THE BEST SCORES OF 2022
Avatar: The Way of Water
(Simon Franglen / Hollywood Records)
Evolving from a synthesist on the likes of “New Jack City” and “Grand Canyon” to his first, fateful arranging teaming with James Horner on 1991’s “Fievel Goes West,” Simon Franglen has been an indispensable part of realizing that iconic composer’s sound, a collaboration that grew to Franglen playing, programming and eventually fully taking over the mantle to finish Horner’s posthumous “The Magnificent Seven.” Having Impressed with scores since for “Peppermint” and “Notre Dame on Fire,” Franglen now returns to Pandora to taps into the departed Horner within Eywa and to fantastically coming into his musical own in Hollywood blockbuster land. Employing just a bit of Horner’s previous themes, it’s really the spirit of what that composer established for James Cameron’s planet that flows through this soundtrack, the vibrant branches of what Horner established sprouting with Franglen’s own unique eco-friendly soul. Weaving a sense of bold, enchanted wonder with his seamless use of electronics, tribal rhythm and an epic orchestra packed with brass nobility, operatic chorus and lush strings, Franglen builds a ravishing new world for us to be melodically joined with, while also delivering dynamic action sequences whose construction never gets lost in the “busy music” jungle. Like Cameron’s approach, the reason Franglen’s score works so well is because the true, old school spirit behind it is driven by raw emotion, a feeling for imperiled space whales and blue-green cat people that centers the score, whether it’s being washed over us with spiritual electronics or blasting the evil sky people with triumphant fanfares. And given the entrancing song “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me Strength), (co-written with The Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia), Franglen certainly has Horner’s way with a tune. One thing I can be sure of is that Jedi Master is smiling down on his Padawan, who’s spectacularly carried on a legacy with a big, unabashed demonstration of the vitality that a full-blast symphony plays in sweeping audiences away to into the grand cinematic sci-fi experience, all while losing none of great score’s ability to singularly touch the human heart.
Crimes of the Future
(Howard Shore / Decca and Howe Records)
The Canadian-born team of body horror auteur David Cronenberg and composer Howard Shore have long been linked at the hip for pushing the boundaries, confronting audiences with visions and sounds as smart as they might be grotesque. The biggest, and most ironic difference is that Shore’s music goes down the sonic palette just a bit smoother, whether synthesizer hands, symphonic surgical devices or electric guitar car parts are being neo-sexually shoved into various orifices. “Crimes of the Future” hits a hypnotic apex in the duo’s particular invasive technique as Cronenberg’s performance art chamber of horrors becomes a trance-like thematic musical dream of glistening retro electronics and ominous brass samples, the music plying at Shore’s classical approach to extreme violence as much as it does to trance club rhythms of a hipster audience beholding the madness. It’s music that’s state of the club art as much as it is surreal dread, displaying a macabre duo whose ever-evolving flesh sound never fails to mesmerize.
Don’t Worry Darling
(John Powell / Water Tower Music)
Given one of the more entertainingly nutty VR movies that envisions a man trap as a Mad Men vacation in retro Palm Springs, composer John Powell doesn’t waste musical time telling you that there’s something wrong in desert tropic Denmark. The way he progressively shatters “Baby’s” Incel cult illusion is to bring in slap in the face percussion and woozy strings along with piano and nerve-scraping electronics, the mad science music bleeding into female vocalese. His tantalizingly weird approach and doom-laden symphony significantly escalating the musical stakes to finally (and literally) drive its heroine to action to break the sleeping princess spell. All roads lead to the mountaintop as Powell’s mix of melody and experimental atonality finally explode into a “Victory Chase” that’s the most dazzlingly original musical climax of the year as the spirits of subjugated women finally get to roar with tribal yells and virtuoso percussion, going for breakneck orchestral adrenalin in a Mad Max worthy pursuit to the red pill. Given that the composer at the wheel here redefined the action score genre with the world beat of “Bourne Identity,” “Don’t Worry Darling” is one of the most excitingly inventive things Powell has done since as he embodies a woman running for her life from a twisted retro male fantasy.
