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Summer round-up: Barbenheimer etc

2023 will forever be remembered as being the year when – for the first time in the history of cinema – two quite different films aimed at quite different audiences were released on the same day as each other. It is hard to overstate just how hilarious this is and quite understandable why it inspired social media memes day after day for a period of several months. Oh, how I laughed.

The first of this such unlikely pairing was Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, whose scenes of heavy dialogue were shot with IMAX cameras in order to provide the optimal experience to people watching the film on their mobile phone while holding it up in the portrait orientation. Scoring the film – his second collaboration with Nolan – was Ludwig Göransson. I thought most things about the previous one, Tenet, were pretentious twaddle and that included the score but this time round the composer stepped up and gave us one of his most impressive works: while at times it does use the familiar Hans Zimmer tropes developed across earlier Nolan films, Göransson also builds in an emotional and psychological intensity which beautifully captures the moral quandary at the heart of the story.

The ensemble is heavy on strings and synths, the former being used throughout as an expression of Oppenheimer’s mental state and the latter adding atmosphere and ambience as required. What results is one of those film scores that really paints a picture – stick it on, close your eyes and your own images start appearing. There’s some warm, emotional material all the way across the spectrum to pretty dissonant electronic sturm und drang. That sort of vivid musical storytelling is something new for Göransson I think, and very promising given he is clearly going to become one of the more prominent film composers of his generation. For all the noise at the time about how atonal and difficult the music is – it really isn’t most of the time, it’s a conventional and largely melodic film score, and a damn good one.

So, Barbie. A film that my daughter couldn’t watch at the cinema because it had a 12 rating and she’s too young. Why you’d make a Barbie movie that young girls can’t go and see I’m not quite sure. However, it seems its dual message about how awful men are and also that you should all go and buy the expensive dolls hit all the right notes with audiences because it’s gone on to become a massive success. I didn’t think the original composer casting of Alexandre Desplat was quite as strange as most people did – I thought something along the lines of his Wes Anderson schtick could work quite well. Evidently it didn’t though, and pop music master Mark Ronson came on late in the day – probably a much more natural choice, I will admit – along with another songwriter / producer, Andrew Wyatt.

Their score is an upbeat, very cheerful collection of pop instrumentals that frequently sound to me like Stock/Aitken/Waterman backing tracks (and if you don’t know what that means, congratulations on being so much younger than me). It’s a reasonably pleasant listening experience but even at 45 minutes long it starts becoming really very samey long before it’s over – it’s understandable that it doesn’t feature much in the way of nuance or sophistication but this is one of those occasions when it would probably have been hugely beneficial to have just put a few selections of the score in between the songs on the other soundtrack album, especially given they’re generally much more important to the film. It’s plastic; I’m not sure it’s fantastic.

I should have learned my lesson by now but I still find myself convinced that whatever new project is announced in the DCEU franchise is an elaborate hoax – Black Adam can’t be a real thing. Blue Beetle!? But they all turn out to be real. The series had become far more musically satisfying of late but that sequence well and truly ends with this one, whose music is provided by Bobby Krlic, whose stage name is The Haxan Cloak, and if you asked me to imagine what music written by someone named The Haxan Cloak might sound like then I reckon I’d have got pretty close to this.

It is, to say the least, a challenging listening experience – a lot of very heavy electronica giving an intense psychological onslaught to the listener. I assume that’s what it was designed to do, so from that point of view it is an undoubted success. I don’t think I am the intended listener however and I can’t think of a less pleasant way of spending 90 minutes (yes, 90 minutes) than listening to this – endless HORN OF DOOM, no joy, no heroism, just relentless oppression. No thanks.

As an antidote to this, you could consider The Hill by Geoff Zanelli. The film is co-written by Angelo “Rudy and Hoosiers” Pizzo and is another of those against-the-odds stories in one of the exclusively American sports. The score is not Rudy and Hoosiers – this is 2023, man – but it’s absolutely lovely, warm and full of heart. We don’t really get to hear scores which genuinely wear their hearts on their sleeves much any more – at least, not in American cinema – and it’s great to hear one by a composer who understands that the emotional impact a lilting little oboe line can add to a film is really what film music should be all about.

It isn’t all joy and sunlit uplands – we go through some musically tougher times along the way, which makes the payoffs all the more powerful – all the more earned – when they come. I love when Zanelli give the score a more folksy feel, a kind of small-town charm from the fiddle and guitar; and I love all the beautiful melodies. I wish they stuck around in the memory a little more than they do, but that doesn’t prevent this being one of the hidden gems of the year and well worth checking out.

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  1. Luke Hollingshead (Reply) on Sunday 17 September, 2023 at 20:22

    I completely agree on the Oppenheimer score review. I thought Goransson did a great job creating a unique yet melodic score that completely captured the character and the plot. Even some of the tenser songs were an absolute joy to listen to because of the fascinating things going on in the music. Wonderful mix of modernity and classical writing.

    I’m interested, what did you think of I’m Just Ken – the song sung by Ryan Gosling also written by Mark Ronson.

    Thanks for this review!

  2. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Tuesday 19 September, 2023 at 22:08

    Probably will go for the CD release of Oppenheimer at some point, finally a soundtrack that starts with an “O”. Now I only need one that starts with the letter “V” to complete my alphabet.

    • Tom (Reply) on Thursday 21 September, 2023 at 09:45

      No Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets or Vice or Valiant or Venom or Van Helsing?

      • Marco Ludema (Reply) on Friday 22 September, 2023 at 14:49

        Haven’t seen the first three, don’t recall the other two. I really should watch Valerian at some point, though. I tend to only buy soundtracks of movies I’ve seen and liked.