Score Reviews

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Solo: A Star Wars Story by John Powell (Review)

posted May 25, 2018, 11:41 AM by Kaya Savas

We have our second “Star Wars Story” with Solo, and it seems these spin-offs always have a bit of behind the scenes drama that comes along with them. Rogue One of course had Alexandre Desplat leaving the project at the last second. Michael Giacchino then came in and pulled together something with hardly any time. With Solo, the drama was in the directing department. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired when their approach was not in line with Lucasfilm’s vision. Veteran director Ron Howard stepped in to take control of the wheel, and thankfully he kept John Powell onboard.

The idea for Solo was always to have John Williams write some material and then hand it off to Powell. John Williams wrote a “hero theme” for Han and a B-part to the theme that was more “the longing of Han”. Powell then took those central themes and wove them into the fabric of his own score. The end result is actually something quite interesting. Having a composer do a main theme and then another composer do the body of the score is nothing new, but the way it’s done here is quite different. I’ll use Dante’s Peak as an example where James Newton Howard wrote the theme and John Frizzell did the body of the score. In that case, Howard’s theme is a very separate standalone entity. When it appears, it’s on its own without being meshed with anything else.

With Solo, Powell took Williams’ themes and truly infused them into the DNA of his own score. Very much in the way that Joe Kraemer took the very famous Mission: Impossible theme and made it part of the DNA of his Rogue Nation score, he didn’t treat it as a separate entity. The end result for Solo is actually a bit startling at first, almost as if two different albums are playing at the same time. The first act does take some time for the music to find its comfort zone, you can feel Powell getting a grasp of the Williams sound. The style meshing at first feels a bit awkward, but it's not long before the score finally has a handle on its identity. Then you realize how well the lushness of Williams intertwined with Powell’s more punchy style works. It's almost like cooking and throwing in two unlikely ingredients that ultimately compliment each other in a way you couldn't imagine.

Narratively, the score is quite superb. The themes are so strong that we establish our characters and their surroundings so clearly. Not only that, the music really fleshes out the characters and their emotional drives. The music sets up the journey and then takes us along for the ride with ease. We do have a little world-building as well, but the action set pieces are just beautifully executed and where the real fun is at. The momentum behind every note pushes us forward. We have some great use of chorus as well that adds a touch of a James Horner feel in the best way possible, maybe an influence from Ron Howard? The final act is definitely the strongest part of the entire score. We get some really nice and meaty tracks, but we also see reprisals of some of our favorite Star Wars themes. The way Powell has re-arranged them into his score breathes new life into them, especially in the appropriately named track “Reminiscence Therapy”, which is just a punch of nostalgia. The narrative resolves in a nice and tidy fashion and we finally have a fully-fleshed out Han Solo.

If you’re looking for a really well-developed heist adventure score that embraces John Williams’ mark on this franchise and adds lots of new elements, then Solo should please. Powell’s score does a lot of heavy lifting and fleshes out not just the characters, but the world they inhabit. Having John Williams write new material for Han Solo and then passing the baton to John Powell worked out really well. It’s not everyday that you’ll get to hear two vastly different-sounding composers’ style blended together like we do here. Powell embraces the Williams sound yet still makes this a very John Powell score. This is a top-notch crowd-pleaser that will be worth re-visiting time and again.

Avengers: Infinity War by Alan Silvestri (Review)

posted May 25, 2018, 11:07 AM by Kaya Savas

Alan Silvestri is one of the most talented composers that has worked in the industry, and his body of work has left some of the biggest marks on us as an audience. His style and approach are unmatched, and even at 68 he’s still one of the most in-demand composers. Alan’s first jump into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was with Captain America: The First Avenger, and was then followed up with The Avengers. With Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Alan did not return but his theme sure did in a bit of a messy tag-team effort between Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman. As we know, differences and complications are normal in this industry, so whatever happened there happened. But fast-forwarding to Avengers: Infinity War, we see Silvestri take the reigns back for what is a much stronger effort than his first score but still lacking something special that makes it leave a lasting impact.

