2012 will be remembered for a number of reasons – I expect in a couple of decades, school history textbooks will be full of stories of the London Olympics, of the unfulfilled Mayan prophecy and of the fifteenth anniversary of Movie Wave. It’s tempting to say that back in 1997 when I started writing inane ramblings about film music on the internet that I didn’t expect to be doing it for fifteen years. In fact, it’s so tempting that I will indeed say it. Back in 1997 when I started writing inane ramblings about film music on the internet, I didn’t expect to be doing it for fifteen years. A lot has changed in those fifteen years – not least my waistline. But the ramblings have remained consistently inane. Anyway, as a new year begins, it feels sensible to take a look back over the last twelve months. It’s tempting to say that this continues an annual tradition; sadly, that doesn’t have the virtue of being true, so I can’t. But just maybe it will start one.
In terms of soundtrack albums, the biggest thing that’s changed since 1997 is the way they’re released. Back then, anything recorded in Los Angeles came with very high reuse fees which meant soundtrack albums for all but the biggest films were restricted to, usually, 30-40 minute lengths. This meant real care was taken by the album producers (usually the composers) to produce a great listening experience. Today – well, not so much. More significantly, almost all album sales were in bricks-and-mortar stores. There were occasional releases of classic scores on CD, but usually these were reissues of old LPs. But the times were just starting to change – Nick Redman at Fox was able to start the release of classic scores from that studio and, over the years, most of the other studios jumped on board. A relaxation of the union reuse payments meant that suddenly the restoration and release of vintage LA-recorded scores became possible; Film Score Monthly started its series of limited edition CDs, the Varèse Sarabande CD Club re-emerged and in the years that followed other labels followed suit. This trend has continued and 2012 saw a number of fantastic releases – my personal favourite was La-La Land’s release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
For me personally, I had the opportunity to visit California during August and September and it was wonderful to meet some great friends from the film music community I had previously known only online – the aforementioned producer extraordinaire Nick Redman, and also the most erudite of film music writers, Julie Kirgo, plus others I had known virtually for years. Best of all, I got the chance to see my old mate Jon Broxton for the first time since he left these shores seven years ago; his website Movie Music UK has been going for as long as this one, and his ramblings are far less inane than mine. I got to see the great John Williams in concert for probably the last time – I’m so glad I got that opportunity.
In terms of new scores, 2012 produced some gems – some for big movies, but plenty more came slightly further from the beaten track. Unusually, the box office was not dominated by films scored by Hans Zimmer and his crew, with just two of the top ten movies of the year featuring their work. Other composers who have been tremendously prolific in recent times took well-earned breathers – there was only one new score from Michael Giacchino and just two from John Powell – and those two guys had scored approximately 68,000 films between them during 2011. Alexandre Desplat was probably the busiest composer – no fewer than nine films were released with his music during the year.
One of the more memorable (and more unsavoury) film music-related incidents of the year for me was a brief public exchange (on Facebook) with Hans Zimmer, who did not appreciate my review of The Dark Knight Rises. It evidently caused him a great deal of distress, went on to do the same thing to me, and I was glad when things died down again. It became clear that his main objection was to a factual error I had made regarding the composition process for that particular score, which of course I was happy to correct; but still it seems very odd that undoubtedly the most successful businessman film music has ever seen should be so publicly upset at a review on a website like mine when he has received far more scathing criticism from far more high-profile people than me on a great number of occasions. Whether I ever write another review of his music, I’m still to decide – perhaps it would be better for all concerned if I didn’t. My strong views about his negative influence on film music have been aired plenty of times in the past so there’s no need to dredge them up again.
There seemed to be a slight shift back towards more traditional, orchestral film scoring – a look at the biggest box office hits of the year sees names like Alan Silvestri, James Horner, Thomas Newman, Patrick Doyle – it’s hardly time to put out the bunting but perhaps there may be a slight resurgence in the type of music which attracted me – and, I suspect, most of my readers – to film music in the first place. Anyway, here are my favourite ten scores of the year.