(Ryuichi Sakamoto / Milan)
Made in 2020, “Minamata’s” unceremonious dumping on Hulu thanks to the Johnny Depp brouhaha this year makes it a 2022 release in my book, and one worth a shout out for dealing with an actual notorious incident in a Japanese chemical corporation’s Mercury poisoning of a fishing village – the deformed plight of its residents the subject of a boundary-breaking Life Magazine article. It makes for an exceptional film, and a haunting score that ranks as one of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most profound works. Given a composer who’s faced his own mortality, you can hear Sakamoto investing real, tender heart and soul into a grizzled photographer having his own spiritual awakening. “Minamata” is suffused with the feeling of grace through suffering, the tenderness afforded to those utterly unable to help themselves taking on a touching spirituality through Sakamoto, who frames the score as much as Depp’s photojournalist evokes tragic poetry through his pictures. Using a blend between orchestra and electronics that’s distinguished Sakamoto’s work from his breakthrough scores like “The Last Emperor” and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” there’s a time-lost quality to the score that can be both disturbing and soothing, as well as evoking defiant marching of Davids versus a Goliath. Sure the true-life genre of poisoning any country’s populace has sadly been done many times before on film and TV, but rarely with the haunting, impactful reverence that Sakamoto’s score brings to it.
(Michael Abels / Back Lot Music)
With “Get Out” and “Us,” filmmaker Jordan Peele found his Afro-centric Bernard Herrmann in modern classical composer Michael Abels. And with “Nope” he can add John Williams to that distinctive horror-sci fi mix that distinguishes the partnership for this stunning segue from soul transplants to clone armies and now a singularly original E.T. by way of Jaws. A big reason for the fact that you really have no idea where “Nope” is going to go is the tension that Abels brings to the Socal prairie, trembling on-edge strings that lead to outrightly terrifying dissonance – as well as spot-on hilarious Jerome Moross-worthy music for the tourist trap western town along with “Jurassic Park”-worthy wonderment to get cut off with the electrical power. Not only paying off the big boo moments, Abels brings a both of sense of wonder as to what might be snatching livestock and humans, as well as a feeling of somber emotion to the distanced brother and sister and the toll they’ve paid towards their unearthly tormentor. But sooner or later you’ve got to pay off the Big Balloon Bad, and Abels brings a sense of canny humor to the score, exploding into gigantic orchestral excitement worthy of any Spielberg film. “Nope” is one big yes as to how you construct a score for maximum monster adrenalin blast radius, revealing just how much Peele and Abels have grown in the process from super smart socio-political agitprop to carrying the same themes forth in a purple people eater musical monster mash.
(Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough / Back Lot Music)
While Basil Poledouris brilliantly invested Conan’s Hyperborean age with rousingly adventurous melodies inspired by Igor Stravinsky, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough bring no such pleasantries to the best sword and sorcery movie since then. Following the beyond Viking Age accurate mission state of filmmaker Robert Eggers, this duo instead go old school, and I mean really old school with the implementation of ancient instruments to create a groaning, bone-scraping, head-banging bloodlust approach that you’d expect from the throne room house band. In that respect, “The Northman” stands as the most bracingly powerful, you-are-there action scores ever done. From the guttural throat singing to metal-grinding percussion, it’s a soundtrack that grabs you by the throat to pull you into a beyond barbaric past where you can cut the truly unplugged atmosphere with a broadsword. Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t recognize an anti-hero’s journey in the confrontational music, as “The Northman” steadily opens up to lyrical emotion with a vengeful wolf that you didn’t think was capable of it, capturing the heavy blood oath toll of collecting past dues while simultaneously capturing the men’s chorus battle lust of riding Hel bent into Valhalla. It’s an astounding, viscerally immersive musical trip back to the ultimate gore-soaked rock stadium of musically unplugged mythmaking
The Outfit / Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
(Alexandre Desplat / Back Lot Music / Netflix Music)
For an exceptionally clever case of the “I thought he was just the cook” genre, there’s no classier musical tailor to turn to for a Saville Row suit with the bloody criminal edge than Alexandre Desplat. An Oscar-winning master of assembling silken melody as well as showing jazzy chops while deconstructing a mystery in such scores as “The Ides of March” and “The Ghost Writer,” Desplat is certainly in his element in a 1956 Chicago tailor shop with a seeming milquetoast English male hero. The melodies are pure elegance with a dash of sympathy for the hints of an impossible May-December romance with a young assistant whose scent gradually becomes femme fatale. Ingeniously using scissor-like percussion that counts down the time for one impossible mobster ultimatum after the next, Desplat’s strings play games with whom exactly we should be sympathetic to here. At times recalling the classic two-fisted film noir scores of Miklos Rozsa while at others bringing on the lush, jazzy sensuality of John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith with Desplat’s recognizable use of winds, it’s a deliciously twisting head game score that builds to the big, alarming reveal of whom exactly is holding the killer cards and the cufflinks. Alternately playful and metaphorically dark magic is what’s pulling the strings of every sort for Desplat’s take on “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” It continues a rewarding partnership with the metaphoric fantasist that’s yielded a Best Score Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” but particularly here holds its beginnings to the unsung, del Toro fairy tale justice league film “Rise of the Guardians.” Desplat certainly has a talent for this genre in playing its variations from innocence run amuck in “Isle of Dogs” to the maliciously adult (and somehow unreleased score) of “Tale of Tales.” With its jaunty circus rhythms, glistening danger, otherworldly female voices, fluttering winds and cherubic rhythms, “Pinocchio’s” miraculously thematic approach is given instruments of Italian-centric pixie dust, then mixed with the tragic symphonic poignance of del Toro’s feel-bad fixation with children caught in war. It’s a score light on its melodically glistening feet, yet contrasted with a weightier musical subtext of final fate that helps make this arguably the most literally moving version and notably scored version of an oft-told cinematic tale, especially given the longing song “Ciao Poppa” that’s heartbreaking enough never to make you want to tell a lie to your maker.
