Soundtrack Picks: “ZOMBILENNIUM” is the top soundtrack to own for February 2017
Also worth picking up: THE BORGIAS SEASON ONE, CHRISTMAS WITH A CAPITAL C, DAMNATION ALLEY, I, TONYA, FRANCIS LAI AT UNIVERSAL, MULLY, PHANTOM THREAD, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, THE POST and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) ALTERED CARBON / STAR TREK: DISCOVERY
Prices: $9.99 / 14.98
What is it?: Not only is Jeff Russo just about the hardest-working composer being heard on television right now with the likes of “Waco,” “Ghosted,” “Power” and “Counterpart,” but he’s also one of the most continually interesting at pushing its scoring’s outer limits. That can mean taking Carter Burwell’s approach for “Fargo” into completely new realms of portentously humorous and dramatic scoring (netting Russo two Emmy nominations and a win in the criminal process), or hearing the many insane personalities of the mutant named “Legion.” It’s in the sci-fi genre where Russo has been doing some of his most impressive work, especially when casting his ear towards musical futures where every old concept is made new again in sad, rain-filled tones or a reborn franchise’s new sense of musical discovery.
Why Should I Buy It?: Adapted by Laeta Kalogridis (“Birds of Prey”) from the first entry in Richard K. Morgan’s book series, “Altered Carbon” makes a “Matrix” like impact for Netflix, bending oft-repeated “Blade Runner”-isms, cyberpunk and bloodily gushing scenes of sex and violence into a complete new and stunning Private Dick animal. It’s a future noir show that’s just as haunting for spectacular visuals as the deeper psychological ramifications sleeved beneath the eye candy. It’s into those haunted ears that Russo goes with his meditations on virtual eternity. Given a propulsive theme graced with the voices of Ayana Haviv, Tori Letzler and Holly Sedillos, Russo’s aching electric cello, guitar and orchestra set a quasi-religious tone for the show. Percussion, eerie samples and humming are his version of an unhappy limbo where death is just a dream for a jaded populace that can clone jump on a whim. Given a hero’s who’s tortured in both body and mind by his inability to save his loved ones, Russo does much to give poignancy to this sullen bastard. Voices are the thematic, Ligety-like link that migrates through the cues with the fluidity of the human frame, strings providing a somber, subtly emotional counterpoint to the often gleefully adult, very black-humored material on screen. Using Asian-styled flute playing to create the character’s original Asian body, and his distinctly screwed-up sister. Russo’s music is an eerie, empathetic ghost in the machine. It’s a hypnotically elegiac layer of “Carbon” that I wish this had way more music on this album, especially given what could have been gleaned from ten beyond-binge-able episodes. But what’s here is a tantalizing taste for sure, distinctively abetted by “Altered’s” songs. A twisted, reverberating lullaby plays “The Patchwork Man” where Sune Rose Wagner brings techno-rock to “Let My Baby Ride,” and a “Halloween”-esque rhythm to the Katana-swinging “More Human than Human” for a character who really knows how to make an entrance. Providing a mythic end is the jangling, guitar western ode of Renee Elise Goldsberry’s “Ain’t No Grave,” a song that hits the regret of a tragedy-cloaked, ever-wandering hero on the head with the throaty impact of a six gun.
Extra Special: The bright, and mostly optimistic first TV voyage of “Star Trek” was renowned for distinctive themes that have become an indelible part of pop culture – a musical boldness that was completely lost in space for every series variation since by network brass that had as much love for melodic themes as Klingons had for tribbles. Now, the mostly noodling musical voyages since have finally reached a promised land, thanks to Paramount, which at at last allows a composer to go boldly for the franchise’s pay-platform venture with “Star Trek: Discovery.” The series itself got out to a decidedly rocky start for the first half of its insanely violent, and overly dark first season (before doing a significant course correction within the mirror universe), “Discovery” shined right off the bat by being powered by music that isn’t afraid to be music. Russo certainly captains the optimistic Federation spirit with a main orchestral theme that promises “Discovery,” an almost ironic brightness (of course topped off with a salute to the famed Alexander Courage TOS theme). It’s an undeniable warmth, and nobleness that made the season’s faulty start watchable with its theme-driven approach. If anything, Russo’s music is so good here because he’s scoring an epic “Trek” movie as opposed to any series – a domain that rejoiced in the melodic likes of Jerry Goldmsith, James Horner, Cliff Eidelman and Michael Giacchino, when the small screen versions mostly hit an anti-melodic force field, no matter the shows’ quality. “Discovery’s” music takes what’s best about that feature work with big screen sonic polish. Using strings and horns to heroic effect, Russo’s music is about the stalwart bond of characters thrust into war, with the nasty Klingons given a brooding, ethnic sound that Goldsmith pioneered from their first, jagged-headed appearance in “Star Trek – The Motion Picture.” Russo runs with that twisted, primal sound as he goes for the symphonic excitement of space battles and the mystical wonder of exploration, all with a hopefulness that’s positively O.G. OTS. Throughout “Discovery,” there’s the sense of enthusiasm that really cuts through on this album, from alien atmospheres to intimate piano and pokey synth controls, with all points leading back to the very human musical mission that Gene Roddenberry set his composers out on. The melody on constant display here truly unites the show in a way that even the episodic nature of the first three TOS seasons couldn’t do with their repetitive, budget-mandated tracking from a distinctive music library. Indeed, “Discovery” has the most musical cohesiveness of any “Trek” show. I can only hope that Russo’s truly epic scoring of “Discovery’s” terrifically redemptive episodes make for a second album on a TV pay-for voyage that I now hope goes way beyond four years.
