Far be it from me to make any grand sweeping statements on the year in film this early, but as of July 2014, I would argue it’s already been a fascinating year for scores. Just look at blockbusters. We’ve heard both the invigoratingly new and the depressingly dull. Ambitious combinations have even produced a commendable failure here and there. Hollywood studios almost always take the safe road in their big-budget franchises, but the music attached to those tentpoles feels less restrained and not nearly as beholden to manageable cliches.
Thus far we’ve had a tremendous grab bag in film music (and I say this as someone who hasn’t yet seen Under the Skin), but what’s been the best to come out of it? Without further ado…
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Henry Jackman (Intrada)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t a great movie, but it is a compelling piece of comic book pulp. In their sequel to The First Avenger, Marvel Studios shows some flexibility in playing with their beloved, shrink-wrapped properties, updating elements of Captain America’s iconography and symbolism for 2014 while criticizing those that don’t work.
Henry Jackman isn’t afraid to push the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big dumb envelope either. As “Lemurian Star” plays over an opening stealth assault aboard a battleship, Jackman makes it clear he’s not interested in bald heroism, tweaking Cap’s bravery with a mix of big brass elements and synth production. Choppy and tenacious, Jackman’s blend of hero music often sounds like the composer chucked a Shirley Walker score into Hydra’s giant blender. (Certainly Hans Zimmer and his Magnificent Six are jealous at the thought of a score drawing comparisons to Batman: The Animated Series and vintage Rob Zombie and still sounding competent.) The Winter Soldier is more than a balancing act. It sets its eyes on the present while never forgetting the past. Let’s see Chris Evans’ pecs do that.
5. Belle — Rachel Portman (Varese Sarabande)
With scoring duties on Nicholas Nickleby and the 2008 Georgia Cavendish biopic The Duchess Rachel Portman isn’t a stranger to period dramas. Amma Asante’s wigs and dresses drama Belle isn’t exactly Dickensian, but its allegedly true narrative details the trials and tribulations of a Royal Naval Officer’s mixed race daughter, much of which was directly inspired by a single painting.
Portman’s score feels just as conflicted as Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Dido Elizabeth Belle. The title track gracefully sits somewhere between a sigh of relief and one of despair, and the anxious strings underneath keep the woodwinds from soaring into an Alan Silvestri copycat. Folksy strings (and an especially exquisite fiddle solo in “Are You Punishing Me?”) provide a rustic sensibility that rubs some of the shine off the levity of clarinets, piano, and harp. A lesser composer would take one look at “18th century drama” double down on ornate chamber music. Instead, Portman shows an abiding respect for Belle‘s painful subject matter without bathing in its sorrows.
4. You and the Night — M83 (Mute)
Ever since “Outro” on their breakout LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 seems to have dedicated half their time reminding us just how cinematic their electronic compositions are. Last year’s score to Oblivion certainly pushed that notion into the mainstream, but the band’s scoring duties on <em.You And The Night suggest their interests are more guilt by association. The brother of M83’s leader Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez’s half sex comedy/half Chaucer poem presents a surprisingly high-minded orgy between two young lovers, their transvestite maid and a motley arrangement of guests.
That its story is more concerned with emotion, and at a haughty omniscient remove at that, will turn off those expecting a sex-filled French romp, but both Gonzalez brothers understand the sensuality behind You And The Night’s cheeky supernaturalism and hyper-emotions. For all the baggage at play, M83’s score is decidedly buoyant. Anguished cries and a female-heavy chorus keep things youthful, while a cool synth breeze seeps throughout its hollowed pores like the credit sequence of a nudie video from 1986. The score spaces out motivations and mechanics in their buildup as the work climaxes to a sunrise with “Un Nouveau Soleil.” It’s rare a moment when the Gonzalez brothers draw your attention to the music’s sentimentality, but that’s only because the rest blends so well with the weirdness.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Alexandre Desplat (Abkco)
The Tex-Mex blend of language and place in Bottle Rocket were the earliest signs Wes Anderson’s eccentric particulars were heartfelt and personal, but never has the director’s eclecticism ever been as er, eclectic as it is in his memoir-inside-a-memoir-inside-a-memoir. The bustling patrons and staff at the Grand Budapest Hotel feel almost as fascinating and rich as Ralph Fiennes’ front desk concierge, and Alexandre Desplat meets that bounty more than half-way.
Adding obscure European instrumentation to his recognizable and finely-tuned fragility, Desplat concocts a sonic landscape for a country that feels like if it doesn’t exist today, one could still find it on a map long before Grand Buapest‘s awful, unsettling (and completely fictional) war began in the first place. This is Anderson’s most melancholy picture, but it’s also his most introspective. Thanks to Monsieur Desplat, he doesn’t require the services of Van Morrison or Nico this time around. (Full review.)
2. Grand Piano — Victor Reyes (Moviescore Media)
Grand Piano‘s preposterous conceit puts Elijah Wood’s anxiety-ridden virtuoso inside a marksman’s crosshairs and asks the question that’s been on everyone’s mind since 1996: What if Shine had a few more death threats? The fun of Eugenio Mira’s goofy little thriller comes by way of pulling its audience through the ringer, yet apart from its score, which is entirely diegetic, Grand Piano offers little for conversation topics.
But oh that score. Wood’s concert pianist is right to be stressed out, and not just at the thought of having his brains splattered across the ivories. Victor Reyes’ eerie, empty opening titles lurch forward with a rustled spattering of prepared piano strokes, but “Piano Concerto” (yes, Reyes wrote a freaking concerto for this movie) and “La Cinquette” dominate the preoccupations of everyone involved, economical as a screenwriting choice and absolutely genius in composition. In the “Concerto,” flourishes feel grandiose and never like facsimiles of the Tchaikovsky pieces they’re inspired by, and Reyes incorporates plenty of modern sounds and Bernard Herrmann references to elevate the piece beyond merely a faux opus. But it’s “La Cinquette” that takes the cake in its Kubrickian dedication to difficulty.
Reyes occasionally mixes the concerto’s orchestral accompaniment with the tension backstage, but the brilliance of Grand Piano isn’t how its music doubles with the onscreen action. That’s a reduction of a work that genuinely stands on its own. “Concerto” isn’t a reflection of character emotion; it’s the architecture of Grand Piano itself. Encore.
Highlights: Listen to the entire thing; it’s a robust 30 minutes.
1. Maleficent — James Newton Howard (Walt Disney Records)
The unfortunate plague of needlessly adapting classic films into live-action remakes has taken another victim in Sleeping Beauty. Little more than an Angelina Jolie vehicle, Maleficent is so devoid of imagination, its special effects feel like gaudy assurances from Disney that this is more than a cynical enterprise. Even the powers of the recently resurrected James Newton Howard couldn’t make this a passable film, but that’s only because he’s too busy keeping a sinking ship afloat for 90 minutes.
Howard’s score is everything Maleficent isn’t. He adds flavor and mood, imbuing a non-story with weight and momentum and complicating Jolie’s uneven performance. A ghostly youth choir drifts between tracks, a wellspring from which enchantment, pain and anger pour forth. These are the kinds of subtleties the film thinks it’s already making. With Howard’s music, the lackluster CGI of the title character’s flight above the Moors turns into a winning moment of self-discovery; creatures of the forest all but bow to Jolie’s presence from a sprightly choral motive; and the non-threats of King Phillip and his army seem a little more threatening when marching to Howard’s martial outbursts. John Ottman’s occasional double role as a composer and editor is one thing. Directing a movie with your music? That’s on another level.