THE BEST SCORES OF 2019
Click on the album covers to purchase the soundtracks on this list
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
(Junkie XL / Milan Records)
Having blown the roof off of genre scoring with his rapid-fire, high-octane brand of percussion both futuristic and retro in such scores as “Mad Max Fury Road” and “Deadpool,” you wouldn’t think that Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg) would be able to take the pedal off the metal. But if his majestic score for the epically underappreciated “Mortal Engines” was a turning point to hearing him emotionally slow down, the anime adaptation of “Alita Battle Angel” takes what could have been an expected cyborg-smashing approach and creates a warrior with a heart of thematic gold, while still delivering on the electronic bad-assery of Motorball. Poignantly charting a heroine’s evolution from innocence to righteous vengeance, Holkenborg uses sumptuous orchestral force, along with chorus and hammering brass to create as much excitement as human feeling, reaching a new level of futuristic mythmaking through his ever-increasing skills with old school orchestral force.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
(Jeff Beal / Lakeshore Records)
Beyond scoring not-so-fictional malfeasance in Washington during his Emmy winning run on “House of Cards,” Jeff Beal has become an important voice of documentary outrage with “Weiner,” “Blackfish” and “The Bleeding Edge.” Now he’s given the feel-good, if not downright inspirational true story of a millennial city folk getting their hands dirty in both soil and nature’s survival of the fittest at “The Biggest Little Farm.” Sure there’s playfully plucky hayseed stuff with the rustic instruments you’d expect for an immense pig and his outcast rooster pal, which is as necessary to a score like this as bees are to pollination. But what truly elevates this view of going back to the earth are any number of soaringly gorgeous themes, resplendently played by a surprisingly small ensemble. It’s music that tracks a time immemorial cycle of life, death and rebirth in plants, animals and humans that Beal embodies with beautifully soulful lyricism. It’s a score and film that are truly about a far bigger spiritual picture of being one with the land, here in musically fertile ground that plays both the rustic, and the cosmic.
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT
(Danny Bensi and Saunders Jurriaans / Unreleased)
The independent, inventive spirit of maverick productions has been channeled through the utterly unique composing duo of Danny Bensi and Saunders Jurriaans with the eclectic likes of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Wolfpack,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” “Barry” and “Boy Erased.” With music that’s boldly embodied everything from evil spirits to the Ozark underworld the duo has bow captured lighting in a bulb with the thankfully rescued, and recut “Current War” about dueling electricity titans Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Bensi and Jurriaans create the idea of atoms themself within unique rhythms that are far apart from a synth sound, music whose tension sizzles underneath orchestral instruments in a way that’s both electronic and organic. With distinct themes for this battle of the titans, Bensi and Jurriaans hear both the idea of energy and the neurons firing off within the characters’ brains as they’re between the altruistic desire to brighten America and just how much dark morality it’s going to take to become the winner. It’s a transfixing approach that takes the idea of power to a new musical level.
(Hildur Guðnadóttir / WaterTower Music)
Collaborating with fellow Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson on the dark, string-heavy and otherworldly sound for the likes of “Prisoners” and “The Arrival” set the Gotham stairway stage for Hildur Guðnadóttir to do her toxic masculinity dance – first with “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” before letting the psychosis truly rip for an actor she’d previously scored far more serenely in his incarnation as Jesus Christ in “Mary Magdalene.” Given not only the best mental deconstruction of a non-super villain, as well as an examination of disturbed, downtrodden humanity at that, Guðnadóttir creates a woeful, slow burn to violence, strings and slow percussion aching with sadness. Yet it’s a more melodic approach than one might expect given the composer’s Emmy-winning exploration into sound design with “Chernobyl.” Here, its harmony that evokes sympathy for a character who wants to make the world laugh, and is fated to fail miserably, her lurching theme building into an doom-filled happy dance, the score’s heartbeat rhythm turning to nerve-rending, subway-clacking violence. Much like an understanding doctor at Arkham Asylum, Guðnadóttir gets to the nature of Batman’s arch enemy with a grimly transfixing report that writes a new, hypnotically disturbing book for “comic book” movie scoring.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
(Emile Mosseri / Lakeshore Records)
Filmmaker Joe Talbot’s surreal ode to a black family’s losing, if heartfelt battle against gentrification is given stunning soul by Emile Mosseri in his memorable feature debut score. Best known for his alt. band The Dig, Mosseri inhabits a lyrical house for this tone poem to a vanished urban America once built on a spirit of hard work. With its history told in a stream of consciousness where the past and present become one, Mosseri’s tenderly aching use of orchestra, piano, brass and chorus becomes the lamenting, if somehow still hopeful ghosts of the past, their voices sounding with the history of African American music from gospel to jazz. It’s an elegiac, lush mood complemented with the sound of an organ and hushed winds, music that offers comforting words of farewell to an urban American dream to a city that’s priced its founders out. It’s one of the rare soundtracks that works as well as a piece of modern classical music as it does a movie score of beautiful motivic construction, making for the kind of poignant house that’s especially unique in the Hollywood soundscape.
(Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow / Lakeshore Records)
Since their teaming on the Judge Dredd-inspired concept album “Drokk,”
Portishead player Geoff Barrow and nature documentary composer Ben Salisbury have created experimental futuristic scores for the likes of “Ex Machina,” “Extinction” and “Devs,” as well as boundary-pushing rhythmic gunplay of “Free Fire” and Amazon’s spin on “Hannah.” If the charm of their music is just trying to figure out what it’s trying to be, then that questioning strength couldn’t be better suited for the vague, potential villainy of “Luce,” a Machiavellian example of back exceptionalism who comes into conflict with a perfectionist teacher. Just about the last instrument one might expect for the film’s Hithcockian tone is an organ whose playing veers from J.S. Bach to Philip Glass. But then, who would think of using a guitar for “Exinction’s” alien terraforming of the earth? Here, “Luce’s” music gradually peals away the suburban perfectionism of an ex African child guerilla, with eerie, pulsating music warning us the adopted kid has grown into a bad seed, his urban core personified in angered percussion, tribal vocals and growing electronics that might have accompanied a serial killer in the 70’s. Yet “Luce’s” inventive approach refuses to tell us who exactly this young man is, other than a greatly troubled person beneath a hard-fought façade designed to please everyone but himself. It’s intellectually affecting music that’s unnerving to say the least in making the listener figure out if it’s playing the angel, or the serpent in a woke suburban Eden.
THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE
(Roque Baños / Meliam Music)
Spanish composer Roque Baños’ notable historical quests like “Alitriste,” “Salome” and “In the Heart of the Sea” make him ideal company to compose the decades-in-the-making score for Terry Gilliam’s impossible dream of realizing his “Don Quixote.” Yet there’s no better Sancho Panza than a troubadour with a longtime experience of realizing such batty projects as “The Last Circus,” “Torrente” and “The Oxford Murders,” all of which make Baños equally capable of playing madness as much as epic orchestral strains. His sweeping “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” certainly offers all emotional and ethnic possibilities, especially when it comes to realizing rustic guitars and wild flamenco rhythms that immediately bring sunbaked Spain to musical life. Seeing his score through the eyes of a modern-day peasant with dreams of ancient grandeur, and beset by visions of wanton religion and capitalism, Baños gives his music a presence that’s larger than life, as the voices of the church tilt the windmills of heroic orchestrations, dastardly peril and overt comedy. It’s the stuff of crazed mythmaking that shows Baños in full mental command of his craft, perfectly playing into Gilliam’s crackpot visual grandeur for a score that stands tall with Michael Kamen’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and George Fenton’s “The Fisher King” among the filmmaker’s best fractured musical fairytales – especially given this is one we thought we’d never see.