(Karl Frid / Milan)
Just about the last thing one might expect to hear when it comes to any number of particularly unspeakable acts in the world of gonzo porn is a religiously sacred female chorus giving way to trip-hop. It’s a brutal death of one’s soul and porn star transfiguration that’s anything but “Pleasure,” which is exactly the point of this deceptively beautiful score from Swedish composer Karl Frid. Given the old softcore chestnut of a Swedish ingenue out to make it big in Tinseltown, Frid’s brilliantly uses stylistic counterpoint for the punishing physical and moral depths his countrywoman sinks to as she learns a lesson about how far a woman can climb up a ladder that’s old as the Hollywood Hills. Given the gorgeous voice of soprano Caroline Gentele, Frid gets across the idea of the Madonna-Whore complex like few more simple-minded porno chic scores have, placing his takes on centuries-old Latin church chorales into a pulsing, sinful neon beat while also engaging in playful “Popera” vocalese. It’s an approach that might be pointedly satirical if what was happening on screen wasn’t so awful in a score of supreme, holy sensuality in a brutal film that’s anything but.
(Kenneth Lampl / Movie Score Media)
Yank Down Under Kenneth Lampl has done an impressive job on such internationally appealing scores as “2067,” but there’s no subject as universal as social media and the havoc it can wreak on impressionable young minds – particularly the just-wanna-be-loved trending maniac called “Sissy.” It’s a diabolically funny shock satire with an empathetic heart that lets Lampl run a thematically stylistic gamut. Baroque harpsichord gives way to a peppy choral waltz, department store Muzak dances with Burt Bacharach-ish pleasantries while Herrmann-esque orchestral suspense gracefully joins more contemporarily traditional synth horror scoring, all with a dash of retro Giallo guitar grooves. But whatever twisted avenue he’s exploring, Lampl gets across the feeling of a little kid lost to the peril of mean girls in a psychotic tweet world all its own. “Sissy” might be the delightful, peppily black-humored score (and film) about playing the media since Danny Elfman’s “To Die For,” especially as it deftly mines any number of musical eras these characters have never listened to in their soon-to-be ended iPhone obsessed lives.
X / Pearl
(Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe / Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams / A24)
Taking a completely different, yet similarly brilliantly pointed approach as “Pleasure” to playing the terror of porn and desire in general, the musical teams behind “X” and “Pearl” deliver on the double retro-prequel header that horror didn’t know it needed to badly. Though he’d dealt with period porn gone wrong with the Sheen-as-Mitchell brothers’ film “Rated X,” Bates (along with Chelsea Wolf) take a way creepier approach circa 1979 as mutton chopped “filmmakers” end up in a murderous, alligator-adjacent farmhouse whose decrepit mom and pop couple just want to reignite their murderous libidos. Not only capturing alternately hushed and orgasmic prowling creepiness alongside the expected porn funk, Bates and Wolf play into the whole idea of aged sex as the height of ugliness, the kills exploding with expressionistic wrath alongside the beyond unsettling female vocals. But where “X” is mostly impressionistic, the joke for Bates and his longtime composing partner / orchestrator on the prequel “Pearl” is going for a rapturous, beyond melodic sound replete with the Golden Age passion of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. It’s pitch-perfect at hearing the squashed dreams and murderous psychosis of a Kansas imprisoned woman who can’t wait to get to Hollywood. Their robust straight jacket sound for her is cruelly knowing, yet sympathetic as it plays a down on the farm carnival of pitchfork horrors and runaway jalopies straight. Given how batshit so many horror scores have become at just being cacophonous with no real point to the blunt instrumentation, hearing “Peal’s” kind of full-blooded, rapturous tunefulness is a tonic onto itself as the team readies themselves to fully dive into disco porn for their third entry into Ti West’s period porn horror that can’t come soon enough.
