November Soundtrack Picks: “THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM” is the top soundtrack to own for November, 2017
Also worth picking up: THE BAD SEED, BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN, BETTING ON ZERO, DON’T LOOK NOW, LADY BIRD, THOR RAGNAROK, TROY and many more!
THE TOP PICKS
1) BATMAN VS. TWO FACE / BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN
What is it?: In their nearly two decades together, the Dynamic Music Partners trio of Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter have risen from being under the wing of composer Shirley Walker on “Batman: The Animated Series” to becoming the principle animated avengers for what seems to be nearly every superhero from Marvel and DC to hit the TV and DTV universe.
Why should you buy it?: Nothing quite brings out Dynamic’s origin story like being in the company of The Dark Knight, even if that got a bit too pessimistic for its own good with “The Killing Joke.” Thankfully, the retro “Return of the Caped Crusaders” (on La La Land Records) gave the trio permission to musically laugh again as they resurrected that jazzy, bat-tusi style of Neal Hefti for the voice talents of O.G. dynamic duo Adam West and Burt Ward. Now “Batman Vs. Two Face” and “Batman and Harley Quinn” continue that groovy crime-fighting sound, if with unintentional, melancholy emotion in the first soundtrack’s case given West’s passing. With a singular, musical identity, the partners pour on the hip brass punches, while swinging with William Shatner noir cool as he takes on the dual identity of worst D.A. ever Harvey Dent. Even as he’s given dark and stormy orchestral stylings that might befit a 1940’s Universal monster, “Two Face’s” score does its best to approximate what you might have heard if you turned this cartoon on during Saturday morning, circa 1967 – if done with way more musical finesse, though that doesn’t mask some hilariously cartoony moments like Egyptian riffs or game show music as part of “Two Face’s” wackiness.
Extra Special: While “Two Face” also offers some seductively purring rhythm for the inclusion of Catwoman, “Harley Quinn” most definitely puts out with vixen-ish girl power. Likely the most gonzo animated feature (as well as the most WTF fun one) to come from DC’s animated features, this present-day set adventure teams the Joker’s psycho sexual squeeze with a decidedly uninterested Batman and a sidekick not displeased to get his nightwing waxed. With them out to stop Poison Ivy’s plans to turn everyone into trees, you might see why the Dynamic trio weren’t particularly afraid to go for the gonzo gusto here. While there is a fair amount of sleuthing and tree-thing fighting action that gets played excitingly straight, “Quinn” really shines in its sax-y Jessica Rabbit-worthy passages that radiate bad girl panache. It’s a nice return to the brass and piano vibes that distinguished the more smoldering noir elements they abetted on “Batman: The Animated Series’” scoring (including one outright Shirley Walker theme tribute quote). But that doesn’t stop “Harley” from rocking out with electric guitar action, or goofing on big, bell-ringing music for that big hero reveal, even if Swamp Thing’s appearance is as much of a witty anticlimax as everything else about this toon. Thoroughly fun from start to finish on both counts, “Two Face” and “Harley Quinn” shows the magic that happens when dark knight toon music isn’t trying to be so serious.
2) BEN-HUR / TROY
Price: $26.99 / $29.99
What is it?: From the silent era of a pianist accompanying “The Ten Commandments” in a movie house to a sound stage’s massive orchestra recording the score to “Gladiator,” the time-worn sword-and-sandal genre has always given composers epic chances to play ancient clashes for old time religion, or mythic blood and fury. Now two excellent examples of bronze and silver age spins on The Good Book and godly legend shine with the full releases of Miklos Rozsa’s “Ben-Hur” and James Horner’s “Troy.”
Why should you buy it?: That Tadlow producer James Fitzpatrick announced his release with “Oh no, not another ‘Ben-Hur!’” should tell you just how many times that Rozsa’s masterpiece has done a turn around the chariot lap spinner to the point of exhaustion. But given his excellent, re-performed work on such other Christian avenging Rozsa epics as “El Cid” and “Sodom and Gomorrah,” there’s no doubt that Fitzpatrick, conductor Nic Raine and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus wouldn’t bring more hosanna resonance to this understandably oft-played score. Where the whole nature of these Eastern European versions of classic Hollywood scores used to be the sonic equivalent of a Roman slave galley, their ever-increasing handle on some mighty oars to row (as well as satellite performances for new Hollywood films) has grown exponentially to the point where they’re the indistinguishable equal to the real deal. The passion of the Christ, and a Hungarian composer who could play his trumpeting radiance like few others certainly makes this take on “Ben-Hur” into a religious experience. Legions of trumpeters unleash chariot fanfares, resplendent melody announces a Son of God whose face we never clearly see, and the punishing anguish of the Cavalry procession connects the anguish lashes against the Son of God with the Judean hero. But for me, the drum-pounding, ever accelerating highlight has always been Rozsa’s sea battle, which breathlessly builds its rowers to darkly symphonic, relentlessly pounding ramming speed. Tadlow’s new “Ben-Hur” is certainly that last word on a score that will doubtlessly get redone a few more times, with all of the composer’s mighty score on deck, including cues both unreleased on album and unused in the film. Given what seems like a choral and orchestral cast of hundreds here, complete with organ for the healing blood of Christ, “Ben-Hur” rocks out like never before in a way that sounds like it was recorded back in 1959, yet given modern resonance. If we weren’t believers in the restorative miracles that Fitzpatrick and Tadlow have been performing, this ultimate “Hur” is manna from the heaven of epically emotional scoring the Rozsa way.