1: Journey – Austin Wintory
I haven’t reviewed this yet (but will do so soon) so perhaps its appearance at the top of my list will come as a surprise. But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who’ve heard it. I quickly run out of superlatives when I talk about it – the finest video game score I’ve ever heard, the finest new music of any kind I heard in 2012, a step ahead of any film score from the year. It’s profound music, full of emotion and intelligence. There are great melodies, the orchestration is exquisite, the performance a joy to hear. It was clearly a labour of love for all concerned. Video game music is one thing that has seriously shifted in the time I’ve been writing this website – few took it seriously back in 1997 when I began. But people take it seriously now, and Wintory’s music for this game takes it another step forward – the music doesn’t just have to be exciting when it’s scoring cut-scenes but fairly generic at more open moments of the game – the whole thing can be completely full of feeling. Hopefully Wintory will get the kind of big break that Michael Giacchino got after people took note of his very good video game scores.
2: The Amazing Spider-Man – James Horner
One thing that never changes is James Horner’s ability to stir controversy. Few film scores so divided opinion in 2012 as this one. Personally, I loved it, both in the film and on the soundtrack album. The Spider-Man theme is a great, memorable piece of music and shows that actually, you can still write great tunes for films like these; the material underscoring Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen Stacy more emotionally-developed than any other material that’s been in one of these comic book films for years. If you believe those who shout loudest at film music messageboards, audiences around the world were wetting themselves with laughter at Horner’s ineptitude and smoke was coming out of their ears when they heard two seconds of music from Star Trek II when Spidey first started leaping between buildings. Ah well, that’s up to them. For my money, Horner is the best film composer currently active in Hollywood and I hope there are many further years of laughter ahead for the non-believers. Interestingly, my review of this album has received more hits than any other review I’ve ever written.
3: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Ang Lee’s spectacular film enticed one of the most easily-accessible scores of Danna’s career; but while the composition was relatively simple by his standards, there was a great richness in its exploration of the film’s themes of faith and friendship. In my California trip I briefly saw Danna at the Newman stage at Fox recording this score – ironically, on that day he was remotely recording a boys’ choir who were actually performing a studio in London. There’s something truly moving about his music; and his familiarity with world music – Indian in particular – made him the perfect choice for the film.
4: The Impossible – Fernando Velazquez
OK, perhaps it’s a little monothematic, but what a theme that is. It must have been very difficult for the composer to score such a tragic occurrence – the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 – without stepping over the line into melodrama, but I think he achieved it admirably. Some might think the overt emotional manipulation – actually quite rare in film music these days – does indeed step over the line, but it won me over. It’s not always easy to listen to, but it’s very rewarding music.
5: Skyfall – Thomas Newman
David Arnold had become so firmly established as the house composer for James Bond, it came as a surprise when Thomas Newman was announced to score this film, even though it was directed by Sam Mendes. It raised a lot of eyebrows – there was nothing really in the composer’s back-catalogue to suggest what he might deliver for the film. But what was in his back catalogue – all over it – was quality, in virtually everything he’s done. I remember the raised eyebrows when he was announced as the composer for Finding Nemo, and he delivered the goods there too. It doesn’t sound like John Barry and it doesn’t sound like David Arnold – but it does sound like James Bond music. (It was great to hear the fantastic radio host Tim Burden quote my review to Newman during an interview!)
6: Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Most people seem to have gone gaga over Desplat’s score for Rise of the Guardians (which is good fun) – but in another excellent year for the composer, this is the one that stands out to me above the others. I love the Persian mood Desplat creates; and sue me, I love the jingoistic Hollywood music for the finale, which hasn’t gone down that well with all of the composer’s fans. Perhaps there was more intellectual stimulation from some of his other outings during the year; but not more entertainment, I don’t think.
7: Vilamor – Zeltia Montes
Perhaps I went slightly overboard in my shower of praise for this at the time I reviewed it, but it’s really very easy to fall under its spell – good-natured, warm-hearted music, a glorious atmosphere, the perfect blend of folksy elements with the orchestra. (Unfortunately I haven’t seen it mentioned very often by anyone other than me, so it seems the majority don’t really agree.)
8: Metsän Tarina – Panu Aaltio
Beautifully expressive music for a Finnish natural history documentary, this is another score in danger of falling under people’s radar, but I hope it doesn’t because it deserves to be heard. Very much of the style and quality of George Fenton’s acclaimed music for similar documentaries in recent years, it is a delight from start to finish and I urge people to give it a go.
