerous Liaisons (George Fenton), Grave of the Fireflies (Michio Mamiya), Gorillas in the Mist (Maurice Jarre), The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel), Midnight Run (Danny Elfman), Rambo III (Jerry Goldsmith)

Any personal favorites of yours from 1988 that I didn't include? 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Quick Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Music composed by John Williams
Music conducted by John Williams
Additional conducting by William Ross
Music recorded at Sony Scoring Stage
Album running time: 77 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

The much anticipated sequel to The Force Awakens arrived with a new Star Wars score by John Williams.  It's hard to believe that this is his 8th film in the series going from 1977 to 2017.

Themes!  We got themes!  A foundation of the series are the various leitmotifs - some used quite frequently through the films.  For this film, Williams marries the original trilogy thematic material with his Force Awakens material (which he expands and varies).  New themes to this film aren't as prominent compared to the previous entry and a lot of the emotional impact of the score is used with previous material.  

This will be a track-by track look at the soundtrack - so this is your spoiler warning.  You probably wouldn't be reading this if you hadn't seen the film anyhow....

Main Title and Escape begins with the standard main title cue underscoring the opening crawl.  The Escape part is some of the best action writing, reminiscent of the flashy opening to Revenge of the Sith or the Hoth battle in Empire Strikes Back.  Several flashes of themes make appearances amidst the action: Kylo Ren, variations of the Resistance March, brassy Rebel fanfare for heroic moments and an allusion to Poe Dameron's theme.  As the track gears towards the end, dramatic writing takes over, fitting the dire situations on screen.

Ahch-To Island returns us to the meeting of Rey and Luke Skywalker and Williams uses his Jedi Steps theme (last heard as Rey reached the island at the end of The Force Awakens).  The darker tone of Rey and Luke's training are explored alongside the stunning vistas of Luke's island locale.  The Force theme rightfully appears as well as a sweeping reprise of Rey's Theme.  Introduced is a new (what I'll call) Jedi Master theme - a very ominous and dramatic pattern that appears later in the film.  

Revisiting Snoke gives us more of the dark Snoke material - with low strings, low woodwinds among the men's chorus.  Reprises of Kylo Ren's theme and Darth Vader's theme add to the dark side's suspenseful atmosphere.  The Supremacy shows off Williams' techniques of leitmotif.  Throughout the action cue, Kylo Ren's dark theme is matched against the Resistance March and strong string writing.  Leia's theme is given a ghostly rendition on piano with sustained strings along with the Force theme before the strings take off with Leia's theme in her heroic space journey.  Rey's theme returns at the close of the track quietly on harp.

Fun With Finn and Rose gives us Rose's theme, a charming and optimistic new piece which is sprinkled throughout the rest of the film and the focus of The Last Jedi's new concert suite.  The woodwinds continue into a more whimsical Resistance March, with Leia's theme appearing yet again.  

Back with Luke and Rey in Old Friends, we get a handful of lovely magical variations on the Force theme, Luke's theme and Leia's theme.  Things get darker as the story turns to Rey with some dissonant writing and a statement of the Jedi Master theme.  The Rebellion is Reborn is a concert suite of new themes for the film - a rollicking Rose theme intermixed with the Jedi Master theme.  Continuing with Rey's training, Lesson One has a calm rendition of Rey and the Force's themes, letting them flow into each other.  As the tension builds towards her darker side, the orchestra reaches a climax near the end of the cue.  

Following the grandiose location setting music, we hear the background music of the casino on Canto Bight.  Harkening back to A New Hope, the bluesy jazz style and orchestration fit alongside Cantina Band.  Some listeners may hear similarities to Harry Potter's Knight Bus as well.  Snuck into the casino scenes are bits of Aquarela Do Brasil and even a nod to the title tune from The Long Goodbye (not used on album).    

Who Are You? follows the more ominous and brooding underscore of Rey's training and darker side connections she has made.  The Fathiers is one of the stronger action cues of the new film, with galloping rhythms, the large orchestra whipping around and several large statements of Rose's theme.  The Cave begins with an impressionistic, almost blurry sound.  The dissonances are meant to put you on edge, with some more interesting orchestral techniques being used.  Rey's theme is given a forlorn treatment near the end.  The Sacred Jedi Texts continues the interplay of themes - the Force theme both in small and regal statements and a newly reprised Yoda's theme.  It's a tender moment for the two Jedi and the music relates that as well.

In A New Alliance, Rey and Kylo Ren meet with Snoke.  The ominous low voices appear and provide some more dark underscore.  As the scene turns to action, the brass give several blasts of the Force theme with strings and percussion adding a Stravinsky-like pounding.  Rey's theme is added onto these pounding textures with a few heroic fanfares.  Chrome Dome features more fierce percussion and usual trumpet triplets to underscore another major fight.  The Rebel fanfare makes an appearance, as does a Resistance danger theme, but Williams doesn't include Finn's very rhythmic theme.  

The Battle of Crait shows off Williams' incorporation of themes within a large action sequence.  Within the propulsive action writing is the Force theme, Resistance March, Rose's theme, Rey's theme, Kylo's theme and the Rebel fanfare.  One of the more surprising returns are quotes of TIE Fighter Attack (Here They Come) from A New Hope as the Millenium Falcon arrives on the scene.  The action is relentless until the end with a wordless choir for Finn's emotional mission.  The Spark underscores the emotional reunion of Luke and Leia.  The Force theme leads into a cello-led Luke and Leia's theme (last heard in Return of the Jedi) before quoting Han Solo and the Princess.  As Luke goes to confront his former student, the musical buildup sounds like a mix of Imperial March and Jedi Master theme - one of the great moments of the score.

The Last Jedi is the showdown itself - a mix of quiet moments with large choral and orchestral moments.  Kylo Ren's theme with choir and the Force theme statements are highlights of the cue.  Peace and Purpose recalls the large orchestral statement of the Force theme from A New Hope's Binary Sunset before turning to a militaristic Kylo Ren's theme.  Poe's theme makes an album appearance (it is featured slightly more in the film) alongside statements of Rey's theme intermixed into the Force theme which then leads into the optimistic Rebel fanfare.  Finale begins with a magical rendition of the main title/Luke's theme as a possible Force user finds his powers while another broad Force theme leads to the end credits.  The credits begin the way they always do and then feature a medley of themes: Rose's theme, Princess Leia's theme, Jedi Master, Resistance March, Rey's theme, Yoda's theme, Resistance danger theme and TIE Fighter Attack.  It ends with Rey's theme and a light celeste solo similar to the last film.  It's a bit of a grab bag, and not as cohesive as past end credit suites.  And of course, the abrupt piano version of Leia's theme matches the onscreen dedication to actress Carrie Fisher.  

It's amazing what John Williams has maintained in his Star Wars scores.  The expansion and inclusion of themes from 1977-now is spectacular but his scores don't rely on those themes to make it sound "like Star Wars".  He is also an expert of adding those themes into an action or dramatic sequence as seen in several moments of the film.  For new material, Rose's theme is certainly the standout (a printed score of Rebellion is Reborn is due in the near future, so expect to hear that at a variety of concerts).  

In every scene from action to pure drama, Williams' score buoys it to another level.  The soundtrack album is a great representation of the score and carries so many film highlights without discussing all the microedits and missing material possibly heard in an expanded release.  It's hard to compare this score to the others in the series, as this score is still so fresh and I'm discovering new aspects with each listen.  Even if you disliked the film, the flaws don't seem to rest on Williams and the masterful work laid out in the score.