CD Review: Speed Racer

Composer: Michael Giacchino
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $16.98
Grade: B+

With his comic book heroics for The Incredibles, the energetic espionage of Mission Impossible 3, a “Roar”-ing Godzilla salute in Cloverfield and the Parisian rodent swing of Ratatouille, Michael Giacchino is rapidly proving himself as the composer for Hollywood’s pop throwbacks, showing a real intelligence and creative drive as he soups up old musical jalopies into retro score wonders. Now Giacchino’s been given animation’s most iconic cartoon car, a Mach 5 made as “real” as the Wachowski Brothers will allow in their visually overwhelming take on Speed Racer. Going on their psychedelic ride will be a love/hate joyride for many viewers over the age of eight, as they see a favorite childhood show done with equal amounts of flashy coolness and mind-bending idiocy.

But that’s not even talking about the film’s roaring sound effects, which often make hearing Giacchino’s nearly non-stop score as challenging as trying to listen to a string quartet at the Indy 500. While Giacchino’s music definitely does the laps for the film itself (when he isn’t encouraging the worst excesses of Chim-Chim and Spritle), Speed Racer’s score proves to be a far more enjoyable, and audible experience on its own CD. It’s as energizing a ride as any musically re-tooled cartoon standard can hope for, and that’s no doubt due to Giacchino’s stated love for Nobuyoshi Koshibe’s original scoring on TV’s Speed Racer.

Koshibe’s great theme song was a memorable combo of go-go 60’s pop and jazz-inflected Spanish rhythms, an anime take on Herb Alpert if you will. And where most composers wouldn’t want to tread in somebody else’s main title (especially one that’s as memorable to cartoon geeks as “My Way” is to Sinatra fans), Giacchino dives into Koshibe’s Speed sound with a wonderful enthusiasm, and infinite variety. “I Am Speed” turns its opening phrase into magical, symphonically whirling anticipation. “Go Speed, Go!” spins it as a breakneck military march that erupts into cliffhanging hijinks. Techno-orchestral suspense builds with playful Asian percussion as the theme bubbles through the Mach-building montage of “32 Hours.” And you’d think you were hearing Handel’s “Messiah” as the theme bursts into the heavens with a twinkling orchestra and the choral hosannas of “Let Us Drink Milk.” And to cap off the Koshibe fest, Giacchino’s ends the album with a “Speed Racer” rendition that samples the original song, and then overdubs it with a hot brass rhythm section, singers belting out lyrics in the original Japanese, and the sprinting Mach 5 sound fx. A composer’s fanboy love doesn’t get more obvious, or cooler than this.

But don’t think that Giacchino’s spins on Koshibe’s theme means the composer is lacking his own style. If anything, Speed Racer shows Giacchino’s real voice when doing the neat kiddie stuff. Where he was essentially (and terrifically) playing John Barry’s 007 vibe for The Incredibles, Speed Racer’s original material has its own jazzy orchestral swagger that could fit as well into the 1960’s as today’s percussive action scores. He flirts with an Austin Powers lounge vibe with “Vroom and Board,” then does a surf guitar jam for “Bumper To Bumper, Rail To Rail.” But action is always in the front seat alongside the retro riffs, as his lush strings go through one exhilarating race build-up after the other. You might even say that Don Davis’ Matrix spirit shows up as Racer X, as the darkly escalating strings lines of “Grand Ol’ Prix” serve as Giacchino’s tip of the clutch to the Wachowski’s previous composer. But make no mistake. It’s Giacchino who owns this Mach 5, even when he takes some nice detours into that yucky emotional stuff that Spritle hates so much. Thankfully, his musical antics with Chim-Chim aren’t to be found here.

As it crosses the finish line, Speed Racer triumphs as the musical equivalent of the film – garishly colorful, swingingly energetic – and a whole lot more sensical than the movie itself. But if Speed ends the race as a guilty pleasure, then it’s Giacchino’s score that shows it is the real deal, a rip-roaring announcement that he’s the composer to beat when it comes to matching musical retro thrills with today’s top-of-the-line action scoring.

Giacchino fans should also take note of Varese’s new release of Lost: Season 3. How he finds the time to continue on this ever-enigmatic series is beyond me, but fans can be thankful that Giacchino is still bringing all of his big-screen inventiveness to the engaging, jungle-driven rhythms of the ABC show. And with two discs on hand here, this new Lost compilation is a feast of melodic mystery that continues to unravel with engaging results.

Get Lost with Giacchino’s Speed Racer at

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