2) DAMNATION ALLEY
What is it?: Firing off the last major bottle cap missile when it comes to releasing every last piece of Jerry Goldsmith’s most-requested arsenal, Intrada comes up with an ingenious solution on how to finally quench a seemingly unrecoverable holy grail in the composer’s repertoire. Sure Goldsmith had conjured the American apocalypse with the likes of “Planet of the Apes” and “Logan’s Run,” but rarely had his combination of primal eeriness, rousing patriotism and kick-ass staccato action been put to the wonderfully berserk test as it was in 1979’s “Damnation Alley.” Reteaming with director Jack Smith after his loopy black comedy score for “The Traveling Executioner,” Goldsmith also found himself behind the wheel with his “Blue Max” star George Peppard, here down to scorched earth as he pilots a giant all-terrain vehicle called The Landmaster (once a familiar site to any commuter on the 101 making the nightmarish trek to LA). His destination under irradiated magenta skies is the utopia of Albany, New York, and damned if this terrifically exciting score isn’t going to get us there.
Why Should You Buy It?: Goldsmith was certainly gaining a new audience of fans in the late 70’s, and “Damnation” isn’t to be slighted amidst the sci-fi likes of “Alien” and “Star Trek – The Motion Picture” Treating the likes of mutants, giant scorpions and killer cockroaches with epic seriousness, this also just might be Goldsmith’s most terrifically noble militaristic score outside of “Patton” as the soundtrack’s swelling timpani and brass hits the ex-military nature of its team. But amidst the desert forbidden zone this soundtrack traverses, it’s Goldsmith’s music for killer cockroaches that just might be the score’s standout, a wonderfully nightmarish, over the top attack of horns, gnarled voices and hissing, until his throttling theme comes to the rescue. Along with his unique orchestration for orchestra and electronics, there’s also a quite lovely, bucolic melody that makes you also recognize this is the composer who wrote “Lilies of the Field” and “Patch of Blue,” the score’s hope for humanity providing the rousing kind of deliverance heard in “Logan’s Run,” soaring melody that’s a reaffirmation of the human spirit against all the harsh tonalities the apocalypse can throw at it.
Extra Special: It’s exactly those ultra-70’s synth parts that have prevented “Damnation Alley” from getting the album it should have had long ago, as that electronic music was lost While that didn’t prevent Varese Sarabande from doing an impressive re-performance of “Alley’s” symphonic music on a compilation CD, Intrada has now ingeniously, and seamlessly had score restorationist Michael Matessino join the existing orchestra’s surround tracks with a spot-on keyboard re-performance by Leigh Phillips. The result of retrofitting the symphony with state of the art “old” synths is true genius in finally letting the full-on musical Landmaster reach long-denied fan ears. “Damnation” at last has found salvation, fully revealing a succinct, powerful score that showed a composer who inventively knew how to pilot a score through a post-nuke landscape like no one’s business.
3) I, TONYA
What Is it?: The official soundtrack to “Goodfellas on Ice,” or at least the kneecapping skater version of it, “I, Tonya” knows that nothing captures criminal attitude like the classics. Where Martin Scorsese has always been sure to give mobsters a mix tape drawn from the hits of 50’s into the early 70’s, “I Tonya” picks up that attitude from the bad hair days of the 70’s to skate with it right through the 80’s in a colorful blur of jukebox favorites and more cleverly unusual song choices.
Why should you buy it?: Whether you’re talking about “Goodfellas” murderous R & B intent or Simon and Garfunkel’s poetic folk for nice boy Benjamin Braddock, any memorable song-driven soundtrack tells the story of its (anti) heroes. And “I, Tonya” has a doozy with a lower class trash-talking snow queen out to prove herself to the Olympic snobs. Or at least that’s the impression everyone’s had of her, as the lead off of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” immediately gets across. A triumph of song storytelling, the electric guitar attitude of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star” Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (also put to great use in last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) get across Tonya’s take-no-prisoners attitude on her way to the top, an inner, mom-created rage that fuels her every move in the rink. But as opposed to being painted as just a hellcat, more lyrical songs like “Romeo and Juliet” and Chris Stills’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” paint a far more tender picture of a little girl lost who just wants to be loved, and the pathetic romantic aspirations of her abusive husband. Where her squeaky clean rivals chose Prokofiev for their musically boring routines, leave it to Tonya to pick En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” and Heart’s “Barracuda,” hip hop and hard rock that put fire into her impossibly great moves, while projecting a big middle finger from her hand-made outfits to the stuffed shirt judges. Other album selections are terrifically ironic, from the lyrics of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” that question “the undisputed truth” to Siouxsie & the Banshee hearing Tonya as “The Passenger.” As squeaky-clean Doris Day innocently coos “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” “I Tonya’s” astounding soundtrack asks us what’s the price of being a tabloid celebrity that dragged ice-skating into the tabloid fire? Whether the tunes are deluded, or aware of her actions, all are as sharply to the point as an iron bar to the leg – if with an impact that’s way more fun.
Extra Special: Perhaps “I Tonya’s” biggest scream of rage is made by composer Peter Nashel, whose score might be brief, but certainly makes a rude impression. A smart, under-the-radar composer who’s work has graced the likes of “The Deep End,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Marco Polo,” Nashel gets some cool exposure here with his brief, but truly impactful work. “The Incident” hammers in rapid-fire metallic percussion with a growing sense of outrage as it tracks Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecapping, the rhythm and howling all evil determination and then outright panic of the criminals who couldn’t shoot straight. Nashel’s “Tonya Suite” uses a surprisingly elegant classical piano rhythm to launch into a Philip Glass-like rhythmic theme that behooves an evil ice queen, complete with organ, eerie strings and sleighbell percussion. It’s ruthless, mastermind stuff, hammering in the contrast between “Tonya’s” truth and fiction with no small sense of humor, deliciously bombastic music for an outsized, sports villain if there ever was one in the rink of public opinion.
4) STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI / THE POST
What Is it: As the composer whose gift for melody made film music appreciated the world over like never before, John Williams stands as the modern Mozart of his craft, a composer whose populist touch spans generations past and future as his energy continues unabated into his astounding 86th year. Williams understandably never fails to bring award nominations with each one – splitting the difference in 2018 with Oscar gold recognition for the latest edition of an intergalactic saga that truly put film scores on the map, and Golden Globe recognition by foreign entertainment “journalists” to a score for American reporters who put their jobs, and potentially their vocation’s freedom on the line.