(Daniel Pemberton / WaterTower Music)
For a musical art form that’s supposed to be free form by its very nature, the idea of “movie jazz” in a visual medium that demands structure seems oxymoric by nature – though great composers like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry and Mark Isham have certainly done their level best at getting across the style’s improvisatory nature – not to mention the real deals like Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Miles Davis. It’s the latter sax player’s fever dream rhythms that Daniel Pemberton does a brilliant job of capturing for the addled mid of a Tourette’s-afflicted private dick in “Motherless Brooklyn,” writer-director-star Edward Norton’s lovingly flawed valentine to the film noir genre. Having put his unique spin on urban hip-hop with “Into the Spider-Verse,” Pemberton now creates one of the truly great jazz scores with music that actually feels dangerous, if not untamable. Of course the genre goods are on display for the lovingly recreated 1950’s setting, from the smoky sax to the atmosphere-drenched pianos and a femme fatale theme. But having the usual, brilliantly done usual musical suspects on hand doesn’t mean that Pemberton’s work is any less unique, or seemingly of-the-second in how the score riffs them, whether it’s using reversed electronic samples to play out Penn Station or having a jam session race across Harlem with rhythm and brass panic. Capturing Davis’ birth of the cool with the sprits of the great jazz styles and scores past (if not Michael K. Williams’ thinly-veiled Davis himself). Bringing in such diverse collaborators as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and progressive “Suspiria” composer Tom Yorke as part of his band, Pemberton weaves a lovely, brain-electrified score that’s soothing and panicked from one impressive jam session to the next.
1917 / TOLKIEN
(Thomas Newman / Sony Classical)
It’s almost fitting that a composer whose families musical roots’ lay in the golden days of orchestral film scoring would become an innovator in the soundtrack Avant garde before reaching back to his ancestors’ lush symphonic work. Now a career with a foundation in the best of both scoring worlds reaches back, and forward to evoke The War To End All Wars, at first journeying through a seemingly no-edit, no man’s land with his “Skyfall” and “Spectre” Bond collaborator Sam Mendes’s visceral salute to his country’s greatest generation with “1917.” It’s a similar odyssey through Newman’s own stylism, regarding an apocalyptic landscape with chilling, ethereal music, the sense of suck-it-up heroism conveyed with a dynamic orchestra. With so much of “1917” based on wordlessly viewing the unthinkable, Newman also does a remarkable job of inwardly hearing loss with piano melody, his more outré sampling meshing with a string sense of bravery to create a soundtrack at once haunting, rousing and finally devastatingly emotional. With “Tolkien,” an author’s way of surviving the battlefield is to transform surreal horror into hopeful sorcery. Newman conjures his era, and the Middle Earth of his tormented imagination into English classicism and a fantastical safe space, creating a feeling of religiosity that weaves an otherworldly spell with electronics, flute, piano and wistful percussion to send a writers’ band of brothers into an unimaginable nether realm. “Tolkien” lyrically plays a brilliant, sometimes tormented mind as opposed to Hobbits or Orcs – a smart, existential choice that’s also incredibly touching as it hears the dreamer whose seminal work gave rise to new kind of Arthurian legend for the modern age – as expressed through a magically poignant score that turns reality into fantasy and back again.
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN
(Bear McCreary / Sparks & Shadows)
While Bear McCreary has had a banner year juggling an epic orchestra and a playroom of kids’ instruments for monsters big and small like Godzilla and Chucky, his most profound and classically minded score went under the radar with “The Professor and the Madman.” Given the legal problems that beset the release of an otherwise exceptional film, we can be thankful that this rapturously moving soundtrack has been shown the light. With his own family’s scholarly, and literary pedigree transferring itself to McCreary’s last, innovating handling of emotionally lost author J.D. Salinger with the psychologically perceptive music for “Rebel in the Rye,” McCreary deals with the arguably far more severe impairment of a Civil War veteran whose demons claimed an innocent’s life, only to find spiritual salvation from the asylum where he helps an Oxford professor collect the meanings of thousands of words for the first Oxford dictionary. It’s a struggle for literate, and spiritual awakening through a PTSD haze, as channeled for a late 1800’s sensibility. McCreary evocatively realizes insanity through feverish chamber strings and ghostly percussion, orchestra mostly the sound of rationality. It’s music that movingly asks for forgiveness, the more bucolic passages evoking the birth of a new English classicism. Tying the score together is a lovely, waltzing theme that’s about the romance of words, and their ability to heal the soul. All make for a moving period score that shows a composer who can be as musically literate, and intimate as he is at enjoyably unleashing the strains of multiplex chills and excitement.
