Some years bring us more memorable film soundtracks than others but, by all accounts, 2018 has been an unusually good year for film music — if not for the films they serve. Some 20 years ago, film music seemed to be a dying art, increasingly replaced by pop songs, but since Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings re-energized the popularity of the fantasy universe on screen, the popularity of orchestral film scores has risen again, and has brought new talents to bear.
Declaring a set of works as `best’ is, of course, a matter of rude opinion, for which I’ll not apologise, thanks anyway. Passion got the better of me this year, so deal with it. I like to think that I’ve selected recordings here that stand out as not only as good scores, but as potentially lasting classics. I’ve been an amateur musician and composer myself for as long as I could get my hands on a musical instrument, and I’ve been an avid listener to all forms of music long before that, so I feel entitled to comment. I believe that a soundtrack can and should stand up by itself, without the film it serves. It may or may not work in the context of the movie, but that’s only a bonus. The selections I make here can be listened to over and over again, and will grow more enjoyable and reveal greater depth on every listening — so pay attention!
For decades, John Williams has been the uncontested master of film music, in spite of tough competition that has all but passed away now. In spite of his years, Williams is as prolific today as he is ambitious in the scope of his writing — and still very much at the height of his powers. In a sense, the opportunities for several of the works reviewed here stem indirectly from the legacy of John Williams’ music, but also from his imminent retirement — which has opened a window of opportunity for others to step into his shoes, however daunting that might be. He has begun to hand over the reins (or reign) to a number of worthy surrogates. Three of these stepped up to take on projects he could not deliver in 2018: Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard and John Powell.
Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard are no youngsters either, both have their own share of classics to their names, but both have also enjoyed resurgences in the past few years. Silvestri’s most recent scores for Ready Player One and The Avengers were unfortunately as bland as the movies themselves, in spite of his obvious talent (he did far better work for the comedic Night at The Museum, but that’s another story). I’ll come back to James Newton Howard below. That leaves a relatively newer face to take on the Han Solo movie project: John Powell.
John Powell is perhaps best known for the epic soundtracks to the How To Train Your Dragon movies. He harks — like a growing generation of composers — from under the wing of Hans Zimmer, and he started his career doubling with Harry Gregson-Williams and Zimmer in movies like Shrek and Antz. Those animated adventures share a lot with fantasy movies, so the language is a good fit. For Solo, Powell’s solo score was guided by a single theme written by John Williams. The theme is a wonderful piece that channels an almost Khachaturian-like Cossack dance. It’s astonishing how much John Williams can still find to write within the scope of the Star Wars musical universe.
Aside from the initial reference theme, however, Powell scored the film alone. The styles of the two composers clash somewhat in Powell’s heavy use of synthesized drum tracks — which are truly tiresome after a few listens (one wonders if the score would be more listenable if they were simply deleted). Those drums eradicate any sense of Khachaturian haunting the proceedings, turning it more into a kind of Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon silent adventure. When they finally stop, there are delicate and beautiful moments that show Powell’s skill as an orchestrator. Otherwise the styles complement one another for their orchestral richness and rhythmical diversity. A strange artistic choice in Powell’s writing is the use of a `world music’ tribal voice for the raiders, almost harking back to Avatar or the African tribal song from The Mission. It felt a bit wrong for the movie, but it does work well enough musically, if you close your eyes to the film.
John Williams’ theme for Han Solo, which opens the collection, is worth the album by itself. Powell never quite succeeds in improving on it, but he adds plenty of musical excitement of his own. The song «Chicken In the Pot» is a welcome break from the monotony of the drums, and one highlight of the album is the retrospective on moments from the Star Wars movies in «Reminiscence Therapy», a brilliant medley of John Williams themes sewn lovingly together. Although the project is flawed in a number of ways, there’s something about this score that keeps it playing on in my head. The production is strong and the recording is in high resolution. Even as a better produced appendix to Powell’s dragon training music, it is quite satisfying. If you close your eyes to the film and listen to the big romantic scope of this work, there is plenty to enjoy.
Another Hans Zimmer acolyte, who has been on a rising trajectory is Henry Jackman. Henry Jackman is the youngest composer amongst this collection, starting in 2008 by shadowing Hans Zimmer and the Gregson-Williams brothers (Harry and Rupert). His work has since been competent and prolific in its output, as he has been finding his voice. The synthesizer-orchestra soundtrack for Kong: Skull Island stands up well compared to the lacklustre Jumanji (whose production feels as though it could have been played by a synthesized orchestra), or the all too hectic Kingsman.
