Latest reviews of new albums:
Alita: Battle Angel
  • Composed by Tom Holkenborg
  • Milan / 64m

James Cameron was originally supposed to be directing Alita: Battle Angel, adapted from the Japanese comic book series, but of course he ended up working on his Avatar universe and so handed over the directorial reigns to Robert Rodriguez (but remains credited as writer and producer). Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg who awakes with no memories but gradually discovers her immense powers and sets off on a career as a bounty hunter – the age-old tale.

Rodriguez is one of those prolific directors who doesn’t seem to have a particular composer of choice, or even a small roster of them as some directors like to have; and we all know Cameron’s composer of choice is sadly no longer around. So it was quite intriguing to find out who might score this – even if it didn’t turn out to be any good (and actually the reception hasn’t been that bad), it seemed to be a film which offered a lot of good opportunity for a decent composer. Then the composer was announced…

Tom Holkenborg

I haven’t heard every film score written by Tom Holkeborg, nor have I seen every film he has scored, but I came into this one having thought he is probably the most consistent film composer there’s ever been – everything he’s done has been terrible. You can imagine my surprise then when listening to this and discovering that actually it’s not terrible – far from it in fact, it’s actually rather good. How much this has to do with the presence of orchestrator/conductor Conrad Pope (a fine composer in his own right, and a veteran orchestrator who has worked with John Williams, Howard Shore, James Horner and Alexandre Desplat amongst many others) obviously I don’t know – Holkenborg previously used his services on Mortal Engines, which I haven’t heard but which also attracted unusually positive notices. Regardless of that (and it doesn’t matter), what is evident is that this is proper music, not just monochrome orchestrated keyboard music with lots of drumming over the top – there is a lot of interesting instrumental colour, thematic development – and above all, lots of highly entertaining music in an admittedly straightforward but nevertheless effective style.

The album does start – and I have to say this is entirely predictable – at the beginning. The opening track is “Discovery” which has some atmospheric textures, both orchestral and electronic – there’s a hint of the main theme there too and it’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be the score you might have expected it to be. There’s breathing room for the music – melodic fragments are carried by clearly-differentiated sections of the orchestra – you can even hear the wind section. A lovely, delicate tune which is a picture of childlike innocence is the focus of “I Don’t Even Know My Own Name” – it is thoughtful, subtle, quite moving – at times quite James Newton Howard-like. The main theme appears for solo horn late in the cue, accompanied by a florid flute harmony – mightily impressive.

As the score goes on, expectations continue to be confounded and the biggest of them is that there are real shades here in the music – big moments yes, but not exclusively so – there is plenty of subtle moments in between. The electronics early in “What’s Your Dream?” are more like you might expect based on Holkenborg’s previous film music, but it’s not long before this turns into a colourful fantasy of a cue, beautifully-drawn. Then the first big action piece appears, “Double Identity” – and even here things aren’t as you might expect, with winds again taking quite a focus alongside the brass.

Things explode further in “The Warrior Within” – the composer here brings out his percussion bag of tricks alongside the big orchestral action but it’s not just yet another variant on Mad Max, it’s much more colourful than that, again with all sorts of different textures coming in via the orchestration (and again more than a hint of JN Howard).

Things do slacken off for a while after that in the middle section of the album – it’s not bad, it’s just not as interesting – but in “Grewishka’s Revenge” things take off again. The piece doesn’t start especially promisingly, really, but then growling trombones accompanied by bassoon provide an interesting springboard for some exciting string runs and brassy bursts of action. “With Me” is wonderful – warm, pretty, florid – it soars away gracefully, majestically – the best piece of film music this composer has written. The noble horn version of the main (indeed only) theme that opens “What Did You Do?” is another impressive moment and leads into another decent piece of action.

This is the fifth Tom Holkenborg album I’ve reviewed. The previous four have amassed three and a half stars between them – that the fifth doubles that tally shows just how much better it is, what a big step forward. He hasn’t suddenly become James Horner or anything (and the album is twenty minutes longer than it should be) but I’m not just talking about this being decent by Holkenborg’s standards, it’s just a more than decent action/adventure score which does sound like it’s the work not just of a professional film composer but actually a competent one. I really hope it’s not just a flash in the pan because he’s showing no signs of becoming any less prolific – he’s set a standard now and I hope he keeps challenging himself to become better and better because, for the first time, I can hear something there. Well done to him.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

Tags: , ,

  1. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Saturday 6 April, 2019 at 01:18

    While I do think you underrated Mad Max, you’re not far off on the rest of Junkie XL’s work. (Now I know why he went with a pen name: writing Tom Holkenborg is a pain). Hopefully James Cameron can coax another great work out of him when he scores Terminator: Dark Fate.