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Godzilla
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • WaterTower Music / 2014 / 61m

After shooting the low-budget Monster (whose visual effects he funded himself), director Gareth Edwards got his shot at the big time by being given the huge budget to shoot the latest attempt by Warner Bros. to make a decent American version of Godzilla, 16 years after Roland Emmerich’s pretty awful effort.  Along for the ride and adding some prestige is the rather unexpected choice of composer, Alexandre Desplat, whose classy music is usually heard in either more arthouse fare or weighty Oscar-bait dramas (though he has of course made his contribution to big-budget spectacles like The Golden Compass and the last two trips to Hogwarts).  (Warning: some cue titles referenced in the review may be construed as containing spoilers.)

Desplat’s mean, moody score is thunderously dark throughout.  The album gets underway with the outstanding “Godzilla!”, an opening full of incredible portent with the main theme blaring forth from the horns, leading straight into the brief action cue “Inside the Mines”.  But this is not a theme you’ll be humming as you leave the cinema – indeed the melody is almost the least important thing there – it’s about the mood, carefully crafted from the orchestration (the onslaught of percussion and gnarling brass is almost constant through the album).

Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat

Indeed, it’s the orchestration that sets this one apart.  We haven’t heard clustered brass writing like this in a Hollywood blockbuster since Elliot Goldenthal in his heyday – it’s extraordinarily aggressive, dark as nails.  Percussion is everywhere, piling on pressure and excitement in much the same way as Danny Elfman did in his Planet of the Apes score.  The mood throughout is oppressively claustrophobic, a bass-laden recording deliberately designed to envelop the listener (and of course viewer) in a cocoon of suspense.

This isn’t really one of those albums where you pick out highlights, maybe create a playlist – it’s about the whole experience, so carefully put together by the composer to work as a single entity.  Having said that, there are still so many individual parts worth pointing out.  “The Power Plant” is a sensational action track early on the album and starts a trio of outstanding pieces, the percussion and brass joined by some ingenious wind phrases in the cue’s first half; an emotion-laden mournful melody then rises from the ashes, briefly and rudely interrupted by a blaring cacophony.  The following “To Q Zone” sees a thunderous, bass-laden electronic effect slowly beaten out, sounding perhaps like the relentless procession of footsteps of a monster.  Finally, a plaintive piano solo introduces “Back to Janjira” – this may not be a score which will be remembered for its thematic content, but there is no shortage of emotion – before once more the orchestra (including dynamic punctuations from Japanese flutes) builds up in chaotic fashion, including this time a brief passage of choral bursts which are so unexpected they have a definite shock value.

“Muto Hatch” includes a battle between furious string runs and brass trills, getting ever more frantic, ever more furious.  Following that is an exercise in using music to create tension, “In the Jungle” seeing a two-note motif passed from bassoon to trombone – the piece begins murky, foggy, you can imagine people carefully making their way, fearful of what they may find – and then suddenly they find it and the orchestra explodes once more, leading into the seriously impressive action cue “The Wave”, including the heroic little fanfare which I presume is used to represent little triumphs in the film; and that’s certainly what it represents in the brilliant musical storytelling of the album.  The brief “Airport Attack” sees whatever triumphs they may have been quickly discarded (it is more relentlessly dark action) before some much-needed respite comes in “Missing Spore”, which features the first genuinely light musical moment of the score (for once a trumpet is heard clearly); needless to say that doesn’t last long as the aggression returns in the second half of the cue.

Electronics come more to the fore in the forlorn opening to “Vegas Aftermath”, the light well and truly extinguished again now; a few bars of misleading calm then danger once more at the top of the musical agenda, but there is a sustained period of reflection in the cue’s later portion and then once more the sound of hope as “Ford Rescued” begins, layer upon layer of brass and strings added as the piece progresses.  “Following Godzilla” continues the now firmly-established action template of the score, slow but dominant brass phrases blaring over frenetic strings, the trademark Desplat electronic pulse underneath it all.  “Golden Gate Chaos” lives up to its name, creepy string music (of the kind used by Hollywood composers to represent creepy foes since time immemorial) leading into a veritable cacophony of brass and percussion, desperate choir joining in as the piece progresses towards its frantic conclusion.

