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June round-up

June, in the northern hemisphere at least, features the year’s longest day – clocking in at an impressive 24 hours. This gives all the more time for listening to soundtrack albums, or writing about them. Traditionally it sees some of the big movie hits of the summer season released, though it’s fair to say that this year a number of them have not performed quite as well as their makers may have hoped – the weird choice by studios to attract as many people as possible to watch their products on streaming services (from which they don’t appear to make much money) rather than at the cinema (from which they do) starting to really come home, now everyone assumes they can just wait a couple of weeks and watch the things at home instead of going out to pay the big bucks to see them in the company of people talking to each other, constantly looking at their phones and eating noisy food. (Well, I suppose that may happen at home as well.)

The Flash was perhaps also affected by what may euphemistically be called “the antics” of its main star (and from my perspective, the stupid multiverse shit that now afflicts so many of these things – I ain’t paying money to watch that). A lot of people who watched it seemed to actually quite like it – but not a huge number of them watched it. Returning to the DCEU was composer Benjamin Wallfisch, whose earlier score for Shazam was quite well-regarded. Fortunately these films seem to have moved on musically quite a long way from the earlier entries, when the sole purpose of the music seemed to be to suck any possible joy the audience may experience all the way out of them – the last few of them have featured quite entertaining scores that have had the requisite sense of fun about them, and The Flash very much follows suit.

When (spoiler alert) Michael Keaton pitches up as Batman, we get to hear Danny Elfman’s theme – indeed, Wallfisch uses it a lot more than Elfman himself did when he scored the first version of the Justice League movie. The problem with that is, I suppose, that by the time the album finishes, all I can really remember is the Elfman theme. They don’t write them like that any more. Is there a theme for The Flash here? Yes. And I know I’ve heard that for only a few weeks whereas I’ve heard the Elfman theme for a few decades, but if you’re going to go so large on quoting a legendary theme then you probably need to make sure what you’re putting up with it can stand up. Not saying it needed to be as good (though that would be very nice indeed), but I think we needed something a bit more distinctive for it to hit its mark a bit more clearly.

Now that I’ve finished complaining (for now) I’ll say that even if it doesn’t really stick in the memory, I do enjoy this music a lot. There’s a lot of big, epic-style stuff (epic in the 2020s sense, understand) which passes the time very nicely. The best cue is “Run”, with its entertainingly borderline-Liberace piano ramped right up in the mix and providing high camp against the choral and orchestral hijinks. At times there’s a bit of Don Davis / The Matrix style to the thing, which was not expected but is very welcome. As appears to be mandatory these days, you could have an eight-course tasting menu in the time it takes to get through the album, and that damages the experience, but it is what it is. In any case, I’d be very happy for this composer to return to this universe as many times as he wants – I think this is probably the most impressive thing he’s put out since he moved to Hollywood.

I’m not quite sure what’s happened to Thomas Newman of late. He used to be such a reliable contributor of distinctive music to Oscar-bait movies but even a couple of his long-standing collaborators (Pete Docter and Sam Mendes) have moved on in their most recent movies (to Reznor and Ross in both cases – with them writing pale Newman imitations for each); and when he has put out new music it just hasn’t seemed to have the same zip that it used to. So it was great to see him become attached to another Pixar movie, Elemental – a particular victim of the “there’s no point seeing it because it will be on Disney+ next month” line of thinking I think, at the box office.

His score sounds like what would happen if those for Finding Nemo and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had a baby – indeed, it’s so close to the latter in particular that there’s no doubt whatsoever that your views of Elemental will completely match your views of Marigold Hotel. I like it – the sounds of the Indian subcontinent (with a surprising vocal presence) filtered through that trademark Newman style of little rhythmic clusters being built up together in countless different ways. It lacks a really good central theme to bind it all together which is a shame, because otherwise it’s very entertaining, by far the composer’s most impressive in a while.

Since I didn’t like them at the time (to say the least), I haven’t listened to any of Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers scores for as long as I can remember. Then along came another sequel, Rise of the Beasts, not scored by Jablonsky but instead by relative newcomer Jongnic Bontemps – and listening to the album made me go back and check out the music from the first one. Still didn’t like it. Not sure I’ll be listening to this new one all that often either – it’s very much consistent with that established style from the earlier movies

There’s a Sturm und Drang main theme, a simple but powerful little musical progression that I quite like; and I also like when we hear the first score’s best moment, the oddly-titled “Arrival to Earth”, quoted later on. The standalone “The Autobots Enter” is sadly only a minute long but I can say that if the whole thing was like it, I’d be blasting it out all the time. Elsewhere there’s a whole heap of percussion-heavy martial action music – lovers of those Remote Control choppy strings and lovers of metallic electronic wailing will have enough here to last them the rest of the year, I’d have thought. It’s not really for me (nor would I expect it to be – I am not the target market) but there are some really impressive elements dotted around it.

I generally really love Alexandre Desplat’s music for Wes Anderson movies – while it isn’t always perfectly satisfying outside the context of the movie, it always is within it. Asteroid City is entirely within the boundary of the musical world the composer has created for the director’s previous movies – very minimal pieces, extremely light in instrumentation, all based on very simple little figures. But this one is one that doesn’t really work on an album. Amazingly, a score-only album has been released, which runs just under 20 minutes; much of it also appears on the main soundtrack album where it is dotted around the usual quirky assortment of other music.