THE RUNNERS UP
Amsterdam / See How They Run
(Daniel Pemberton / Hollywood Records)
From digging into the architectural mystery of “Motherless Brooklyn” to ferreting out the suspects with hip Victoriana in two “Enola Holmes” scores, the already inventive Englishman Daniel Pemberton has been no more creative then when seeking clues in hip historical tellings. While uncovering a fascist conspiracy in 1930’s NYC with its roots in “Amsterdam” or going on a meta-Agatha Christie romp in 50’s England for “See How They Run,” both Pemberton scores definitely share the same ironically melodic DNA. However, the way more difficult case to find a way inside of belongs to “Amsterdam’s” unjustly maligned adventures of three WWI best buds. Given a sweet, whimsical harp plucking theme and angel-voiced theme reminiscent of Jacques Offenbach while brass blarts a la Mychael Nyman, the score traverses pokey tabla percussion, and neo-noir jazz with flute, create a deceptively beatific atmosphere, as if the whole idea of a Nazi-fied America was like some dainty garden party to the aristocratic coup conspirators. But while “Amsterdam” is suffused with a twisted sense of whimsy, you can always hear the musical danger of what’s going on behind the curtain. The lifting of red velvet to reveal a victim of Christie’s undying play “The Mousetrap” is the impetus for Pemberton’s game to go delightfully afoot in “See How They Run,” which takes the gamboling rhythms of “Amsterdam” into a positive gallop that brilliantly hits the film’s Wes Anderson aesthetic. With wacky banjo big band jazz by way of Django Reinhart along with organ vibes to make us realize this is a whodunit, Pemberton unleashes giant symphonic panic alongside more muted skullduggery, all while other clues sound like a broken tinkertoy orchestra. It’s over the top in a way that’s even more exclamatory than a Coen brothers mock mystery, making “See How They Run” one of the best exemplars of playing silliness straight in quite some time. It’s a contrast between laying on the eccentric notes slightly and thick as a wackadoo hammer that provide Pemberton’s delightful musical contrast in energizing these two not so-usual musical suspects.
The Banshees of Inisherin
(Carter Burwell / Hollywood Records)
Carter Burwell’s partnership with Irish-born director-playwright Martin McDonagh has played the collapse of relationships across the globe in “Seven Psychopaths,” “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Now the composer finally goes to the motherland for the ultimate exercise in friendship rent asunder for “The Banshees of Inisherin.” This increasingly catastrophic partition takes place on an isolated, wall-covered island rife with a Blarney Stone of possible ethnic cliches, but leave it to Burwell to take an Ireland score road way less travelled with music that potently embodies the land and people without being particularly Gaelic at all. Instead, this darkly enchanting, subtle approach uses bell percussion, strings and harp to cast a spell of inevitable fate, as well as the film’s wry humor that increasingly becomes tragic instead of funny. Yet he doesn’t forget the abundant eccentricity among the precious few residents while capturing McDonagh’s way of creating a bigger metaphor for Ireland’s sundered people. It’s a potent, sadly wistful score that like the film, doesn’t have to make you Irish to hear the frayed heartstrings of male bonding gone somberly asunder.
Bullet Train / Violent Night
Charl(Dominic Lewis / Milan Records – Back Lot Music)
From the composer of “Peter Rabbit” (and to be fair the co-composer of “The Kings Man”) comes two wildly hip rides that make him the musician of the year when it comes to ultra violent action comedies. While you might not expect anything less from the bloodshed-is-fun approach of “Atomic Blonde” director David Leitch, what makes this ride so much fun is that the former assassin hero does his best to try not to hurt anyone. Lewis cleverly turns his score into train whistles, using a satiric Spaghetti Western approach for a good part of this blast of a ride to employ Morricone showdown bells, voice and of course whistling . The other big musical ticket goes to record-warping DJ beats, jauntily blasting rock songs alongside the why-so-serious instrumental knock-downs. Hip hop jams with Green Hornet-like licks and psychedelic beat box vocals for what’s essentially one big mock killer jukebox musical, an utter blast of action scoring sedition, which is to say nothing about how Lewis blows up Xmas in “Violent Night.” The oompa tubas, sleigh bell, angelic chorus and sweet string Christmas caroling candy cane gang is all here, and then delicious sharpened and stomped to hammering-head effect. Drawing equal part inspiration from “Home Alone” and “Die Hard,” Lewis effortlessly mixes adrenalin-charged jingling fight music with militaristic, break-into-the vault stuff that makes a proud, bombastically militaristic orchestral salute to the spirit of Michael Kamen. If the strains of Bruce Willis freeing the hostages on the holidays had a built in satire, Lewis runs with it here with blood-red suited baddie stomping energy to spare, showing in carols into the madness with the similar song-score insanity of “Bullet Train.” But though the cookie is firmly in cheek, Lewis delivers a smashingly exciting score with equal parts soaring heart and a brass-crunching bad guy body count payback, making for a deliriously fun, exceptionally performed soundtrack that a movingly symphonic rendition of “Silent Night” to a snare drum and ringing triangle villain take down is as much of a Christmas score as “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie.
