Soundtrack Review: The Dark Knight

Composed by: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is still considered by many to the not just the greatest Batman movie but the greatest superhero movie of all time. For me the film does live up to the hype, and was certainly better than Batman Begins with stronger villains (especially the deceased Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker), clearer action scenes, a heavily intense story, and great performances by Gary Oldman as James Gordon and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent.

One area that did not  necessarily improve from Batman Begins is the music. Once again collaborating with James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer and Media Ventures was now in even more control, with Howard only rarely showing his style. When deciding who would get what of the two new main character themes (Joker and Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Zimmer got the big main villain. Continue reading

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Composed by: Michael Giacchino

Since everything has to have a cinematic universe now, Star Wars has been getting standalone movies alongside the main trilogies. The first of these, Rogue One, tells the story of how the Rebels got the Death Star plans. It’s an okay movie. Most of the characters are one-dimensional and it takes a while for things to get going. There’s little moments of horrible fanservice as well. Do we really need to see those two a-holes from the Mos Eisley cantina? And was it necessary to have a creepy CGI Tarkin? It wouldn’t be sacrilegious to just find a look-a-like actor and cast him. But the final battle is probably the best the franchise has ever offered and pretty much elevates the entire movie on its own.

Along with being a standalone movie, Rogue One is also notable for being the first Star Wars film scored by someone other than John Williams. Originally, director Gareth Edwards had Alexandre Desplat hired on. But thanks to a ridiculous amount of last-minute reshoots and re-editing, his score didn’t fit and he was too preoccupied with another project to rework it. Michael Giacchino was brought in to produce a full Star Wars score in under a month. Giacchino has often been associated with John Williams, with his Medal of Honor music being reminiscent of the Indiana Jones scores and his work on Jurassic World. So does his score stand up to Willliams’ standards? First the themes. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

IndianaJonesAndTheKingdomOfTheChrystalSkullSoundtrack2008.JPG

Composed and Conducted by: John Williams

Nearly two decades after Indiana Jones literally rode into the sunset with Last Crusade, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas decided to revisit the franchise, a move with its fair share of controversy since Harrison Ford was noticeably much, much older. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gotten mixed reviews, and is often cited as the worst movie in series. I have to agree that it’s the worst, but despite some serious flaws, especially its underwhelming last act, I think it’s an okay movie with some genuinely great scenes.

One of the most exciting aspects of Indiana Jones coming back was the return of John Williams, who at this point had just started to take it easier with his movie scoring schedule. As with his return to Star Wars, much time had elapsed since he scored Indiana Jones. Would his changed style of scoring affect how fun the score would be? Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Spectre

Composed and Conducted by: Thomas Newman

Spectre, as the title suggests, reintroduced the evil organization led by the cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Daniel Craig’s performance as 007 is even better, but the film is a mixed bag. It’s great for the first two-thirds, but gets mired by an attempt to link all of the Craig films together, as well as tying his origins to Blofeld and Spectre’s creation, an unnecessary move that wastes time and adds nothing. It’s not a terrible film, just an underwhelming one.

With Sam Mendes staying on for this film, it was inevitable that Thomas Newman would return too, making him only the third recurring composer after John Barry and David Arnold. Unfortunately, entire passages of music are recycled from Skyfall, though the album does focus on the more original material. For the third time the title song is not included on the soundtrack! This time it’s Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall”, which has good lyrics and fantastic music. Its main downfall is Smith’s singing voice, which just didn’t do it for me. I feel he gets way too high-pitched at points. Also, as with Adele’s “Skyfall”, Newman only uses the song once in his score, in an instrumental version that doesn’t even make full use of the melody. Perhaps there were production issues as with Skyfall that hindered him from utilizing it more. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Skyfall

Composed and Conducted by: Thomas Newman

The 50th anniversary for the James Bond film was marked by Skyfall, a rather good film that successfully meshed some of the old school tropes of the franchise with more recent sensibilities. It’s probably the most artistic entry in the franchise, especially when it comes to the lighting work. As it’s a Sam Mendes film, David Arnold was replaced by Mendes’ choice composer, Thomas Newman, a move which irked a few fans who had really been enjoying Arnold’s run.

Skyfall’s soundtrack has its fair share of difficulties regarding the song of the same name by Adele. First of all, it’s not on the actual soundtrack thanks to contractual issues, as was the case with “You Know My Name” from Casino Royale. Also, it was not completed in time for Newman to incorporate it into his score, which is a real shame because it’s one of the best songs, and features a strong, powerful tune. Newman did hold off on scoring one scene, just so there could be at least one reference. The track is “Komodo Dragon”, which plays the theme wonderfully before atmospheric material and some Asian string music. It’s one of the best tracks and shows what could have been if there was more coordination in the music department. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Casino Royale

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

After numerous complaints from James Bond fans regarding Die Another Day, the producers spent a couple extra years on the next film, ultimately deciding to go with a reboot that toned down the camp elements. Martin Campbell, director of the well-loved Goldeneye, came on to create this more realistic take on 007. Pierce Brosnan’s suave character was replaced with a more hard-edged and less quippy performance by Daniel Craig. Casino Royale is probably my favorite James Bond movie. I didn’t think I could ever be so engrossed by watching people play cards.

