Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Vanishing by Jerry Goldsmith (1993)

A review of the soundtrack album by Travis Elder
Posted December 2, 2017

The year 1993 was a renaissance of sorts for my youth. I worked at a movie theater, watched lots of movies, consumed popcorn in bulk, drank gallons of soda, and did my homework in between movie showings. What more could a geeky teenager ask for? It was during this time that I discovered Jerry Goldsmith's alluring score for The Vanishing. The score quickly grew on me as I caught segments of it during my theater checks, so much so that when Varese Sarabande finally issued a limited edition album in 2007, I quickly snatched it up.

The Vanishing is an obscure, psychological thriller that was poorly received by audiences and critics alike. The film follows Jeff Harriman's (Kiefer Sutherland) obsessive search for his girlfriend Diane Shaver (Sandra Bullock) after she mysteriously disappeared at a gas station while they vacationed. So clinically obsessed is he that when Diane's abductor, Barney Cousins (Jeff Bridges), shows up on his doorstep, he is all too eager to follow a path that few would take. Cousins promises to reveal Diane's fate if Jeff gets into his car and comes with him right then.  So begins Jeff's unlikely and unsurprisingly chilling journey to discover what befell his girlfriend including a return to the gas station where Cousins abducted Diane.  Fortunately for Jeff, his new girlfriend, Rita (Nancy Travis), intervenes to attempt saving him from his own blind stupidity.

The film's main theme opens the score in The Practice, which plays as Cousins, a chemistry teacher and ironically family man, sadistically practices and plans his abduction.  He even times how long a chemically infused handkerchief held over his own nose takes to knock him out.  Goldsmith's theme for Cousins' villainous planning is a fiendish two-note motif, a smooth and flowing, waltz-style theme accompanied by precisely calculated rhythmic backing.  The theme's harmonic slinkiness belies so well Cousins cruel intentions as it leads you along with its attractive, flowing grace.  It becomes all the more frightening when Goldsmith morphs the theme into dissonance as if to say, "Gotcha!"  Of course, Goldsmith does these kinds of themes so well.  He did so in the previous year's Basic Instinct and he would do so again in the next year's even more superior effort in The Shadow.

For the relationship between Jeff and his girlfriends, Goldsmith crafts a love theme that he most often arranges in plaintive form because it represents the loss Jeff feels for Diane.  As such, it often comes across mournful and regretful such as it does when it first appears in Apologies.  It never reaches the glitzy heights of Forever Young, or the elegance of The Russia House, though these themes share commonalities.  The theme does get a few tender performances such as with woodwinds in Forever and with both strings and woodwinds in A Night's Sleep.  Perhaps the most effective, technical use of the theme occurs in Drink where Goldsmith intertwines it in counterpoint to unsettling effect with the nefarious two-note motif.  The highlight performance though occurs in End Titles where we are treated to a sultry performance pared with jazzy percussion and piano much like Goldsmith did with even better results in The Russia House's concluding cue with that score's love theme.  This closing rendition saves The Vanishing's love theme from footnote status.  Even so, it pales in comparison to another romantic theme in another thriller that same year composed by James Horner for Darby in The Pelican Brief.

Mention must also be made of the pivotal role synth elements play in the score.  Throughout, Goldsmith incorporates his trademark electronics of the time (think Total Recall, Star Trek Insurrection, and even Rambo).  Included are synth rhythms, pulses, pops, claps, tings, and growls. For example, in New Message (at 2:19) and Abduction (at :02) we hear an elongated synth growl that Hans Zimmer would later replicate with great effect in Crimson Tide two years later. The electronic elements add to the suspenseful ambiance and enhance both the intrigue textures and the action set pieces. What could otherwise function as mundane underscore becomes much more interesting as Goldsmith morphs, arranges, contracts, and expands his synthetic elements in a variety of ways.

No doubt this score remains obscure because of the film's box office failure and its limited release by Varese in 2007, long after its debut. If not for my job at a movie theater, I could easily have missed it. Much of the score, its themes and synth elements, are very typical of Goldsmith, which is both a strength and a weakness.  However, too often thriller scores become tiresome because the quieter sections tend toward boring, monotonous droning.  Not so here as Goldsmith's keeps things interesting with his intelligent and snappy integration of synth permutations.  Goldsmith's effective use of counterpoint is also appreciated.  In the end, the score remains a nostalgic favorite that I return to for its slyly seductive main theme, the end credits performance of the love theme, and Goldsmith's trademark combination of orchestra and synth in both in its suspenseful sections and its action music.  Sadly, the Varese Sarabande limited release is now out of print, but copies remain on the secondary market including