9: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Thomas Newman
Far less high-profile than his other 2012 score, but this one also makes a fantastic album, which I’ve listened to on countless occasions and still greatly enjoy. All the distinctive Newman mannerisms are there, filtered through an Indian sound – it’s just a great listen.
10: Miel de Naranjas – Nuno Malo
A dramatic, colourful score for a film set during the Franco years in Spain, it benefits from an outstanding main theme featuring a gorgeous cello solo, and from an impressive restraint by its composer. It’s another one that seems to have slipped under most people’s radars, but it’s well worth seeking out.
Other major scores
Here’s an alphabetically-ordered quick summary of the year’s other major scores, many of which you’ll find on other people’s “best of” lists.
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli – this is impressive music, classically-tinged, very elegant; but it’s also rather sombre and that prevents it from making a really great album, I think.
The Avengers – Alan Silvestri – it’s good to see Silvestri still getting big films and in 2012 they came no bigger than this. I enjoyed his score, which at first glance is almost non-stop bombast but which reveals a surprising amount of thematic development on closer inspection. The fun main theme is one of the pleasures of the year.
Cloud Atlas – Reinhhold Heil, Jonny Klimek, Tom Tykwer – I’m virtually the only person in the known universe who doesn’t think this is great, but not only do I not think it’s great, I think it’s pretty awful. The score’s centrepiece is meant to be a believable piece of actual classical music, but sounds like a Zimmer-era piece of film music written by people who don’t really know how to write for an orchestra. And that’s because that’s what it is.
The Dark Knight Rises – Hans Zimmer – the great trilogy of Christopher Nolan films came to a spectacular conclusion but my hopes that – after the incredible Inception score – Zimmer might release the shackles and actually deliver the kind of score that this series deserved did not materialise, instead him actually taking a backwards step from the previous entry.
For Greater Glory – James Horner – this is an enjoyable album but even I found some of the self-referencing a bit much in this case. Nobody in 2012 Hollywood film music can match Horner’s compositional chops, so even for its considerable flaw I can still derive much pleasure from it.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore - there’s some decent material in Shore’s long-awaited return to Middle Earth, but the soundtrack release is a disaster. There’s a regular edition which omits some decent music but includes a whole host of rather turgid material which will test most listeners’ patience; and a special edition which is slightly longer and includes more good stuff, but bafflingly also omits a small amount of more tightly-edited material which can be found on the regular edition. Both albums’ length can only be measured in terms of geological eras, which doesn’t help anyone at all. A single-CD highlights album would have been much better than either album and that’s a real shame.
The Hunger Games – James Newton Howard – it’s not often that I like a score by James Newton Howard more than everyone else did, but I did really like this one. Its folksy, earthy sound captures perfectly the film and it makes for a very enjoyable album, this composer’s finest in some time.
Jack Reacher – Joe Kraemer – I greatly enjoyed this score which seems to channel the great 70s thriller scores by Michael Small. It’s more about suspense and drama than overt action but it’s a really impressive score by a composer who’s been under the radar for a long time.
John Carter – Michael Giacchino – Giacchino’s only score of the year came right at the start, and it’s a good one, but it’s an extremely long album which would benefit from considerable trimming and it seems to suffer slightly from a fairly common ailment in that because it aims to make everything sound grand and important, it ends up not really sound that grand or important. Still, there’s a lot of strong material.
Lincoln – John Williams – it’s hard to believe that John Williams could write a score which wouldn’t make my top ten of the year, but this one feels so safe, so predictable, I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it as much as I usually do this legendary composer’s music. I’m sure it will be nominated for every award going and probably end up winning a lot of them, but I suspect if exactly the same music had been written by someone else then it wouldn’t be afforded that distinction.
The Rise of the Guardians – Alexandre Desplat – people seemed to go weak at the knees over this one, but it’s left me a little underwhelmed. It’s good, fun music but I’m not sure it really gets beyond the territory so often explored by John Powell in his scores for animations.
2012 marked just the second year since 1963 that there was not an album released featuring a new score by Ennio Morricone (the other was 2010). He’s already recorded his music for the new Giuseppe Tornatore film, so let’s hope that sees the light of day on album before too much of 2013 has passed. With all the absolute crap that gets released on soundtrack albums, it is hard to comprehend the fact that since 2009′s Baaria, just one of the fifteen new scores written by one of the great legends of film music has actually been released on album.