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Black Widow
  • Composed by Lorne Balfe
  • Hollywood Records / 80m

After its Covid-induced absence from cinemas for a couple of years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut gets back on the road in Black Widow, Cate Shortland’s film giving Scarlett Johansson’s character the spotlight for once (she’s appeared in about seven hundred of the previous films in the series but has rarely been front and centre). While it’s been simultaneously released on Disney+ (for an additional fee, of course) it does seem to be the film that is finally drawing punters back to the big screen – let’s hope this time it’s for good.

The series has never been big on musical continuity and another new composer can be added to its roster now in the shape of Lorne Balfe – and while they’ve been by numerous different composers, a lot of the scores in the series (after a couple of early misfires) have been pretty consistent in sound, with generally a lot of very busy action music dominating, a theme or two getting the occasional airing, and especially more recently a snazzy nod-and-wink thing going on to add a comedic touch. Black Widow is very distinct from all of that – it’s a genuinely different sound for the Marvel universe, probably the series’ most serious and least action-dominated score so far.

Lorne Balfe

The album opens with “Natasha’s Lullaby”, a gentle piece sung (in Russian) initially by a female soloist before a full choir takes over. It’s very good and clearly different – the next piece, “Latrodectus”, may lead you to expect the remainder of the score to be more typical (it’s a fine piece of action music, but undoubtedly more “standard”) but you don’t think that for long because the beautiful “Fireflies” follows, with the piece more than living up to its evocative name (there’s a gloriously beautiful little motif that appears in it in the second half).

More action does follow in “The Pursuit” and then the tremendously exciting “The First Bite is the Deepest”, which slightly recalls the finer moments of the composer’s Mission: Impossible score but with greater orchestral forces at play. In “Last Glimmer” things are again dialled right down, and it’s in the moments like this that I think the score’s quality really shines through: Balfe gets time to allow his softer ideas time to breathe in a way that we haven’t really heard in a Marvel score before – this one has gentle piano prods, wavering strings, a gorgeous choral section and a dazzling reprise of the lullaby to close the piece.

In “Dreykov” we hear the main villain theme – again with a very Russian feel (the choir again, but wordless here) – with some modern percussion hits contrasting with the classical Prokofiev feel. “You Don’t Know Me” is beautiful, a tender violin solo the highlight, and then we come to one of the score’s finest pieces, “Yelena Belova”, a stirring theme for wordless choir playing out throughout as first some soloists join the build-up before the full orchestra makes its entrance. Its feel and construction are similar to various pieces in His Dark Materials (Balfe’s finest accomplishment to date).

After that extended sequence of fairly contemplative music, the action comes back in “From the Shadows”, a catchy little string ostinato sitting underneath blasts from the horns before a dynamic theme emerges over the top. It’s an exciting piece, immediately followed by another chance to breathe, with the drama unfolding in “Hand in Hand” on a much smaller scale; I love the ethereal, emotional “Blood Ties” which reprises the theme introduced earlier in “Last Glimmer”, here it being turned into a more fully-formed piece. “Whirlwind” lives up to its name, with some slightly disconcerting syncopated trumpet blasts leading into terrific woodwind runs – it’s a full-bodied, very satisfying piece of action music. “Arise” (and not “Arse”, which I thought was a strange cue title the first couple of times I misread it) is a different kind of action music – deep male choir accompanying the orchestral chaos in fairly typical “Hollywood take on Russian choir” style before a really terrific blast of what sounds much more like the real thing proves to be a real jolt as the piece closes.

“Natasha’s Fragments” is a wordless take on her lullaby, with the distinctive flavours of balalaika, duduk and others I’m too dim to identify giving the piece a delightful colour. After this, “A Sister Says Goodbye” proves to be one of the album’s most moving pieces – the beautiful choral theme progressing at funereal pace, the gradual build-up before it starts soaring away, it’s really cleverly-constructed. Profound sadness follows in “I Can’t Save Us”, elegiac strings pushing all the right buttons.

From this point, action begins to dominate as we move to the album’s final half-hour. “Red Rising” opens with an industrial electronic sound before the horns announce the orchestra’s arrival – it’s thrilling stuff, quite breathlessly exciting. The reflective opening of “The Betrayed” is deceptive, because before long it too is turned into an action fest featuring some beautifully crisp-sounding trumpets – it’s pretty dark stuff, and while the action continues into “The Descent” the brightness levels increase notably, with some heroic material blasting forth. After this, there’s a celestial feel to the choir in “Faces to the Sun” and then comes the sensational “Natasha Soars”, the album’s standout track, with her heroic action theme getting its most thrilling rendition (and the great woodwind runs making a welcome return). It’s the sort of bright, colourful comic book hero sound I’ve always wanted these movies to have.

After those thrills, in “Last Love” Balfe plays a tender cello solo against the lullaby theme – again, the emotion feels pretty raw and almost stricken before an undoubted sense of resolve takes hold (perhaps it’s something to do with the Russian textures). “Into the Past” is a reflective piece, slow variants on several of the score’s thematic ideas being presented in a deliberately distant way before pretty grim, tense action starts to take hold. That tension gets resolved in the beautiful and very calm “Broken Free”, before Balfe boldly ends the score with the folk song-like “A Calling”.

While it won’t be for everyone, I’d say if you approach Black Widow with an open mind you’ll actually find one of the most distinctive Marvel scores to date, a rare modern Hollywood comic book action score which affords breathing room to its ideas. You’ll also find probably the best music Lorne Balfe has written for film (though arguably a shade behind his tv music for His Dark Materials as his best work overall thanks to the broader thematic base that enjoys). It’s serious and mature but with more than enough bright comic book material to satisfy anyone and I think it’s absolutely terrific.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. J.B. (Reply) on Sunday 11 July, 2021 at 20:40

    It’s entertaining. Just a shame a good chunk of it isn’t in the film. If you watched it, you’d think it’s just another Balfe score on par with Fallout.

  2. Rory (Reply) on Wednesday 14 July, 2021 at 10:24

    A surprising but exciting recommendation!

  3. Gabriel (Reply) on Thursday 15 July, 2021 at 16:52

    Excellent and complete review! I couldn’t agree more. Anyway, it’s necessary to listen this album isolated from the movie. In the film, the sound effects obscures the music and makes it unremarkable. Now I’m listening the music in it’s own and I’d say it’s the best Marvel soundtrack of all. Incredible, but true!

  4. Milwaukeesid (Reply) on Monday 2 August, 2021 at 18:48

    “Julia’s Garland” (fr. Guirlande de Julie)