(Joseph Trapanese / Sony Classical)
Since his breakout score (along with Mike Shinoda) for “The Raid,” Joseph Trapanese has progressively varied powerful rhythms for men of action in “Oblivion,” “Wolf Warrior II” and “Stuber” with more meditative scoring in “Straight Outta Compton,” “Only the Brave” and “Shimmer Lake.” Now with his trip to the “Arctic,” Trapanese reaches his ultimate destination between atmospheric music and do-or-die determination as Mads Mikkelsen battles the elements with an injured rescuer in tow, both with on a seemingly impossible trek to reach safe haven amidst crevices, polar bars and blizzards. Given that barely any dialogue is spoken during this riveting film, Trapanese has his own challenge of conveying a landscape as majestically alien as any sci-fi movie he’s scored along with an unspoken inner dialogue. Trapanese accomplishes the quest impressively, travelling for spectral electronics to inch-by-inch percussion and stirring orchestrations. It’s music that only grows more passionate, and bigger as Mikkelsen’s character undergoes the trials of Job, the music reaching an emotional catharsis of Zen courage in a way that melodically stirs the soul of what humanity is capable of at its breaking point in this awe-inspiring musical trek across the top of the world.
(Timothy Williams / Sony Classical)
After playing on the side of superheroic right with his work on Tyler Bates’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool 2,” composer Timothy Williams finally unveils his major solo scoring abilities for the side of evil, or at the least the seriously misguided with the twisted superboy called “Brightburn.” Given a gleefully sadistic inversion of Earth’s mightiest visitor in the guise of a seemingly harmless kid, Williams takes what could have been a John Williams approach into the sinister mirror universe with terrifying style. For where a piano theme might go up up and away in conveying a boy soon to soar out of the American heartland, Williams takes the theme down, a simple, and striking piano melody leading to a score delivers a powerful sense of dread, then outright horror. It’s music that wants be do good, but can’t help but be bad thanks to its conquering genes of strings and samples. It’s a mixture of sympathy and growing apprehension that gives “Brightburn’” its disturbing power as Williams’ percussion hammers with brassy, guttural aggression, his sonic booms ripping through a farmhouse and plane while breaking its parents’ hearts, quite literally.
(Hans Zimmer / Fox Music)
With the Marvel / DC Justice League of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman (and soon Wonder Woman) behind him, Hans Zimmer generated his best superhero score for this unsung final chapter of The X-Men franchise. Given the most overtly science fiction of the bunch that possesses its telepath with the force cosmic (yet at the same time most “realistically” ground approach), Zimmer creates a memorably rhythmic, melancholy theme capable of infinite transfigurations from planet-hungry to emotional isolation. In its way, his 90’s-set “Phoenix” fusion of orchestra and electronics is an energized throwback to the kind of experimentation that put him on the map with the likes of “Black Rain” “Backdraft” and “Broken Arrow.” With an entrancing sense of woefulness, Zimmer’s themes convey the raging life force within, his female vocals ranging from a full chorus to bird-like cries and a sense of religiosity. There’s a pure, ever-morphing strangeness, and sense of gravitas to his “Phoenix” that goes beyond even what Zimmer conjured with the intellectual sci-fi pursuits of “Inception” and “Interstellar” (while also capturing enough material to create a whole secondary “Xperiments” album of fellow composer contributions). Expressed via the lengthy, mesmerizing suites that Zimmer delights in, “Dark Phoenix” delivers on mythic action while not seeming like any “superhero” score, as the ever-shifting emphasis here is on transfiguration as only Zimmer’s cosmic wall of sound can do it.
