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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Composed by Joel P. West

The Marvel Cinematic Universe heads east in Shang-Chi, its latest comic book hero providing an opportunity for the studio to showcase some Chinese action stylings with one of the more obscure lead characters so far. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film has been well-received by audiences and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of the character in future. Shang-Chi is drawn back into his immortal father’s mythical Ten Rings organisation having escaped when he was a teenager, with the usual stuff ensuing.

Composer Joel P. West had scored the director’s four previous movies; it is fair to say that none of them was quite as high-profile as this one, so credit to Cretton for sticking with his usual composer (and to Disney for allowing him to) – such situations don’t always work out, but this one did because West delivered a fine score which combines many of the familiar features of these things with the Hollywood “Chinese music” style.

Joel P. West

The first two tracks introduce the theme(s) for Shang-Chi and his father, Xu Wenwu. I say “theme(s)” because it’s actually the same theme, but presented in two different guises – two sides of the same coin and all that – in “Xu Shang-Chi” it’s all heroic and expansive, then West twists it round to make it moody and villainous in “Your Father”, though he doesn’t push it at that point as far as he does later in the score. The six-note melody is decent, and in the first track in particular it certainly provides a track to add to the Marvel playlist.

Then in “The Bamboo Spring” West introduces the score’s most overt “Chinese” music – erhu, of course, along with various other colourful solos – it has an ethereal quality as used here, extremely pretty and magical. I don’t suppose it’s very authentic but I am often drawn to this Hollywoodised mixture of west and east, and this score proves no exception. The other instrumental nod to China comes (with a certain degree of inevitability) from a large group of drums – we hear it alongside the orchestra in “Training” before it gets to shine on its own in “Brother and Sister”. While nothing new, it adds an extra colour to the score which is welcome.

The score does two things really well: the atmosphere created by the tranquil, calm moments really is very beautiful (mid-way through, “The Waterfall” is fantastic); and then there’s the action. We’re accustomed to the Marvel scores featuring large amounts of action and the composers always have to walk a fine line between making everything sound so huge and important that actually the sense of importance is lost, and providing enough driving energy to move things forward the way the filmmakers want. West treads this line very well, giving the requisite thrills as required but saving the really big moments for when the movie earns them.

An early action highlight is “Don’t Look Down” which – unusually for 2021 Hollywood action music – has a great little melody at its centre, a melody that West plays with – dare I say almost Jerry Goldsmith style (to be clear, this does not sound like Jerry Goldsmith music – I just mean the way motivic fragments are used in all sorts of ways as the building blocks for the action music rather than the more usual ostinato approach) – in a number of action cues as the score goes on. He brings it out in the following cue, “Revenge”, this time giving it a grander scope and combining it with that army of percussion for some really fine music.

I love the sweep of grandeur that grows ever-stronger as the score progresses, quite potently conveying a sense of growing confidence (and indeed growing stakes), and yet there are always these pauses for calm in between the big moments. The delicate “Who You Are” provides a beautiful contrast with the tracks either side. After that there are a few excellent action tracks on the way to the finale – “Is This What You Wanted?” is big and dramatic and later the twofer of “I Won’t Leave You Again” and “The Light and the Dark” have an epic quality to them, before the softer pair of tracks that close the album.

If I were to offer one criticism then it would be that the thematic content doesn’t quite stick in the mind. The main theme is perfectly functional and does what it needs to do – indeed, the yin-and-yang way it’s used for father and son is pretty clever – there’s nothing wrong with it, I just can’t remember it afterwards. Other than that I would rank this pretty high in the list of Marvel scores and hope it provides Joel P. West with a platform to do this sort of score more often going forwards. I’m not familiar enough with his work to be able to say what is or isn’t his style, but credit to him for not just stringing Marvel movie music clichés together and instead fashioning something quite distinctive for the series. Recommended.

Rating: ****

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  1. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Friday 17 September, 2021 at 18:25

    Perhaps a bit unrelated, but doesn’t anyone think it is a shame Marvel doesn’t seem to do CD releases anymore? Not for this one, for Black Widow, for any of their shows. I just hope Spider-Man: No Way Home breaks the trend, how else am I gonna complete that trilogy?

    • Oliver Pöllendorfer (Reply) on Friday 24 September, 2021 at 20:36

      I think the score for the third Spider-Man-Movie will get a CD-Release because it’s a Sony movie and not a Disney-Movie. The first two are released by Sony Classical and I am sure the third one will get a Sony Classical-CD-Release, too.