- Composed by Hans Zimmer
- Columbia / 2014 / 115m
Marc Webb was a slightly surprising choice to make The Amazing Spider-Man, an indie director with a solitary “hit” to his name, but he delivered a solid comic book caper that for me at least was the most satisfying film so far featuring that character, fresh and light and remembering its primary purpose was as a piece of entertainment. An even bigger surprise was the choice of composer, James Horner – finally a move away from the relentless doom and gloom that has blighted most films of its kind over the last decade and a reminder of what a good film score can actually do for a film like that, with genuine emotion and an actual, no-holds-barred brilliant theme for the title character.
Given that, it was a big disappointment to learn that Horner wouldn’t be returning for the sequel; with him not coming back, duties passed – with a certain inevitability – to the ubiquitous Hans Zimmer, adding Spider-Man to Batman and Superman in his collection. I don’t know the circumstances here – perhaps Horner was asked but didn’t want to do it; perhaps actually Zimmer had been the first choice to score the first film but was unable or unwilling for some reason to do it. In any case, one thing was certain – this would be a very different Spider-Man score, with Zimmer never likely to go anywhere near the symphonic elegance of Horner’s wonderful work (which in hindsight is easily the most impressive score for any film with the Marvel logo at the start).
With his extraordinary dominance of blockbuster film music, it’s easy to see why this composer is so controversial. I’m not talking about his own scores – but all the pale imitators. Except to the extent that some of those pale imitators work at Zimmer’s own studio, he is of course not the man to blame there – if he is so successful that all those filmmakers want music that sounds like his, and all those composers (though many of them seem hardly worth of the name) want to write music that sounds like his, then what is he to do about it? It does present him with a bit of a problem though – for example, since Inception‘s HORN OF DOOM was first heard in 2010, it has been heard in twenty five thousand other film scores (trust me, I’ve counted them) and has reached the point where it sounds clichéd and ridiculous. So now if he uses this device he came up with, it sounds to the world like he’s copying everyone else – and so he periodically needs to reinvent himself. While at times there seems to be a big disconnect between things he says in interviews and the aural proof that ends up on the soundtrack – Man of Steel was going to sound like no music that had ever been heard before, as I recall; as I also recall, it sounded like a pretty dull retreat of an awful lot of other things – there is no denying that Hans Zimmer has genuinely changed direction on numerous occasions through his career (and that many of these changes in direction have changed everyone else’s direction too – not just the HORN OF DOOM, think back to all the wailing women after Gladiator, all the action music after Batman Begins; his influence is remarkable).
And so that leads us to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. With a trilogy of Batman scores and then a Superman one behind him – none of which I particularly liked – I approached this with some trepidation. These things are meant to be fun, meant to be pieces of entertainment; I feared we’d be hearing more relentlessly oppressive sturm und drang, the notion of Spider-Man having an heroic theme would be consigned to history, and so on. (I expected to ask… why so serious?) Instead, Zimmer and his collaborators (the album is credited to “Hans Zimmer and the Magnificent Six”, the latter being Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Tom Holkenborg, Mike Einzinger, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro) have gone in a completely different direction – not just to James Horner, which was inevitable, but also to where Zimmer has gone before. This one has for some reason been blessedly free from pre-release hype, but if the composer had said this time that he was taking film music in a new direction, the music is the proof that he could actually have had a case. (And it’s an interesting little commentary on how film music has changed that Pharrell Williams and Johnny Marr could be said to be to Hans Zimmer, the film composer currently on top of the tree, what Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma were to John Williams, his predecessor, a few years ago.) I’ve sometimes loved his music and sometimes hated it, but one thing I do admire about this composer is his willingness to try new things; and this is a completely different score from those he wrote for his other comic book heroes. Indeed, one of my disappointments (of many, it has to be said) with Man of Steel was the missed opportunity for some real hero/villain contrast – the homogeneity in sound just didn’t work for me at all. This time round, the contrast is there and truly pronounced.
I wasn’t sure what to expect and to be honest, the first time listening to the album I feared the worst when I heard the very brief (47-second) “I’m Electro” which opens up the album. Its very harsh, industrial electronic soundscape suggested an obnoxious journey may lie ahead. But keep an open mind because there is an awful lot still to be revealed. In “There He Is”, a very clean electric guitar solo accompanies an ingenious crawling noise, evoking of course a spider; and then the theme for the man himself bursts forth in “I’m Spider-Man” (after one of the album’s only mis-steps, some sound effects street noise which really shouldn’t be there). An heroic, major-key theme for an heroic, major-key character, it’s clearly modelled on Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” but it works a treat. Interestingly, there’s an almost startling clarity to the recording of the orchestral element which is quite unlike Zimmer – I suspect again it’s all about the contrast, the squeaky-clean hero against the dirty industrial villain.