(Tim Wynn / Moviescore Media)
A unique superhero score on a more earthly scale for a film that gradually reveals its powers and scope, game-centric composer Tim Wynn (“Xcom 2”) takes a major, yet intimate cinematic leap for this excellent indie surprise as an adolescent girl breaks out of her understandably enforced home prison to reveal her family’s true nature. With the sound of a sweet girl desperate for human connection as the score’s key, Wynn uses child-like melody for percussion and piano to create a cloistered, seemingly magical world, yet with a feeling that something is off. Wynn plays a family’s sorely tested bonds, as well as the luring calliope of a strategically parked ice cream truck outside. With his themes constructed as well as “Freaks’” house, Wynn’s score grows from child-like wonder to a mature realization of taking mutant abilities into one’s hands, no matter how seemingly fragile they are, until the score finally lifts off with full symphonic power of destiny realized. It’s a triumph of psychological scoring that reveals a way bigger, and dangerous adult world that makes “Freaks” a triumph in every respect.
(Terence Blanchard / Back Lot Music)
Terence Blanchard’s way of giving iconic resonance to real life black history makers from “Malcolm X’ to “BlacKkKlansman” and “Red Tails” finally delivers his true superheroine score with “Harriet.” For a composer whose brass-driven symphonic touch has conjured the spirit of Aaron Copland, Blanchard’s sense of righteous, spiritually-attuned might is in terrific service of an unstoppable ex-slave’s God-given mission to bring her people out from slavery through the underground railroad. “Harriet’s” repeated missions into the South avoid musical regionalism, instead concentrating on thematic, emotionally driven suspense as it evades brass villainy. While his orchestra is front and center amidst tender strings, Blanchard effectively uses contemporary electronic rhythm to make this period score feel anything but dated, especially given its muscular, anthem-like passages that carry all of the passionate nobility of T’Challa, Blanchard’s depiction of the woman called Moses musically creates a leader in a desperate time with all of the melodic regalness worthy of a freedom fighter and her seemingly impossible feats.
(Michael Giacchino / Hollywood Records)
For all of the Oscar accolades that Michael Giacchino has had for creating the stuff of heartwarming juvenile and adult friendships in scores like “Up” and “Inside Out,” one might forget he also chronicled the terrifying bond between a kid and an ageless, adolescent-appearing vampire with “Let Me In.” Put that sweetness and horror together into a child’s relationship with his best bud Adolph Hitler during one of history’s blackest moments, and you’ll get “Jojo Rabbit,” a movie and score whose tones shouldn’t work, yet whose wild mix of tones gel exceptionally well. Blending absurdist Germanic pomp and circumstance with the pokey humor of nutty Nazis and the terror of the Jewess that lies in the apartment walls, “Jo Jo Rabbit” gets inside of the addled headspace of a adolescent victim of the worst propaganda on earth, often having fun with the movie’s wackiness as the laughs gradually vanish. Given Giacchino’s talent for intimate, beautifully melodic themes, his use of tender piano, violin, dream-like electronics and child-like bells have never been as hauntingly affecting as they are here, no more so than in conjuring a butterfly’s wings that lead Jo Jo to a devastating discovery. Giacchino’s certainly never scored a “kid’s” movie like this, or one whose music helps its laugh-cry impact at a more fascistically potent moment in modern history.
