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:

Note: This site does not support piracy.  Every effort is made to link to media that is posted online legally.  If you believe that a piece does not meet this standard, please message me on Twitter @moviescores.

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

Similar Scores
The Greatest Miracle by Mark McKenzie

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 by John Powell (2014)

Review by Travis Elder

Purchase on Amazon CD | MP3 | iTunes

With out a doubt my favorite score of 2010 was John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon.  The first film is about a young boy, Hiccup, who lives in a Viking village beset by dragon attacks.  The leader of the town and Hiccup's father is bent on destroying the dragons once and for all.  In a twist of fate, Hiccup ends up befriending a dragon, Toothless, and along the way helps his father and his people to turn dragons from foes to friends.  John Powell's score is one of the first film's most memorable characters with its adventurous main theme, rousing action sequences, and tender romantic passages that make your heart melt.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 is no mere rehash.  While all the familiar themes from the first film are present they come with fresh twists and turns, but we also get two new strong themes: one for Hiccup’s mother, Valka, and another for the menacing foe, Drago.

Valka’s Theme is introduced ever so gently in Together We Map the World with plucking harp followed by tender orchestra and flute performances.  By the end of the cue the new theme is beautifully paired with the marimba and xylophone motif used in Forbidden Friendship from the original score.  Herein lies one of the score’s strengths because Powell takes the new themes and places them with orchestrations applied to his original themes creating a pleasing fusion that reminds of the old while giving variety to the new.  Part of the fun of the score is also hearing how masterfully Valka’s Theme and the other themes are varied and adapted throughout the score to fit different contexts.  For example, we get a spiritually moving performance of Valka’s Theme in Losing Mom/Meet the Good Alpha with angelic, booming chorus followed by tender piano.  This performance is reprised wonderfully in Two New Alphas from 2:55 to 3:53.   Next, in Flying With Mother we hear a whimsical flight of fancy, this time with the chorus singing the theme in a delightful and celebratory tone.  This excellent concert-worthy piece finds good company with highlights from the first score such as Forbidden Friendship and Test Drive.

Drago's theme is highlighted in Meet Drago and often features a male choir that lends a larger than life feel to Drago.  Like Valka's theme Drago's theme goes through several different variations.  As Meet Drago begins the theme conveys an eerie sneakiness, but by the end of the piece becomes more foreboding with its militaristic marching and booming chorus.  Without a doubt, however, the best performance of the the theme occurs in Battle of the Bewilderbeast.  From 4:22 to 4:44, the ears are awestruck by a crescendo of thundering male chorus answered by a retorting female chorus, clanging metal, emphatic percussion, and swelling orchestra.  The closest comparison I could make here is an epic sound similar to some of the thunderous passages of choral excellence in Jerry Goldsmith's Omen.  My only complaint is this short tease longs for a more extended performance.

As with the last score we are treated to lots of action music, but none is more cohesive or more satisfying than the previously mentioned, Battle of the Bewilderbeast.  In fact, this cue represents one of the best action pieces of John Powell's career.  Not only does it contain the best performance of Drago's theme, but features a whirlwind of satisfying variations of the original themes woven together in seamless perfection.  Starting at 5:05 the piece also concludes with one of my favorite performances of Hiccup's theme with a rousing and triumphant marching fanfare.

The sequel album benefits by a more balanced presentation of action verses more gentle and quiet moments.  The highlight of the latter include the touching and reverent duo, Stoick Saves Hiccup and Stoick's Ship.  Stoick Saves Hiccup features a gentle performance of Valka's Theme, before becoming more noble with soul stirring female choir at 1:33.  Stoick's Ship begins with quiet harp and soft female chorus that escalates to triumphant chorus backed by bagpipes.  The last third of the cue features a beautiful flute playing Valka's Theme and concludes with a reverent trumpet playing Hiccup's Theme.  

The score for How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a resounding delight.  More could be written about the excellence of this score, but if you have read this far, stop now and go listen to and appreciate for yourself one of the finest scores to come out this year or any year.

1. Dragon Racing (4:34) *
2. Together We Map The World (2:19)
3. Hiccup The Chief – Drago’s Coming (4:44)
4. Toothless Lost (3:28)
5. Should I Know You (1:56)
6. Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary (3:19)
7. Losing Mom – Meet The Good Alpha (3:24)
8. Meet Drago (4:26)
9. Stoick Finds Beauty (2:33)
10. Flying With Mother (2:49) *
11. For The Dancing And The Dreaming – Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson & Mary Jane Wells (3:06)
12. Battle Of The Bewilderbeast (6:26) *
13. Hiccup Confronts Drago (4:06)
14. Stoick Saves Hiccup (2:23) *
15. Stoick’s Ship (3:48) *
16. Alpha Comes To Berk (2:20)
17. Toothless Found (3:46)
18. Two New Alphas (6:06)
19. Where No One Goes – Jónsi (2:44)

Total Running Time: 68 minutes
*ScoreCues 2014 Best Cues Nominee