Speaking of the villain, the extended “My Enemy” is an extraordinary piece of what can only be described as baroque dubstep, a sometimes-bizarre and almost outrageously bold combination of pretty hard-core electronica with Purcell-like elegant classicism. A whispered vocal is used to represent the inner turmoil of the Electro character; literally the voices in his head. At times through the track Spider-Man’s theme briefly bursts forth (the contrast again), but it’s all about Electro. I know that some people will be repulsed, particularly by the dubstep; but I’m impressed first of all by the idea, then even moreso by the execution. How on earth did Zimmer pull this off and make it work? Yet work is exactly what it does – and then some. Its manic and maniacal representation of Electro is a brilliant invention, not one that will be enjoyed by everyone but the creativity should certainly be admired.
“Ground Rules” presents a gentle piano version of Spider-Man’s theme before, in “Look at Me”, the Electro material is explored further, with a frantic driving bassline driving the piece forward and a notable array of woodwinds (not a part of the orchestra one often associates with this composer) before a powerful onslaught of electronica. The well-produced album takes a bit of a breather for a moment at the start of “Special Project”, which conjures an eerie calm – a calm which is quite clearly before astorm, a storm which gathers pace through a brilliant passage for keyboards. “You Need Me” introduces the most traditional (and therefore in some ways most surprising!) feature of the score, a romantic piano theme. James Horner went heavy in that direction in the first score (brilliantly helping create an emotional impact from the film) and I didn’t expect Zimmer to go anywhere near there – but actually it’s a lovely theme, even lovelier when taken up by electric guitar. It’s contemporary and apart from the piano, musically a long way from what Horner did; but the effect is similar. There’s a human touch there – a connection from the audience to the characters – it’s just lovely.
Winds are back in “So Much Anger”, oboe and bassoon fluttering about before the Spider-Man theme gets another airing. The score’s going through a more low-key sequence, with the love theme coming back in “I’m Moving to England” – and that’s no bad thing. When these things are a constant onslaught of noise, the impact is gone; by contrasting that side with a far gentler side, the impact is so much greater. “I’m Goblin” centres on a kind of slow wailing siren, unnerving electronics continually piling more tension into the atmosphere until it’s all resolved in a frantic and frenetic piece of action music featuring some dazzling string writing. “Let Her Go” presents a mutated version of the love theme for manipulated piano, before it is heard in its more traditional form – with a slightly tragic twinge to it – in “You’re My Boy”. “I Need to Know” introduces itself with a different kind of beauty, keyboards and strings combining brilliantly before Spider-Man’s theme takes over in arresting fashion; it reminds me a little of “Starwaves” from last year’s impressive Oblivion.
“Sum Total” sees the fairly peaceful ambience interrupted first by a more abrasive electronic sound before more action bursts forth, darker action this time; then there’s more exploration of the love theme in “I Chose You”, this time the guitar section rather than the piano. “We’re Best Friends” mostly riffs around the main theme without ever quite getting to it (an attractive string melody emerging instead over the guitars); then, after an extended absence, the Electro theme returns with a vengeance in “Still Crazy”, a heavy rock vibe replacing the baroque this time. (Some people say – if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it – but that evidently didn’t apply here.) The piece ends with an heroic burst of the main theme but then it’s back to raw emotion in “The Rest of My Life”, another lovely, gentle piece as the score nears its conclusion. That comes in the grand finale “You’re That Spider Guy”, which rocks out for a couple of minutes before one last rousing play of the main theme, drenched with dashing heroism.
The standard edition of the soundtrack features most (though not all) of the cues mentioned above plus various songs; the deluxe edition features the programme reviewed above and then a whole second disc, featuring all the songs (to be honest, the only one of which does anything for me is “Here” by Pharrell Williams), a couple of Zimmer’s trademark lengthy suites ((“The Electro Suite” and “Harry’s Suite”), a couple more score tracks (hardcore action in “Cold War”, a more epic feel in “No Place Like Home”), what’s labelled as a “First Day Jam” and a remix of the Electro theme.
I’ve said before that while sometimes I love what he does and sometimes I hate it, I always admire Hans Zimmer when he tries something genuinely different. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is genuinely different. As regular readers will know, I am a huge fan of James Horner and so was very disappointed that he was not returning, especially since I hadn’t particularly enjoyed Zimmer’s music for Batman and had thoroughly disliked his Superman. I am therefore truly surprised by how impressive his Spider-Man music is. I have no doubt that it will prove as polarising as ever; some people simply won’t like some of the stylistic choices, others will struggle with the contrast with Horner’s blisteringly good score for the previous film. Some will love it, some will hate it. I love it – the first disc provides an hour of music that features some of the composer’s most creative writing in a number of years and works brilliantly as a listening experience, that contrast between the (somewhat) traditional approach for Spider-Man and the brutally modern approach for Electro proving truly compelling. There’s an excellent dramatic architecture, real musical storytelling if you will. If you’d said to me while I was first listening to The Amazing Spider-Man back in 2012 (and writing about how much I hoped it might mark a return to a more traditional approach in general to these films) that two years later the sequel would come out and be scored by Hans Zimmer with dubstep, I’d probably have punched you in the face (well, if I weren’t the world’s most mild-mannered individual, anyway). I guess others will feel the same way. But open your mind to it: it’s dazzling stuff.