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT
(Joe Kraemer / La La Land Records)
Since his violently eccentric work on “Way of the Gun,” Joe Kraemer has scored no end of oddball projects, whether it was the Russian cop show spoof “Comrade Detective” or retro adventures in madcap indie directing for “King Cohen.” Now given this seemingly outlandish tale of a grizzled veteran who notched up a notorious dictator and monster, one might not expect Kraemer to apply the kind of somberness he gave to his score for the seen-it-all veteran called “Jack Reacher.” Yet it’s through this proficient “Man” of action’s age that Kraemer finds unexpected lyricism with music that’s far more about a lifetime of regret than it is finishing off two nightmarish subjects. It’s a theme of being in the twilight years that results in any number of poignantly beautiful Americana orchestral melodies. With strings, winds and piano at their most sympathetically delicate, Kraemer gives Sam Elliott, an actor who personifies the west (even when he isn’t in it) the kind of career-summing melancholy valentine that might accompany a cowboy into the sunset, – though militaristic excitement and pulse-pounding adventure is well on hand as the tall tales end up being down to earth indeed. That writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski takes an utterly serious approach to “Bigfoot” allows Kraemer’s oft times magical approach to wrap up this soldier’s life with touching symphonic uplift, making us believe in the lyrical possibility of a happy ending indeed.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
(Henry Burnett, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, Gabe Witcher / Varese Sarabande Records)
It takes a raft full of composers to create a singularly charming, authentically rustic score, as Jonathan Sadoff teams with bluegrass band The Punch Brothers for this updated wrassling spin on the adventures of Huck Finn. Going with the Florida panhandle flow as they accompany a ne’er do well and a developmentally challenged escapee with big dreams of hitting the ring, Sadoff and The Punch Brothers accompany a mix of humorous misadventures and emotional bonding for this unlikely tag-team. Where many Hollywood scores go might go for the hayseed given a hopeful innocent who’s in his undies for a good duration of the trip, “Peanut Butter’s” indie nature strips down its approach to such American ethnic instruments as the dobro, banjo, fiddle and guitar. “Falcon’s” strumming rhythm feels wonderfully authentic, so much so that you can feel the water gliding through one’s hand, the hot sun baking down, and the eyes of a swamp full of eccentric characters gazing on. The effect is both meditative and pluckily energetic, making for sympathetically naturalistic scoring at its best, with the music reaching drum-pounding, heavy metal energy once we finally get into the ring that takes the “Falcon” into a whole new dimension for this sparking example of musical naturalism.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD
(Brian Tyler / Lakeshore Records)
With his symphonically thematic muscle and a way with rhythm that plays action like an explosive fandango, Brian Tyler has proven to be a composer especially fitted to follow in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith – especially when the star who befitted from his iconically somber, militaristic approach keeps coming to the body count dance. Though it’s likely that “Rambo: Last Blood” is the last time Sylvester Stallone will play that increasingly bruised soldier, leave it to “Expendables” and “Rambo” veteran Tyler to know the key to Goldsmith’s power, and how to make it live on with a new voice. Of course reprising the solemn bugle theme, Tyler’s own trademarked way with rhythm and brass makes for unstoppable, thrilling payback. But what particularly makes this unexpectedly exceptional sequel work is its utter, grim seriousness in playing a mythic character always pulled back in to the fight, with the casualties being all he loves. Through melancholy strings, haunted voice and an overall sense of anguish that dare not reveal its psychological pain, Tyler creates the kind of mythic figure that’s made John Rambo endure for decades. And when it comes time to dish back revenge, “Last Blood” sings with the pounding fury of payback, hammering, rapid-fire percussion notching one beyond-gory kill after the other with barely time to look back. It’s the kind of darkly patriotic music that thrillingly salutes a legend, as well as Goldsmith’s spirit, all with reverence to spare.
(Benjamin Wallfisch / WaterTower Music)
Sure there’s a place for powerfully dark superhero scores. But every once in a while, it’s great to have one that’s a bright as a gee-whiz thunderbolt, fun electricity that Benjamin Wallfisch provides in spades with a “Big”-like spin on the big red cheese. Sure there’s the wickedness of the seven deadly sins here that wouldn’t be out of place in the composer’s work with an evil child-eating clown. But for the most part, Wallfisch’s full-blown symphonic approach is charged with a kid’s sense of wonder about being turned into an invincible adult who can buy beer, let alone fly. Charmingly digging into a playbook that John Williams put on the genre’s musical map by the guy whom Captain Marvel was created to imitate, Wallfisch has terrific command of “Shazam!’s” heroic themes with soaring strings, imposing brass and god-like chorus that creates a likable character put together from Greek myths. It’s music that spells out save-the-day cliffhanging action and peril, all with inherent warmth that nicely taps into the film’s theme of family. Say the word, and the score for a joyous exclamation point to the innocence of comic book movies’ good old days when scores unabashedly cheered the good guys.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
The sonic nightmare of growling, slithering and rampaging textures created by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum make for a thoroughly unnerving basement in which a nest of alligators “Crawl” (Intrada Records). It’s ever-ratcheting tension for creative sampling and rousing orchestra that adds up for creature nightmare fuel, the score’s heartbeat pounding away without losing emotional sight of a daughter and father faced with zero odds of survival. But their biggest threat is a musical duo who know how to ratchet up musical tension to an unimaginably degree, making for this summer’s happiest movie surprise that’s anything but a soundtrack sleeper.