1. Practice (4:50)*+#
2. The Stars (1:05)
3. Statistics (1:52)+
4. Steps (1:07)
5. Apologies (2:13)~
6. Forever (1:37)~
7. Diane’s Missing (2:34)*^
8. That’s It (:55)~
9. Passing Time (:37)~^
10. A Night’s Sleep (1:40)~
11. Weekend Duty (2:12)
12. The Password (4:40)#
13. The Vision (3:44)~#+
14. New Message (2:29)
15. Hello, Jeff (:39)
16. Let Me Tell You (3:18)+#
17. A Variation (2:18)
18. The Lure (1:00)+
19. Abduction (2:40)*+#^
20. Don’t Tell (:52)
21. Drink (4:01)+#~
22. Surprise (2:07)#
23. Where’s Jeff? (3:46)^
24. Let’s Talk (9:00)*+#~
25. End Titles (3:17)*~

Total album time: 65:02
Album release year: 2007

+Contains main theme
#Contains two-note villain motif
~Contains love theme
^Action cue
*1993 Favorites Pick
Recommended, shortened album program

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Justice League by Danny Elfman (2017)

A review of the soundtrack album by Travis Elder
Posted November 11, 2017

Justice League is the culmination of three previous films including Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel, and this year's Wonder Woman.  Director Zack Snyder has been in on this franchise from the beginning having directed both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman.  Unfortunately, he left the project late in its production, due to the untimely passing of his daughter.  Joss Whedon was hired to finish post-production as well as to head some reshoots, reportedly to infuse some of the lighthearted tone that worked so well in The Avengers.  Joss Whedon is no stranger to the comic book genre, having most recently directed Avengers Age of Ultron.  For that project he relied on two composers, including Danny Elfman and so it is no surprise that he chose Elfman to score Justice League.

Danny Elfman's storied history in the comic genre is lengthy and includes a number of notable successes beginning with Tim Burton's 1989 film, Batman.  For that film, Elfman won a Grammy for his Batman theme and for good reason.  It continues to stand as one of the iconic themes in the genre alongside Superman and others.  From there he scored several comic book projects including Batman Returns (1992), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Hellboy II (2008), and Avengers Age of Ultron (2015).  In 1990, he also composed the theme for the short-lived Flash TV series.

When Elfman was announced the big question was whether he would use his legendary Batman theme?  In a recent interview, Elfman indeed confirmed the use of his theme, as well as Hans Zimmer's theme for Wonder Woman and John Williams' theme for Superman.  At the same time he discounted using Hans Zimmer's rhythmic scoring approach for Batman, opting instead to use his Batman theme.  This approach makes a lot of sense, especially if Warner Brothers is trying to change the tone from the previous films, which have been much darker.  In that case, the much more overtly heroic Batman Theme from 1989 fits the bill perfectly.

Elfman certainly does not overuse the classic themes.  If anything, you are left wanting more because the previous themes essentially make cameo appearances.  The theme for Batman gets not quite a minute and a half.  Zimmer's Wonder Woman get little more than 40 seconds.  John Williams' Superman gets only about 35 seconds and its use in the film is so sparing and even subtle that some moviegoers may not even recognize its use.  When these themes do appear though, their frugal use only heightens their dramatic (and goosebump-inducing) effect.  What really carries the score album for its lengthy run time are Elfman's new themes for the Justice League and the theme for the film's villain, Steppenwolf.

The new justice league theme appears in the first two score cues including the concert arrangement in Hero's Theme. The theme includes everything you might want and expect for a hero's anthem including noble brass, trumpet blasts, brawny percussion, satisfying choral variations, and explosive, inspiring crescendos.  The theme gets substantial airtime throughout the score appearing in thirteen of the 24 score tracks.  The highlight performances though occur in the full-length versions of The Tunnel Fight and The Final Battle (tracks 25 and 26).  Elfman brings to bear during those 24 minutes an onslaught of orchestral power that amounts to some of the best action writing of his career.  The Final Battle in particular not only features extended and explosive variations of the Justice League theme, but also the most heroic performances of both Batman's Theme and Superman's Theme, with one proviso.  The most heroic rendition of Superman's Theme, which occurs on the shortened version of the The Final Battle from 2:43 to 2:49), unfortunately is omitted in the full-length version.

To introduce the film's villain, Elfman employs a dramatic and dark choir in a piece harkening back to the choral majesty of Descent into Mystery from his original Batman score.  While the two cues are very different in structure, they share an outburst of chill-inducing choral excellence that will find its way onto many a playlist.