Why Should You Buy It?: Though he’d long been handling blockbusters before “Star Wars,” George Lucas’ odyssey was truly the soundtrack that allowed Williams to put grand orchestral scoring on the map like never before. Thankfully the seemingly eternal Williams has remained along for the ride as the “Star Wars” saga has swung from happy ending optimism full of victorious rebels to an ever-darkening future with a skeleton crew of survivors. The latter ending is perhaps why “The Last Jedi’s” hope against all odds has made this one of the best “Star Wars” films, especially coming off of a painfully infantile “The Force Awakens,” where no one was functioning at their best capabilities. “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson’s course correction is nothing less than astounding (in spite of dissatisfied fanboy raving), allowing Williams to create a mature score that draws its power on his ability to write one terrifically memorable theme after the other. His force of leitmotifs is the stuff that binds this score together, drawing on a wealth of heroism and villainy, and playing it somewhere in the middle of deeply flawed valor and evildoers we can sense the good in. Like Luke, Williams’ “Jedi” is brooding and intensely emotional. When Skywalker’s theme pulls Leia back from space or Yoda’s melody shows up to give his novice one last lesson, it’s like being amongst old friends, our love of the saga rushing right back in to tearful effect, or an amusing one as a gambling planet’s jive recalls a dive on Tatooine. It’s also certainly busy as Williams’ orchestrations make you feel every dip and dive of its spaceship battles and light-sabre swinging. If there’s one fault for “Jedi,” it’s that the action music is tremendously exciting, but lacking the cohesive flow of an asteroid chase or Endor forest battle, with a central melody keeping pace from beginning to end. Here, it’s all about the character themes, which certainly do the Jedi mind trick, especially in an epic choral face-off as such between Luke and his pissed protégé. That Williams will hopefully be able to finish the third “Star Wars” trilogy is astonishing in itself. That the force is really back with him and these films (despite the dreadful thought of J.J. Abrams returning to the franchise) is truly reason to rejoice beyond admiring that a man of his seasoned years can still keep delivering with an energy half his age, especially given a saga, especially for this entry that isn’t afraid to go way beyond the kid’s stuff to reach the dark side sweet spot.
Extra Special: From “Munich” to “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg has been interested in politics of the past with a resonance in today’s climate, no more so than in the battle for press freedom as depicted in “The Post.” Though far better in good intentions than as an actual movie, the suspense of publishing The Pentagon Papers in the face of presidential wrath certainly is a great opportunity for Williams to play in the real world of “the little guy” going against an Empire of government avarice. It’s territory Williams has impressively trod for Oliver Stone with “JFK” and “Nixon,” a suspenseful, humanistic sound that makes a welcome return to headline “The Post.” Though the film itself is mostly comprised of positively civil whitebread breakfast meetings, Williams relatively sparse score plays the events as if America’s liberty itself was at stake (which it arguably was). Pulsating synth rhythm and dark orchestral flourishes suggest that anyone who touches “The Papers” will meet a fatal end from Tricky Dick’s administration. “Nixon’s Order” carries a feeling of solemn gravitas, while “Mother and Daughter” shows Williams’ talent for the tenderness of piano and strings to reach the emotional heart of a relationship. In lighter moments like “The Oak Room, 1971” and “Two Martini Lunch,” Williams gets to return to his “Johnny” jazz roots, But the score’s undoubted highlight is “The Presses Roll,” Williams’ brass propels us through the printing process, the anxious orchestra turning to sweeping triumph with the publication of the vital issue, brass finally announcing itself like a Lincoln address about to happen – a yearning nobility that pays of with a vindicating “Court Decision.” Its music poignantly, and patriotically urges us to stay vigilant before the score dramatically swirls again with the film’s one truly inspired moment of becoming a prequel to “All the President’s Men.” “The Post” is stirring, important, though not self-aggrandizing “news on the march” scoring that packs the momentum of history, as well as a sense of craftiness about how to literally sneak the news out from under Nixon’s long nose.
What Is It?: If you were longing for American kiddie creature bashes like “Mad Monster Party” and “Hotel Transylvania” to have real comic bite, then a journey to France’s ghoulishly hip theme park “Zombillenium” is in order. But if that admission is unlikely until this quite wonderful, often cruelly funny (and very French) cartoon gets exported to the English language, you’ll definitely get a great sense of the cheeky enjoyment that lies within from the rambunctiously clever score by Eric Neveux.
Why should you buy it?: Having given clever flight to the animated “A Stork’s Journey” (also on Quartet Records), while also being on live action display for his score to Lebanon’s Oscar-nominated “The Insult,” Neveux hits a new high note for this wonderfully stylized film and soundtrack. Here a greedy businessman gets his comeuppance after being killed by a vampire, then is essentially turned into Hellboy in the service of the big boss downstairs. Given a film that has fun with glitteringly handsome bloodsuckers and union difficulties in equal measure (while almost strangling a disagreeable big-nosed teacher in front of a terrified daughter’s eyes), Neveux seamlessly treads comedy and horror action with a 1950’s rockabilly attitude. The musical genre tropes delightfully abound amidst electric guitar with deathly gongs, mock sympathy violins, organ, moaning choruses and metallic samples that play the ultimate fiery furnace. Neveux also gets across an unholy carnival atmosphere with loopy calliope music and Theremin-like wailing and of course a greaser music twist on Handel’s funeral march. It’s this who-gives-a-damn damned scoring attitude that makes “Zombillenium” particularly delightful in its often transgressive humor, while also hitting the emotion of an scarily transformed dad and his orphaned daughter, somber melody getting across that he’s really, really sorry for being such a dick to get into this horned spot, especially as a chorus beats out a doomed march to the ultimate theme park sub-basement. For the big zombie versus vamp finale, Neveux lets his orchestral rhythm fly to exciting heights, the dramatic stakes zooming about with the speed of a Goth witch’s broom. Where such great horror-comedy scores like “Young Frankenstein” symphonic horror homage, Eric Neveux certainly has that spirit in his golden ticket to “Zombillenium,” paying delightful thematic homage to stalwart horror musical trademarks of the past with a hellbent for leather attitude that energizes the score with more energy than a mad scientist’s laboratory.
