Anyone running a sweepstake on how long into the 100% Official Movie Wave Film Music Review of 2013 it would be before I mentioned Man of Steel now knows the result. 2013 was a bit of an odd year in that it featured what was quite possibly a new low-point in Hollywood film music (those running a sweepstake on how many of the first two sentences would feature references to Man of Steel now know the result) but also what felt like considerably more high-quality new music than we’ve had in any other year for quite a while.
Much of the very best of it came, as has been the case quite frequently in recent years, from away from Hollywood blockbusters, but I have to say we didn’t fare too badly in those either this year. Some were awful (those running a sweepstake… perhaps that joke’s run its course) but it was great that the Marvel series really took off from a musical perspective this year thanks to Brian Tyler; Michael Giacchino was back on board the Enterprise; Randy Newman did what he always does for Pixar one more time; and a new voice emerged on the year’s most surprising smash hit.
Away from Hollywood movies, there was great work done overseas – Ennio Morricone had three brand new scores released and they were all really good; there was sad news from Poland with the death of the great Wojciech Kilar but excitement at the emergence of Bartosz Chajdecki; in America, some smaller movies received some great music from the likes of Scott Glasgow, Conrad Pope, Laurent Eyquem and Bear McCreary; and in the world of video games, it was undoubtedly the year of Olivier Derivière.
So… my favourite scores of the year…
1: Remember Me – Olivier Derivière
For the second year in a row, my favourite new music of the year came from a video game. Remember Me is everything a great modern action score can be (but rarely is, in movies) – creative, imaginative, exhilarating. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea – I thought the electronic manipulation of the orchestra was done tremendously well, and most importantly it was done in the most musical of ways – but I understand others may be turned off by it. But really, there’s nothing here I don’t like; if it was on vinyl I’d have worn it out by now. And Deriviere also wrote another great score for a video game (the Assassin’s Creed IV spinoff Freedom Cry).
2: Stalingrad – Angelo Badalamenti
Badalamenti’s most famous works are generally his quirkier scores which fit so well into the films of David Lynch, but he’s shown many times over the years that he really knows his way around an orchestra. This may be the finest music I’ve ever heard come from him – stirring and emotional, at times breathlessly exciting, stunningly constructed. I haven’t seen the film but on album at least, Stalingrad is something special. At the time of writing the album is about to be released by MovieScore Media and Kronos Records and if there’s any justice, it will be a massive success for them.
3: Gravity – Steven Price
Talk about making an entrance. This wasn’t Price’s first score but it will have been the first time most people (including me) have seen his name. Music is so important to the film and the composer dealt with that challenge so well, writing something that isn’t just the film’s score, at times it’s its entire aural world; and it translates remarkably well to album. This is music that goes on a great journey and always seems to have a purpose and if he can find the right projects and the right people to work with, Steven Price could become a real force.
4: The Best Offer – Ennio Morricone
Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest film has passed by almost unnoticed, it seems, and the same can be said of its score, which was released right at the start of 2013 but has been barely mentioned by anyone other than me. Morricone is a very old man and so it is no surprise that much of his recent music (like that of John Williams) has been somewhat “comfortable”; this score showed that while the bones may be old, the mind is still full of life, with some remarkably creative and at times different writing from a composer who’s pretty much done it all.
5: Africa – Sarah Class
The fact that Sarah Class is not George Fenton made me instantly suspicious of her music for the BBC’s wildlife documentary Africa. Why would you hire someone other than George Fenton? Well, Class provided the answer with her beautiful score – it may not quite be Planet Earth or the others, but on its own term it’s still so impressive, painted on such a broad canvas, full of such grandeur and beauty and charm. A really nice surprise and a really impressive album.
6: Monsters University – Randy Newman
I don’t think Randy Newman has been given nearly the credit he deserves for the remarkable work he has done over the years for Pixar. Is there another body of work in all of film music history which is full of such uncynical, never-ending joy? The fact that Newman delivers it with music of such extraordinary orchestral prowess makes it all the more remarkable. He’s 70 now and I wonder whether we’ll hear a new film score from him again; even if not, then his body of work will go down as one which makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity.
7: The Book Thief – John Williams
This is most certainly not an “appearance by default” score just because it’s written by John Williams. It’s actually really good – as technically-accomplished as always, but full of emotion and simply oozing class. It was such a nice surprise to see him scoring a film not directed by Steven Spielberg – I say that not because there’s anything wrong with his scores for Steven Spielberg, but simply because there wasn’t a Spielberg film available to score during the year! I do hope there’s still plenty of new music to hear from the great man in the coming years.
8: Rush – Hans Zimmer
About 20% of the world’s population contacted me during the year to tell me how stupid I am for blindly hating everything that Hans Zimmer does even though it’s all awesome. These people have evidently missed the large number of extremely positive reviews I’ve given to the man who has undoubtedly become the highest-profile and most influential film composer of his generation; and this year he excelled with Rush, a brilliant score for its film which made an adrenaline-filled thrill ride of an album.