Coming over from the Brosnan years was David Arnold. His score for Casino Royale proves to be noticeably different from his previous scores, especially Die Another Day. For the third time he was allowed to help create the title song, and the result is one of the best Bond songs yet, and my favorite. Sung by Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” is relentlessly energetic with awesome bad-ass lyrics. Unlike most of the previous songs, it doesn’t talk about romance or sleaze, but focuses on the dangerous life of a secret agent. Unfortunately, some legal issues prevented this wonderful piece of music from getting on album, and its absence is very frustrating since the CD now lacks its appropriate opener.

In large contrast to Arnold’s previous efforts is the understated usage of the James Bond theme. Aside from the ending, it makes its best and boldest appearance in “Blunt Instrument” before the main theme comes on again. Its other appearances are mostly easy to miss if not listened to carefully, with a few bars playing under the main theme or in the midst of long suspenseful passages. The James Bond theme is much more noticeable in “Dinner Jackets” (played a bit humorously and in conjunction with the main theme) and “A House Falls in Venice” (where Arnold puts in the obligatory statement for the final action scene’s conclusion). Only in the last track does the James Bond theme play in full swing. It’s similar o the Dr. No version, and a very satisfying conclusion.

With the James Bond theme’s role reduced, Arnold relies on the melodies from “You Know My Name”, which are liberally applied. The first appearance within the score itself is at the end of “Miami International”, prefaced by a rocking iteration of part of the Bond theme. “I’m the Money” is a simple thirty-second statement, while “Aston Montenegro” features my favorite incorporation of “You Know My Name”, a one-minute cue that builds into a grand statement.

The last major theme is a tender piano piece for Bond girl Vesper. This is one of my favorite Bond love themes and should be easy to spot for listeners. It sounds a little sad, but this makes it great in the final tragic cues (the titles are spoilers, but oh well). There is an extension that appears in the more romantic moments, first in “Vesper” and more sweepingly in “City of Lovers”. The ill-fated secondary Bond girl Solange also gets her own theme (“Solange”), which is simpler, but has an air of mystery about it.

Perhaps to make up for the absence of Cornell’s song, the album producers stuffed the CD with around seventy-five minutes of music. While the more energetic and bombastic scores from the Brosnan eras certainly keep me entertained for over an hour, Casino Royale sometimes slows down too much thanks to an abundance of suspenseful underscore. The card game cues, while sometimes having interestingly subtle methods of inserting the various themes (such as a few piano notes for Vesper in “The Tell”, can be a real chore to sit through. The action does deliver. “African Rundown” gives the album an abrupt start, but is a thrilling near-seven-minute chase cue which escalates at the end. Tn there is “Miami International”, which clocks in at an over whopping twelve minutes. It starts off with a dramatic statement of the main theme and stays suspenseful for the first couple minutes, with Solange’s theme appearing about the 3:30 mark. After escalating tension and grand fanfare at 6:52, it becomes a relentless piece with numerous references to “You Know My Name”. “Stairwell Fight” returns the four-note villainy/suspense motif from the Brosnan era. “The Switch” suffers a little from too little references to any of the themes, while “A House Fall in Venice” is a short, but great final action piece with one of the rhythms of the James Bond theme triumphing at the end, only to be cut off by a few harsh notes.

Casino Royale is a great score, though the album situation is troubling. You might want to get create your own listening experience, dropping some of the darker underscore and putting “You Know My Name” at the beginning. That song’s strong tune really makes up for the secondary use of the James Bond theme. Otherwise it’s probably David Arnold’s most well-though out and intelligent score, if not the most enjoyable.

Rating: 8/10

  1. African Rundown (6:52)
  2. Nothing Sinister (1:27)
  3. Unauthorized Access (1:08)
  4. Blunt Instrument (2:22)
  5. CCTV (1:30)
  6. Solange (0:59)
  7. Trip Aces (2:06)
  8. Miami International (12:43)
  9. I’m the Money (0:27)
  10. Aston Montenegro (1:03)
  11. Dinner Jackets (1:52)
  12. The Tell (3:23)
  13. Stairwell Fight (4:12)
  14. Vesper (1:44)
  15. Bon Loses it All (3:56)
  16. Dirty Martini (3:49)
  17. Bond Wins it All (4:32)
  18. The End of an Aston Martin (1:30)
  19. The Bad Die Young (1:18)
  20. City of Lovers (3:30)
  21. The Switch (5:07)
  22. Fall of a House in Venice (1:53)
  23. Death of Vesper (2:50)
  24. The Bitch is Dead (1:05)
  25. The Name’s Bond…James Bond (2:49)

Soundtrack Review: Die Another Day

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

After a good start in 1995 with Goldeneye, the James Bond movies starring Pierce Brosnan would lose their steam in 2002’a Die Another Day. Released on the 40th anniversary of the franchise, it met with commercial success, but was panned by critics and most Bond fans for heightening the levels of camp and throwing in a lot of CGI. The lousiness of the critical reception caused the producers to create a serious reboot in Casino Royale.