Extra Special: Songs also play a fun part in “Zombillenium” with Matt Bastard’s hard rocking “Rosemary” and the catchy, empowering anthem “Stand as One” that captures “Zombillenium’s” message of monster power. But perhaps no tune hits the transgressive sweet spot like Mister Modo & Ugly Mac Beer’s “Diggin’ in the Crates.” It’s definitely not the kind of safe urban tune you’re going to find on a “Hotel Frankenstein” soundtrack, a rap tune that’s sure to delight hip kids while making their parents’ mouth drops with the impact of one F-bomb after the other, which is exactly what the trickster spirit of this theme park is all about.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. THE BORGIAS – SEASON ONE
The most infamous ruling family next to Donald Trump’s got its back stabbing, conspiratorial laundry aired out over three seasons on Showtime, beginning in 2011. For this European co-production about Italy’s murderous clan, Cyril Morin (“The Syrian Bride,” “The Sentiment of the Flesh”) was chosen to make cruel history come alive over the twelve episodes of its first season. He delivered a vibrant, contemporarily painted tapestry that’s now collected into this sumptuous release from Editions Musicales Francois. “The Borgias” Showtime ancestor from another bloody reign was “The Tudors,” for which composer Trevor Morris used a combination of modern electronics and traditional orchestra to make Henry V come alive for the tastes of contemporary listeners – an approach powerfully expanded upon by Morin. A luxurious feeling of being masters of the Renaissance world, and doing anything to get there resounds through the music, which employs instruments of the era from hurdy-gurdys to classical guitar, viola de Gamba and wooden recorders, all creating an richly mesmerizing acoustical feeling that joins with strings and contemporary keyboards in a way that’s accurate, while pulsating with a menace that thankfully isn’t anachronistically hip for the period. Rather, it enriches “The Borgia’s” sound, which giving the family’s seat at the head of the church a dark spirituality as it relishes in the pleasures and pains of the flesh. Gorgeous, Latin chorales and organs create a melodic sense of holiness that’s increasingly taken to sinful places, sinister percussion leading to the next kill on the ascent to absolute power. Beyond conjuring its Italian settings, a strong Middle Eastern sensibility also fills “The Borgias,” making interesting use of Morin’s talent for the region in such scores as “Little Jerusalem” and “Zaytoun.” Through a succession of over 100 cues over 4 ½ hours, Morin’s score, comprised of both music used, and unheard in the show, never ceases to mesmerize as it creates a lush ever-darkening tapestry that never ceases to be relevant as composers the world over tie in today’s rulers to ancestors just as cruel and conspiratorial.
. CHRISTMAS WITH A CAPITAL C (500 edition)
Having ravaged Alaska with a terrifying combination of metallic sampling and orchestra for the fury of an unholy polar bear in “Unnatural,” Edwin Wendler shows he’s equally adept at waging The War for Xmas in “Christmas With a Capital C” (the C standing for “Christ” of course). That the film itself is strident Christian agitprop against heathen Daniel Baldwin bringing his atheist, manger display-shattering ways to town is no reason to think that Wendler’s score is on that bandwave. For divorced from religion and relegated to pure listening pleasure, Wendler’s “Christmas” is indeed a very pleasant gift. A Vienna native with a musical bloodline firmly rooted in the orchestra (with this one very nicely performed in Prague under the watch of Prometheus contractor James Fitzpatrick), Wendler conjures a warm, sensitively reassuring score packed in lush, flute-tied themes, with just a bit of country guitars to spice the eggnog. With trouble afoot in snow-covered paradise, Wendler brings interesting, electronic effects into the mix, while also using such Christmas score stalwarts as cheerful bells, angelic voices and peppy rhythm, all in a way that recalls Tom Newman in rustic mode. Overall, it’s a score that’s nicely sedate for the jingling jingoism on screen, using just the right, light comedic touches, magical warmth and tender emotion to make his Christmas work with a Capital M, as in melody. Whatever your religious persuasion or complete lack of it, it’s nicely enchanting music pure and simple that would charm even a godless Grinch.
. DOV NON HO MAI ABITATO (Where I Have Never Lived)
Many foreign composers come to leave an indelible mark on American genre cinema, only to return to their home countries, leaving behind a mystery to their whereabouts to match any movie they’d score. In the “Where are they now?” annals, Pino Donaggio casts a particularly lush, suspensefully romantic shadow given his De Palma collaborations on “Carrie,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Blow Out” (though he’s resurfaced here and there with the decent thriller scores for “Patrick” and De Palma’s “Passion”). But if you really want to hear Donaggio return to his classic Hitchcockian heyday, then look no further than the domestic drama “Dov Non Ho Mai Abitato.” While broken hearts instead of bodies might reside within its residence, Donaggio is stalking in his most gorgeous form in years here. While “Dov” might not fly to the lavish, uber-orchestral heights of “Dressed to Kill,” that spirit is very much present as pianos tenderly lead the strings into lush anguish, his melody circling about with a sense of poignant, anguished discovery. While you’ll need to go to Donaggio’s most visceral scores for his “Psycho”-like menace, “Dov” is like a gorgeous cornucopia of his distinctive sensual sound. Gliding themes bring back imagery of museum seductions and spying on lonely housewives immediately to the ear of American fans pining for the composer’s glory days. The assured performance of the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra certainly abets this romantically suspenseful score, one that’s all about the gorgeous anguish of broken hearts as opposed to Donaggio’s talent for plunging knifes, razors or power drills into them. For with the hushed melancholy of “Dov,” Pino Donaggio is back like never before, showing a mystery continued en Italia as opposed to stopping when he left Hollywood.
