The cinematic sounds of summer
Summertime means summer movies, and as usual this year’s fare is a mixed bag. My personal interest in a new batch of films is the original music that accompanies them. I’m an enormous film score geek, you see, and whilst summer blockbuster season doesn’t always bode well for someone with my musical interests (great scores just as often accompany the sleepy dramas tucked between major movie “seasons”), it at least signals a glut of big-budget, potentially exciting projects that tend to have big scores attached.
The music of composer Danny Elfman can be heard in two of this summer’s big films: Dark Shadows and Men in Black 3. The former marks Elfman’s thirteenth collaboration with director Tim Burton (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish), and the two have established quite a synergy between their oddball, macabre visions of the world over the last 25 years. This latest—based on the 1970s television programme and starring Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins—is cut very much from the same cloth, but with the addition of entertaining musical nods to the ’70s (funky synthesizers, bass flute solos).
A signature Elfman melody anchors the score, a snaky, brooding tune that gets a lot of love throughout. The album opens with an epic 7-minute “Prologue”, that has Elfman at his Gothic cathedral best. For many tracks, like the early “Resurrection”, a sinister dissonance is favoured for dark images (useful in the film, but harsh on listen). There is occasionally evidence of tongue-in-cheek melodrama, but the music here largely seems to take itself seriously. Much of it slithers along, a lone bass flute or strings slinking coldly and softly at the level of the floorboards. At times the score is a hybrid between the over-saturated modern blockbuster sound popularized by Hans Zimmer (in scores like Batman Begins and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and aped by countless others, a kind of minimalist anthem founded on a churning string ostinato built around a minor third interval—and Elfman’s singular sound, his penchant for melodies as memorable as nursery rhymes, his dark orchestration that always seems to belong in a (bat) cave or a haunted mansion.
By contrast is his score for the third Men in Black, which fits well with the other two—a catchy theme and overall sound he developed during his artistic evolution at the turn of the millennium—but suffers some of the same busy repetition. The Men in Black theme is catchy enough, celli chugging along a cool route of half steps, and Elfman has fun revisiting it here. But most of the score is an application of that (very blunt) motif to hyperactive sequences and, with instrumental colours like electric guitar and shrill female vocals erring on the annoying side, the music grows tiresome. It is not, however, without its foot-tapping fun (and the clever use of theremin on “Forget Me Not”), and some moments of relaxed loveliness (like the lazy guitar melody in “Regret” and “Mission Accomplished”). This will probably be the last Danny Elfman Men in Black score, and it’s not a shabby way to wrap up the series.
Another old hand at the wheel of a 2012 summer film is James Newton Howard (composer of The Fugitive, I Am Legend, and all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films), with the dark fairy tale update Snow White & the Huntsman.
Howard brings a refreshing melodic approach to the score, refreshing because melody has been by and large chucked out by the greater part of Hollywood in recent years. There’s certainly a modern, drum-sampled facet to the music, but it also has Howard exhibiting many of his greatest strengths. Primal percussion and chorus outline minor chords for the film’s battle scenes in tracks like “Warriors on the Beach”. The album flowers to life in its passages of quiet wonder and respite, as in the gorgeous track “Sanctuary”. “The Hart”, in its sad elegance, reminds me of Howard’s weighty work on The Village.
Howard is the modern king of grand finales, always scoring the climaxes of Shyamalan’s films (in particular) with a grand, revelatory swell of a central theme for a guaranteed goose flesh moment. The denouement in Snow White doesn’t quite live up to that standard, but the track “You Can’t Have My Heart” features the composer’s way of slowly and beautifully building a simple idea, a climactic musical exhale. And the score ends with epic pomp in the last moments of “Coronation”, pumping the blood and nerves for adventure.
I’m looking forward to Hans Zimmer’s third outing with Batman later this summer with The Dark Knight Rises, James Horner’s first superhero score for The Amazing Spider-Man, and Patrick Doyle’s first Pixar score for Brave. It’s shaping up to be a good summer.Tagged in: Brave, cinema, Danny Elfman, Dark Shadows, film, film score, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Men in Black, music, Patrick Doyle, Snow White & the Huntsman, soundtrack, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Tim Burton
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