Extra Special: While Rozsa certainly would have appreciated composer Gabriel Yared’s unabashedly old-school orchestral approach to 2004’s “Troy,” a test screening killed his effort more surely than a sword battle with Achilles would have. Scrambling for a replacement score, Warner Brothers gave James Horner the Herculean task of composing just about two hours of music in two weeks, with no chance for a retreat. But then, for a composer at the top of his game, who’d more than proven his battling worth on the likes of “Glory,” “Braveheart” and “Enemy at the Gates,” there was never doubt that he’d deliver a memorable score that would show no evidence of timely duress. However, it wasn’t as if Horner turned his back on an old-school approach. The difference is that he’d imbue it with a mythically modern feeling to squeeze inside of the famed wooden horse, starting by combining electronics with an orchestra. Another factor in contemporizing “Troy” was to play the Greek legend with a historically “accurate” feel, using alternately moaning and angelic female voices. The drum hits of ancient percussion instruments and winds, that while not being exactly native to the time, certainly felt like they were from it. But most importantly when it came to orchestration, Horner knew how to use a brass-driven orchestra for all of its darkly heroic and noble worth. “Troy” is a score that’s wonderfully replete with “Horner-isms,” from trilling horns to darkly rumbling pianos and enough quotes from Prokofiev’s style to make you think the Russian revolution was being waged here as opposed to a Greek attack. As he’d shown to Oscar-winning effect on “Titanic,” another of Horner’s memorable talents was to capture the emotional feeling of lovers trying to outrace a tragedy beyond their reckoning, a balance between fury and feeling that impactfully plays into “Troy’s” fleshed-out depiction of gravely flawed heroes, warriors and star-crossed lovers alike, making the kind of bad judgments that ensure them a place in legend. In the annals of scoring as its own myth making, there were few golden gods like Horner, and given the swift chance to play the likes of Achilles. Ajax and Helen of Troy, Horner delivered a grandly thematic score that in its own right was one for the ages of a tragically cut short career that was already the stuff of scoring legend when he perished. Intrada’s two-disc set gives us “Troy” in all of its sweeping glory, while also showing off Horner’s exceptional talent at turning a main melody to song with two versions of the Josh Groban-performed “Remember.” That even “Troy’s” approach almost seems like ancient history says much about how the best past and present, shield-bearing scores had no better weapon than a composer who was highly skilled with the lessons of maestros past to wield their thematic shields in both battle, and belief, a valor nicely recounted in John Takis’ liner notes.
3) THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (500 edition) / THE SNOWMAN
Price: $15.98 / $11.66
What is it?: Murder most foul stalks two superbly atmospheric soundtracks, as a practitioner of Nordic Noir investigates a mad slasher in London, before an American composer often faced with serial killers traces one across a snowy expanse.
Why Should You Buy It?: Sweden’s Johan Soderqvist made an international impact in the company of a not-so child vampire with his haunting score for the unequaled “Let the Right One In.” Since then he’s kept in good, sinister company for “Murder Farm,” “The King of Devil’s Island” and the original Scandinavian TV version of “The Bridge” – all of which validate his passport to his first full-blooded English language, Cockney-accented thriller. London never had a chance as he announces his cruelly suspenseful intentions for “The Limehouse Golem” with a thunderously soaring, brass-pounding theme that might make you think Fedex has arrived at the door with Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. There’s very much a feminine quality to the composer’s investigation, especially given a woman to save from an unjust hanging, who’s seemingly murdered a husband who was the gnarliest killer this side of Jack the Ripper. Given Soderqvist’s empathetic work for Susan Bier on “After the Wedding” and “Love is All You Need,” the composer’s knife-like melodic precision creates a lovely damsel-in-distress motif for an always gravely concerned Bill Nighy to rescue. When the music isn’t lurching through the city with the panache of a Hammer horror film, Soderqvist’s score displays surprising tenderness, all the better to employ eerie metallic effects and fog-like strings for the neat twists and turns from music hall to courtroom and the executioner’s gallows. Soderqvist captures the lower women-for-sale classes alongside aristocratic refinement with a piano and violin-topped orchestral, all while never forgetting to unleash the visceral, brassy goods. It’s the aural equivalent of following a killer in the London fog from a slow, suspenseful walk to a full, terrifying bolt. It’s a superbly constructed score that swoons with the woe of humanity at its most sodden and cruel, yet does so with real Gothic beauty, as well as some naughty dance hall songs to boot – with all cobblestone alleys leading to a mad crescendo that’s this year’s most bone-chillingly romantic celebration of the audience applause celebrity that slashing brings. One can only hope that Soderqvist continues to keep in the good company of fictional serial killers after this terrific score.
Extra Special: Given a serial killer thriller that critics pilloried as if “The Snowman” was the devil himself, one might expect Hollywood’s English-language take on Nordic noir to be as appetizing as yellow slush on a sidewalk. And while it’s super genius killer might be stupider than a know-it-all Scooby Doo foe when it comes to watching his step, “The Snowman” is actually a fairly engrossing and atmospheric film, certainly better at its goals than the D.O.A. redo of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” especially given a score by a Malibu-ite and his forensic team who’ve musically handled more serial killers than a few seasons of “Mindhunter” – not to mention the sound of icy death in “Snowpiercer.” Both senses for cold, and twisted psychologically come into play very well here in a score that’s a Scandinavian-accented landscape of strings, piano and the crystalline sound of the native Nyckelharpa, all conjuring vibe of a Hans Christian Anderson child-eating ghoul if there ever was a signature for supernatural evil. The winds above are full of eerily howling textures and ghostly voices, creating a texturally, and unnervingly spellbinding score. Certainly gifted with the melodic touch of his mentor Jerry Goldmsith, Beltrami conveys a burned-out master detective steadily building his case, each chiming bell, anguished string and delicate piano layering on a gripping sense of mystery in a way that Bernard Herrmann would also likely admire. There’s a welcome intelligence at work in Beltrami’s nicely lyrical approach that doesn’t hesitate to lay on the bigger, symphonically pounding thrills that the composer often applies to more supernaturally monstrous subject matter. But for the most part, “The Snowman” is smarter than the average bear when it comes to the serial killer score genre, wickedly clever in laying on its geographic touches while treating a taunting murderer with suspensefully melodic finesse that shows there are few better, or more creative expatriate composers than Beltrami at solving Norwegian murder most foul, or frozen.
4) THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE / VICTORIA AND ABDUL
Price: $11.78/ $11.49
What is it?: Whether using world beats, massive orchestras or barely perceptible electronics, Thomas Newman has long combined the ethereally experimental with pleasing melody, or gone for confrontational darkness when the subject ordered it. Now he once again shows his diversity with two scores that take a look at abetting one’s commander in chief, whether he’s an uncaring army bureaucracy or a queen looking for a servant who isn’t afraid to speak above his station.