DC League of Super-Pets
(Steve Jablonsky / Water Tower Music)
While Steve Jablonsky has certainly scored animal power packs with The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, leave it to superheroes’ best friends to lend a paw for the composer’s most rollickingly symphonic score. Best known for his knack for techno-rhythm adrenalin on any number of Transformer films, the symphonic vernacular of DC comic book movie history from human to mutt gives “Super Pets” a wondrous orchestral swagger. Most definitely in the key of kid entertainment, you can hear Jablonsky having a particularly terrific time here with the big, swooping action that clearly conveys good versus dastardly (with an ultimately Godzilla-sized guinea pig hilariously given an extra serum shot of Theremin panache). Bringing in a massive chorus for that extra epic touch, Jablonsky conveys the joy of swooping in to save the day, channeling the childhood that drew us to far less dark comic book adventures in the first place. It’s a joy to fly on four feet with this kind of charming, robustly melodic energy that could easily fit flesh and blood human costumes as well as they do toon collars here.
(Chanda Dancy / Lakeshore Records)
The sight of flight, particularly with vintage airplanes, often inspires composers to reach out for balletic inspiration – treating aircraft not so much as mechanical constructions but as birds dancing in the sky, taking in all of God’s creation with their acrobatic swoops, gliding and dives ending just above the surface. And then there’s the personification of planes as dealing death, most often for the side of right. It’s music that as much about manliness as it is flag waving militarism, the air gloriously weighted with brass, driving percussion and trumpeting valor. In the annals of film scores that convey both aspects, Chanda Dancy’s impressive soundtrack for “Devotion’s” becomes the heart of two wingmen whose fateful battle is built up to in the face of the equal enemy of racism. With her own background in sound effects, Dancy is particularly well suited to craft a score that cuts through the roar of war engines to hear the real-life emotion that conveys “Devotion’s” joy and peril of flight. With strikingly powerful themes and rhythm, Dancy crosses old school symphonic writing with cutting edge sampling and electronics, bringing vibrancy to an unbreakable bond between pilots whose relationship forged in dealing with prejudice ultimately sings with valor and sacrifice in the skies above Korea’s Chosin Reservoir for a memorable war score, and film that deals with a much bigger picture.
(John Williams / Sony Classical Records)
Given the amazing variety of subjects they’ve played in the five decades of the most popularly enduring director-composer collaboration of all time, it’s fitting that John Williams’ seeming swan song for Spielberg would be this somewhat fictionalized origin story. But if you’re expecting gigantic orchestras and overtly heart-wrenching themes to accompany a kid from Cincinnati who picked up a movie camera, what makes “The Fabelmans” particularly powerful is just how delicately short and sweet this soundtrack is, one that has way more in common with Williams’ “Stanley and Iris” then Indiana Jones in service of a Super 8 boy wonder. Given a fragile mom who’s often seeing tickling the classical ivories, Williams conjures a beautifully poignant, piano-centric score, conveying a marriage that’s in trouble despite a husband’s obliviousness, but certainly not her son’s. With his main theme also heard on guitar and muted orchestra, Williams shows a soulful ability to convey nostalgia via an innate sense of orchestral Americana, here touching on the idea of the movies itself as unifying emotional force, even as a family comes apart at the pet monkey seams. With tinkerbells capturing that first flicker of optical illusion frame magic, Williams takes a fragile approach that makes for a vastly moving trademark sound in a collaboration unlike any other in the history of pop culture, with the lush volume of course rising to happily send a kid off the Warners studio lot to shape the imaginations of millions. Yet for the most part, “The Fabelmans” is a gloriously soft-spoken Valentine for Williams in service of a filmmaker who’d change his career and the rest of the world’s entertainment taste at large.
(Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch / Atlantic Screen Music/Filmtrax)
London-residing French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch impressed with her insanely surrealistic score of a female “Censor” going to murderous pieces to view the final edit of her sister’s disappearance. Now Farrouch’s moving, distinctly existence-affirming music in the face of finality shows just how great her range is as “Living” follows the footsteps of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikuru” with a distinctly British bureaucratic twist. Farrouch begins by taking a modernistic rhythmic approach to the top-hatted worker bees with piano, voice and chamber strings in a way that recalls classical music as it does John Adams’ modernism. The score then zeroes in on what seems to be a particularly sullen individual, foremostly using a piano in a way that conveys his pathos. Though Mr. Williams gets the fateful news that of course calls for English reserve, Farrouch goes through the stages of his inner grief with a chamber music sense of empathy, soon enough picking up emotional determination for his life to make a playground difference. Creatively using voice and delicate piano melody front and center. It’s a score that’s about surmounting the ghosts of the past to movingly discover one’s worth even when not present, all making “Living” the definition of class act scoring with enough ear-catching melodic experimentation to cut through the stiff upper lip.