If anything I’d say it works better in the latter context because then you don’t notice that you’re hearing the same couple of bars of music going through only subtle alterations for almost the entire length of the score. It’s largely based around repetition of a two-note figure across various instruments (usually some sort of chimes but we hear it on an array of percussion instruments too – and even at one point a Hammond organ). It’s quite magical in its way, achieves its hypnotic purpose admirably, and it will be cold day in hell before I ever listen to it again.

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  1. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Saturday 1 July, 2023 at 16:59

    I already pre-ordered The Flash on CD. I wholehearted agree, the Elfman theme was fantastically used throughout, though it’s a shame that the Flash theme (which after about four listens, I still can’t seem to identify) fell very much behind it. After Shazam’s magnificent main theme, I excepted a lot more in that department: thankfully, the rest of the package is great fun.

    Side note, can we except a few standalone reviews in the future? Given that we’ve been blessed with a new John Williams score for Indiana Jones 5, and we’ll have Lorne Balfe’s M:I 7 on the horizon, I’d love to read your more in-depth thoughts on those.

  2. mastadge (Reply) on Saturday 1 July, 2023 at 17:27

    Ackchyually, the longest day of the year is around Christmas, clocking in at around 24 hours 30 seconds.

    Okay, now off to read the rest of the write-up. 😀

  3. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Saturday 1 July, 2023 at 21:55

    I agree about Thomas Newman’s Elemental – despite being a long-standing fan of his film scores, I approached this one with quite low expectations after his recent run of mediocre scores, and was pleasantly surprised. It won’t join my all-time favourite scores of his but it’s a welcome return to form.

    I didn’t know that John Williams’s score for the latest Indiana Jones film had already been released. It was predictable that it ended up in my ever-growing film music collection less than half an hour after I read that comment. I doubt I’ll be able to pass up on another John Williams score for as long as he keeps going, and my early impressions suggest that he still hasn’t lost his touch re. writing sweeping orchestral themes in particular.

    It’s scary at some levels to think that I now have 889 albums and that the vast majority of those are film scores/soundtracks, most of which I collected since 2013, though I still have a lot of catching up to do before I get near the size of James’s collection.

    Shame about Asteroid City, I’ve become a fan of Alexandre Desplat since discovering his Oscar-winning music for The Shape of Water in 2017.

    • Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 2 July, 2023 at 11:04

      Do you really have that many albums? Wow! Very impressive!

  4. Kevin (Reply) on Sunday 2 July, 2023 at 02:31

    “[Newman] used to be such a reliable contributor of distinctive music to Oscar-bait movies but even a couple of his long-standing collaborators (Pete Docter and Sam Mendes)…”

    I think you meant Andrew Stanton, not Pete Docter. Stanton directed Finding Nemo/Dory and WALL-E.

  5. Gabriel Bezerra (Reply) on Sunday 2 July, 2023 at 16:47

    The omission of Across the Spider-Verse and Indiana Jones give me hope they’re going to be separate reviews.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 2 July, 2023 at 22:10

      Indiana Jones will, for sure.

      • Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Tuesday 4 July, 2023 at 19:55

        Still hoping for that Star Trek: Picard Season 3 review.

  6. MPC (Reply) on Saturday 8 July, 2023 at 01:32

    I would love to see a separate review of “The Flash” if you felt like revisiting it. I do agree that the album could use some judicious trimming, but Wallfisch’s score is overwhelmingly good — I thought it really elevated the movie. The emotional current of Nora and Supergirl’s themes, as well as Elfman’s Batman theme, help overcome the underwhelming theme for the titular hero.

  7. Luke Hollingshead (Reply) on Sunday 9 July, 2023 at 21:35

    Hey James! Really enjoyed this review, I agree completely with what you said about each score. Two things:

    1. Could you please review the Spiderman Across the Spiderverse score? I thought it was absolutely fascinating and used perfectly in the film, very enjoyable to relisten to as well. Also interested in your thoughts on that movie, which I believe to be the only good superhero movie of the last couple years.

    2. Just had an intriguing thought – I understand what you’re saying about themes, and yes, a good theme is magical, but might sometimes a memorable and distinctive theme be distracting and undesired in some films? Not saying I agree with that, just wondering your thoughts.

    Thanks for keeping this up, always a joy.

  8. Christopher (Reply) on Tuesday 11 July, 2023 at 17:24

    Newman’s Elemental score has really grown on me over the last few weeks, I keep going back to it and finding layer upon layer of really interesting music. Move away from some of the soundscape tones he’s been using recently.

    Andrew Stanton has “In The Blink of an Eye” coming up, perhaps Newman will be involved with that?

    Would be interested to read a full review from you. Feels like there’s a lot in here that could lead to his 16th nomination.

  9. David (Reply) on Wednesday 12 July, 2023 at 06:46

    I’ll also add my support for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. I know, I know, it’s another multiverse superhero movie; but it might be one of the only ones that actually uses the concept in a creative way to tell a good story. The score is mainly comprised of small motifs rather than sweeping themes, and has a heavy electronic element – all of which I usually dislike.

    And yet, every few days I keep coming back to the score. Something about it is just incredibly powerful and exhilarating to me. Those electronic elements are arranged very harmonically, and those small motifs weave around each other in interesting ways. It’s by Daniel Pemberton, and I think it’s a huge leap up even from his (pretty good) score for the first film. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!