Another of the year’s coolest score revelations was pulled from the stone by “Attack the Block” director Joe Cornish, who obviously wanted something hipper than the usually orchestral Arthurian underscore. What springs forth from “The Kid Who Would Be King” (Milan Records) is a delightfully fresh, truly throwback score by the London collaborative Electric Wave Bureau (its musician round table here comprised by Michael Smith, Nelson De Freiras, Suzi Winstanley and her husband Damon Albarn). With a retro 80’s sound now all the rage, the EWB (named after North Korea’s all-media Big Brother) conjure a delightfully synthy sound firmly rooted in the Camelot musical style – its medieval instruments just replaced with cool gear by happenstance. Dropping strongly thematic EDM beats, militaristic chivalry, a magical chorus and a real-deal orchestra to provide that boost of kingly grandeur, this is a score that treats the legend with both reverence and pop cheek with a soundtrack that could ride proudly alongside “Hawk the Slayer” at that.
Long active in her native Russia in both film and the concert hall, Anna Drubich has travelled alongside composer Marco Beltrami’s Danish miniseries “1864” and the Czar-centric “Matilde” to the heartland of American horror, where she’d get inside the mind of Ted Bundy with “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” Now Drubich and Beltrami tormenting a bunch of unwise teens with “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark” (eOne), a seamless collaboration that signals Drubich’s own loud and frighteningly clear voice when it comes to actually putting musical teeth into the YA horror movie genre’s PG13 rating. With the devilish, fairy tale charm of a crypt keeper, Drubich and Beltrami differentiate a host of monsters and ghosts within the macabre tales, integrating electronics and orchestra to lurk in the shadows before pouncing on those pesky high schoolers with rampaging, full-blooded melodic forcefulness that takes no prisoners. With slashing brass, rampaging percussion, a wailing female voice and just a bit of melodic heart to spare, Drubich and Beltrami certainly aren’t up to kids’ stuff here in this frighteningly effective score.
The long, strange trip of John DeLorean and how his dreams to finance a supercar were set up for a drug bust makes for “Driven” (Universal Ltd.), a biopic or sorts whose seriocomic tone drives all over the map. That this enjoyable move steers straight in its variations is a credit to a team that includes “Speed Kills’” Geronimo Mercado and “Silence’s” husband and wife composers Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge. Along with Lorne Balfe (“Gemini Man”) and Max Aruj (“Crawl”), they musicians blend retro country guitar rock with the rhythm of a desperate informant, his mental gears clicking as to just how he can evade angered drug dealers and the FBI. For all of the outrageous, death-averting scrapes he gets into, what really puts emotional fuel in to “Driven’s” thematic tank is that the characters’ unlikely friendship is front and center, their music achieving an epic sense of betrayal between a vainglorious, yet somehow likable automotive kingpin wannabe and his pathetic best bud who’s out to save his own skin first. It’s a somber, effective approach amidst “Driven’s” nervous energy that cues us into the rather sad story behind the car that would become famous for both cocaine and 1.21 gigawatts.
Leave it to the French to ingeniously composite a CGI bugs’ life against real imagery of their countryside with “Miniscule: Valley of the Lost Ants” (which Americans can watch on Amazon Prime Video). Now with their adventure greatly expanded to the Caribbean with “Miniscule: Mandibles From Far Away” (Music Box Records), composer Mathieu Lamboley (“I Kissed A Girl”) steps in with a gloriously epic score. But then, you might say the ability to symphonically play nature is in the musical lifeblood of the land’s composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The lyrically thematic sprit of his compatriots is very much in acrobatic display in Lamboley’s wondrous score. Conveying the critters’ antics with lush orchestral melody, the composer’s rambunctiously music equally captures the comedic spirit of John Williams and James Horner in conveying a little bug lost and his friends’ efforts to rescue him. It’s music that marches, skitters with tick-tock rhythm and soars with big, brassy adventure. Along with chorus, Lamboley also brings in unexpected instruments like the organ to convey the dangers, and wonder of an infinitely huge world in a score both poetically small scale for piano or sweepingly huge for a full orchestra, but best of all with a sense of natural grace. “Miniscule’s” approach portends big musical things to come for Lamboley’s talent.