The Predator soundtrack, on the other hand, is dense and rich in its ideas and its orchestrations. Of the Jackman scores I’ve heard, this one seems to cry out the arrival of the composer as a force to be reckoned with. The themes are mainly original, though rooted in the style of Jackman’s other works as well as the military traditions of American movies. The military theme tips its hat to Alan Silvestri’s ingenious original Predator score, with a modern electronic flair.
Jackman has an undeniable musical competence. His use of melodies and chord structures is subtle and interesting. He knows the language of action film music well, and he is skillful at blending classical instruments with modern electronic ones. His handling of suspense puts the music first, maintaining its integrity even when the film cues dictate sudden shifts. Like Solo, this music is best enjoyed without the movie (a second or third tier affair to be sure), so it’s nice to sit back and listen to Jackman’s score and imagine what the movie could have been. The production sound is good, and there is much more comfortable blend of action and peaceful intermissions that inject new ideas into the music than with Solo. One has the sense that, with Predator, Henry Jackman has entered the ranks of the go-to action composers.
Operation just getting started
Probably the most successful film scorer of the past decade must be French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has been avidly composing for a wide range of movies, in a wide range of styles. He seems to have taken on the mantle of `top dog´ (no pun intended) in the industry at present (he was just nominated for the soundtrack to the excellent and quirky film Isle of Dogs). I discovered Alexandre Desplat in 2004 with his music for Birth — an eerie thriller, scored with a chillingly understated calm and Christmas twinkle. Since then, Desplat has worked on the Harry Potter movies, the recent Godzilla, and he took the academy awards for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water. My own preference would be his lyrical score for L’Odysse – the French story of Jacques Cousteau. In a new twist, his latest offering is fresh and decidedly non-mainstream for today’s movie style.
Unlike all the above, Operation Finale feels like a welcome throwback to the golden days of Jerry Goldsmith’s 1970s music, employing xylophones, marimba, and a strong rhythm to hammer out a melody, half rooted in period jazz. The result is beautifully recorded and is available in high resolution audio. The movie — a post-war spy drama — has likely passed us all by in anonymity, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t score highly on Rotten Tomatoes, so I was surprised to see the music appear in HiRes, which is usually reserved for the most popular films. There is not a lot to say about the music except that it is great, and a treat for Goldsmith fans.
The breadth of Desplat’s creations makes it seem as though this is far from being Operation Finale for him — he’s surely just getting started, and I’m looking forward to what he has in store in the new year.
Giacchino, Michael Giacchino
One of the delightful surprises of the year was Michael Giacchino’s big-band, Bond/Pink Panther-esque score for Incredibles 2. Like Alexandre Desplat, Giacchino is one of the small circle of rising mainstream composers now dominating big movie projects in recent years. After scoring the first Incredibles movie in 2004, he scored popular movies like Ratatouille and Mission Impossible III. But, over the past decade, he has been involved in big screen science fiction movies, like John Carter, Jupiter Ascending, Star Trek (rebooted), and Jurassic Park (rebooted). The style of those scores was sometimes bombastic and “busy”, perfect for big screen action, but difficult to process musically — and with more than a little thematic repetition.
With that in mind, I had begun to steer clear of new scores by the composer, expecting to find little new. But with the Incredibles 2, Giacchino has outdone himself. The score is humorous, as it apes classic Bond movies and other intrigue dramas. Most impressive is the detail in its orchestrations for big band orchestra. One could wonder whether the scoring for this single movie was more than for John Carter, Star Trek and Jurassic Park together.
Giacchino clearly has a love and a talent for this genre. It seems to quote the greats of the 70’s — John Barry, Barry Gray (Thunderbirds), Henry Mancini, and Geoff Love’s disco orchestra. The album features a total of 36 tracks, with some fantastic disco renditions of songs for the super characters, played at the end of the movie. Incredibles 2 is perhaps the one movie in this list that really does live up to expectations, on all levels. Some of the most satisfying musical moments come during the closing credits, when the action stops and one has nothing else to do than listen to the wonderful big band moments. All in all, this is a marvellous soundtrack, available in high definition and well worth the investment.
Bear McCreary — better known for scoring television dramas than for movies — shot to fame for his exceptional and unusual music for the 2004 remake of the Battlestar Galactica television series, when he took over the reins as assistant to Richard Gibbs of the Oingo Boingo school of film music. He went on to score Outlander and The Walking Dead amongst others. His signature style involves a passion for taiko drums and ethnic instruments.