Why should you buy it?: Thomas Newman has served two musical tours of duty in Iraq and the Homefront before with “Jarhead” and “Brothers.” One was an ironic crazy-quilt that captured the madness of a man trained to kill (who never quite does), with the second a guitar-centric score that chronicled the mental dissolution of a soldier who can’t escape the bloody barbarity he was forced into, even when back in hearth and home. Following the psychologically, and physically walking wounded on their return to America, Newman balances a lyrical guitar theme with haunted, crystalline sampling that reveals men who can’t go home again in one piece. Even with a somber orchestra, it’s a score that mostly whispers for its characters’ problems as opposed to dramatically shouting about them – a bold, underplayed approach given the suicidal emotion at hand. But having played any number of protagonists repressing their inner darkness in his repertoire, Newman has a poignant understand of violence’s clamming-up effect on people – understanding and conveying their musical feelings like a sympathetic VA shrink would. Its instrumentation plays a gritty, woodsy America where panic-inducing flashbacks lurk behind every loud noise or fitful slumber, nightmarish sampling that makes for “Service’s” most troubling passages. Yet there’s hope for redemption amidst the weird PTSD passages of Newman’s score, melody that comes from the ghosts of Iraq, as a weirdly angelic female voice and alt. chords give a sense of potential redemption ahead on a poignantly haunted road that he’s welcome to return to for another perceptive tour of duty.
Extra Special: As the son of Alfred Newman, a symphonically regal composer often given to playing period film and royalty, it was only natural that Thomas would shine with regal orchestrations in such scores as “Little Women,” “Oscar and Lucinda” and “The Iron Lady.” Going back in time with an English matriarch from 10 Downing Street to Buckingham Palace for “Victoria & Abdul,” Newman immediately trumpets the formidable presence of Queen Victoria. But then with a quick segue into the kind of alt. Indian raga that was particularly good company with him for two stays at The Exotic Marigold Hotel, Newman just as effectively announces the cultural music masala that will make up this tasty score as an honorable native of Britain’s colony makes the trip to present Queen Victoria with a token of appreciation. That the beyond-genial Abdul doesn’t behave like the silent, subservient Coolie the royal court is expecting gives no end of playfulness to the score, which uses harpsichords, chorus, piano and snooty lushness for the aghast reactions to a turbaned interloper as he swiftly, and innocently ingratiates himself with the seemingly crotchety monarch. Newman opens up their ersatz mother-son relationship with tenderness, using the lightest, gossamer touch for strings, percussion and ethnic winds to get across a friendly match that’s the best of both worlds. But there’s also the feeling of how heavy hangs the crowned head in the somberness that Newman also conveys for this intimate, ultimately sadly soaring cultural bond amidst a far bigger, and colder political landscape. With his pomp and circumstance, Newman never makes us forget we’re in the presence of a Queen. But it’s the humor and humanity of its Indian-inflected music culture swapping that very much puts us in the lovely presence of two down-to-earth people seeking the best from one another’s cultures that makes Newman’s score sing in an especially resonant way.
5) THOR: RAGNAROK
What is it?: When going down the list of potential composers to score a superhero that Marvel has been trying to figure out what do with over two enjoyably uneven solo films, perhaps the last guy you might pick for the gig would be Mark Mothersbaugh. The 70’s puckish pseudo-punk anarchist who helped define synth pop wackiness as part of Devo, Mothersbaugh has since channeled his scoring talents into the obvious realms of kid animation and ironic comedy, two places where he could let his musical wit romp about – even though his terrific, unexpected action score for “Safe” showed there was distinctly more adult stuff lurking underneath his kooky Clark Kent veneer. But leave it to Mothersbaugh’s absurdist, superhero scoring for the anything-goes “Lego Movie” to show Marvel that he could indeed cross the Bifrost Bridge to demolish Asgard in colorful style. That Mothersbaugh treats the Son of Odin with due Wagnerian respect while throwing him into a bleep-bloop wonderland of 80’s video arcade stylings makes “Thor Ragnarok” easily the most delightfully crazy score of the MCU movie bunch with a soundtrack that rides with the Valkyries into a Donkey Kong disco.
Why should you buy it?: That Mothersbaugh can jet dimensions for a deeply moving, Norse violin farewell to Odin to a colorful junkyard world of absurdist aliens who might decorate an episode of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” that he scored says much about “Ragnarok’s” continual, joyous inventiveness. Hela, as delightfully played with Tallulah Bankhead drollery by Cate Blanchet, is given the super villainess formidability of a dastardly, pounding symphony and chorus that would put Darth Vader to shame. But if his music takes her seriously, his approach to the always eccentric Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is a terrific return to the electronic days of Devo, if considerably souped up in keyboard silliness that that begs for a retro stadium death match with Tyler Bates’ equally goofball take on The Guardians of the Galaxy, When goldilocks-minus Thor takes on ultra-armored Hulk in the arena, the raging duel between orchestra and primal Atari-synth energy is utterly unexpected, and totally genius as to how seamlessly Mothersbaugh combines life-or-death seriousness with an exciting game of Dig-Dug. Throwback synths a la John Carpenter might start a “Flashback” of the Valkyries’ heroically futile fight against Hela, but voices make their slow-motion destruction especially eerie. In perhaps the score’s most delightful cue “What Heroes Do,” Thor’s big noble breakout starts with a beat that you swear to the All-Father is going to go right into Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” yet Mothersbaugh retains an exciting nobility that never derides into making his music a joke.