(Colin Stetson / Milan Records)
When it comes to cinematically eating the rich, or at least metaphorically delivering the hoi poloi the end course they oh-so elegantly deserve, there’s no music better served than a classical tone that sums up all of their tastelessly uncaring, lower class crushing refinement. On this note of darkly satirical taste, leave it to Colin Stetson, a master of such beyond bleakly humored films as “Hereditary,” “Color Out of Space” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to create an Amuse-bouche to Just Deserts course for “The Menu.” With the Amuse-bouche announced with the transfixing, cutting edge Baroque stylism, Stetson’s hypnotic work becomes as unhinged as its courses, music that conveys the magic of these absurdist taste treats with plucky rhythm, choral washes and poetic lyricism. Yet all the while Stetson lets you hear that something is very unhinged with the musical beauty, until all refined, gorgeously-plated hell breaks loose. But even as force-fed panic rises, the transfixing beauty of Stetson’s score cannily never lets up. By the time its final course is served, Stetson’s “Menu” proves itself as next-level scoring satire, retaining the oh-so good taste of ruthlessly delivered elegance while crafting musical horror as the ultimate consummation of consumption.
(Thomas Newman / Lakeshore Records)
Thomas Newman is the composer who helped bring experimentalism into the Hollywood mainstream, not to mention bringing a gloriously anachronistic sample-symphonic rhythmic sound into such seemingly unlikely arenas as “Little Women’s” 1800’s New England and “1917’s” treacherous journey to the front line. Now he brings his alt. rock-born aesthetic to WWII’s most unlikely secret mission where one might say a “Weekend at Bernie’s” situation changed the course of history. A big credit goes to “Operation Mincemeat” D-day fake out of Hitler, yet this dressed-up corpse is played with honorably serious gravity, if not just a little bit or humor in the seeming absurdity of the machinations. Few composers have an ear for innovative rhythm like Newman, and he rocks out with it as the unlikely plan comes together, while also balancing the pace with a lush, symphonic feeling of sacrifice and duty, alternating between calculation and an almost wistful pensiveness in a relevant way. Moving, ironic and contemporarily vital, “Mincemeat” is a prime filet display of the combination that continues to make Thomas Newman one-of-a-kind when it comes to musically energizing the past.
(Hildur Guðnadóttir / Mercury Classics)
Few composers, male or female, are better at conveying mental anguish than Hildur Guðnadóttir, whether it be finding edgy sympathy for the devil in her Oscar-winning score to “Joker” or channeling the symphonic voice of the unbalanced composer Lydia Tár. But what makes the primal howl of women trapped by an abusively archaic Christian cult in Sarah Polley’s dialogue-driven film is that these are characters finding their voice after being made meek for God knows how long. As such, it’s more of a time-warped call to action, using tubular and hammering percussion and a lyrical guitar theme that conveys the feeling of being lost in the old west by way of the cornfield bible belt. Guðnadóttir’s central melody builds force with the group’s ultimate resolution to break away, venturing from intimate, unplugged emotion to a stirring, string-topped resolution that hopefully guides victims no more to the promised land of the outside world. It’s an especially powerful example of how build emotional force from the quietest of musical whispers to an upraised, beautiful fist.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
The saying that every picture tells a story has particular resonance for Charles-Henri Avelangewhen shown the work of an ancestor with a passion for painting rural France at the country’s turn into the 20th century. The result is the lovely concept album “The Ouevre of Leon Oury” (Riley Dog Music). Having created his own symphony for The Seattle International Film Festival, Avelange puts his talents to use with a rainbow of instrumental colors, having “Caravans in the Snow” and “The Collector of Sheaf” dance with accordion and orchestra, using flute, piano and melancholy strings for “Return of the Harvest” and “The Winter Tree” among the musical portraits that nicely make one feel the lush warmth of a time-lost Provence.
