There are two kinds of musical scores in movies - those which do their damnedest to announce their presence and participate in the stories/scenes/scenarios being offered, and those that are content to sit back and act like scented candles in an overall atmosphere of shared experience and communal creativity. The former tends to make up the vast majority of today’s musical output, composers so concerned about the next job that they have to make their sonic status good and known less the next skilled craftsman take their place. We see it all over the mainstream movie dynamic, from the underrated Danny Elfman to the overrated John Williams. The latter, on the other hand, is far trickier to get a handle on. Rock and roll icons like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Blur’s Damon Albarn can step out of their bandmate mode and give subtle, signature sounds to even the largest project, while the genre’s biggest names continually revert to the same old pomp and cinematic circumstance.
This passive-aggressive act is perfectly illustrated in this installment of Short Ends and Leader‘s soundtrack overview, Surround Sound. In looking at three recent releases, we find illustrations of both flash with little substance (Monsters vs. Aliens), electricity with more fuel than any film should have (Crank: High Voltage), and the kind of subtle softness that balances support with symbolic shimmer (Sunshine Cleaning). Oddly enough, in two of the three cases, the studios have decided to “accent” these offerings with the same old canned pop charts chum that’s supposed to act like a kind of instant recall. While they work in one (Cleaning), they really undermine the epic earnestness another is attempting. In all three situations, however, we can literally see where ego usurps artistry, and where a need to be recognized is measured against the ability to truly support a motion picture paradigm. We begin with:
Monsters vs. Aliens - Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 6]
It’s tough for composers to make the transition from assistant to featured player. It’s doubly difficult when you’re moving from creator of additional music (for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda) to producing the score for one of 2009’s possible blockbusters. That was the assignment given to Hans Zimmer protégé Henry Jackman. The classically trained UK artist who once collaborated with known pop music producer Trevor Horn, was asked to take on Dreamworks CG spectacle known as Monsters vs. Aliens. Following the tale of an everyday bride struck who grows 50 feet high after being struck by a meteor (she is then kidnapped by the government and secreted away with other so-called “creatures”) the assignment required Jackman to balance the needs of the narrative with the overall campy nature of the project. And just to make things a tad more interesting, he had to make room for a myriad of mandated “classics”, tunes taken in to suggest the 1950’s foundation for the set-up.
If Mars Attacks! and Wolfman Jack had a baby, the bizzaro world offspring known as the Monsters vs. Aliens soundtrack would be the result. Part b-movie schlock, part playlist from an out of touch studio exec’s IPod, this perplexing combination of score and songs gives sonic schizophrenia a new name. On the one hand, Henry Jackman does a marvelous job of matching the movie’s inherent camp with his over the top marathon orchestrations. Nothing here is small, not even the moments where the music drops down to supplement something sad or dramatic. Instead, numbers like “A Giant Transformation”, “A Wedding Interrupted” and “The Battle at the Golden Gate Bridge” literary excite the speakers with outsized action film scope. Then, just as the backdrop is promising something truly grand, we are taken aback by moldy oldies like “Tell Him” (by the Exciters), “Wooly Bully” (from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and that Dr. Demento benchmark, “Purple People Eater”. We expect there to be some bows to ‘50s fluff when it comes to a movie named Monsters vs. Aliens. What we don’t need are the same old Happy Days jukebox tracks shoved down our sensibilities.
Crank: High Voltage - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
When I arrived in theaters three years ago, no one knew what to make of Crank. It starred up and coming action adrenal gland Jason Statham and was helmed by a pair of aggressive upstart who referred to themselves by the last name novelty Neveldine/Taylor. Working on the neo-noir premise of a criminal with 24 hours to find the people who poisoned him, it was a video game gonzo trip into a wild ride world of testosterone, stunts, and scantily clad women. With an ending that suggested a possible (if highly improbable) sequel, and a growing cult following thanks to DVD, the inevitable update is here. On the negative side, the studio (Lionsgate) won’t be bothering to show the film to critics. That’s never a good sign. On the positive, however, is the sensational soundtrack from Faith No More’s/Mr. Bungle’s brilliant Mike Patton. Like a retarded rave on hallucinogenic, this multi-track masterwork is what contemporary composition is all about.
Like a kitchen sink gone psycho, this all inclusive sonic smorgasbord runs the gamut from balls out rock, ridiculous electronica, pure punk posing, and slinky lounge lizardry. There’s buzzsaw riff riots and overcharged chill outs o’plenty. Over the course of 32 astonishing tracks, Patton plays both participant and provocateur, giving Crank: High Voltage its necessary zing. You can practically see the cinematics propelling “Juice Me”, “Ball Torture”, “Shock and Shoot-Out”, and “Car Park Throwdown”. Elsewhere, Patton puts his own unusual spin on situations such as “Organ Donor”, “Porn Strike”, “Surgery” and “Epiphany”. For those used to the typical faux rock chug of the noxious nu-metal tracks that supposedly suggest brawn and battlements, the score for Crank: High Voltage is an astonishing ear-opener. It argues that, sometimes, a more avant-garde approach to aural backdrops is far more fascinating that more mock Marilyn Manson. Here’s hoping Patton continues is the realm of reel music making.
Sunshine Cleaning - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
When Michael Penn broke out of his famous brother’s shadow in 1989, delivering his debut album March and the MTV hit single “No Myth”, few could imagine the eventual path his career would take. Over the course of seven albums and numerous guest stints, he’s developed an oeuvre both instantly likeable and quietly insular. Current married to pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and working on films as well as his own self-released LPs, Penn has been responsible for the music in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) and actor Alan Cummings (The Wedding Party, Suffering Man’s Charity). Now comes his work on the indie effort Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing the soundtrack with a group of neo-novel navel-gazing tracks that tend to mimic the movie’s moxie and sense of spirit, Penn delivers a likeable collection that takes its own sweet sonic time before settling it to assuage your soul.
If you liked plucked acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and keyboards, and a symphonic style that sounds like Carter Burwell channeling a college alt-rock station, you’ll adore Michael Penn’s ambient score for the recent indie quirk fest. The story of ladies working as crime scene clean-up “specialists” demands an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and the former hitmaker (with some help from Golden Smog, Ken Andrews, Electrelane, Bodega, Ernie Miller, and David Majzlin) turns in a lovely set of aural signatures. Each individual beat, from the laconic limits of “CB Radio and Resolve” to the buoyant beauty of “Some Ice Cream” defy easy description. More like tone poems than actual tunes, Penn plays around with character and time signatures to keep us off balance and emotionally connected. Standouts include the moving “Trestling”, the atmospheric “Trailer Park”, the personal themes for “Joe and Oscar” and “Rose and Mac”, and the terrifically tender “Mrs. Davis”. If there is one weak link, a moment so unnecessary it almost sinks the entire project, it’s the inclusion of the superfluous ‘70s stalwart “Spirit in the Sky”. Penn creates his own spirituality. We didn’t need this novelty bit of Bible thumping to amplify Cleaning‘s cosmic aura.