9: Riddle – Scott Glasgow
I’d never even heard of the film when I received the soundtrack album to review but quickly found myself seriously impressed by the music, which has a classical elegance to it which is rare indeed in modern American film music. It’s just really, really impressive music from a composer who has consistently demonstrated a great talent; I would hope it is only a matter of time before that talent is discovered by filmmakers who might be able to give him projects which would raise his profile to the level it deserves to be.
10: Baczynski – Bartosz Chajdecki
The elegance I just mentioned is actually not all that uncommon in European film music, but even by those standards this one impressed me. Great melodies, great warmth; actually, just great. Chajdecki also wrote some other really good music for 2013 projects, my favourite other one being a wonderful score called Ambassada. He’s clearly another great talent just waiting to be discovered by the masses.
Other major scores
Here’s an alphabetically-ordered quick summary of the year’s other major scores – this isn’t intended to be a list of other scores I liked (though I did like a lot of them!) – it’s just a list of other major Hollywood scores.
Copperhead – Laurent Eyquem
OK, so this isn’t a major Hollywood score, but it’s so good I had to mention it anyway. I’d never even heard of Eyquem before I heard this album but it’s gorgeous music, warm and moving and well worth hearing.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Howard Shore
Other than Hans Zimmer scores, I’ve never had so many people disagreeing with me as much as they did when I (finally) published my review of the first score; they’ll probably disagree with me even more now because I thought this one was even worse. Hour after hour of murk and grime, the album is a truly miserable experience; and I suspect even if you took all the good bits out into a playlist (and admittedly, some of them are really good) you really wouldn’t end up with that much.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – James Newton Howard
I was one of the few who seemed to really like Howard’s work on the first of these films, but he took a big step back for the second, descending into generic territory that was wholly unsatisfying. A great opportunity missed, given how surprisingly good the film was.
Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 – Brian Tyler
At last! I liked Alan Silvestri’s two Marvel scores a lot more than most people did, but actually Iron Man 3 took the series to a whole new level, with its fantastic main theme (a radical concept in modern film music – a theme for a comic book hero) and balls-to-the-wall action music. Thor 2 is just as good. And hey – here are two nearly-80-minute albums that I really, really love.
The Lone Ranger – Hans Zimmer
It didn’t hit the heights of his best Pirates of the Caribbean music but this was still very enjoyable, witty when needed but also surprisingly expansive. The nods to Morricone were predictable (but fun!); the nods to the more wide-open-spaces western scores were wholly unexpected (but also fun!)
Man of Steel – Hans Zimmer
I won’t dwell on it – I did more than enough of that at the time – but this really did feel like a new low-point for Hollywood film music to me. By that I don’t mean it’s the worst score I’ve ever heard – it wasn’t by any stretch even the worst of 2013 – but for such a high-profile film, with such an obvious opportunity for a great score, that it was so far from the mark and also so bizarrely acclaimed by so many people was worrying indeed. When he’s on form Zimmer is capable of greatness but I think he sometimes takes on projects which just aren’t suited to his approach and this is one of those. I understand why and of course he wouldn’t in any way think he couldn’t do them; and I assume too that he sometimes just has a desire to be contrary. But just occasionally I think it’s worth noting that when there’s an established, successful approach, doing precisely the opposite to that is actually entirely the wrong thing to do, however contrary you might want to be.
Saving Mr Banks – Thomas Newman
I’ve no doubt whatsoever that Thomas Newman is destined to be considered one of the all time great film composers and, with John Williams so inactive and James Horner apparently exiled completely from Hollywood, he is surely the finest active American film composer. Saving Mr Banks may be a little “ordinary” by his standards, but my word it’s gorgeous. More please.
Star Trek Into Darkness – Michael Giacchino
The film was bizarre in how much it relied on goodwill towards The Wrath of Khan rather than trying to generate any goodwill of its own; but I enjoyed Giacchino’s work, particularly his outstanding theme for the new Khan. The composer had an unusually quiet year otherwise; but I’m sure will be back with a bang before long.
The Wolverine and World War Z – Marco Beltrami
Two surprisingly brutal scores by a very fine composer, the first one left me cold but the second had more to offer. I love that Beltrami isn’t afraid of stepping into very challenging musical territory and even though I can’t say I could derive any enjoyment from listening to The Wolverine, deep down I’m probably still pleased and impressed that he even tried anything so outlandish. (Note: I realise how absolutely this contradicts my earlier comments about music for comic book heroes; I also have no intention of trying to explain this erratic line of thinking.)
Thanks for reading. I really do mean it. I can’t believe that so many people read this rubbish that I write and I can’t believe some of the controversy it generates – it’s only one man’s opinion. (I won’t mention him by name since the correspondence was private, but one impassioned exchange with a film composer during the year also made me realise how much it hurts them when a fool like me damns the work they do – so, sorry about that to anyone I’ve offended; but I’m afraid the only words I can write are the ones I believe.)