. EARLY MAN
It’s a musical culture clash between stone and bronze age, as played on the field of football (or soccer as we Yanks call it), quite wonderfully tag-teamed by Brit composers Harry Gregson-Williams (“Shrek”) and Tom Howe (“Professor Martson and the Wonder Women”). Williams certainly knows his way around the cute stop motion style of England’s Aardman Animation given his wackily robust scoring on “Chicken Run” and “Flushed Away,” while Howe is now making inroads to the ever-ironic realm of kid’s entertainment with the forthcoming “Charming.” Though they might be dealing with inch-high figures, Williams and Howe bring an eccentric sense of the epic here in this match off between a pathetic tribe and low-tech civilization. The zeroes-to-heroes side is embodied with primal grunts, sad sack orchestrations and daintily strumming instruments that might make you think you’re in Italy. Putting them under the iron boot is a gigantic, brass-fueled orchestra and imperious, imposing themes as loopy, cartoonish strings unite the humor. The score’s rousing climax is the big game, a competition for civilization itself that’s heard with real, emotional stakes and suspenseful excitement that could befit any live-action sports comedy. Trumpeting fanfares kick it with charge-ahead symphonic writing and a biblical chorus, with ears keenly on the melodic ball for sweeping impact. In Aardman’s annals of cheeky scores, “Early Man’s” music stands tall amidst sheep, dogs, rodents and bald human simpletons with its rousingly fun approach. Indeed, if these clay cavemen had these kind of inventive musical smarts, they wouldn’t be in their situation in the first place.
Just as John Powell changed the face of action soundtracks with his world beat for “The Bourne Identity” series, his musically hip, wackily orchestrated forays into the talking animal kingdom with the numerously distinctive likes of “Chicken Run,” “Kung Fu Panda” and any number of “Ice Age” scores have made animated soundtracks an eccentric wonderland where just about every composer tries to out-hip the other. But there’s no matching the O.G. musician who built a Noah’s Ark of ethnic rhythm and boisterous orchestrations, as “Ferdinand” continues to prove with delightful style. Taking on the legend of a bull who didn’t want to fight that’s now Oscar-nominated for Best Animated film, “Ferdinand” is virtual fiesta of Mexican-centric scoring. Powell has certainly run with a Latin beat in such adult fare as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Knight and Day,” but there’s a particularly luxurious joy that he gives his plethora of musical piñatas here. With trumpets singing, castanet percussion clopping away like hooves and Spanish guitar strumming on top of a symphony, the red-baited “Ferdinand” might just as easily be wearing the black cape and mask of Zorro the Avenger (or occasionally the Spaghetti western sombrero of Clint Eastwood) given its boisterous heroism that positively swings into the fray. Yet given a bovine that wants nothing but peace, Powell’s score has an unusually relaxed mood through a good deal of the soundtrack, a nice sense of siesta and smelling the flowers that the often antic demands of his animation don’t allow. But there’s plenty of Powell’s trademarked humor and energy here as well, from making fun of the strides of arrogant Lipizzaner horses to the swaggering brass of Bull Olympics and the rousing orchestra that takes us to the arena, music whose drama also hears the appalling cruelty of bullfighting. All paths lead to the dizzying, twelve-minute “Madrid Finale” as Powell shows how he can charge from one escapade to the next in a way that would make Carl Stalling jealous, yet with a terrific control of melody, and thematic footwork that pulls his scores for the peppy genre together. An equal match for Michael Giacchino’s Mexican fiesta in “Coco,” “Ferdinand” is a delightful celebration of musical culture, as heard through Powell’ especially festive voice – a composer who can dance with the rhythms of cartoon scoring with the dexterity of a peaceful toreador with an approach that hits new heights in “Ferdinand.”
. FIFTY SHADES FREED
While I wouldn’t say that Danny Elfman has been shackled by being best known for his darkly magical and often rambunctious collaborations with Tim Burton, the composer has an equally memorable talent for drama in such Oscar-nominated scores as “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk.” But it’s likely his explorations into the real world have never reached as big of a sensually appreciative audience as when opening the red room of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies – which now reaches it climax (as the ads have coyly exclaimed again and again) with “Fifty Shades Freed.” It’s difficult enough to play sex in a Hollywood multiplex cinema that’s mainly shied away from explicit erotica in favor of outright violence since the glory days of “Two Moon Junction” and “9 ½ Weeks” let alone to musically embody the more outré reaches of passion as depicted in these fairly restrained S & M forays. Given the delicate job of treading between pleasure and pain, Elfman wisely chose an overall romantic, if somewhat tense approach, as embodied by a theme seemingly capable of every erotic variation. “Freed” stretches his motif like never before as the series enters thriller territory with its even-darker counterpart to Christian Grey. At once brooding, tender and threatening as the sex scene or suspenseful moment calls for, Elfman’s string and piano melody is the bed, or rack, for him to lay down techno rhythms, a gauzy orchestra or lyrical violin to keep the scores interesting, especially here given the treat of real danger. With a heroine who wants an emotional connection and an impossibly rich bohunk who’s terrified of truly bonding with anyone despite the wedding ring, Elfman’s biggest accomplishment with “Freed” to get real feeling from the gloriously silly appeal of these female-centric “dirty” movies. As waves of orchestra come in to tie the whole thing together with Anastasia’s final flashbacks, the feeling is beautifully nostalgic. It’s music that could have sent a couple with more old-fashioned tastes to a straight and narrow conformist future as they reflect on their times together. And that might just be the most subversive musical message of all in these hit movies whose appeal is teasing their audience with transgressiveness – all while showing Elfman’s skill at both master, and submissive in knowing how to create thematic ties that lyrically bind, this time with true love.