The general plot of Infinity War is where most of the shortcomings in the narrative come from. How many times are we going to see a villain with no moral complexity hell-bent on fulfilling their mission to cull the herd? It’s a tried and true cliche of villains, especially comic book ones. Off the bat, there is little to no depth to this movie. Plus there’s not just an A plot and a B plot, there’s a C plot and a D plot and an E plot, etc. But overall it’s simply the good guys vs the bad guys that abruptly ends on a cliffhanger for part 2, and that is what Silvestri had to work with here. The score in itself is quite expertly crafted, and a bit more nuanced than the first Avengers. Since this film is a bit darker in tone, the score has a heavier emotional weight. So we have these moments of despair and darkness, but we also have the bright action sequences that pump a good amount of energy into the adventure. At the end of everything we do feel this forward momentum to the climactic battle, but the movie leaves nothing resolved. The score's biggest moments happen in the final act, and the journey getting there is fun if not choppy. We do get to hear Silvestri reprise his Captain America theme. We also do have a copy/paste moment where Ludwig Göransson's Black Panther theme makes an appearance in the film. Other than that though, no other past themes come up. When things come to a close we end on an ellipsis rather than a period.

Avengers: Infinity War is a great effort from veteran Alan Silvestri who knows what a big blockbuster like this needs. However, if you want to see Silvestri really shine, then check out Ready Player One. Avengers: Infinity War does feel like a natural new entry in this saga, but we don’t sense an evolution or growth into new territory. There is definitely more substance than the past Avengers scores, but the film’s shortcomings as a narrative limit what Silvestri can do musically.

Lost In Space by Christopher Lennertz (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:09 PM by Kaya Savas

Christopher Lennertz’s talents as a storyteller have been on display his entire career. The way he works with an orchestra is pure magic. With Lost In Space it seems he finally found a match that truly utilizes his talents to the fullest. Lennertz has always done great scores for comedies like Horrible Bosses, Sausage Party and Ride Along. But give him a canvas to build a musical world around, and he can take you soaring. Lost In Space is some of Lennertz’s best work in his career, and also an incredible entry in the space adventure genre.

Lennertz acknowledges the history of Lost In Space and pays homage to John Williams’ original theme, but the score manages to find its own voice very quickly. The music is able to create awe-inspiring scope, intensity, and nuanced emotional threads that build the bond between characters. Structurally, the score keeps the pace moving when things get exciting, a track like “Dump The Fuel” is a great example of Lennertz’s orchestral action writing. The music keeps your heart rate elevated while still sending chills down your spine during those rousing swells. Then a track like “Flowers - Father And Son” showcases the nuanced emotional core where everything feels organic instead of forced. I even found myself feeling the spirit of John Barry alive in the music here as Lennertz is able to capture the majesty and beauty of the landscape. The album gives us an amazing selection of music from season 1 that represents the narrative flow of the season quite well.

Sometimes the universe finds balance and things are as they should be. That is the case with Christopher Lennertz scoring this modern adaptation of Lost In Space. Every ounce of his talent is on display here, and it’s some of the most rousing musical storytelling you’ll find on television in 2018. Big exciting orchestral swells, impeccably structured action, and an engrossing emotional core make the score the biggest star of the series.

A Quiet Place by Marco Beltrami (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:09 PM by Kaya Savas

A Quiet Place has a very simple premise and that’s a good thing. It’s about a family living in a dystopian version of Earth that has now been invaded by alien creatures that hunt with sound. So the simple premise is, make a sound and die or be quiet and live. This is a perfect canvas for a composer, and Marco Beltrami was really the perfect choice here. His approach along with Buck Sanders’ textural designs made a score that knew when to hit hard, but also a score that bowed out when it wasn’t needed. 

Striking the balance of when to use score and when not to was probably a challenging exercise, but the movie finds that balance. The score immediately builds dread utilizing brooding brass that descends in a similar fashion to how Jóhann Jóhannsson scored Sicario. The score weighs heavy in these moments and you feel impending doom growing. The other side of this score uses a much lighter approach. The way Beltrami builds this family is with a delicate and intimate nature. Since there is very little dialogue in the film (most of it signed via sign language), the relationships are built with facial expressions. So really, Marco ended up having to score facial expressions more than anything here to capture the human side of this story.

Overall though, the film is treated very much like a western, and the music feels of an older time in some areas. Marco said in our All Access interview that “every film I score is a western”, and you can feel that here. The score captures the world and not just the horror or tension. John Krasinski also said they went back and looked at movies like Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, and they shot on film instead of digital to really play with light and dark. Everything from the music to the visuals has lots of rich details.

A Quiet Place is a score that finds balance while still being able to operate at high intensity as well as quiet intimacy. While the film itself is very simple in its approach and has a surface level feel with not much depth, there are still moments where the score can explore some emotions outside of fear. The film is ultimately about family and how this particular family strives to live in this world. Marco Beltrami’s score manages terror, tension and delicate emotions all in a very fluid approach. Plus, the score knows when to back off completely and let sound design carry certain scenes. All in all, Beltrami’s score adds a lot of what makes A Quiet Place work so well.