Extra Special: “Thor Ragnarok” might have one big Devil’s Anus of stylistic wormholes to jump through, but leave it to this solidly thematic, and crazily melodic score to make this into a cohesive thrill ride that shows just how far a traditional superhero score can be pushed into the dimension of Atari generation geekiness while still retaining its might. It’s a colorful comic book movie splash page that’s beyond clever in all of the enthusiastic, best ways fans of a certain Jack Kirby, Pong-playing audience could hope for that at last gets Thor and his universe right, even as it annihilates most of them. I can’t wait to see what retro universe Mothersbaugh might be jumping to alongside these characters, with Wagner in tow of course.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. THE BAD SEED
The evil spawn movie that really started an onslaught of killer kid pictures, 1956’s “The Bad Seed” was blessed with a deliciously twisted score by Alex North, then making a newborn move into horror-suspense after slashing the conventional notions of dramatic scoring with such seminal works as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Viva Zapata!” Right from a brassily swirling, modernist main title that quotes the 18th century folksong Au Claire de la Lune (which sounds quite a bit like “Itsy Bitsy Spider”), North weaves a malicious web for the adorable, pig-tailed Rhoda to murderously rend asunder the unsuspecting adults around her. Like such Avant-garde composers of the time as Leonard Rosenman (“Rebel Without A Cause”), North snuck about the system, playing nice with melody until he could twist it about with dissonant effects, a technique which does much to suggest the malicious intent of an eight year-old. Using the kind of instrumentation one might expect for the kind of little kids who’d be romping about with Lassie, North gradually warps their pleasantness with an eerie, electric Novachord. Yet he also whole-heartedly conveys the genuine, parenting affection that’s shown to Rhoda, setting the grown-ups for a rude, heartbreaking awakening before God can finally take charge of the situation. It’s a mix between brooding suspense and feverish bursts of evil with genuine, pleading emotion that makes “The Bad Seed” a particularly memorable genre segue in North’s career, one that he’d latter revisit with his distinctive work on killer rats of “Willard” and a zombie-spawning Marcel Marceau for “Shanks.” Now soundtrack lightning again strikes for Rhoda with La La Land’s vibrant CD debut of “The Bad Seed,” which carries more innocently sinister power than ever given its transfer and always-incisive notes by classic score specialist Frank K. De Wald, making for an album that’s both treat, and trick.
. BETTING ON ZERO
For a documentary about a hedge fund manager unmasking a pyramid scheme, it’s only fitting that “Betting on Zero” has rolled its musical dice on a musician who’s propped up well over a hundred major scores as a conductor, orchestrator and arranger, yet somehow has no feature composing credit beyond two TV films. But given the reaction this acclaimed movie about a financial whiz attempting to crap out Herbalife, it’s fair that numerous glowing reviews lobbed via a 100% rotten tomatoes rating will entail future, fictional assignments for Peter Anthony. Everything from “An American Tail” to “Patch Adams” and “Logan” attests to the decades-long span that Anthony has abetting such talents as James Horner, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman and Marco Beltrami. Much of their talent has passed through Anthony’s own skills, which beautifully come to the fore with this riveting, theme heavy orchestral score that mixes it up with the best of them that he’s heard on the conductor’s podium. Becoming the determination of Bill Ackman as he risks billions to unseat a company dependent on its desperately hopeful salespeople, Anthony treats “Zero” with the rhythmic power of a Hollywood movie whose crusading journalist heroes are marching steel-eyed through the halls of an impossible to defeat foe. It’s a plot theme strong enough to be a central, but varied driving force through much of “Zero,” the stuff of which great montage sequences are made of. Given a film that’s as compelling in its real-life events as any fictional story, it’s an approach that pays off great dividends in giving a terrific momentum to the film. There’s a cunning, somewhat sinister to the music of the little-big guy going against smug forces confident of their win. But with Anthony’s mad skills, there’s no chance of a musical loss here, given beautifully lush playing from the orchestra and Anthony’s ability to keep the score continually interesting in its variations the play a corporation’s might to the devastation of buying into the American Dream. In the end of “Zero,” it’s Anthony’s assurance in making other composer’s fictional narratives so interesting that hoodwinks the listener into thinking this wasn’t done for a documentary at all. But given how musical truth is often stranger than Hollywood fiction, Anthony’s thrilling, utterly gripping score is rock solid at selling anyone on the power of his own voice. Now his number has finally come in given Kritzerland Record’s impressive presentation of this knockout score that is certainly in a top percentile.
Just because a score, or even a film’s director, have been sucked into the netherworld doesn’t mean the ghost of their contributions continue to hover over a film in question – in this case the spirits of the “synthpop” group Electric Youth and filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns. Together at one point they haunted the still unreleased film “Our House” (itself a remake of the 2010 indie “Ghost from the Machine”), wherein a bereaved genius resurrects the spirits of his parents through a high-tech device. The black box’s voice to the other realm is delivered with a strong musical presence by the Toronto-based duo of Bronwyn Griffith and Austin Garrick, whose collaboration with the group College for the breakthrough song “A Real Hero” proved an MTV breakthrough by providing fuel to “Drive.” While fans of the pulsating, retro 80’s groove of “Stranger Things” (let alone the O.G. “Blade Runner” score) will no doubt dig the stripped-down keyboard rhythms and eerie tonalities here, what makes “Breathing” truly resonate is the strong, symphonically thematic nature of their ghosts in the house’s machine. From the lush strings and angelic voices that dance around their central melody, Electric Youth conveys a serene, utterly transfixing otherworldliness that feels like Tangerine Dream’s wavelengths made orchestrally whole, or done with the unplugged intimacy of a piano. You can practically hear “Poltergeist’s” Carol Anne, in just how well the duo nails the fairy tale, sing-song bond between children and deceased parent’s, a poetic sense of loss, and somehow hope that’s especially memorable given the organ-like religiosity of the Youth’s electric church. Way headier than horror in its approach, whatever the intended score morphed into to create “Breathing’s” album, also helps it come across like meditative concert performance (complete with the striking theme song “Where Did You Go”). It says much for Electric Youth’s alt. street cred as it does their composing potential. Like the best scores detached from a film, whether it was used or not, “Breathing” puts you into a mesmerizing dimension of sound caught between organic musical material and a whole other synth dimension that’s particularly well suited for incorporeal beings made musically whole in this soundtrack house that could have been.