“Let Them Fight” is brilliant in the way it moves from cool detachment to frantic desperation, featuring truly incredible playing from the brass section of the LA orchestra.  The tension is ratcheted up another level in “Entering the Nest” (impossible though that would have seemed), featuring a passage in the middle brilliant in its simplicity, a repeated clarion call from the brass which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Max Steiner score (hey, sometimes the old ideas are the best ones).  “Two Against One” sees the orchestral fireworks continue, some higher-register parts of the orchestra making a rare appearance.  The furious excitement reaches its zenith in “Last Shot”, yet another fantastic piece of action music.  And then… (spoiler)… the incredibly dark “Godzilla’s Victory”, a powerful statement from the orchestra giving way to violins and piano playing at their highest ends, musically suggestive of a dawning realisation of what’s happened – reflective, elegiac, extremely sombre yet somehow quite beautiful.  There’s no happy ending – “Back to the Ocean” is murky, contemplative and above all sad, until the Hollywood ending finally arrives with the orchestra swell in the final minute or so, the main theme suddenly transplanted into triumphant mode.

Some people will bemoan the lack of themes and they’re right – the themes there are subtle – but that’s just not what the score’s about.  This is not a score for the faint-hearted.  It gnarls and growls throughout.  It is oppressively dark, gradually closing in before going for the jugular.  I haven’t heard an orchestral onslaught as savage as this in a film score in a long time.  Desplat has pretty much now proved that he can do anything – for all my admiration for the composer I wasn’t sure he had a brutal score like this one in him.  It’s a 2014 action blockbuster with a distinctive, individual sound, brilliantly written and orchestrated, brilliantly played by the orchestra and brilliantly recorded by Dennis Sands – and it is sensational.

Rating: *****

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  1. Callum Hofler on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:45

    A good contender for best score of the year I’d say; fantastic review.

  2. Franklin Yan on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:47

    You haven’t heard an orchestral onslaught as savage as this in a film score in a long time? How about last year Zimmer’s 12 Years A Slave and all the Jonny Greenwood’s works?

  3. James Southall on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:48

    Not “big” like this, I guess I meant.

  4. KilklineNut on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:54

    Franklin, in what sense was 12 years a slave an orchestral onslaught? It’s largely an elegiac score.

  5. Scott Glasgow on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 04:05

    Totally agreed! Great wonderful dark aggressive score.. There is the low “Godzilla” low theme that comes back a few times. A note: during the session he had two antiphonal string sections on both sides of the stage. Sadly I don’t hear that in the album. Maybe it was my car stereo though.

  6. orion_mk3 on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 04:16

    How would you compare this to Arnold’s 1998 score and Ifukube’s original?

  7. Ethan on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 04:27

    I especially enjoyed the Penguin electric violinist.

  8. hummable on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 07:56

    Call me a rubber chicken but I’ve yet to hear a Desplat score I truly love outside of his scores for Wes Anderson this sounds promising though.

    I was wondering what orchestra he used? Pope seemed to suggest it was an LA ensemble.

  9. Edmund Meinerts on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 08:58

    12 Years a Slave, an orchestral onslaught? LOL

  10. john m on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 15:38

    Zimmer yawnnnnnnnnnnnn

  11. Gary Dalkin on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 21:02

    Excellent review James. I’ve only just discovered that the album is already on Spotify, and from my single listen I agree with you entirely. We could be back in 1994, Goldenthal post Alien 3. That’s high praise from me.