“Summer Wars” anime director Mamoru Hosado takes a dazzling virtual reality leap into “Beauty and the Beast” that’s one of the most imaginative and emotional variations of an oft-told story, especially given the astonishingly diverse tones of Yuta Bandoh, Ludvig Forsell, Miho Hazama, Taisei Iwasaki for “Belle” (Milan Records). Big band jazz effortlessly mixes with the poignant music of a dejected high school girl who finds her rousing symphonic worth as a wildly popular avatar – all while the seeming social media beast is given imperious, tragic music. It’s a world where Holstian strains dance with techno music, gorgeously lush choral voices and the achingly beautiful song “Lend Me Your Voice,” all while hiding the tragic musical reality behind an often-majestic illusion. It’s Disney musical fable animation level scoring, yet given perhaps a deeper, even more moving resonance in its beautifully affecting melodies.
Given a gleefully no-budget salute to the glory days of David A. Prior-esque direct-to-video 90’s mayhem, obvious synth action enthusiast Matt Cannon steps up to the bloody punk-haired, leather-clad, spikey slasher plate with “Force to Fear” (Howlin’ Wolf Records) the most glorious retro rock electronic score this side of “Stranger Things,” or “Transformers: The Movie” for that matter. You’d have to dust off your VHS copies of “Deadly Prey” to get a more spot-on groove, from jazzercize rhythms to pulsing menace and beds of crystalline tension. But it’s one thing to root through antique stores for the gear and another to give it enjoyable, melodic context, and each of the 27 tracks here is a groovy, mullet head ready blast from the keyboard past, as given a cutting, vibrant sound. It’s enough to make you wish that Cynthia Rothrock would jump back into the ring to get this royal synth treatment that makes brutal payback into one big retro dance off.
When the idea of modern classical music in film scores tends to lend itself to discordant endurance tests, Costas Dafnis uses the form to create an often gorgeous, truly poetic tone poem for director Daniel Kremer’ three-hour existential indie epic “Overwhelm the Sky” (La La Land Records). Very well edited into an entrancing listening experience on this release, Dafnis shows a lyrical talent here that recalls the expressionistic work of Hannah Townshend for Terence Mallick on such scores as “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups.” “Sky” offers a constant feeling of musical discovery on its own, reaching into the appeal of film music to pique the listener’s own imagination amidst fluttering strings, bells and striving melody. While there’s the disturbing, aleatoric music of a black and white twilight zone, for the most part “Sky’s” music impresses with its magical sense of ennui, hearkening back as well to the more experimental works of Leonard Rosenman and Aaron Copeland, with even the rhythms of a western hoedown galloping about this exceptionally well performed score, one that lets the listener’s mind drift in the best way for this bewitching, under the radar score that shows much impressionistic potential there is for Dafnis to play with the trippy windmills of the mind.
Having done arrangements for “Jungle” and “Sense8,” distinctively playing violin on “Home” and contributing additional music on “American Horror Story,” Dublin-born Emer Kinsella continues to show her range as she segues from the Nashville rom-com “I Hate New Year’s” to find a mentally troubled NYC artist ditching her meds to be consumed by a dreamscape in “She the Creator.” Kinsella certainly creates her own strikingly artistic visions to match the mad tableaux, painting strokes of lush washes of synthesized and organic instruments to unnerving effect, as well as gear-ticking percussion, hushed sampling, rhythmic suspense and even a tender piano for a lyrically anguished role reversal breakdown. When many scores of this type are all about going dissonantly insane, credit Kinsella’s unique voice for making the mental disintegration as melodically evocative as it is surreal while still delivering the inevitably horrific, violin-slicing musical goods.
It’s a playground of psychic fear in this disturbingly realistic look at what would happen should bad (and good) adolescent seeds go Carrie White. What makes this set up particularly unique is both its Norwegian setting and the eerie, child-like score by Pessi Levanto for “The Innocents” (Movie Score Media). Done in the spare, beyond creepy style of the film, Levanto employs bells, muted strings and twisted samples to convey invisible, mind-controlling forces as both blessings and murderous curses. It’s incredibly smart horror scoring with a blend of brain-melting dissonance and tragically subtle, sustaining melody that in the end captures the feeling of childhood’s end to unfathomable powers.
Answering the musical call to make musical sense out of the multiverse while still being utterly batshit is the alt. rock group Son Lux with “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” (A24 Music). Lux now channels the group’s experimental synergy into what’s arguably the most bizarre score to define a wave of modern art rockers turned composers. Imagine Jon Brion’s on a massive acid trip, and you might get a fraction of the ideas of this insane, otherworldly percussion and rhythm-filled score that embodies the film’s title. Instantaneously mashing together Chinese opera, “Claire de Lune,” chopsocky beats and most importantly the emotional heart of an Asian family discovering there’s no place like Earth One, Son Lux’s gonzo soundtrack warps the idea of film music’s wackiest possibilities into about two hours of score for a nearly two hour and twenty-minute film. The result is sonically invigorating and exhausting as it takes the age of old chestnut of writing something we’ve never heard before and running with it like a Looney Toon for a soundtrack where any musical style can happen and does simultaneously.
