Spider-Man (2002)

Composed by: Danny Elfman

The superhero movie genre was still struggling to find its place at the dawn of the 21st century. The Batman series had fizzled out and X-Men, while successful, wasn’t blowing the general audience’s minds. Then Sam Raimi, a big Spider-Man fan, brought the beloved web-slinger to the big screen with smashing success. Spider-Man was established as one of the first truly great superhero movies. Some say the film hasn’t aged well. I admit it’s cheesy, but Raimi uses the cheesiness to his advantage. I just love this movie. There’s Willem Dafoe’s deliciously maniacal Green Goblin, J.K. Simmons’ flawless performance as J. Jonah Jameson, and really good supporting work from characters like Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man/Peter Parker really gets across the character’s awkward dorkiness, though he’s distractingly too old to be a teenager (thankfully the film is quick to get him out of high school). Raimi worked with one of his long-time collaborators, composer Danny Elfman. Elfman had already established himself in the superhero genre with the Burton Batman films and Raimi’s cult classic Darkman.

Surprisingly there was controversy amongst film score fans over Spider-Man’s theme. There was a claim that he didn’t have one or that is was hard to find. It’s true that the character has several themes and motifs, but there is a main identity clearly established very early on in “Main Title.” It breaks out at heroic moments in “Revenge” and “Parade Attack” and closes out the score dramatically at the end of “Farewell.” Perhaps one cause for the confusion is that Elfman often only utilizes the first few notes before bringing in thumping action music or another motif. The fullest version of the theme also doesn’t appear that often, reserved for certain moments such as the final web-slinging sequence in “Farewell.” One of the more notable uses of the theme is in “Costume Montage.” Elfman has the theme played on electric guitar as Peter Parker draws out various designs for a cool costume. Continue reading

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

In 1979, Gene Rodenberry was able to bring back the cast of his space sci-fi show Star Trek, this time as a movie. Production actually started before Star Wars became a phenomenon, so there was no pressure to create a popcorn action flick (J.J. Abrams would commit this franchise sin thirty years later; also, Star Wars probably did help drive up attendance numbers for Star Trek). Unfortunately, Rodenberry and director Robert Wise went too far in the other direction, creating one of slowest mainstream franchise films of all time. Star Trek: The Motion Picture sees James Kirk, now a Starfleet Admiral, reunite with Spock and the rest of the original characters on the Enterprise. He oversees the investigation of a powerful destructive entity named V’Ger (alternatively spelled Vejur in the tracklisting) that is heading for Earth. Their investigation yields some surprises and also enables the characters and moviegoers to contemplate the definition and nature of life. It’s not a terrible movie. In fact it’s admirable that the cast and crew attempted to create a cerebral big budget sci-fi film, something that could almost never be achieved today.

The composer who would score Star Trek’s entry into cinema was the highly regarded Jerry Goldsmith. This would prove to be one of his most well-known scores, with a couple themes that would permeate the franchise going forward. The film’s plot is not enough to sustain a two hour running time and features several long sequences of the Enterprise being explored and doing exploring. While these scenes drove many moviegoers out of their minds with boredom, they provided an enviable chance for any film composer. With long, slow, dialogue-light sequences, Goldsmith was able to create powerful, lovely cues that could work wonderfully as standalone pieces of classical music. Goldsmith claims that he saw space as a place of romantic potential and, in contrast to the militaristic orchestration of Star Wars and its knock-offs, utilized more in the way of piano, harps, chimes, and similar “soft” instruments. Goldsmith also utilized a fair number of electronic elements in his score. Among these is the blaster beam, a musical instrument patented by none other than Craig Huxley. Huxley portrayed Kirk’s nephew on the TV series. This instrument sounds like an electric instrument, but is really a complex string instrument involving an empty shell casing. The blaster beam is heard in some of the cues focusing on V’Ger, adding to the unusual alien menace of the main antagonist. The use of the blaster beam, electronics, glass tubes, and ominous rhythms make for a decidedly alien musical palette. Continue reading

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Composed by John Addison

A Bridge Too Far is a three hour war epic in the vein of Longest Day and Battle of Britain. Instead of focusing on a major Allied victory, however, it covers the failed Operation Market Garden. Eager to finish the war before 1945, the Western Allies conceived of a plan in which paratroopers would seize vital bridges in the Netherlands and hold then until the rest of the army, spearheaded by the British XXX corps and its tanks, could fight through and secure their gains. Through the Netherlands the Allies could get into Germany and take the fight to the heart of the enemy. However, poor intelligence and resulting unexpected mishaps led to one of the last major Axis victories of the war. This is an amazing film which would have gained more attention and box office revenue if not for its proximity to Star Wars. I really believe it deserves more attention from film and history buffs. It has an all-star cast and lots of great action. It does a wonderful job explaining the ins and outs of the battle, though some points are disputed in the realm of historical debate.