It’s been a plethora of piñatas this year when you imagine them as one terrific score after the next for Michael Giacchino with “Book of Henry,” “Spider Man Homecoming,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” and now this sometimes scarily festive Pixar celebration for Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Journeying to the other side as a boy takes his appreciation of a singing legend to skeletal extremes, Giacchino hits everything we love about Mexican scoring in this virtual buffet of Latin music styles that effortlessly jumps between hat dances, bull fights and Zorro-esque swashbuckling action. Guitars, accordion, pan flutes, violins and brass join with Giacchino’s rousing orchestra to create a one of his most vibrantly animated landscapes. But then, whether it’s a ratty French restaurant or a hidden South American peak, Giacchino’s Oscar winning and nominated sojourns with Pixar have always been a wonderful journey of discovery for the composer, all linked with a wide-eyed, youthful sense of wonder that take on lyrical resonance here. It makes “Coco” was more than just an ethnic travelogue, as the composer deals with both meeting and letting go of loved ones, yet also has the music abounds with cartoonish pratfalls and humorously squelching guitars, as well as eeriness that might remind you of Giacchino’s fantastic emotional voyage for “Inside Out” at points. Nicely tying up “Coco’s” score is the song “Remember Me,” performed with festive bounce by Benjamin Brett then then as a guitar serenading lullaby by Gael Garcia Bernal. It should make for an entertaining duet on Oscar night.
. DON’T LOOK NOW
Italian songwriter Pino Donaggio would be put on the international scoring map, and start an American career renowned for romantic suspense with his first soundtrack for 1973’s “Don’t Look Now.” One might say it was Donnagio’s lyrical touch for melody and vocals, not to mention his birthplace of Venice that made him so well red-coat suited to prowl the city’s canals with a deceptively child-like score. A tender piano theme becomes the spirit of a tragically lost girl, who still haunts her visiting couple. Their unfortunate pursuit of a similarly garbed figure is the red herring of director Nicolas Roeg’s classic thriller, whose often beautifully melodic score provides a notable contrast to the movie’s often shockingly experimental style, perhaps no more so than when Donaggio passionately escalated his memorable theme with flute and guitar for a love scene that broke both the boundaries of cinema sex and the editorial treatment of time. Even more importantly, “Don’t Look Now’s” lush use of strings recalled Bernard Herrmann, making Donaggio a virtual Kim Novak for director Brian De Palma when it came to finding a musician who could step into that recently deceased composer’s shoes when it came to scoring “Carrie.” Fans of Donaggio’s dearly missed collaborations with the Hitchcockian auteur on “Dressed To Kill” and “Body Double” will certainly hear the seeds of those notable thriller scores in “Don’t’ Look Now,” especially when it came to music that could voice both sympathy and tragedy for female characters. What particularly distinguishes “Don’t Look Now” from Donaggio’s latter efforts is its classical rhythms for the elegance of Venice, as well as a rapturous organ for the churches abounding its waters. His equal talent for embodying razor-edged implements can also be heard in the ratcheting gestures for one of film’s more memorably unexpected slashers. Donaggio certainly knew how to use melody as a lethal aphrodisiac to draw victims to their fates, a gift that’s more ravishing than ever given Silva Screen’s new release on CD and vinyl. As graced with especially clever art by Benio Urbanowicz, this new “Now” has the first-ever inclusion of Iva Zanicchi’s lovely vocal version of Laura’s theme with “I Colori De Dicemebre (Laura’s Theme)”,” which starts the album’s original track sequence for Donaggio’s ever-memorable death in Venice.
. THE FOREIGNER
When the ageless Jackie Chan’s fists of fury fly, you can usually be assured that they’ll be accompanied with some sort of musical Asian sauce, or your average synth beats in his awesomely tried-and-true formula of taking the bruised bad guys to the cops. “The Foreigner” punishes that formula in many notable ways, no more so than with Cliff Martinez’s cold-as-ice score that throws Chan headfirst into the real movie world, as such. That this long time Chan fan doesn’t crack any sort of smile as his synths and samples pummel us into oblivion shows the favor his approach does for Chan’s wish to show himself as a real actor, here playing a bombing bereaved dad determined to make IRA renegades pay in an England out to stop him. Don’t even expect anything remotely chopsocky in Martinez’s pummeling, ultra-rhythmic approach that’s all about Chan dealing with musically harsh situations that could actually kill him. Having played no end of hard-asses from crime Uber to a revenge-bent Limey, Martinez knows how to use pulse as a deadly weapon. But it’s adrenalized to weirder, and harsher effect than ever in “The Foreigner” making us feel both the dismay, and steel-eyed determination of an otherwise nice guy with a special set of skills, who’s thrown into a madhouse of loss. His payback is served cold with bone-breaking drum percussion, wailing rock and severe rhythm that’s closer to Martinez’s trippy score to Cinemax’s dearly missed hospital show “The Knick” then any of his action films as such. About the only introspective emotion one gets is in the ethereal remembrance of a dead daughter. That “The Foreigner’s” avenging beats-per-minute of her murder are far more ruthless, and faster than Chan’s fists and feet says much about how Martinez has helped to truly grant the star his wish of being absolutely believable in a battered, refreshingly gassed-up vehicle.