Also receiving some criticism was the music. Despite his proven successes with “Surrender” and “The World is Not Enough”, David Arnold had no involvement with this flick’s opening number. One of the worst atrocities of the film is the opening song “Die Anther Day” performed by Madonna. It’s the worst song ever to grace the main titles of a Bond flick. It’s greatest sin is the lack of an actual melody to incorporate into the score, a bunch of repetitive electronics frequently interrupted by distortions. The lyrics themselves are heavily auto-tuned and pretty atrocious. The song appears to be about shutting down your body and denying sex, with a random utterance of “Sigmund Freud” that has no place in any Bond song. Making matters worse is that the album version runs about five minutes long. Amazingly, the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra managed to make a cool instrumental of this song, so check that out.

David Arnold would ignore Madonna’s music and indeed does provide his own film theme. In fact, you could hear where the words “Die Another Day” would fit in. This theme unfortunately gets sidelined, especially on the album where it only appears in four tracks: “Hovercraft Chase” (at the 1:47 mark), “Some Kind of Hero”, as romantic piano piece in “A Touch of Frost”, and “Whiteout”. Arnold relies much more heavily on the James Bond theme instead. Whether this was done at the director’s request or of his own volition, he breaks it out a little too often. It’s hard to make the James Bond theme sound bad, but it would be nice to hear more originality.

Also much more prevalent is the electronics, which are over-utilized in many parts of the score. There are purposeful distortions in “Hovercraft Chase” (nevertheless an engaging action cue) and almost random barrages of noise in “Laser Fight” and “Iced Inc.” This isn’t to say there should be no electronics. In fact, Arnold usually uses them well.

There are two notable new themes. One is a villainous fanfare for Gustav Graves, which even gets some choral treatment when his super solar ray goes into action (“Icarus”). Halle Berry’s Jinx Jordan gets a simple, but beautiful melody in “Jinx Jordan”. It sounds a bit sad, even though there’s nothing about her character that would warrant this.

The album opens with Madonna’s song and a techno version of James Bond’s theme by Oakenfold. The score opens with “On the Beach”, which kicks off with an overdone version of the Gunbarrel music and then unfortunately skips the first iteration of the film theme (“Surf’s Up” on the complete promo score) to get into the James Bond theme. Graves’ theme also appears for the first time, as well as some Eastern music for the Korean villains. After “Hovercraft Chase” is “Some Kind of Hero?” a wonderfully tragic track which underscore how low of a state Bond is in after the opening credits. “Welcome to Cuba” stands out for its full-blown ethnic music.

Tracks 7-8 showcase Jinx Jordan’s theme while “A Touch of Frost” intersperses electronic stealth music with iterations of the film theme on piano. “Icarus” mixes choir with the villain’s theme while Laser Fight” presents electronic action. “Whiteout” is a big chase cue, with grand statements of the film and Bond themes and even a chanting choir at one point. “Iced Inc.” is the weakest Arnold track, about three minutes of electronic noise with loud jazzy horns intruding every now and then.

“Antonov” is the big action finale. The track actually opens up with some emotion, backed by Asian instruments. After some villainous music, the four-note motif suspense motif from The World is Not Enough’s “Submarine” plays on piano for a while, interspersed with brief references to the different themes and some choir. Almost halfway through the action breaks out for good and as with “Submarine”, the James Bond theme doesn’t play fully until the end, making its appearance effective. It would be even more effective if it wasn’t used so liberally throughout the rest of the score. “Going Down Together” is a reworking of Jinx Jordan’s theme that is heavily reminiscent of the previous film’s “Christmas in Turkey”.

A complete promotional score found its way on bootleg, and this music is easily available on Youtube. There are further statements of the main film theme in “Surf’s Up”, “Sword Fight”, and the end of “Ice Palace Car Chase”. “Kiss of Life” is notable for starting off very somberly, then after one long, ascending note going into yet another iteration of the James Bond theme.

Despite what many soundtrack reviewers say, I don’t Die Another Day to be a bad listen. I do think Arnold could have cut down on the electronics and worked more on his new themes instead of constantly inserting the James Bond theme. If you take out Madonna’s awful song, it’s an entertaining listen with some genuinely great moments. However, I do have to take points off for some of its technical failings.

Rating: 6/10

  1. Die Another Day (sung by Madonna) (4:38)
  2. James Bond Theme (Bond vs. Oakenf0ld) (4:05)
  3. On the Beach (2:51)
  4. Hovercraft Chase (3:49)
  5. Some Kind of Hero? (4:32)
  6. Welcome to Cuba (2:07)
  7. Jinx Jordan (1:29)
  8. Jinx & James (2:04)
  9. A Touch of Frost (1:52)
  10. Icarus (1:23)
  11. Laser Fight (4:35)
  12. Whiteout (4:55)
  13. Iced Inc. (3:08)
  14. Antonov (11:52)
  15. Going Down Together (1:34)