The movie’s music is no slouch either. As with Longest Day large portions of the film are unscored, but composer John Addison has a little more to work with and makes the most of his spots. Before anybody criticizes the score for being a dated rah-rah affair, too heroic for a military tragedy, they should know something about Addison. He was actually a veteran of the battle, having served as a tank officer in the XXX Corps, and asked for a chance serve as composer. Naturally the idea of an actual veteran scoring one of his own major life events was too good to pass up. The result is a heartfelt and sincere score, steeped in heroic fanfares without losing sight of what a tragic event Market Garden was for the paratroopers stuck in Arnhem and the unfortunate Dutch civilians caught in the crossfire. This is the type of war score that is sadly missing from today’s genre offerings, which refuse to engage in such catchy heroic scores for fears of being labeled jingoistic. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Composed by John Williams

Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy came to an ignominious end with Rise of Skywalker. After the severe backlash to The Last Jedi, Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy hit the panic button and rehired J.J. Abrams. Abrams sought to backtrack on Last Jedi’s plot and revelations and win back fans with oodles of fan service. The film and its marketing screamed “here are things you know and love about Star Wars, please love our film!” By wiping out most of the development of the previous film and throwing in as much familiar crap as possible, Abrams succeeded in creating, in my opinion, the worst Star Wars movie ever. It’s the most creatively bankrupt, convoluted, nostalgia-tripping blockbuster I have ever watched. Aside from some of the Kylo Ren stuff, which is elevated more by Adam Driver’s acting than any actual good screenwriting, I felt nothing in this film. I did not feel absorbed into the Star Wars universe. I felt (accurately) like I was watching a cynically crafted product that assumed fans would just eat up and accept anything with a good degree of familiarity. This film even ruins the positive elements of the last two entries, because now they mean nothing. Rise of Skywalker is a film that can only be enjoyed ironically, as a case study of how far Hollywood has fallen.

I’m not going to care about spoilers in my review. That’s how little I think of this film. The general plot is that the Emperor is still alive (completely negating any meaningful sacrifice by Vader in the original trilogy) and has secretly created a new fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers. Rey and friends go on a quest to find out where his home base is so they can destroy the fleet. This leads to a treasure hunt sustained by a trail of improbable and convenient clues. The final battle and various dramatic moments are resolved through the use of new plot-convenient force powers. The film’s story is held together by contrivances, coincidences, and deus ex machinas and uses a breakneck pace to hide these storytelling sins. Amidst this mess, one wonder how John Williams would fare. Continue reading

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Composed by John Powell

The next Star Wars movie spin-off from Disney was also, at the time of this review, the last. Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel chronicling the start of Han Solo’s smuggling career. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was so disgusted with the original directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller that she fired them and hired safe choice Ron Howard to reshoot nearly the entire movie. An origin story, the film sees Harrison Ford’s beloved smuggler played by a younger actor, Alden Ehrenreich. Solo meets Chewbacca, gets into the smuggling business, and tries to woo back his old flame despite her affiliation with the crime syndicate Crimson Sun. Thanks to fan backlash after The Last Jedi, the heavy cost of reshooting the film, and the unwise decision to release the film in close proximity to Avengers: Infinity War, Solo became the first Star Wars film to bomb at the box office. Ironically, this is my favorite entry of the Disney era, something of a guilty pleasure. Han’s character development doesn’t gel with where he is at the start of the original trilogy (in how he’s already going out of his way to help heroic resistance fighters instead of looking out for himself) and there are still some annoying moments of shoehorned fan service and prequelitis. But the movie is just fun and avoids the emotional baggage of the Skywalker saga. The composer this time is John Powell, who has been acclaimed for his work on the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. Having hired the likes of Alexander Desplat (whose Rogue One score was lost to post-production), Michael Giacchino, and then Powell, Disney’s Star Wars has had a good habit of selecting from the small pool of composers who can still deliver big on thematic scores.