Peter Rabbit by Dominic Lewis (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:09 PM by Kaya Savas

Peter Rabbit is the modern take on the classic children’s book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. The film is directed by Will Gluck and has a beautifully crafted score by Dominic Lewis. The film’s trailers put a lot of people off, but once the film came out people were happy to see that this version of Peter Rabbit still had plenty of heart at its core for a memorable and fun experience.

Dominic Lewis’ score really is the heart of the film, even though it only runs at roughly 30-minutes, and has to navigate a lot of songs as well as visual comedy. It would have been very easy for some composer to come into this movie to make it feel like an alt rock band scored it, but thankfully Dom was in charge and laid out a score that has a light youthful bounce but with an old classic soul. Dom definitely tapped into his classic roots for the melodies and got to record the score with an orchestra in Australia. What makes this score exceptional though is that everything feels like it was poured from the heart of the composer. You can almost feel him sitting in the room with you as you listen.

The themes and melodic structure of the score are just beautiful, it’s amazing that you can have this energy at one moment then you get hit with feels the next. The way the score is structured is that we get to experience the fun slapstick nature of the film’s first and second acts, but in the third act some real emotional weight creeps in. However, where the score truly shines is where Dominic Lewis’ personality takes over the music, and when his voice becomes embedded in the fabric of the score (literally). The big battle in the third act is inspired by Mozart’s "Dies Irae", it’s big and operatic in the best way and ends up leading into a very emotional and heartwarming finish to the whole journey. There’s also a beautiful theme we hear in “Wistful Windemere” that gets reprised in the last track titled “1902”, which is literally Dom serenading you (yes those are his lovely vocals). Also worth noting are the brilliant use of garden tools in the fabric of the score, most notable the garden shears used as percussion throughout many of the tracks.

Peter Rabbit as a film is in a completely different territory than say something from Pixar or Dreamworks, and it would be unfair to stack it against something like Ratatouille or Wall-E. As a family-friendly romp with lots of slapstick and a surprising amount of heart, the film finds a voice of its own and does an amazing job at it. Similar to how John Powell found this big emotional core in a lighthearted film like Ferdinand, Dominic Lewis found the same here with the lighthearted Peter Rabbit. The score earns its high marks because this is music born from deep within Dominic Lewis and nothing about it feels forced or fake. It's so easy to for something like this to be seen as "standard Sony fare" or a "cash grab", but thankfully the heart in this project shows. I wish more movies allowed composers to truly express themselves like Dom got to do here, and while Peter Rabbit is not a game-changing piece of filmmaking it somehow found its special voice and soared with it. Especially if you look at past similar films like Hop or The Smurfs. If you close off the world and don't compare this harmless family adventure to other things, the score manages to be a breath of fresh air instead of a carbon copy of what came before it in this genre. Expert craftsmanship, organic emotion, and melodic hooks make Peter Rabbit something really special.

Ready Player One by Alan Silvestri (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:04 PM by Kaya Savas

When you think of Steven Spielberg you automatically think of John Williams, but recently we saw that Spielberg can still be Spielberg without dear John. Thomas Newman scored Bridge Of Spies when John Williams had pacemaker surgery on top of juggling Star Wars. And now enter Alan Silvestri when John Williams couldn’t juggle both The Post and Ready Player One. With Spielberg creating a modern adventure with a classic feel, Silvestri seemed like the perfect choice. Silvestri’s classic orchestral adventure sound was a perfect match for the Oasis, and Ready Player One is one of Alan’s most refreshingly fun scores in recent memory.

Ready Player One is based on the popular novel, and the entire story surrounds itself with pop culture references so you have to expect that source music will be a huge part of the film. The use of some classic songs doesn’t overpower anything though, in fact I was surprised how much real estate Alan Silvestri’s score was still able to have. Spielberg never let any of the songs do any of the storytelling, they were there just for nostalgia and atmosphere. The score does all the heavy lifting including setting up our characters and their mission. Silvestri’s sound in itself is nostalgia though, you can’t escape it. The emotions from hearing him tap into his older style of writing brought back a surge of feelings from scores like Forrest Gump and Back To The Future, but the score is entirely part of the now in this story. We do get a tiny Back To The Future reference, but other than that the score pretty much leaves the references to the visuals.

Structurally, everything works. We get a wonderful theme that develops throughout and really comes into full bloom in the third act. In fact, the third act is where all the magic truly happens. The score becomes big but never bombastic. Even when the action is full-throttle there seems to be a delicate craftsmanship to the whole thing.