. FRANCIS LAI AT UNIVERSAL PICTURES (750 edition)
By the late 60’s, studio releases were swimming in a romantic wave of French composers, among them Maurice Jarre (“Gambit”), Georges Delerue (“Anne of the Thousand Days”) and Michelle Legrand (“The Thomas Crown Affair”). What united their unique voices was a talent for lush orchestration and memorable, theme-driven scores. Few would hit the universally tearful heights of Francis Lai, whose lyrical theme for 1970’s “Love Story” (its soundtrack just out on Quartet) won an Oscar, even as his other American-financed efforts were a bit more obscure, if just as lyrically rewarding. Now France’s Music Box Records does their part to shine a beautiful light on the musician’s English-language pictures with a captivating, two-CD release of a Lai triptych. Set in England, 1969’s “3 into 2 Won’t Go” is about an unwitting love triangle between Rod Steiger’s salesman, who sets up house with his Judy Geeson’s wild child hitchhiker and an at-first oblivious wife (real-life mate Claire Bloom). Lai concentrates on a uptempo, classically-themed approach for lush strings and harpsichord-like percussion, distinguishing characters’ longing in an unhappy residence. Yet there’s a mod quality for a much more youthful, swinging London that the Geeson’s new romantic blood embodies, with the main theme’s rhythm picking up with harpsichord-like percussion, mod organ and bits of lounge jazz – a musical meeting of adults lost in a hopeless relationship and the unlikely promise being afforded to the man of the house, all three showing the composer’s romantically perceptive approach. Lai was on his home turf as a body in the Seine starts off the French / Italian international fascist conspiracy of 1969’s “House of Cards.” Cooing voices, strong cimbalom-esque percussion and threatening brass create a lovely, waltz-like melody that will drive the ever-stacking suspense. But even at its most threatening, Lai can’t help but paint Paris is lovely tones, as his use of symphony, lilting harps and keyboard exoticism brings to mind John Barry’s intrigue for “The Ipcress File.” The spirit of Lai’s own eternal theme for “A Man and a Woman” also graces the opening titles (no more so then in its lovely French performance by an unknown vocalist) , from its more classical variations for string quartet to groovier bits for the rock guitar and organ .Lai’s similar, if more poignant foray into spy vs. spy action yields a terrific score with 1970’s “The Berlin Affair,” a TV movie featuring Darren McGavin and Fritz Weaver as two operatives mixing love and murder during The Wall’s lethally cold height in the 1960’s. Roaring out of the gate with pulse-pounding brass action, Lai brings fun exoticism to the setting in a style familiar to any fan of such Cold War shows as “Mission: Impossible” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Lai comes up with two memorable themes here, one for hard-edged danger, and the other a far more romantic one that sings with regret, at one point with a female voice. With East German repression heard with taut, string suspense, what makes the score fun is its very mod sound for sitars, psychedelic organ and swinging jazz – if not in a ragingly shagadelic way. But as always with Lai, it’s the romance that makes the most impact, romantic pathos for flute and guitar giving real empathy to a world of hardened hearts. But no matter the setting of Lai’s all-too few forays into Hollywood, it’s a universal language of melody that unites these three captivating and unsung scores that are now given new vibrancy in this long-overdue album debuts, the stories behind these obscure Universal co-productions fascinatingly chronicled by foreign score specialist Gergely Hubai.
Having gone solo from the musical collective of Pale 3 alongside Tom Tykwer and Reinhold Heil after “Run Lola Run,” “Perfume” and “Cloud Atlas,” German composer Johnny Klimek has found a potent Aussie director collaborator with Greg McLean, the creator of the particularly nasty “Wolf Creek” survivalist slasher series. Having provided the visceral score for its sequel as well as the director’s Native American exorcist movie “The Darkness,” Klimek now ventures with him into the Bolivian “Jungle” that’s littered with body horror, a repertoire that for poor Daniel Radcliffe includes fire ants biting at his skin and worms burrowing from his head. But as opposed to what one might think will be a grisly cannibal movie, that fact that its true Israeli hero was on his lonesome makes this far more of a spiritual odyssey, which in turn gives Klimek a score that’s as potent for its fear as its emotion. Beginning with gentle strings and lyrical ethnic instruments that promise adventure to a young man possessed with wanderlust, Klimek’s meeting of indigenous Latin music with orchestra nicely recalls Guastavo Santaolalla’s guitar-centric work on such scores as “The Motorcycle Diaries.” But soon enough more ominous rhythms are entering the musically scenic picture, a foreboding that’s practically a warning sign to turn back. Yet proceed its young man must with a German guide who’s hiding the fact that he’s out of his element. With the kid soon enough left to fend on his own, Klimek brings in dark drumming and nerve-rending electronics, the score progressively getting more hallucinogenic with the illusions that come with absolute hunger and isolation. But through even its most nightmarish passages, Klimek doesn’t forget to let the orchestra be the guide to salvation. As intimate string and piano tenderness mix with swells of symphonic hope and the sinking, sampled feeling of throwing in the towel, Klimek’s score makes the listener truly feel the struggle for survival, and a moving, religious sense of deliverance. Really coming into his composing own in the most haunting, solitary ways in this “Jungle,” Klimek and McLean create a “Revenant” worthy quest that makes the audience feel they’ve been through green hell, and heaven.
. LE MAGNIFIQUE (500 edition)
Jazz-centric French composer Claude Bolling (“Borsalino,” “The Gypsy”) essentially got to do his version of “Casino Royale” for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s super spy for this screwball comedy, known in America as “The Man from Acapulco.” Where Burt Bacharach had The Tijuana Brass at his disposal, Bolling’s beyond zany score offers a Latin fiesta for the imagined adventures of Bob Saint, the macho alter ego of positively boring espionage novelist Francois Merlin. Transforming his lame reality into swinging, Bondian adventure down Mexico way is just the excuse that Bolling needs to delightfully jump from one style to the next, matching “Royale” for its 007 absurdity. Festive mariachi tunes join with brassy spy skullduggery as sexy lounge music and groovy Shagadelia lures the ladies, of course along with a Parisian accordion. The effect is joyously dizzying giving so many short cues, as united with hangdog Latin trumpet theme and even a classical, derring-do concerto to boot. Yet even as Bolling dexterously swings between spoof to mundanity with the height of absurdity, there are nice themes that give the stylistic escapades a sense of cohesiveness. Indeed, there’s a quite lovely, understated romantic whimsy at play in the musical contrast’s most affecting moments, especially in the love theme’s tender piano. But if all of the rapid-fire cues of the original “Magnifique” score prove to be a bit dizzying for you, Music Box Record’s two-CD release also includes the original album presentation, with longer tracks that show the more luxurious method to Boling’s spy spoof madness. It’s all a delightfully madcap score just as well suited to a French agent in Acapulco as it might be Peter Sellers in Bond get-up, or Austin Power’s in full shagadelia costuming for that matter.
