- Composed by Michael Giacchino
- Hollywood Records / 2016 / 66m
The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a neurosurgeon who is forced into a lengthy healing journey after suffering a career-ending car accident. During this time, he learns various Eastern mystical, magical ways from the so-called Ancient One. Directed by Scott Derrickson, the film has been greeted by initially positive reviews, as if that matters – there are no signs yet that the series is losing its popularity.
Derrickson’s usual composer is Christopher Young (they have done three films together) and Young would actually be the perfect composer to bring some much-needed continuity to the Marvel series by becoming its in-house composer: not only is he a very adept and versatile film composer, he’s a huge comic-book fan who would probably knock these things out of the park. However – despite he himself speaking very excitedly about the prospect of writing music for the film when it was still in pre-production – either director or studio decided he wasn’t the right fit and fan favourite Michael Giacchino came on board the series for the first time, writing a new studio logo music in the process, replacing the short-lived one by Brian Tyler (they can’t even manage continuity in their logo music).
A couple of months before the film’s release there was a lot of fuss about an on-line piece criticising modern film in general but the Marvel universe in particular for not featuring memorable music. This is the first film in the series to be released since then, so it was always going to be interesting to see whether Giacchino would manage to do something this universe has been crying out for and write a truly memorable, individual score to suit this character and film, which stands the test of time.
The first thing needed to do that is of course a good thematic base and this score does indeed have a belter of a main theme. It’s heard near the end of the opening cue, “Ancient Secrets Revealed”, which begins with a distinctly Goldsmithian section where trombones and then horns create a mysterious atmosphere before we go full-on Giacchino with a frantic passage of brass and percussion. Some choral chanting then introduces an apocalyptic horn theme which turns out to be the secondary theme of the score – it’s nothing new but it’s powerful and impressive – the main theme itself just gets a little blast in the final twenty seconds or so.
Its introduction may be brief, but the theme leaves quite an impression and it’s impressive how much variation the composer manages to bring to it. In the second cue, “The Hands Dealt”, a stripped-down version is heard for solo piano, the complexity of the full melody being reduced to something much simpler – in this guise it manages to be really very beautiful. The melody itself has an impressively evocative feeling of self-discovery and spirituality about it, whether in that introspective opening form or its more expansive later treatments.
“A Long Strange Trip” opens with some electronically-processed material nicely suggesting an alternative reality before familiar Giacchino percussion ushers in a wonderful sequence for brass which could come from John Adams (the composer not the president), John Corigliano or in film music terms Elliot Goldenthal (it’s very similar to Sphere in fact) – before everything reduces down to a chilled-out, trippy instrumental and then goes back to the chaos that opened the track, which is one that perfectly lives up to its name (and does it musically very impressively). I like “Inside the Mirror Dimension”, which explores that secondary theme from the opening cue a little more before a more mystical passage including electric guitar and sitar and Indian percussion (the latter two combining at one point in a way that instantly recalls that tiny little motif in Jerry Goldsmith’s Executive Decision representing the bad guys). In the following cue “The True Purpose of the Sorcerer”, there’s a further exploration of the mystical, this time the harpsichord taking a leading role, with spooky choir and an ever-swelling presence from the orchestra – it’s a great cue.
“Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking” takes a very long time to get going, a full three minutes of dull suspense at its opening before it explodes into life with some tremendous all-out action music for the orchestra (including more of that great clustered brass style heard earlier), harpsichord, choir and electronics, building up to a grand statement of the main theme. In the good old days the cue would have been edited down for the album to remove the fluff, but never mind, the final four minutes more than make up for the first three.
In “Post Op Parocosm” we get a further exploration of the score’s softer side, with the electric sitar, harpsichord and piano coming together this time with solo violin and expressionistic flute, the full string section then joining in as the cue soars off in the style of Tomorrowland. “Hippocratic Hypocrite” offers an interesting contrast, the opening harpsichord and reprised piano reduction of the main theme gradually giving way to something more sinister. “Smote and Mirrors” is an extended piece of action, sometimes pretty dark – the pacing is a bit odd (it seems to stop and start slightly unnaturally) but some of the textures are wonderful, particularly the organ heard surprisingly distantly in the mix and the interesting choral passages, which go beyond the usual Hollywood oohs and aahs towards something that, ironically, Christopher Young might have done.
“Hong Kong Kablooey” is a very fine piece of action music – it includes a repeat of the kind of “unnverving” music heard early in the score, but interestingly Giacchino achieves it acoustically this time. Some of its choral music becomes more overtly religiously spiritual. Then comes one of the score’s biggest action set-pieces, “Astral World’s Worst Killer”, with some dissonant textures from the brass heralding the opening of the cue before all hell breaks loose, a variation on that apocalyptic secondary theme in a truly powerful setting, then a building of excitement in an extended treatment on some of the material heard before the thematic material in the score’s opening cue – and then comes a grand, stately take on the main theme itself.
It’s with the final three tracks that Giacchino’s score is going to earn a lot of its fans, because they’re just blissfully good. Interestingly, each is essentially a variation on the main theme – but each is so different, it doesn’t wear out its welcome in any way. “Strange Days Ahead” is the most conventional, but even there the orchestra and choir are joined by the electric sitar and harpsichord – it’s in the brass-dominated sweeping statement of the main theme that’s where the thrills lie. A conventionally heroic take on the theme, it actually sounds very much like the composer’s Star Trek in this form (which is no bad thing). In “Go For Baroque”, a beautiful harpsichord take on the main theme eventually with accompaniment from the orchestra (some dullard will certainly point out it’s not actually baroque, spoiling the joke, but never mind – oops, the dullard is me) quite unlike anything we’ve heard before from the composer, aside from brief allusions to it earlier in this score – it’s really done very well. Finally, best of all, comes “The Master of the Mystic End Credits”, where you can imagine George Harrison sitting cross-legged with Ravi Shankar, spaced-out guitar chords and drum kit along with various psychedelic textures accompanying the sitar in what is essentially an Indian-inspired pop instrumental version of the main theme. If you told me it was a previously-undiscovered John Barry tv theme from the late 1960s you’d probably be able to string me along for a bit. It’s a wonderful way of ending the score.
In between the tracks I’ve mentioned above there are a few others which are less interesting and which do drag it down a bit. A couple of them are decent enough action tracks which neither add nor subtract a great deal from the listening experience, but others rather drag the pace down too much and the album would be better off without them. Having said that, there are 40-45 minutes of really strong material here and the final three tracks are spectacular, so it’s definitely near the top end in the Marvel universe of film music. It’s true that Giacchino is a fairly “safe” film composer and there are no boundaries being pushed here, in particular the mystical elements aren’t explored as deeply as some might have done, but he does bring some interesting flavours to the score and the theme is great. It took me a few listens to fully appreciate but I really like Doctor Strange.