Ready Player One manages to feel classic and new at the same time, and that becomes the score’s biggest strengths. It’s impossible to not have a smile on your face as Silvestri employs techniques and adventure stylings that he has perfected through his entire career. The music is mainly about scoring the mission at hand, and it’s an amazing ride from start to finish.

Paterno by Evgueni Galperine & Sacha Galperine (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:03 PM by Kaya Savas

Paterno sees Al Pacino reuniting with director Barry Levinson for this film that focuses on Joe Paterno amidst the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. Levinson also reconnects with sibling composers Evgueni Galperine & Sacha Galperine. Previously, the two brothers scored The Wizard Of Lies for Levinson. For Paterno, Evgueni Galperine & Sacha Galperine achieve an effective and intricate score that takes us into the unraveling world of a college sports icon.

Paterno is a unique blend of being a portrait score mixed with being a historical event score. The music here manages to build Joe Paterno as a character for the audience to relate to, but is also incorporating so much of the facts and events that are taking place around our central character in the story. Evgueni and Sacha ended up sampling a lot of traditional and classical instruments and then manipulating them in ways that would have been too hard for an orchestra to play traditionally. By doing this they have successfully crafted a narrative that perfectly compliments the unraveling of Joe Paterno’s life as the scandal unfolds. The score starts bold and strong, but we feel the shape of certain instruments change as it progresses. The narrative shape of the score never unravels though, and in fact there is a nice rhythmic structure to some of the tracks that utilize percussion like a ticking clock. The music always feels like it’s closing in around you, and that is a supremely effective approach for this story and character.

Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine have achieved a very successful score that crafts who Joe Paterno is, and then allows the audience to feel his world crumble around him amidst the sexual abuse scandal of Jerry Sandusky. The music evokes the right tone and keeps us where we need to be, and that is right along Joe Paterno as he experiences this. While the score is short and doesn’t leave much room for a deeper emotional connection, it still manages to grasp us on a visceral emotional level. Paterno is a finely tuned musical narrative that enhances the film’s storytelling as a whole.

Isle Of Dogs by Alexandre Desplat (Review)

posted Apr 19, 2018, 5:03 PM by Kaya Savas

Ever since Alexandre Desplat took over as Wes Anderson’s composer of choice it always felt like a true match had been made. Desplat seemed to understand Wes’ visions and his scores always felt like they were born in the worlds that Anderson was creating. The collaboration continues with Isle Of Dogs where Desplat further proves he does his best work when working with a director that can inspire him.

You’ll notice a similar structure to Isle Of Dogs that you’ve seen in Desplat’s previous scores for Wes Anderson. Isle Of Dogs is heavily influenced with the sounds of traditional Japanese music, but the build and structure is very much a Wes Anderson and Desplat approach. Desplat’s scores for Anderson always seem to carry a bit of Ennio Morricone’s spirit in them in terms of scoring the narrative in movements with a very particular set of themes and motifs. Isle Of Dogs' charm comes from continuing that proven narrative structure, and by meshing Desplat’s original music with some source music that blends in quite nicely.

The score’s backbone is pretty much entirely based in percussion. Constant rhythmic percussion truly is what sets the pace for the entire film, whether it's the Taiko drumming by Kaoru Watanabe or the percussion in Desplat’s original score. The rhythmic beats almost become hypnotic as the film progresses, and the way it falls in line with the editing is extremely impressive. The fact that the music is so in sync with editorial cuts and camera movements for a stop motion film makes everything extremely awe-inspiring.

The emotional core of the film comes from its charm and style, and if you compare it to something like Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel or Fantastic Mr. Fox it just doesn’t stack up. You start to see some of the weaknesses of the film as a whole which trickles down to the score. As beautifully crafted as everything is, the score and the film rely a bit too heavily on appropriating Japanese culture to make the story feel unique. If you strip away the Japanese influences you are losing a huge chunk of what makes everything captivating. While Grand Budapest Hotel definitely adopted some Russian and Eastern European sounds, the score captured the story and characters much better. That’s not to say that Isle Of Dogs is a bad score, this score is terrific. However, in the grand scheme of the director’s and composer’s body of work, we are seeing similar tactics used here with less effectiveness. The score in the end works as a great editing and pacing device for the film, with some clever uses of switching from non-diegetic to diegetic. But in the end you wish there was more of the characters' personal quirks rather than the general overarching quirkiness of the score as a whole.

