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Summer round-up, part two

I should note that my definition of “summer” is somewhat flexible, and its boundaries are sufficient to include all the film scores I mention herewith. I draw special attention to the fact that all the composers whose works are discussed are British – not my intention when I set out writing this, so perhaps it is a subconscious tribute to her late majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who no doubt was looking forward to watching Ticket to Paradise but tragically never got the chance. Had it been released twenty summers earlier then it would have been surefire box office dynamite – Julia Roberts and George Clooney! It doesn’t have any comic book heroes in it though and we all know that in 2022 that just isn’t good enough, so everyone will see it when it starts streaming instead.

To say that Lorne Balfe is quite prolific would be like saying Alfred the Great (I promise, the final monarch to be mentioned on this page, unless you count John Barry) was quite good at annexing parts of East Anglia in the name of Mercia. According to IMDB, this is his sixth film score of the year – and he’s done numerous tv shows as well. And there are more to come! The romantic comedy is not one of the genres you’d particularly associate with him – and it’s a difficult one to write interesting music for – but he puts just enough quirk into his score to make it a winner. It’s all very pleasant – the earlier tracks actually remind me of Thomas Newman’s Marigold Hotel scores, which may well be a coincidence, though I note that this film’s director Ol Parker wrote both of the Marigold movies so I suppose it also may not be a coincidence. In any case, it’s very lovely.

If I say there are processed vocals and keyboard textures then you might go and hide behind the sofa, but don’t worry! – it’s a good example of it being done well. While lacking a killer central theme to hook the whole thing round (where’s Rachel Portman when you need her?) there is melody aplenty, and by the time we get to “The Morning After” it’s really won me around. Charming music.

Balfe’s oddest project of the year was the Rowan Atkinson-starring Man vs Bee which appeared on Netflix within most people’s definition of summer – apart, that is, from those in the southern hemisphere. I do apologise to my antipodean readers (for everything). Atkinson went round before it premiered and everyone seemed to agitate him to offer some rallying call about freedom of speech in comedy, and to decry cancel culture – but Man vs Bee is about the least edgy comedy I can think of. It is literally about a man being terrorised by a bee – across a series of episodes that only last about ten minutes each. Astonishing though it is that it got made, it’s clearly completely inoffensive, and did somehow inspire a very pleasant score. It’s big music – sampled, but big. Like it could be underscoring some classic comedy farce from a past age. I have one complaint, which is that the opening cue is called “The Beginning” when clearly it should be called “The Beeginning”. But the whole thing is sprightly, full of energy, and great fun. It leaves me buzzing. (I did it!) There is no sting in its tail. (Yes!)

Next up it’s Daniel Pemberton. To say that Pemberton is quite chameleonic would be like saying that King Aethelred was quite renowned for being ill-prepared – and there he is, another monarch, I take solace from the fact that most people will have stopped reading by now and will therefore be blissfully unaware that I have broken my solemn vow of only a few paragraphs ago. He really does have a terrifically wide range, but of all of the styles he seems perfectly comfortable composing in, perhaps my favourite is the kind of sassy, swingy one he uses for the opening track (“A Lavish Affair”) of See How They Run, the Agatha Christie-inspired comedy thriller set in 1950s London.

It’s a wonderful piece of music – so energetic, so full of style. The orchestral hijinks continue through the rest of the album – he can’t maintain that early standard, it would be impossible – but we get music of real vigour and style. The use of the cimbalom will inevitably draw thoughts of John Barry in the 1960s, but the similarity is (if there at all) superficial at best. Another thing it shares with 60s Barry – the panache. It’s ever-present. The title cue at the end is pure gold. Great album.

Since Benjamin Wallfisch joined the dark side I’ve found his music rather less interesting but there have been some notable exceptions and I was firmly assuming that Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives would be one of them. The story of the Thai boys rescued from the cave is a genuinely remarkable one – and Howard has a bit of history at extracting great music from against-the-odds true-life tales – and we know what Wallfisch is capable of. Forget all that though – watching the film it is very hard to discern what the music is attempting to do – and away from it, it doesn’t float my boat at all.

Now, before you write in – I am aware that for much of the film there are boys in mortal danger. I wasn’t expecting those parts to be underscored with grand fanfares or orchestral swagger. The mournful tone the composer adopts is clearly appropriate for those sections – and the opening track on the album summarises the desperate situation quite nicely. The problem is – spoiler alert – they don’t die! Well, obviously this was not a problem for them, but you know what I mean. The selfless heroes who risked their own lives to rescue them – the extraordinary act of the rescue itself – that’s happy! Why does the music still sound like it’s written for someone’s funeral? (Indeed, the concluding track is called “Soh Long Nan”, which sounds like something you might actually say at a funeral.) Film music is allowed to promote positive as well as negative emotional responses. James Horner – you are missed. The introspection is so obsessive, the narrative journey of the music never seems to complete. What a shame. Listen to Wallfisch’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain instead – that’s the way to do it.

Still, at least there’s John Powell to save the day. Happy music. Always full of joy – at least, since he became considerably more circumspect with which projects he would score, restricting himself to around one a year or so – yes, Don’t Worry Darling is bound to be a treat! Let’s press play… what the vest and pants is this!?

I’ll admit – I haven’t seen the film. It’s about someone spitting on someone else I think, so it’s understandable if the music isn’t the most pleasant. The score probably works like gangbusters in context – Powell scores always do. And one thing I will say: it is never less than interesting. It’s perhaps the most effective psychological horror music I’ve heard in a number of years – the composer takes a string orchestra, adds layers of twisted electronics, and most notably vocals (performed amazingly by Holly Sedillos) and essentially transports us into the mind of the main character. Bernard Herrmann and Alex North did things like that a few generations ago, and Powell’s version of it obviously doesn’t sound like theirs – it’s interesting how far he goes with it. Some of the electronics are so unsettling – and the vocals almost defy description, especially to a wordsmith as vacuous as I. The only real film music parallel I can think of is some of the things Ennio Morricone got Edda dell’Orso doing in some of his giallo scores. The frantic action cue at the end, “Victory Chase”, might sound somewhat incongruous, but does at least serve to resolve some of the tension. Honestly: there is an awful lot of tension. I’m not convinced I could recommend this album as a listening experience. It’s genuinely unique: not often we hear a score for a Hollywood studio picture that doesn’t sound like anything that’s gone before. Massive kudos to Powell for that. But I need to put Call of the Wild on to calm my nerves.

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  1. LukeH (Reply) on Monday 10 October, 2022 at 15:22

    Sounds like Don’t Worry Darling could be high school as a soundtrack – I’ll take a gander at it.

    Thanks for your evaluations of these albums, I needed to find some new music for homework and you’re always helpful with finding the good stuff. Thanks again!