A motif for The Flash appears at 3:36 to 4:04 in The Tunnel Fight as well as in Spark of the Flash and Friends and Foes.  The motif conveys a sense of awesome speed and power through a fast-tempoed and flighty string ostinato punctuated by blaring brass blasts and accented with flutes and light percussion.  Blake Neely has previously used a similar string ostinato technique for his Flash theme in the CW television series (for example, the cue The Fastest Man Alive).

The inclusion of Hans Zimmer's excellent theme for Wonder Woman is much appreciated for continuity's sake.  Zimmer's original performances of the theme featured an evocative, muscly electric cello performance by Tina Guo backed by aggressive percussion.  Rupert Gregson-Williams used the same style of performance in his score for this year's Wonder Woman.  Elfman instead employs the entire string section and while not as satisfying as the original, it brings a gratifying variation on the theme in Wonder Woman Rescue.  Although not on the album, Elfman also briefly reprises Zimmer's Krypton theme.

Overall, Elfman's Justice League features excellent themes for the Justice League and Steppenwolf.  The Justice League Theme is boldly heroic, but certainly not over the top.  The integration of these themes throughout the score, especially the action set-pieces, is particularly satisfying much the same way it was in Elfman's Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Theme integration into the action music doesn't always happen effectively or at all.  As great as Alan Silvestri's Avengers theme is, for whatever reason that theme was poorly integrated into the Avengers' action sequences.  Thankfully, Elfman doesn't do that and the result is the best action music of the year to date.

The score is available from WaterTower Music digitally, to stream, and on CD.  Amazon CD | Amazon MP3 | iTunes | Spotify

1. Everybody Knows (Sigrid) (4:25)
2. The Justice League Theme – Logos (0:48)+
3. Hero's Theme (4:17)*+$
4. Batman on the Roof (2:34)^
5. Enter Cyborg (2:00)
6. Wonder Woman Rescue (2:43)+~^
7. Hippolyta's Arrow (1:16)
8. The Story of Steppenwolf (2:59)*
9. The Amazon Mother Box (4:33)+^
10. Cyborg Meets Diana (2:36)
11. Aquaman in Atlantis (2:39)
12. Then There Was Three (1:10)x
13. The Tunnel Fight (6:24)+x^$
14. The World Needs Superman (1:00)+
15. Spark of the Flash (2:18)+$
16. Friends and Foes (4:14)+#^$
17. Justice League United (1:24)+
18. Home (3:24)
19. Bruce and Diana (1:06)
20. The Final Battle (6:14)*+x#^
21. A New Hope (4:36)+
22. Anti-Hero's Theme (5:35)*+
23. Come Together (Gary Clark Jr. & Junkie XL) (3:13)
24. Icky Thump (The White Stripes) (4:14)
25. The Tunnel Fight (Full Length Bonus Track) (10:58)*+x^$
26. The Final Battle (Full Length Bonus Track) (12:57)*+x#^
27. Mother Russia (Bonus Track) (1:45)

Total Album Time: 101:22
Originally released: November 10, 2017
+Contains Justice League Theme
$Contains Flash Motif
xContains Theme for Batman by Danny Elfman
~Contains Wonder Woman's Theme composed by Hans Zimmer
#Contains John Williams' Theme for Superman
^Action piece
*Favorite cues of 2017 pick
Recommended, shortened album program
Film order: 2, 4, 1, 6, 5, 9, 7, 8, 10, 11, 27, 12, 25, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 17, 26, 21, 23, 22    

About the Author
Travis Elder is a freelance writer and attorney who has had a passion for film, television, and video game scores for almost thirty years.  He has operated @moviescores on Twitter since 2009.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Top Ten Scores for Box Office Bombs

Article by Travis Elder

Every movie is a bit of a gamble. Some flicks are more sure things than others, but sometimes even the best movie concepts turn out flops.  Surely, a second, third, or fourth film about Peter Pan is going to do well?  History says otherwise.  By the time a composer sets to work in earnest on a movie, it is often far along the production process. Signs of the film's tenuous fate may even be crystalizing.  Interestingly, a film's quality often has no correlation with the quality of its score.  In fact, great scores have arisen many times out of the ignominy of a film's failure. Undoubtedly, this provides small comfort to the studio and its investors.  We film score fans remain the beneficiaries of a composer's strident efforts no matter the film's quality.  The scores to such downtrodden flicks may live long and prosper into the future to be appreciated again and again. To prove my point, let me share my top ten favorite scores from films that generated catastrophically less than desirable results at the box office.  For a more extended listen and exploration, check out my top 25 in this Spotify playlist.