. FULLER AT FOX
Directors were as hard-hitting as they came with Samuel Fuller, a WW2 vet who brought a viscerally pulpy punch to his movies. Fuller’s entertaining, no-nonsense attitude certainly proved an inspiration to the composers at 20th Century Fox, whose terrific work is collected on Kritzerland’s two-fisted, two-CD collection. First up is Alfred Newman’s rousing score to 1954’s “Hell and High Water,” a CinemaScope-filling picture where Richard Windmark, his crew and alluring Daryl Zanuck squeeze Bela Darvi set sail in a retrofitted Japanese sub to stop the dastardly nuclear plans of Red China. There’s certainly no mistaking virtuous American good versus Asian commie evil given the terrifically rousing score by Alfred Newman, who seems particularly delighted to take off the religious gloves from the past year’s “Robe” and get to manly business. His spy mission is propelled by a marching, patriotic theme that goes straight into the sinister, gonging rhythms of Oriental evil. Beyond his music’s action-packed jingoism, what’s particularly notable is just how well Newman captures the shape of water, particularly in the shimmering, downward strings and dark piano chords of a sunken sub, the brassy orchestra raising it triumphantly to the surface. There’s also sweet violin romance on board for the one women amongst 29 sweaty guys in this timpani-saluting score that might not be Newman’s best-known work, but is certainly right up there amongst his most thematically fun works. Japan is the rousing musical territory for Fuller’s 1955 American Yakuza movie “House of Bamboo,” the mix of orchestral noir and romance scored by Leigh Harline, a composer best known for scoring, and co-writing the songs for “Pinocchio.” In far more adult territory here, Harline gives poignant, dramatic impact to the “geisha girl” caught between two GI’s out for good and bad in the land of the rising sun, employing beautiful, Hollywood Orientalism to the culture-crossed romance, emotion that helps gives extra, romantic impact to the suspenseful passages. The brief, jazzy detours within “Bamboo” make up the breadth of Harline’s “Pickup on South Street.” Fuller was once again taking on the Reds for this 1954 movie, though they were on the home front of Manhattan. Coming up with a rapid-fire, city symphony theme to propel the pickpocket “Pick Up” of enemy agent secrets, Harline cleverly mixes his sharp, rhythmic theme with the sax of Richard Windmark’s wallet shark. It’s playful stuff for the Damon Runyon-esque antics of no-goods mixed up with a bigger picture than they’d reckoned with, with Harline once again proving his effectiveness at dramatically conveying hoods of any stripe. But the charm of “South Street” is its woozy brass, a cool film noir sound as jazz was finding its way around Hollywood, nearly always in the company of reprobates, though romantic for the most part here as the sax and strings join for the swooning theme of thief and “B-Girl. “A triple-hit of classic dramatic scoring on all fronts, “Fuller at Fox” is studio scoring at its best in service of an iconically impactful director, as nicely spiffed up by Kritzerland.
. JUSTICE LEAGUE
Just as John Williams rejuvenated comic book movie scoring with “Superman,” Danny Elfman wiped the camp face from “Batman” with a dark knight dose of Wagner to reboot the musical genre once again. It’s been decades since Elfman’s last DC score with “Batman Returns” as he brought a lighter touch to such Marvel properties as Spider-Man and The Avengers. Now he’s back to bring that desperately needed sense of fun to his former teammates. Better yet, Elfman’s got some iconic themes in tow to strike up a new, merrier DCU band for “Justice League.” The composer unleashes all of his trademarked bells and whistles onto this colorful gathering, uniting the “League” (minus the “of America” for some reason), as he trumpets their assemblage with a noble sense of motivic purpose. Certainly no ordinary crime kingpin would do for a villain, and the armored, extra-dimensional forces that assault Earth give an extra cosmic boom to Elfman’s orchestral forces, full of clanging armor and the biggest woeful chorus this side of Sleepy Hollow. It’s furious, fun stuff that doesn’t stint on the bombastic excitement. And while Elfman’s rhythms certainly suggest speed for The Flash and a high tech human tool box with Cyborg, the heroes who get musically defined with immediate geek-gasm recognition are the composer’s Batman, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s rocking Amazonian theme for Wonder Woman, and even a snatch from Williams’ Superman. Having Elfman incorporate his own past triumph, and other composer’s work into his new score is a particular thrill to his “Justice League” score that rarely lets up for a moment as it wows us with exhausting excitement, reveling with the orchestral team-up possibilities like a kid using a symphony as his own sandbox to play with action figures. Elfman’s enthusiasm certainly lets you know that all is musically right in the DC universe again, especially as it heralds from a composer who helped start its big bang.
. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
With the gleefully sadistic human parables of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” Greek director Yorgos Lathimos has inflicted ironic cruelty on audiences with the mortal-tormenting zest of an Olympian god. Now his brand of cinematic biblical punishment goes for the Kubrickian gold with a beyond mannered tale of eye-for-an-eye psychic vengeance on the family of a doctor who drunkenly botched the surgery of a psycho kid’s dad. Given said venue of crippling, eye-bleeding payback, it seemed natural that Lathimos would complement his sterile visual style with the kind of avant-garde dissonance that could serve as Muzak at “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel. So you’d better take your melody where you can get it on this album, which sings with Schubert “Stabat Mater” religiosity before a chorus turns to “Carol of the Bells” to set up the story’s quasi-religious theme. Like Kubrick’s use of Ligeti and Bartok, Lathimos certainly knows how pick ‘em when it comes to the patience-testing hits of what’s called “modern classical music.” The tortuously extended, yet weirdly beautiful pieces focus on Sofia Gubaidulina, a Russian female experimentalist who gives Ligeti a run for his modernist money when it comes to creating “music” that has as much a physical effect on the listener as a madness-inducing one. Her trance-like interpretation of belief takes creeping strings to abstract, time-bending ranges with “Rejoice IV,” while rattling percussion and a spastic accordion “Sonata” is an iron man triathlon of bizarreness at nearly twelve minutes. Ligeti is also in the house with works that comparatively have the melodic content of John Williams (discounting “Images” of course), from a twisted “Piano Concerto” to a fifteen-minute “Konzert” of bizarre violin and orchestral passages that recall just how effectively Kubrick used the composer to approximate “2001’s” mind-bending journey to an alien’s Victorian bedroom. That Lathimos judiciously uses these abstract works often in short, jarring excerpts, only adds to “Deer’s” thoroughly unpleasant, skin-crawling effectiveness. But when experienced as a whole on this album, the effect is a full-on plunge into madness that somehow rewards those willing to take the trip By the time the movie ends with an excerpt from Bach’s St. John Passion, one can imagine a listener gasping for this sort of purely gorgeous melody like a fish gasping for air. That we get a “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”-esque piece from Joe Smith & The Spicy Pickles,” or the teen radio like ballad of Ellie Goulding’s “How Long Will I Love You” might just be Lathimos’ most twisted music here on this transfixing endurance test of an album.