  12. john m on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 21:34

    On I tunes I see also

  13. Jason Farcone on Thursday 15 May, 2014 at 18:58

    5 stars seems incredible James, if only in (dis?_)respect to Arnold’s pretty awesome, in hindsight, composition to that Devlin-Emmerich disaster from 1998, where Arnold pretty much “couldn’t” have written “too” much better of a score.

    I’d like to hear some of Desplat’s take, but it immediately makes me annoyed that just ANOTHER reboot of something that ALREADY cost $100million+ is granted an A+ Hollywood composer of 2014 (one of the few we seem to have left today), without any regard to the original Hollywood film which, one must remember, whilst it was an utter catastophre (especially box-office wise), was the BIGGEST Hollywood production at the time (recall the tagline, something like “Size -DOES- Matter”… just overall makes me a bit sad.

    Love Arnold and Desplat both though, so who gives a fuck.

    Always thought this scene was moving from the ’98 Broderick fiasco, far better compositionally than the overall film. but ya… Arnold peaks here a bit.

  14. john m on Thursday 15 May, 2014 at 20:37

    Both scores are good but are very different

  15. spielboy on Thursday 15 May, 2014 at 23:54

    “original Hollywood film” Emmerich’s GODZILLA? Really?

  16. Edmund Meinerts on Friday 16 May, 2014 at 00:58

    As bad as I know Emmerich’s Godzilla is, I find it impossible to bear it any ill will because the score it produced is so completely and utterly kick-ass. I feel the same way about Cutthroat Island. I’ll enjoy myself watching those movies far more than I would something like The Social Network.

    Being a film score fan has pretty much ruined my ability to judge films. :p

  17. Daniel Azevedo on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 03:54

    Hey, James,

    Thanks for yet another review. Your enthusiasm about this score is noticeable and I understand you are reviewing the album as a standalone listen.

    However…

    I saw the film today and have some additional comments (which contain spoilers): I don’t know exactly why but I expected something better than average from Desplat, who usually tries hard to breathe some life into every project of his. Yet “Godzilla” gave me further proof that, however talented the composer may be, he just isn’t comfortable writing action scores. And it shows.

    The film itself was pretty uninvolving — I almost fell asleep everytime it stopped dead on its tracks for some tired human drama such as the father/son, husband/wife, scientist/apprentice relationships. There is a criminal waste of talented major actors reduced to cardboard figures. David Strathairn plays the most clueless admiral ever to grace a motion picture. And even if some shots of the fighting creatures from within a school bus or car or any tiny human perspective do look great, a little of this goes a long way and it quickly becomes boring.

    The same applies to the score. It is bombastic, relentless, with several ostinati that will not give up. The spotting is weak — the fight scenes are more exciting and realistic WITHOUT the music, which always intrudes. There is no subtlety, no theme, no grace. Desplat empties his bag of tricks early in the film and then has nothing new to offer for the next 100 (overscored) minutes.

    The problem here might be his style: his minimalist technique just doesn’t mesh with this kind of movie. It is repetitive and dull. Near the end, when Brody is rescued by helicopter, there is a sudden change to the kind of minimalism Desplat usually applies to the Jacques Audiard movies and it was jarring. It simply did not match the remainder of the score at all.

    I feel sorry about being negative about this effort, but to me it was extremely generic and not better than what a second rate Remote Control composer might have created instead. It is somewhat disheartening when the faint praise (?) I have for a summer blockbuster movie is that “it could have been worse”. I grew up in the 80′s and would get my regular shot of terrific summer scores by Williams, Goldsmith, Silvestri, Horner, Elfman, you name it. Now I get this uninspired fluff. Sigh. If I were growing up today, film music might not interest me.

    Actually, I don’t think Desplat is the one to blame here. He just cannot write a decent, exciting action score. He is a superb composer for cerebral, understated dramas. “The Painted Veil” is a masterpiece, and so are many of his scores for Audiard. But “Godzilla” was instantly forgettable and it actually became perhaps a bit obnoxious during the film. It might be a case of composer mismatch — remember Goldsmith’s comedy scores like “Fierce Creatures” or “Mr. Baseball”? Those were also NOT career highlights.