Estimated loss: $94,000,000–152,000,000*
Composer John Powell

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Estimated loss: $70,000,000+
Composer: Danny Elfman

Ender's Game
Estimated loss: $71,000,000–$90,000,000
Composer: Steve Jablonsky

Gods of Egypt
Estimated loss: $80,000,000
Composer: Marco Beltrami

Peter Pan
Estimated loss: $91,000,000
Composer: James Newton Howard

John Carter
Estimated loss: $127,000,000–209,000,000
Composer: Michael Giacchino

Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas
Estimated loss: $163,000,000
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams

Estimated loss: $96,000,000–$123,000,000
Composer: Clint Mansell

Jupiter Ascending
Estimated loss: $88,000,000–$121,000,000
Composer: Michael Giacchino

Cutthroat Island
Estimated loss: $140,000,000
Composer: John Debney

*All loss figures from:

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Friday, September 19, 2014

First Listen: The Equalizer by Harry Gregson-Williams (2014)

Article by Travis Elder

Purchase / pre-order on Amazon CD | Amazon MP3 | iTunes
(expected release date September 23, 2014)
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Harry Gregson-Williams' forthcoming score to The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington.  If you watched The Equalizer television series in the 80's then you may remember Stewart Copeland's rock band and synthesizer infused theme.  Fast forward almost thirty years and now we have Gregson-Williams' own rock band and synthesizer infused take.  Does he succeed?  Check out some of my initial thoughts on The Equalizer score album on Twitter@MovieScores

Calvary by Patrick Cassidy (2014)

Review by Travis Elder

Purchase on Amazon CD | MP3 | iTunes
Best Cues of 2014 Nominees:
Na mBeannaiochtai (The Beatitudes I) - Amazon | iTunes
Teresa - Amazon | iTunes
Third Act Revelation - Amazon | iTunes
Say Your Prayers - Amazon | iTunes

Calvary opens darkly with a parishioner in a confessional telling a priest, Father James, about sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest as a child.  He explains his plan to kill Father James the following Sunday as punishment against the Catholic church.  The film follows Father James through the next week as he faces difficulties shepherding his congregation and culminates in a confrontation with the man who threatened to kill him.  If this opening seems disturbing do not be deterred because you will miss out on one of the most touching scores of 2014.

Amidst these troubling scenes is Irish composer, Patrick Cassidy's spiritually moving score.  The album opens with a stunning, slightly mournful song, Na mBeannaiochtai, performed by Irish singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird.  Lionáird's heart penetrating vocals touch with their sincerity and penetrate like a reassuring friend into the soul.  Every time I listen to this song I find myself hitting the repeat button at least a couple times before continuing.

Calvary Theme continues the gorgeous momentum of the opening song with its ponderous, beautiful strings and its subtle shades of sorrow.  My favorite performance of the theme appears in the moving, Teresa, where the relaxing Canon-in-D-like strings are joined by a gentle female chorus. Another interesting variation comes at 2:09 into A Lone Figure with a subdued, anthem-like treatment the cries out for more development and extended length.

Aya Peard provides brief, but beautiful, ethereal vocals, vocalizing the Calvary Theme in Memories Fade and the Beatitudes Theme in Fiona Awakens and especially in Ben Bulben starting at 2:20 alongside tolling bells.  Peard's singing in Third Act Revelation is especially divine particularly the passage starting at 1:48 and when the heart wrenching solo violin joins in at 2:11.  Simply sublime.

The album closes out with a pristine variation of the song's theme in Say Your Prayers where the piano, starting at 1:38, performs the theme ever so genuinely, carrying peace to the heart.  Cassidy's careful attention to details like these is what makes this score such a joy to listen to.

To be honest, when I read the plot summary for the movie I expected a much different score and could have dismissed it without a listen.  What I got was a jewel that has seen many repeat plays and will continue to enchant my ears long into the future.  Unreservedly recommended.

1. Na mBeannaiochtai (The Beatitudes I)† (4:11) *
2. Calvary Theme (2:58)
3. Ben Bulben† (3:54)
4. The Beach (1:33)
5. Don’t Change The Subject+ (:37)
6. Memories Fade+ (1:08)
7. Fiona Awakens† (1:05)
8. Teresa+ (3:09) *
9. Confession+ (2:18)
10. Freddy Joyce (:58)
11. Why Am I Here (1:40)
12. Your Church Is On Fire (1:21)
13. Veronica (1:44)
14. Third Act Revelation+ (3:20) *
15. Bruno (:59)
16. Country Lane (:45)
17. Dream (:37)
18. But I Will Go On+ (2:41)
19. Forgiveness† (1:03)
20. A Lone Figure+ (2:57)
21. Say Your Prayers† (4:02) *
22. Na mBeannaiochtai (The Beatitudes II)† (4:16)

Total Running Time: 47:23
*ScoreCues 2014 Best Cues Nominee
†Beatitudes Theme
+Calvary Theme

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