Powell’s score has Williamsesque brass flourishes, yet the composer maintains his style with his electronic accompaniments and rhythmic-based action and suspense cues (though in less quantities than he would in, say, one of his Jason Bourne scores). Powell’s use of themes is masterful. He makes them distinctive, but more importantly, to account for today’s noisy action films and tight post-production schedules, able to maintain their power and dramatic effect when used in brief bursts. In fact small pieces of the various themes often occur around each other. For example, Chewbacca and Beckett’s themes will take turns in an action cue that also contains the first motif of Han’s theme. In short Powell’s themes are liberally thrown into the score in small increments without losing their effect. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

The second installment of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi established itself as the most controversial entry in the Star Wars saga. The film picks up right after the end of The Force Awakens. The Rebel fleet is fleeing the First Order, but is running out of fuel. Several of the new characters search for a way to disable the hyperspace tracking of the villains so they can make one final hyperspace jump to safety. Meanwhile, Rey tries to get Luke Skywalker to return to the fight, but he refuses thanks to a dark incident in his past. Director Rian Johnson took some narrative risks that divided fans. Many felt that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as an embittered old recluse was a betrayal of the character and his development in the original trilogy. This was just the main point of contention, with audiences and fans dividing over other aspects of the film, from a large subplot on a casino planet to the unexpected death of a major villain. Also Carrie Fisher, Leia’s actress, passed away before the film’s release, simultaneously inducing both praise for her performance in Last Jedi and an awkward situation for the continuation of the sequel trilogy. Personally I like the film but it does have some major issues. Before diving into the music, I should provide a brief lists of my pros and cons of the film so readers will have a better perspective of my personal views going in. Continue reading

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (Revised Review)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Having bought Star Wars, Disney was not content to just release a sequel trilogy. They wanted to milk the franchise with a cinematic universe akin to Marvel’s superhero brand. In the years between the main trilogy releases they would have standalone Star Wars films. The first such film was hardly “standalone.” Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance gained the Death Star plans. A team of Rebel agents and misfits, one of them the daughter of the Death Star’s main designer, dodge Imperial agents and, under the cover of a pretty awesome battle, manage to download the Death Star plans to a small drive. The movie is entertaining and is great on the visual and action sides, thanks to the efforts of director Gareth Edwards. The main problem is that one has to watch the original trilogy to actually get any emotional connection with it. It’s loaded with fan service, much of it awkwardly shoe-horned in. Also, most of the characters are pretty forgettable. It’s a bad sign when it takes me years to memorize the names of Star Wars characters. Perhaps it was easier to retain the names of such minor characters as Dexter Jettster and Momaw Nadon when I would get the DK visual guides and action figures.

One intriguing element of the spin-off films was the fact that John Williams would not score them, giving other established composers a chance to play with the Star Wars universe. Edwards originally had Alexander Desplat, who had provided a solid score for his Godzilla, on board. However, the film went through massive last-minute re-shoots, as evidenced by the abundance of trailer footage that was absent from the finished product. Desplat’s schedule did not allow him to re-score the film. As sad as it was to see one of Hollywood’s most respected composers drop out, his replacement was a logical choice. Michael Giacchino is an avowed fan of heavily thematic film scores and has created many of his own. His work on the Medal of Honor and Lost World: Jurassic Park video games brought to mind Williams’ own material and he had long been hailed as a possible successor to his legacy. For Rogue One Giacchino had the rough, yet opportune task of creating a Star Wars score within a few weeks. The final effort shows that he succeeded, but with some reservations. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

To the surprise of many, George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney for a whopping $4 billion plus. Lucas was at this point likely tired of the constant barrage of fan criticisms leveled at him for the prequels and various re-edits of the original trilogy. In fact many fans were excited to see Star Wars done by somebody else. J.J. Abrams was tasked with starting the new trilogy under the direction of producer Kathleen Kennedy. The first of the sequel trilogy, which wipes out most of the continuity of the original expanded universe, was a smashing hit and well-liked. The Force Awakens sees the galaxy plunged into a new war as the First Order, a remnant of the Empire, seeks to regain control with the help of Starkiller, a literal planetary Death Star. Both the First Order and the Republic-backed Resistance are after the last piece of a map that will lead to the missing Luke Skywalker. Young scavenger Rey teams up with Finn (a defector from the First Order) to bring the map fragment to the Resistance. Along the way they bump into classic characters like Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia, and confront Han and Leia’s dark side-wielding son Kylo Ren.