    The film DID feature one striking sequence that was NOT scored by Desplat: the use of a Ligeti piece during a HALO jump was the single standout cue for me. It was eerie and added immensely to the image. Maybe if the whole movie had been scored with such bold choices, or if Desplat had been asked to follow that soundscape instead of his ostinati, it could have been more attractive. As it is, I have zero interest in buying the CD to revisit the score.

  18. Jens on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 04:48

    Mr. Baseball is catchy as all hell and Fierce Creatures is a delight.

  19. Jason Farcone on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 04:55

    spammy whammy sellick uhm eh ya nothing rhymes with sellick, if that’s how you even spell Mr. Tom’s name.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-RPn4A11sk

    what a bloody fine anthem. I……. think.

  20. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 13:15

    “If I were growing up today, Film Music might not interest me.” > a chilling overview of the hundreds of scores being released nowadays Daniel – REGRETABLY TRUE, and judging by the postings on so many sites, a statement many collectors are concurring with. Recent additions to my collections will probably never be listened to again > 300 Rise of an Empire (JUNKIE XL – not his real name)…Yellow Rock (RANDY MILLER)… Hansel & Gretal – Witch Hunters and Evidence (ATLI ÖRVARRSON)…Ender’s Game and Pain & Gain (STEVE JABLONSKY)… Hammer of the Gods (BENJAMIN WALLFISCH) …Red Dawn (RAMIN DJAWADI)…Killer Joe (TYLER BATES)…The Place beyond the Pines (MIKE PATTON) and so many more. Expanded & remastered scores by Cinema Greats [MORRICONE, JARRE, GOLDSMITH, DELERUE, BERNSTEIN et al] and a new generation of European composers provide the most satisfying pleasure! I agree Daniel, MR. BASEBALL {an expanded CD is on the cards} is among my most detested scores (also DENNIS THE MENACE) from one of my most cherished composers. BUT, have you heard THE ‘BURBS? >Joe Dante’s wacky comic-strip view of middle-class American neurotics with GOLDSMITH parodying a few of his signature stylizations. As James commented…Comedy music is “not a genré GOLDSMITH spent working in – but he was a wily witty man, and so, on the right project, he could certainly use that wit to come up with delightful music…And, ‘THE BURBS’ was the right project.” Thanks for a succinct analysis of GODZILLA’s music as heard in the film. #Jason, it’s great reading your postings again, after a long absence AND thanks for linking us to the appropiate sites.

  21. James Southall on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 14:38

    Yes indeed – if I were growing up today there is no way I would have fallen in love with film music, despite the occasional gems like Godzilla. Fortunately I am not growing up; unfortunately I am still growing outwards.

  22. Jason Farcone on Saturday 17 May, 2014 at 23:28

    Andre, I might say (as written for a film; AND perhaps as a standalone listen), the ‘Burbs ranks in probably the top 20 finest scores ever written. Ranking somewhere barely behind (Dante’s, of course &) Goldsmith’s “Gremlins” (just the first; 2nd score (and film) simply don’t hold a candle to the original(s) imH?o.

    :D

  23. Aaron on Tuesday 20 May, 2014 at 14:51

    Goodness gracious Jimbo! Your reviews for Desplat and Tyler are becoming predictable. I tried Godzilla, I couldn’t get past the bombast, thoroughly blasted. I thought Desplat may provide something less ordinary or expected, but then this does not look like a defining Godzilla film and so the score sits well alongside. Nevermind, I enjoy your reviews for terrible scores.

  24. Edmund Meinerts on Tuesday 20 May, 2014 at 20:47

    You think this score is ordinary, Aaron? I certainly don’t love it as much as James, but it is very very far from “ordinary”.