Pacific Rim: Uprising by Lorne Balfe (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:45 PM by Kaya Savas

Sometimes movies are just meant to provide an escape, and Pacific Rim was that escape. The Guillermo Del Toro film was an over the top celebration of the Kaiju film genre. We’ve seen a resurgence of Kaiju films most notably with the newest incarnation of Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island and of course Pacific Rim which was actually released a whole year before the new Godzilla. For that film we got an extremely entertaining score from Ramin Djawadi. This time around, we get some Balfe goodness as Lorne takes over and continues the melodic action extravaganza. Pacific Rim: Uprising sees the feature directing debut of Steven S. DeKnight who has a list of credits serving as an executive producer and writer on several TV series.

This score is just pure clean action writing with a bit of a retro vibe. The reason why I love Lorne so much is that he did another over the top action film called Geostorm, and that had a wholly different sound than this. Sure there’s definitely more substance and style to a Pacific Rim movie than the mostly empty Geostorm, but it does show that action scores can have personalities too and it's not all just "modern bombast". By embracing some retro synths and having those over some great thematic and melodic structures, we get some really entertaining action tracks.

The central motif is this sort of otherworldly theme that you hear right at the start of track 1. To say it feels “alien” wouldn’t do it enough justice as it feels a bit more unique than just “alien-sounding”. Anyway, Lorne pollinates the score with that motif, and it’s not your typical big bold action movie theme so it gives everything a fresh feel. Ramin’s original theme gets a cameo with the “Go Big Or Go Extinct (Remix)” track, so when you feel like Iron Man is making an appearance, it’s just Ramin’s theme from the original saying “hi”. There’s actually some other really interesting elements to the score as we get into the 2nd and 3rd acts. The track “Obsidian Fury” even has a few moments that reminded me of John Powell. But overall, Lorne is really putting so many textures into this score to make it feel dynamic, colorful and propulsive. The 7-minute track titled “Shatterdome Attacked” is just impressive writing from start to finish, it keeps everything moving and never feels redundant or boring. The conclusion finally gives us some well-deserved heroism once the day is saved.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is a refreshing take on action escapism. Lorne Balfe challenges himself to find new textures and colors to give us something that is extremely entertaining but never feels old or dated. Lorne’s use of retro synth sounds, mixed with orchestra, and structured around rhythmic percussion are the heart of the score. The central motif goes against the grain and isn’t a big heroic anthem, which gives the film a unique feel even though we’ve seen giant sci-fi creatures battle it out onscreen many times before. Also, Lorne didn’t create a big theme that he could fall back on and rely on to craft that gravitas, all that comes from the well-structured action writing throughout. While character development isn’t the reason you come to see Pacific Rim: Uprising, Lorne managed to weave in some human emotion into the story as well. The end result is something that actually feels like both a breath of fresh air and an evolution in Lorne’s action writing, which is unexpected from a sequel to Pacific Rim. Lorne's versatile action writing certainly bodes well for any future action assignments.

Tomb Raider by Tom Holkenborg (Review)

posted Mar 9, 2018, 1:40 PM by Kaya Savas

While Tom Holkenborg’s score to Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten him the most attention, it’s important to realize just how versatile he is. Tomb Raider sees him tackling a very character-driven adventure flick to a pretty well-known franchise. Very much how the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films were echoes of the older iteration of the games; this new Tomb Raider tries to be closer to the newer vision of the games. Holkenborg delivers his signature bold sound with some heart behind it for a pretty thrilling adventure score.

Tomb Raider starts off sounding something more along the lines of Harry Gregson-Williams before Holkenborg’s signature style kicks into gear. The score does a great job of reflecting Lara Croft as a woman of adventure; the music is bold and strong but with an elegance and beauty to it. When we get into some high-octane action the music embraces that signature percussion that you might recognize from Mad Max: Fury Road, and overall the score blends electronic textures with the lushness of the orchestra quite well.

The music has a weight to it, and more importantly there’s an emotional weight to it. We feel Lara Croft in the score and we feel her journey. Her relationship with her father is a key emotional pull in the story and the score reflects on that beautifully throughout. In fact, Lara’s theme is essentially her memory of her father that she carries with her. You can feel it in those moments, and when it’s unleashed in an action track like “Never Give Up” it can give some serious goosebumps. You won’t be humming the theme after the movie, it definitely doesn’t turn Lara into a superhero, and that’s why it works. There’s a lot of humanity in Lara’s music that then gets adapted into the action.

Tomb Raider continues the quest to try and make a decent movie based on a video game, and while director Roar Uthaug and composer Tom Holkenborg may not bring us a game changer, there is still much to enjoy here. Tomb Raider’s score is a finely executed piece of character-based action writing. Having Lara Croft be such a huge part of the score makes the action set pieces work that much better, because the music becomes more than just “action music” and we have a little more substance behind it.

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