God of War is, in fact, not a film score but rather a computer game score — but no less notable for that. McCreary has outdone himself in this project. He researched Scandinavian folk themes for the Norse sequel to the original game. The result is stunning both as a composition and as a stylistic break for McCreary. The music is heavily choral throughout, backed by a small ensemble of orchestral instruments. The choral work on God of War is both divine and barbaric at the same time — a style seldom heard, but faintly reminiscent of Ligeti’s Requiem. It captures the raw sense of male warrior heroism, but is also contrasted with the ethereal beauty of a few scenes, such as in «Hellheim». The small orchestral ensemble, recorded up close, also helps to make the sound raw and visceral, with percussion and wind pipes shoring up the atmospheric soundscape. It’s really great to see the return of Bear McCreary, with a startlingly original composition, so very different from his previous material.
James Newton Howard’s Annus Mirabilis
Last, but very far from least, is a surprise coronation of a long standing composer with a long and varied career. It appears that some magical transformation befell James Newton Howard around the time he was offered the score to J.K. Rowling’s first Fantastic Beasts movie in 2016. From a career of writing competent and enjoyable, if sometimes unremarkable, music — including films like King Kong and The Hunger Games — Howard was apparently struck by a shooting star that imparted him with a new level of wizardry.
With not one but three top notch scores in 2018, all completely different, this has truly been a miracle year for Howard. Part of the magic no doubt lies in the superb recording quality and production values of these large budget productions, but the composition is more than a match for it. That certainly gives the music a thrilling edge, where say King Kong’s equally dynamic passages seem to fall flat by comparison. Howard has written three outstanding scores, all of which propel him to the very apex of achievement in the field of film composing. Alexandre Desplat might arguably be the `favourite’ to succeed John Williams according to the film academy, but James Newton Howard has definitely thrown down the gauntlet in 2018 with this string of accomplishments.
As films go, none of the three live up to their potential, so I won’t comment on them other than to say that the music works well enough.
In some ways, in spite of its somber soviet angst, Red Sparrow is the piece that seems most original. Culturally, it feels disconnected from anything before it. Many movie styles have developed a language that represents them, but this Russian spy story seems to have no obvious musical language to draw on. Howard creates an undeniably Russian style, leaning towards Mussorgsky and Ravel, melodic rather than atonal, which has sombre moments, but which also rises to heights of thematic beauty like the Romantic Russian masters. The mere fact that it stands apart from other films and from his other scores seems an impressive achievement for a single year.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second of monster movies from the Harry Potter universe. It builds on the thematic material from the first film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Both scores in the series are of the same high calibre, with the first one more varied and lighter in spirit. The movies belong to the Harry Potter universe, but they don’t make explicit reference to the prior themes, except in the tip of a wizard’s hat to «Hedwig’s Theme» in the opening bars. More powerfully, James Newton Howard takes on John Williams’ style and `fantastical’ approach to writing, far more successfully than his other surrogates — with occasional moments that feel like honorary references to the grand master, from Star Wars to Harry Potter — but also building themes and leitmotifs around the different characters. I could argue that some even go further than Williams might have done in the fullness of the soundscape, as they command a large orchestra to every height of its majesty during the course of the movie.
It would be meaningless to try to describe the many musical moments in the score, as there are so many, and they touch on a deeply personal level. The score draws on so many ideas and techniques — even to the point of employing shimmering “power chords” on occasion that echo Howard’s rock roots. The soundtrack has the full orchestral colour of John Williams at his finest, with hints of Danny Elfman and those darker Tim Burtonesque shades.
Finally, the Nutcracker And the Four Realms is another fantastic score with a tangible John Williams-like flair to it. It’s a complex piece, but in a completely different way to the Crimes of Grindelwald — both are richly orchestrated, with passages dance and play with the senses. This score features solo performance by Lang Lang on the piano, which features his virtuoso abilities without their becoming a dominant feature — his flawless playing blends into the music in a perfectly understated way. Moreover, the presence of a piano gives the music a style apart from the other films.
The Nutcracker could not avoid referencing Tchaikovsky’s renowned ballet music. However, the way Howard handles those references to Tchaikovsky is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of quoting the music, as James Horner might have done, he hints at it, swerves at it, even skims it but never cites more than a bar before veering off on a musical tangent of great skill. He captures it and modernizes it. The score does not feel immediately exciting, but it is! The understated but brilliant blend of instruments results in a score that, on first listen is perhaps not obviously outstanding, but on subsequent listens it expands in one’s mind to thrill and astound. Only the mandatorily unbearable romantic song over the end credits spoils the mood of the album. The Nutcracker stands out for its technical virtuosity as well as its subtle beauty. The blend of Tchaikovsky with a modern Harry Potteresque vibe is fascinating. James Newton Howard has been able to show off the great depth and breadth of his musical capabilities, and I’m left with a sense of pride and awe in the composer.
Not everyone will agree with my choices, but I feel confident that no one could fail to appreciate these albums for the strength of their merits. I can tell that these magnificent seven are destined to become classics amongst film music enthusiasts.