Duncan Thum, a composer who’s likely caused no end of overeating with his music for “Chef’s Table” and “Street Food” now rhythmically burns calories in “Brittany Runs a Marathon” (Lakeshore Records). With any number of percussive grooves to start a sarcastic, life-lost woman’s race to better health, Thum’s use of hand-clapping, drum-smashing, wacky keyboards, Zydeco music and club beats are their own mildly sarcastic pep squad. It’s wittily knowing enough to cause any woman to be exasperated, which is exactly the point as Thum’s nudging gradually turns to more emotional melody in tracking the character across Manhattan and its boroughs, ultimately revealing the inner sadness that makes Brittany run. It’s the definition of creative indie scoring in relatively short bursts that go somewhere new with every turn, making this a winningly eccentric score that goes the distance.
The musical idea that preparing for death is a state of mind more than an actual place has rarely been droller than in the way that Alex Weston’s score says “The Farewell” (Milan Records). Though it’s about a family of Chinese expatriates returning to their motherland for a living funeral, Weston eschews any sense of the Orient for an exceptionally performed classical chamber score that evokes a gathering in 18th century England at opposed to the Far East. Vocalese in the Vivaldi style also evokes the hip 60’s group The Swingle Singers among the mordant style here. Yet far from being disrespectful, the aching string and piano approach brings an elegant touch to the proceedings where death not dare say its name, with the sense of a family desperately trying to keep their sorrow-filled chins up. Both beyond ironic and deeply felt, the approach of “The Farewell” at first brings a double take, and then a knowing nod as to how to musically handle the inevitable.
After abetting such humorous Christopher Lennertz scores as “Identity Thief,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Baywatch,” composer Philip White really gets to shine with a co-composing credit on “Jexi.” And even if the score is so-far unreleased given this hilarious comedy’s undeserving box office hang-up, those hearing it on home video will receive a wonderfully catchy score that shows White and Lennertz working in time-proven synergy to truly embody all that’s hilariously wrong with modern technology. Employing electronic tones alongside strings and a rhythm guitar, “Jexi” casts a magical spell with the glow of a sexy-voiced cell phone, until rhythm guitar quickly reveals a sarcastic device with a jilted mind of its own, and the power to wreak the havoc of world wide web on its virginal owner. It’s a highly listenable score full of sweet energy that veers from phone tone to wild jazz band, as well as guitar romance, all making for a delightful, exceptionally listenable score for “Jexi’s” amusing melodic realization of a man’s worst friend when it comes to the real romantic world.
Israeli composer Tal Yardeni (“Greenhouse Academy”) makes an impressively authentic splash with English language horror, as set in the old Eastern European country whose murderous prejudice gives rise to an apocalyptic “The Golem.” The Paz Brothers, who last brought the end of days to “Jeruzalem,” have created a terrific reboot of this distinctly Jewish avenger who brings grief to all through a child’s personage here, as opposed to a giant clay hulk, a Shtetl-set rethink that lets Yardeni bring in a truly Hebraic touch with the use of ethnic instruments that evoke a people under constant threat. With the story driven by the kind of childhood loss that’s the root of many a horror film’s grave mistake in raising the dead, Yardeni brings in the eerie resonance of a mother’s grief, the resulting tragedy scoring that old-time religion payback. Yardeni unleashes “The Golem” with impressive, limb-stomping vengeance that delivers the feeling of a classic Hollywood monster score, as well as the religion fueling a creature that will turn on them. Filled with as much terror as tragedy, “The Golem” trods its bloody ground with fresh, ethnically authentic vengeance for a score that demands a release.
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