The idea of wondering if androids dream of electric sheep is taken to the next level in search for a soul that bonds owner and a broken down “techno-sapien,” a quest that hauntingly fills the synths of Aska Matsumiya (Aka ASKA) in “After Yang” (Milan Records). As she conjures one of the most haunting A.I.-as-human electronic-based scores since “Ex Machina,” Maysumiya’s ethereal approach is more like a sonic vision of heaven for those who might have never truly lived but possess more soul than their creators. The Japan by way of LA musician engineers a lovely feeling of transcendence, creating a religiosity with synth circuitry bubbles and sparkles amidst hypnotic sustains. Organic instruments like the piano figure just as impressively, from the lullaby like piano-topped theme to an aching, Oriental-tuned violin. By the time that voices take Yang’s melody across the robot rainbow bridge, Matsumiya’s gentle, hypnotically beautiful score has proven a haunting trip into a consciousness that’s more human then human.
Marvel’s has a great track record of finding new talent in the most unexpected places, often casting a net based on their subject’s cultural appropriateness. In the streaming case of a white caped crusader with a distinct identity crisis, the studio has unearthed the coolest composing treasure from Egypt since, maybe the time of the gods, with Hesham Nazih and his majestic approach to “Moon Knight” (Hollywood Records). Tonally shifting between episodes that spotlight horror, action and comedic confusion, one major piece of melodic mummy wrapping that glues together “Moon Knight” is the rapturous scoring by Hesham Nazih. Given a blazingly fierce theme for chanting voice and orchestra, the music bursts with epic melody and atmosphere. He evokes a time of pharaohs with majestically lush strings, curls crescent fists of angered brass and hears a culture of ancient instruments, whether its spinning the universe or hearing the confusion of an afterlife mental hospital, “Moon Knight” is a mix of authenticity, muscular superhero strains and striking mind games. It’s the kind of unapologetic, character-based symphonic majesty that instantly alerts the ears to an imposing arrival. That Nazih is acclaimed within the Egyptian film industry in a twenty-year career filled with numerous orchestral scores that have seen him work with orchestras from England to Vienna attests to building musical power that’s finally been unleashed for western viewers and Marvel fans at large – one that now stands poised to conquer with Konshu’s approval.
From “Glee” star to Slightys frontman, the alt. artist of “Optimist” and “Blood Harmony” (along with writing for and performing with sister Billie Eilish), Finneas O’Connell has shown just as much artsy originality in the role of a composer, no more so than when venturing to red state Texas along with a seeming milquetoast NYC liberal who very reluctantly ends up seeking “Vengeance” (Back Lot Music) for a one-night stand he had back in the big city. It’s a playful culture clash as O’Connell has his way with down and dirty, electric guitar-topped modern western scoring, as given a very hip retro synth beat. There’s definitely something musically wacky in them thar drug-filled plains as a determinedly alt. sound gets made into a man, the licks and electronics growing increasingly edgy for this surprisingly catchy odyssey whose biggest point is not playing into expected stereotypes. Any western worth its salt has got to have a showdown, and O’Connell certainly knows the genre as the rhythmic tension grows into full on rockabilly rage. It’s Spaghetti payback with a determinedly All Things Considered vibe that does both big city webcaster and urban cowboy proud.
Impressively prolific, often sci-fi attuned music editor Shie Rozow (“Resident Alien,” “Stargirl”) more than shows he has the right, original stuff to now stand behind that baton as he turns real life into a globe-spanning, resoundingly cinematic sounding identity hunt with “The Last of the Winthrops” (We Unite as One). As made by a woman who thought she was sired by bloodlines going back to the origin of America, only to discover a whole other truth with a DNA ancestry reckoning, Rozow’s lush, haunting score accompanies her pilgrim’s identity progress in a way that reaches through history itself. Grounding his score with an often-imperious symphony, Rozow juxtaposes a modern woman’s tenderness with a suspenseful mystery behind it in a way that evokes the revelatory documentary scores given by such composers as Phillip Glass and Danny Elfman to the work of Errol Morris. Balancing the orchestral weight of history with the intimate use of the piano, guitar and voice, Rozow creates a gripping sense of spiritual discovery as well as heartbreak and affirmation to often dazzling effect, showing the best documentary scoring as carrying a larger-than-life cinematic pedigree while not losing the humanity, and vulnerability of its subject. His “Winthrops” music finally soars with profound and soaring emotion as it comes to grips with a storied past and an individual suddenly written out of the chapters she thought she knew.