I was among the many that initially loved the movie and hailed the rebirth of Star Wars, but have come to actually dislike it. The magical feeling of seeing Star Wars back, with a heavy dose of nostalgia, fooled me into loving The Force Awakens. However, I realize that most if not all of the Disney trilogy’s flaws were a result of director J.J. Abrams’ usual hackery, starting with this film. By retreading the plotline of the first film and its rebels vs. empire conflict, he forced the Star Wars saga into a cyclical rather than progressing narrative. To the film’s credit, many of the new characters are good and full of potential, especially Adam Driver’s conflicted Kylo Ren. One aspect that is definitely praiseworthy is John Williams’ score. I was actually concerned that at this point in his life Williams would not be able to reproduce his musical magic, but I was ecstatically surprised. The soundtrack for TFA is abundant in both old and new themes and states them frequently while keeping them fresh. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

The prequel trilogy came to its long-awaited conclusion with Revenge of the Sith. Despite a poor reaction to Attack of the Clones, audiences were still excited to finally see the birth of the Galactic Empire and the rise of Darth Vader. The film has just as much bad dialogue as the previous two entries and the lightsaber duels at the end, while fun, are a bit ridiculous. Yet by comparison the movie is much better. Ian MacDiarmid hams it up wonderfully as Emperor Palpatine, the darkening atmosphere of the story is actually well-done, and the film focuses more on the action scenes, which were already one of the prequels’ stronger suits (also check out the novelization, which is legitimately great to the point that George Lucas considers it canon rather than his own film). John Williams’ score is suitably epic, but was the first Star Wars score to foster real critical debate amongst film music fans. It was the first in the series to garner 4 out of 5 star ratings (an 8 or 9 out of 10 on this blog) among some critics. So why was this and where does my opinion fall?

Well, I think Williams’ Revenge of the Sith exists in a weird spot. On the one hand many of the individual pieces of music are great. Williams really plays up the epic fall of a galaxy into tyranny with epic action cues and an abundance of choral pieces. When I get lazy and just start selecting tracks from the prequel trilogy to listen to, I usually turn to this one. On the other hand ROTS is supposed to link the two trilogies. For some reason Williams did not build a strong thematic connection. Original trilogy themes are there, but they aren’t evolving into their prominent roles. With a lack of prequel themes carrying over to this film, this renders ROTS very messy and weak on the thematic front. As with Attack of the Clones, there is also a wealth of cues edited in from previous scores, again leading to speculation that there is more thematically cohesive material that was cut out late in post-production. What’s frustrating is that some of the edited-in moments result in missed opportunities. The most egregious is Darth Vader’s march on the Jedi Temple. One would think that, representing Anakin’s new allegiance to evil, Williams would have at least edited in the opening of the Imperial March, but instead there’s the Arena march from AOTC. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

Despite a mixed reaction to The Phantom Menace, fans and moviegoers alike were still excited to see George Lucas’ second installment of the prequel trilogy. Attack of the Clones moves the story ten years later. Anakin is now a grown-up Padawan (a name for a Jedi apprentice) to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He reunites with Padme from the first film and serves as her bodyguard. Unfortunately he falls in love with her, violating a Jedi code against emotional entanglements. While one of the worst movie romances of all time ensues, Obi-Wan investigates an assassination attempt and learns of both a secret clone army and a Separatist plot headed by the ex-Jedi Count Dooku. The film ends with the beginning of the Clone Wars, an event name-dropped in the first Star Wars movie. Attack of the Clones was for a time considered the worst Star Wars film of all time. It’s at least still in top contention, even with many fans turning most of their ire towards the sequel trilogy. The romance is cringe and slows the pace of the movie, Anakin is whiny and unlikeable, and the dialogue in general is bad (at least in an unintentional funny way). This film really cemented fan backlash against George Lucas. Thankfully John Williams still delivers, albeit with a score that takes things in a new direction.

The album arrangement for Attack of the Clones is nearly chronological, a real departure from previous Star Wars soundtrack releases. There are also only 13 tracks since many of the cues are lengthy. Thanks to its mostly chronological presentation, I will take a mostly chronological approach to reviewing it. Pretty much all the known highlights are here. When I use the word “known,” I am referring to a theory that there is unreleased material. Bits of the film, and the last act in particular, are scored with inserted cues and edits from The Phantom Menace, as well as re-edits of “The Arena.” This has led to some fan speculation that Williams had some new material that was cut out late in post-production. I find it more likely that Williams simply chose not to score much of the last act under the assumption that last-minute edits would interfere with his material as they had with the previous entry. It would be astonishing to learn that 20 to 30 minutes of great Williams music has never come to the surface in any way. Continue reading