. LADY BIRD
As an entirely unique alt. composer whose scores’ charms often come from sounding like a one-man band subway busker, Jon Brion’s unhinged work has perfectly suited any number of the odd ducks in “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Step Brothers” and “Wilson.” It’s a raw, eccentric vibe that’s perfect to capture the too-smart-for-Catholic school charisma of “Lady Bird,” indie darling Greta Gerwig’s winning transition from actress to filmmaker. Where alt. guitar is the with-it sound of teen scoring, leave it to Brion’s unplugged, hangdog approach to use this increasingly conformist instrument as a big, whimsical finger towards the establishment, as flipped by a young woman who just can’t wait to fly outta Sacramento to The Big City. While Gerwig’s stand-in might also have her cinematic roots with horn-rimmed Enid in “Ghost World,” the self-named Lady Bird is a friendlier, far more likable heroine even in her desire to spread her wings. Her appeal gives Brion’s sound extra whimsy, with his unplugged acoustical approach often flying downwards with an attitude. His strumming themes can have the glee of stealing an assignment book, or possess the melancholy of a strained daughter-mother relationship. A reverberating piano also brings the score a tenderness that Lady Bird herself might be loath to admit in this lovely, intimate portrait of a musical coming of age from a composer whose characters often thumb their noses at society while secretly wishing to have their own slice of normalcy. That Brion encompasses them all with an instantly composed-from-scratch feel is the triumph of his miraculous eccentricity with “Lady Bird.”
. THE LADY IN WHITE / FRANKIE GOES TO TUSCANY
While the electronic light has rightfully shown on the fearful directing / scoring talents of John Carpenter, the unsung, hopefully not one-shot orchestral crown for genre double-duty just might go to Frank LaLoggia. His first 1981 movie “Fear No Evil” conjured high school satanic panic with his impressive “Omen”-esque synth riffs (hunt down the Percepto soundtrack on Ebay), But LaLoggia’s true cult masterwork would 1987’s “The Lady in White,” for which he’d compose an ghost story score that was old fashioned in the best ways. A movie that both traumatized and fascinated a borning generation of horror fans back in the endless rerun cable days, LaLoggia’s homespun, and seemingly autobiographical tale mixed youthful innocence with terrifying adult threat. A post-“Witness” Lukas Haas was the boy who at first fears, than befriends a girl’s spirit whose murder puts him in present day danger. Evoking the layered richness and emotion of a Stephen King tale, LaLoggia brought a similarly nostalgic monster on the loose feeling, along with poignant emotion to his richly thematic score, transforming haunting voices into blissful, touching innocence. It’s the lyrical spirit of two best friends separated by life and death that’s this “Lady’s spooky magic, which doesn’t hold back on its menace and sorrow as symphonic thrills come to wreak terrifying havoc on a beautiful friendship (as well as race relations). LaLoggia is quite fearless in his approach, varying from cartoonish comedy (at one time bringing in hosanna for some unhappy nuns), to the throttling brass of strangulation. “The Lady in White” is a film and score that knows the kids watching it can handle the scares, especially when given the inherently warm emotion of family bonds that triumph in a waltzing swell of a heavenly, and earthly reunion. Intrada does a terrific job of resurrecting LaLoggia’s thrilling soundtrack, though I wish they’d been able to include the classic 40’s song “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking,” which plays an integral part in the plot. But what the soundtrack does offer on a second CD is the now Italy-located filmmaker’s delightful score for “Frankie Goes to Tuscany.” With a positively Fellini-esque synth spirit, LaLoggia evokes his travels with a rambunctious city symphony of sirens, operatic pastiches and nutty rock and roll that’s all about La Dolce Vita. Amid his joyful, wacky appreciations are calmer, new age-esque tunes and religiously-themed pieces that evoke the craziness and beauty of his adopted country, even as re-listen to his gloriously haunting “Lady in White” begs a return to Hollywood.
Given the sordid state of the presidential office today, it seems that even lefties are longing for the days when once-vilified presidents behaved with a measure of respect and admiration. The same might be said for big, unabashedly melodic scores that proudly weren’t afraid to give sympathetic emotion to even the most irascible characters. Now those wishes get paid off quite nicely as unapologetically democratic filmmaker Rob Reiner takes a look at “LBJ.” He’s given the kind of production value he hasn’t had in a while, all the better to fill this swear-filled White House with one of the bigger dramatic, and symphonic scores that his chief of musical staff Marc Shaiman has gotten to play in some time. Making his scoring debut for Reiner’s notable detour into Stephen King territory with “Misery,” Shaiman became best known for his rollicking comedic gifts with the likes of “First Wives Club,” “The Addams Family” and “Hairspray,” It’s remained through Reiner that Shaiman has gotten his most serious-minded scores with “A Few Good Men,” “Ghosts of Mississippi’ and of course “An American President.” While Michael Douglas’ chief executive might have seemed a model of decorum when compared to Woody Harrelson’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, Shaiman invests a similar, thematic spirit of history in the making to him, all while concentrating on the humanity of a misunderstood Texan who never imagined a Dallas assassination would propel him to the Oval office. While proud brass and military timpani get across the big picture of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement that made this President’s tenure no walk in the park, Shaiman’s gorgeous music reflects a soft spot for the more than plainspoken Johnson, his yearning melody showing a man trying to do good in the only cantankerous way he knew how. But then, Shaiman’s music has always been sentimental in the best way, making it a perfect match for Reiner’s humanistic approach. Shaiman’s certainly got all of the instrumental cover you’d expect in a presidential score, from military timpani to an elegiac horn and history-on-the-march percussion, all performed with a terrific, lush quality that’s always distinguished Shaiman’s distinctive voice. Here it’s a throwback to a time when even the most controversial president could be played with a mark of melodic decency.