. MULLY / THE RENDEVOUS (500 editions)
While Varese Sarabande puts out major Hollywood scores, some of the label’s most impressive offerings can be found in their vastly reduced run of limited edition releases, albums for under-the-radar movies that resound with their composers’ passion – two notable cases in point being “Mully” and “The Rendevous.” In the first case, the documentary about a Kenyan mogul is musically ironic in that Benjamin Wallfisch spent the better part of 2017 terrorizing children with his scores to “It” and “Annabelle: Creation.” Perhaps that’s why “Mully” is so full of rich, enervating melody that’s all about the saintly help given to street kids by a man who came from less than nothing. Having powerfully dealt with the humanitarian crises of “Bhopal’s” chemical spill in India and artistic expression breaking free of Iran’s repression in “Desert Dancer,” Wallfisch knows how to bring a common, universal voice for finding light in the midst of darkness. Avoiding making the score African-centric as such, Wallfisch softly uses piano and strings, both joining with a lush orchestra and angelic chorus. However, that doesn’t avoiding the awful reality of the children’s’ situations, as heard through gritty strings and eerie, hushed atmospheres. Like the best composers working in the emotional arena, Wallfisch knows the fine line between inspiration and manipulation, the strength of his main theme guiding Mully’s charges to the Promised Land. With “Mully,” Wallfisch captures a real spirit of melodic empathy for a deeply moving and captivating score, his theme given powerful voice through both the children’s native tongue and the beautiful title song “Love Will Be Your Shelter,” an Oscar nominee that should have been written by Wallfisch and its singer Siedah Garrett.
Having first joined forces with Jordan-born filmmaker Amin Matalqa for the tender orchestral score of “Captain Abu Raed” before venturing to hipster LA with the beyond quirky soundtrack to “Strangely in Love,” composer Austin Wintory returns once again to the director’s home turf with “The Rendevous.” Now he journeys to far sandier, and humorously adventurous locales for this Showtime treasure hunt that features the unlikely pairing of Stana Katic’s Jewess with Raza Jaffrey’s dashing Muslim government agent. It’s a bickering odd couple who’s cliffhanging pursuit for the dead sea scrolls will of course ultimately end with romantic sparks, which gives Wintory license to particularly recall Henry Mancini, a composer who certainly knew how to navigate sensual jazz and energetically romantic caper music with ethnic rhythm and an orchestra. Wintory has that West meets Middle East vibe down with style to spare for this “Rendevous.” Arabic winds join with sumptuous strings to convey the time-honored tradition of musically seeking melodically glittering treasure and lost civilization. Percussive avarice creates a wealth of scoundrels in rhythmic pursuit of our couple, a sound that also playfully expands his horizons to Spanish guitar fandangos, giving “The Rendevous” a true sense of musical discovery as the composer shows off his old school orchestral chops among some eerier effects and woozy brass, There’s also a fun John Williams-esque vibe to the score as we reach the cliff-carved destination of Petra, it etched-in-stone city familiar to any fan of “The Last Crusade.” At once dusting off theme-driven, argumentative-couple-on-the-run scores like “Charade” with the cliffhanging vigor of Indiana Jones, Wintory’s score is at once traditional and wackily off beat, It’s just the latest “Rendevous” in a collaboration where Wintory never fails to delight with his increasingly loopy sense of discovery, all while unearthing another fun homage to ancient soundtrack albums, as well as a particularly touching tribute to Matalqa’s wife that gives the soundtrack its special resonance.
. PADDINGTON 2
Taking a stylistic 180 from helping Churchill convince Britain of the advancing storm clouds of Hitler’s evil, composer Dario Marianelli has his sweetest hour with the adventures of England’s favorite ursine. Taking up the honey trail from Nick Urata the last time we saw Paddington, Marianelli creates a lovely, utterly charming child’s eye view of the closest thing to a talking bear, Toy piano percussion and gentle melody ingeniously fills his CGI stuffing in a way that’s nicely sweet without being saccharine. Given how Paddington’s essentially Mr. Bean with fur, Marianelli accompanies his path of innocent destruction with loopy fiddles and brass. Where guitar and soft-shoe percussion is used for window cleaning, even more mischievous is the way in which Marianelli employs religious voices for an unusually attractive nun, or to convey the wonders of marmalade. Where pizzicato skullduggery and rousing chases accompany the ever-humiliated villain’s antics, “Paddington 2’s” pursuits are never too musically threatening, even taking on a waltz-like rhythm with ticking clocks to set the time. There’s an irresistible sense of joy that runs through “Paddington 2”’s score, one that doubtlessly helped this become the best-reviewed film ever on Rotten Tomatoes. But then as Marianelli has proven with the diverse likes of “Sense and Sensibility,” “Atonement” and “V for Vendetta,” thematic melody is a thing that comes with seeming ease to the composer, who’s at his magical best here. Popping in just as delightfully is the calypso duo of Tobago And d’Lime, their jazzy kettle drum rhythm urging Paddington to “Rub and Scrub” teaching him to “Love Thy Neighbor” and giving new groove to everyone’s favorite Beetlejuice standard “Jumping the Line” for the album’s finale. The Teddy bear-filled likes of “Sesame Street” should be lucky enough to get these Rasta dudes. The same can be said of children’s scores when it comes to this composer.
