In The Age Of Corona: A Personal Reflection On 2020's Scores

By Leo Mayr

March 16, 2020

*Please Note: Writer Leo Mayr is based out of Germany where release dates come a little later than the United States. Titles that may have been 2019 releases for the United States were 2020 releases for Germany. Whose keeping track of dates these days anyway?

If we were to judge a year by the sum of its film, tv and videogame scores, 2020 would be a very good year indeed. So, let’s just stick to that and ignore everything else that may or may not have happened in the past 12+ months.

It’s an age-old tradition, whenever a period of twelve months has come to an end, to look back and try and squeeze the combined cultural output of 365 days into a handy list of 10, maybe 15 things, ranked, sorted and evaluated to perfection (read: “the writer’s own preference”).

Let’s not do that this time.

This is not a “Top 10” list. This is not a “Best of” list. It is in fact a list, you got me on that one, but it’s my list. Not of my favourite scores of the year, but of individual moments where the musical score made my experience with a film, videogame or tv show truly special. Not a list of fantastic concert pieces on an album, of beautiful melodies and lush orchestral arrangements, but of a few select moments where the music enhanced the visuals, or the story being told in a rare and special way.

And to get it out of the way: This list will contain a few mild spoilers. I made an effort to be as vague as possible, but if you haven’t seen any of the films on the list, it’s probably best to skip that part just to be safe.

First off, 1917. If there’s one thing 1917 has done exceptionally well, it’s making you feel like you’re a part of it all. The movie utilizes clever editing tricks to connect its breath-taking set pieces into one continuous long take, unbroken from the film’s opening all the way to the end. Near the end of the movie, when our hero has to leave the relative safety of the trenches and run across the battlefield in a desperate attempt to fulfil his mission and Thomas Newman’s score just takes the lead. The six-and-a-half-minute cue “Sixteen Hundred Men” starts out with a simple rhythm and slowly builds its melodic structure towards that pivotal moment, that final race to the finish that sent shivers down my spine.

John Powell is up next with The Call of the Wild, a fun and heart-warming adventure film about the adventures of Harrison Ford and a large CGI dog. There’s a moment midway through “Buck Takes the Lead” that just captures a sense of adventure, of thrills and danger in a way that caught me completely off guard. What started out as a scene like any other turns into a rush of excitement and joy not many films accomplish.

Jojo Rabbit, the latest film from Taika Waititi features an unsurprisingly intimate and personal score by Michael Giacchino. Quite early in the movie, titular Jojo is investigating strange noises in his home which leads him to discover a secret house guest. The five-minute cue “The Secret Room” is a blast from start to finish, expertly building tension and turning what could have been a straightforward revelation into a short but remarkably exciting excursion into a horror movie.

Over in the realm of video games, the long awaited The Last of Us Part II delivered a strong and engaging experience in a way I have rarely experienced playing a video game. Gustavo Santaolalla returns as composer from the first game and is joined by Mac Quayle for the game’s stealth and combat sequences. While Santaolalla’s music is once again brilliant, Mac Quayle brings a raw, unpredictable and violent style of music that’s constantly keeping you on edge. During the game’s climax, there’s a brief moment of respite. A brief moment, where a happier resolution seems possible but then Mac Quayle’s dark, droning score creeps its way back with gnarly, repeating synthesizer pulses that sent shivers down my spine.

Ok, I’ll cheat a little and put TENET, the latest action spectacle by Christopher Nolan on here twice. The film’s opening scene found in the cue “Rainy Night in Tallin” is so full of energy and excitement with Ludwig Göransson’s rhythmic score constantly driving the action and letting you practically feel the lower frequencies in your seat. The way Göransson infuses the scene with energy made me remember the excitement of seeing a movie on the big screen.

A while later, during the airplane heist, as a massive 747 slowly makes its way through a car park, tearing down streetlamps and otherwise causing significant property damage, Göransson’s deafening brass added further disbelief to the spectacle unfolding before my eyes.

Pixar’s latest “I’m not crying I’ve got something in my eye”-movie Soul features a score comprised of jazz compositions by Jon Batiste and an otherworldly soundscape by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. The aptly titled “Epiphany” near the end of the movie is that one scene designed to make you dry your eyes and blame the wind or a loose eyelash or something and no matter how many times I see it coming, no matter how many times I tell myself I’m not going to have something in my eye this time, by the time the otherworldly soundscape and in-universe piano start to merge, I’m done for.

Last but most definitely not least, there’s the second season of His Dark Materials. Composer Lorne Balfe builds on his rich and thematic score from season one, introducing a wealth of new sounds and themes. The moment that stood out the most to me came during the climax of episode 5, The Scholar. During an unexpected confrontation, tensions rise, and we are suddenly faced with a character’s newfound dark side. The cue in question is absent from the soundtrack album, but it borrows heavily from season 1’s “Daemons to Dust”. Its impact here however is vastly more intense, slowly building towards the inevitable escalation. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this nervous watching a TV show.