. LE JEUNE KARL MARX / I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Two game changing revolutionary icons of the political and literary worlds are joined by powerful, fist shaking scores by Russian composer Alexei Aigui, who rises to the challenge for their singular director Raoul Peck. It’s only fitting that on the 100th year of the Russian Revolution we get a movie about the system-shaking friendship between the idealistic Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose ideas for banding together mistreated laborers will grow beyond their reckoning for better and way worse. Hailing from the country that essentially created the notion of massive orchestral film scoring, it’s reasonable that Aigui would marshal a strong, symphonic voice for two heroes of the motherland. Yet while there’s an undeniable sense of importance with its drum-pounding moments and voices, “The Young Karl Marx” has a scope that’s more intimate than you’d expect for two young men risking all to take on the captains of industry. Aigui builds the political passions of his characters with determined, noble strings, as well as militaristic rhythm and crafty percussion. It’s the sound of revolutionaries steadily undermining capitalists, yet in a bold way that avoids musical propaganda. “Alexander Nevsky” this isn’t, though Prokofiev’s bold warrior spirit is certainly there in Aigui’s notable dramatic talent, no more so than when he nails the kind of striving, noble orchestra for that big, drum rolling rallying manifesto that might accompany any historical icon of a Hollywood movie. With “I Am Not Your Negro,” Aigui’s is given real life footage of black poet James Baldwin, whose manifestos are read by Samuel Jackson, Aigui starts by applying a similar, rhythmic passion that might make you think he’s beside Karl Marx. But that’s where this score’s similarity to Karl Marx ends, as Aigui goes for a jazz approach that’s just authentic for Baldwin’s upbringing and worldview. Channeling the spirits of such musical revolutionaries as Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker, Aigui’s “Negro” is a bitches’ brew of styles that beautifully captures the vibes of the civil rights era that Baldwin was awakening in his own radical way. That being said, the approach here ranges from smooth playing to shouts of brass rage. Aigui balances more traditionally, small-scale cues for strings and piano with an soulful inner city ambiance whose solo trumpet, drum kits and keyboard anger tell you that this is a noir score of sorts where the real criminal is The Man. A memorable documentary soundtrack that uses black jazz in the same way that live white musicians accompanied beat poets, I Am Not Your Negro” is alternately stirring and cool cat, marking Aigui as composer to watch in an era when the revolution is televised for Marx’s big win, and Baldwin’s sad loss.
. LES AS DE LA JUNGLE (THE JUNGLE BUNCH)
From Madagascar to Kung Fu China, audiences the world over love sarcastic funny animals playing hero. Now France makes its contribution to cute, furry sass with “The Jungle Bunch” as an Avengers-worthy group that runs the food chain gamut does their loopy best to protect their land from an evil Koala. It’s one thing to know the universal musical language of these kid’s movies, but it’s another to play them at the kind of Hollywood level a la John Powell, Henry Jackman and Hans Zimmer. It’s a giant, rollicking leap that’s made effortlessly by composer Olivier Cussac, Having started in St. Nick’s workshop with “Spike” before moving onto “The Jungle Bunch’s” numerous appearances on French TV, Cussac certainly has gotten his animated animal scoring chops down for these characters’ two movies (available in America via iTunes). Music Box Records release of the first “Jungle Bunch” is a delightful collection of riffs that might make you think John Powell scored this gaggle of beasts. That’s because Cussac has nailed that composer’s ability to jump to different styles on instant notice, all while retaining an energetic, thematic cohesiveness. Getting a Hollywood-worthy performance from the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra definitely helps when it comes to delivering the goods, whether its 70s funk, bongo spy suspense, playful pizzicato antics, dastardly brass, a dire chorus or blazing rock and roll. Like any of the “Ice Age’ or “Kung Fu Panda” flicks, “The Jungle Bunch” delights with its constant twists and turns, giving them musical panache as opposed to stylistic sugar overdose ADD. There’s a real feeling of magic and love for these crazy beasts in Cussac’s approach, which takes on a majestic, western worthy feeling, whether it’s riding the range Jerome Moross style or giving it a blast of Ennio Morricone spaghetti western sauce. With “The Jungle Bunch,” Cussac conveys a universal, musical language of a satirical, good-hearted animal kingdom that swings with here with catchy energy.
. ONLY THE BRAVE
As a member of director Joseph Kosinski’s band of musical brothers, Joseph Trapanese has abetted Daft Punk on the game grid of “Tron: Legacy” and M83 for “Oblivion’s” clone-conquered earth, creating hybrid worlds of booming orchestras and rhythmic electronics. Showing just how far he could stretch as a filmmaker, Kosinski has gotten back to earth with “Only the Brave.” His stirring tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots is made all the more imposing by offering no happy ending than survival itself for the one man devastated by the loss of his comrades in firefighting arms. It was only fitting that Trapanese would finally venture out with his first solo credit for Kosinski here, even as his own resume impressively grows with the likes of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Shimmer Lake” and “Wolf Warrior II.” But just because we know how this story will turn out doesn’t make the sacrifice any less powerful, especially given the decidedly meditative approach the composer takes. An almost mystical hand of fate is held over the score, given angelic female voices and a religious, organ-like sustain that leads us into an impactfully told film. Guitar also figures heavily in the score given “Brave’s” southwest setting, a land of tree-filled mountains and open ranges that’s cowboy country. Trapanese’s chords also capture the good ole’ boy, military hard-ass friendship of men facing off against a foe they both admire and fear, electric guitars chopping like helicopter rotor blades as they’re propelled from one battle to the next against alternately simmering and blazing music. At one point the percussion is Bruckheimer-action ready, and at other sounding off with wood-like hits for the felling of a Juniper tree. But a sad fate is inevitable throughout the score, a martyrdom achieved with an almost eerie, ethereal nature, though not without rhythmic suspense as A devastating wall of sound that rises to overcome the hotshots, the sustaining music building in layers with the hits of impending doom, until the volume cuts out with a ghostly chorus of realization. It’s devastating, yet not melodramatic given Trapanese’s alternative approach. That “Only the Brave” tenderly ends on the guitars that resonate through the score says much about true American heroes without the attendant musical flag-waving we might get, a testament to the hotshots that’s all the more moving for transcendent subtlety. “Only the Brave” is a powerfully thematic score that feels as much of the heartland as it does a primal force bent on destroying it.
CLICK on the album covers to make your hardcopy or download purchase, and find the soundtracks at these. com’s: Amazon, Intrada, iTunes, Moviescoremedia and Screen Archives Entertainment
On Friday December 1st at UCLA’s Royce Hall, join such composers as Thomas Newman, John Debney and Robert Folk as they bring Drew Struzan’s poster art to musical life with the Golden State Pops Orchestra. Get your tickets HERE