. PHANTOM THREAD
Whatever one thinks of the idea that “film music should be invisible,” Johnny Greenwood has certainly decided to be heard. One of the more daring composers in service of the one of the more increasingly pretentious filmmakers, Johnny Greenwood’s scores for P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Inherent Vice” weren’t exactly stitched from rapturous melody, but rather the need to say something strange for the sake of being unique. While that certainly resulted in interesting scores for an array of obsessive Anderson characters, these soundtracks often called attention to themselves in a way that yanked the viewer into the hauntingly weird music itself as opposed to watching the movie – which is the case again with Anderson’s typically confounding, if more accessible “Phantom Thread.” But while the score might be sometimes be grating in the film, it’s easily more beautifully listenable than Greenwood’s other albums. The fact that “Phantom Thread” is so ravishingly melodic in parts is certainly owed the movie’s setting of haute couture for an English fashion fetishist, who gets more out of assembling the bonds of dresses than any S & M enthusiast in the “Fifty Shades” franchise. For a man who inhabits a world of ritualistic, impeccable taste, Greenwood draws on classical music in all of its elegant varieties, from chamber to a full, ravishing complement of strings. With most of the cues centered on the intimate, Greenwood’s use of strings is often pitched to the highest, nerve-rending reaches, a piano joining in the rhythm to get across its antihero’s beyond anal-retentive personality. Listening to the weaving of one lyrically skewed piece after the next here is like attending a recital where the cellist’s bow seems ready to go out of control, a poetic approach on the edge of a nervous breakdown, yet still melodically hiding its madness. The full use of strings show Greenwood’s ability to be lovely beyond measure, providing a lush balance to the near violin-claw on a blackboard cues that speak for the film’s increasingly masochistic relationship. Though the music is dolloped over one scene after the next to the kind of confounding effect that Anderson delights in, “Phantom Thread” as an album is nothing less than ravishing, masking its lunacy in pointed refinement, even as it distracts in another medium.
. ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (2CD)
Michael Kamen made his Hollywood bones on exasperated American cops wreaking mayhem in Los Angeles, establishing a muscular, melodic sound that would finally put him in Sherwood Forest to play England’s most iconic robber-hero – even if he had a flat American accent. That being besides the arrow point “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” would gift the composer with perhaps his most beloved and popular score next to “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon,” mixing derring-do with a rich sense of history. Given Yank director Kevin Reynolds’ slightly revisionist take on the material (updated with a Muslim warrior buddy and a not-so comely Maid Marian), Kamen wasn’t exactly going to go swinging about the trees previously rappelled to classic effect by Austria’s Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But then, Kamen’s gloriously entertaining scores of this type weren’t about stopping the show to launch into bold, swashbuckling music. It’s an approach as organic as Sherwood Forest, letting one melody roll into the next with music that surrounds the listener with romance, excitement and environment, a melodically dense approach that now really lets listeners get lost in those atmospheric, thematically thick woods. Of course it’s not like fans won’t recognize that Korngoldian touch in Kamen’s sense of adventure that comes swooping in and out of the two hours of score, brass trumpeting as Robin and the Merry Men dispatch the minions of the lovably snide Sheriff, whom Kamen last shoved off the Nakatomi skyscraper with celebratory jingle-bell brass. Here the tone is of Olde England. But as opposed to going for “historic” instruments, the composer with a proven taste for period films captures that spirit with his lush orchestrations. Indeed Kamen may never have been as gorgeously lyrical for a blockbuster as he was in “Robin Hood,” capturing a bucolic sense of romance in his theme that gave birth to the Oscar-nominated hit Bryan Adams tune “Everything I’ve Done, I’ve Done For You” (which you’ll have no trouble finding outside of this otherwise packed special edition). As a composer whose rock and roll background took orchestral scoring into an exciting new direction during his heyday in the 80’s and 90’s, “Robin Hood” more than ever shows how Kamen took bold new steps into with a more adult approach to time-worn material. The result is a “Robin Hood” score that gave new, thrilling voice to an action legend.
. TERENCE BLANCHARD: MUSIC FOR FILM
As the mournful, joyous and angry musical voice of Spike Lee, jazzman Terence Blanchard has become the de facto composer of the modern black movie experience, as chronicled by its brashest director. “Music for Film” highlights the choice cuts from this creatively incendiary collaboration by showing how surprisingly diverse it is. As much a student of the Aaron Copland Americana as he is trumpet-graced vibe of New Orleans, Blanchard’s orchestral music is distinguished by just how melodically thick it is, a solemn approach packed with the wages of sin and social oppression. It’s tragedy at its most musically stirring, whether it’s for a white criminal returning to prison after the fall of the twin towers in “25th Hour,” conveying the weight of somber history in “Malcolm X,” or making time in the drug trade with “Clockers.” Few composers have given such impassioned voice to the trumpet and the brass section as Blanchard, instruments that add to much of the selections’ soulful melancholy, casting a spell of film noir to listeners who might not be familiar with Lee’s work. Yet there’s a fun, jazz groove to be had on this excellent compilation, especially in two of Lee’s most underrated movies with the sultry sax and castanet groove of “She Hate Me’s” sexy dramedy to the wistful main theme of the commercial satire “Bamboozled.” Another impactful unreleased track is the main theme from “Chi-Raq’s,” which has a swelling sense of nationalism for the allegorical Chicago-Greek streets. But it’s likely that no Spike Lee joint had as much personal resonance to Blanchard as When the Levees Broke,” an excellent multi-part HBO documentary about the catastrophic New Orleans floods, and following government indifference that laid waste to the composer’s family. Blanchard’s use of trumpet and orchestra is hauntingly evocative, calling forth the spirit of Alex North’s Orleans-set score to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as the music of man-made disaster ranges from jazz improv to plaintive strings. It’s some of Blanchard’s best, and most elegiac scoring that I can only hope will see a full release (along with his atypically creative action score to “Bunraku” among the many genres he can explore). But fifteen minutes of “Levees” is certainly one of the reasons to pick up Silva Screen’s memorable trip though Blanchard’s distinctive scoring, which getting an excellent impassioned performance by conductor Dirk Brosse and the Brussels Philharmonic.
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