Movies about big ideas require big scores. Films about larger than life individuals also mandate music to match. There’s a fine art to making sonic mountains out of melodious molehills, a true gift that few composers have, and few longtime artists can maintain. Certainly audience familiarity and fondness can ruin/resurrect a career, and there are certain aesthetic and stylistic conceits that follow any musician when they respond to the call of their muse. But the true titans of supercharged soundtracks, names like Elfman and Williams, find ways to challenge themselves as well as the listener. Mr. Oingo Boingo is often known as the man who made Batman dark and diabolical, but his recent score for The Kingdom was a wonderful bit of experimental ambiance. Similarly, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been hammering out the same bombastic backups for years, but as with last year’s incredible The Dark Knight, it works within the right context.
This time out, Surround Sound looks at the recent almost-phenomenon that is Watchmen. We dissect both Tyler Bates’ contributions as well as those cultural lynchpin pop songs chosen to represent the parallel USA of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In both cases, the results are less than stunning. We then go back to one of the original cinematic stalwarts, the man in the funky fedora carrying a bad-ass bullwhip. John Williams will always be much more than the sonic side of the Spielberg/Lucas money machine, but there’s no denying his iconic help in solidifying both men’s amazing oeuvres. Newly minted with material not previously available on CD or MP3, the Indiana Jones films (the important efforts from the Greed Decade only) are their own unique entertainment experience, thanks in large part to the incredible abilities of the man responsible for their familiar epic sweep.
But let’s start with the recent attempt at broadstroke heroics. As Watchmen proves, not every comic book champion has a signature sound to amplify their importance:
Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]
As the first certified controversy of 2009, the lack of critical consensus over Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has been interesting to observe. Those who love it embrace the faithful translation of the famed book. Those who hate it clearly expected something more than what was on the screen. In between are opinions ranging from acceptable to awful, with many divergent judgments falling smack dab in the “no particular point one way or the other” middle. Many have hinted that the lack of “epicness” in Tyler Bates score is one of their chief disappointments, and it’s not hard to see why. As the mastermind behind the soundtracks for other Snyder efforts (including Dawn of the Dead and 300), there is a sense of unnecessary nepotism at work, and while some of his efforts for other directors (Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall) have stood out, Watchmen is just not that interesting. Indeed, when most of the music sounds like leftovers chopped from healthier compositions, you know you’re in trouble.
Fluctuating wildly between heavenly choir pomp and subtle, almost inconsequential circumstance, Bates’ score for the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is underwhelming and often underdeveloped. After the requisite hero histrionics of “Rescue Mission”, insignificant snippets like “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed” and “Tonight a Comedian Died” underlie the music’s lack of impact. “Silk Spectre” gets things back on track, if only because of its Danny Elfman-like flourishes. Indeed, it seems the longer the effort, the more substance it has. As one works through the 21 individual pieces, it’s clear that Bates had little thematic clarity. Indeed, the best bit comes right at the end, when the composer drops the stereotypical spectacle and goes for the heart. “I Love You” is a wonderfully evocative experience, a lone guitar picking out a plaintive melody that seems to drift along, accenting everything that’s come before. It makes up for the meaningless grandstanding of something like “Requiem” (which borrows from Mozart of all things).
Watchmen - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]
Oddly enough, the big problem with the actual score for Watchmen manages to cross over and condemn the collection of pop culture hits used as a backdrop to the movie’s main narrative as well. It’s not just a question of poor choices - it’s the idea that, within the vast realm of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music available, Zack Snyder decided that these were the indicative songs of the era he was trying to evoke. And they just don’t do the job. When a fan can sit back and pick better tracks than the one’s compiled, there’s an inherent flaw in the formulation. Granted, there are some interesting choices (“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), but for the most part, a panel of VH-1 inspired soccer moms with limited exposure to either the time frame or Alan Moore’s novel could probably come up with a similar set of sonic cues.
After the noise nonsense that is My Chemical Romance’s ridiculous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Road”, Watchmen jumps over Nat King Cole (“Unforgettable”) to deliver its sole genius decision. Using Mr. Zimmerman’s ode to cultural progress, “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” works perfectly within the storyline being set-up, the montage meant to bring us up to speed on the entire masked avenger idea, and the numerous historic events being referenced therein. It’s so inspired in fact that later attempts at the same thing with tracks like “The Sound of Silence” or “All Along the Watchtower” seem subpar. Elsewhere, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “(I’m Your) Boogie Man” is hollow, and the randomness of “Ride of the Valkyries” offsets the depth derived from a modern classic conceit like Phillip Glass’s “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies”. Still, Snyder understands the inherent mood created by these songs. Some are clearly used to enhance atmosphere and little else.
Raiders of the Lost Ark - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
How John Williams, a Julliard trained pianist and composer went from tacky TV themes for The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space to the man behind such magnificent blockbuster scores as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman is an amazing story in and of itself. Getting his start with Henri Mancini and contributing to the works of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Mystery Science mainstay Daddy-O (his first solo film credit) became an Academy fixture when his work on Valley of the Dolls was nominated in 1967. By 1971 he had a coveted Oscar (for adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the big screen) and had given Irwin Allen’s disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno their popcorn buzz. But it would be neophyte upstart Steven Spielberg who turned Williams into a hummable household name. After working on The Sugarland Express together, the duo delivered the seminal shark tale to a eager Summer of ‘75 public, and the rest is motion picture mythology.
By ‘81, Williams was the go-to guy for the growing Spielberg/Lucas mega-movie empire. Even lesser films like 1941 would see his amazing musical hand in collaboration. When the Hollywood heavyweights decided to pay homage to the Saturday matinee serials they grew up with, Williams was tagged to give the action opus its jingoistic charms. The resulting theme for Indiana Jones, and his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, managed to push the artist into another commercial realm all together. As he had previously with other cinematic characters, Williams created a sonic signature that, even today, offers a kind of instant recall for the icon being preserved. In the person of Harrison Ford, Jones and his first adventure became an instant classic. Naturally, Williams was back for installments two and three (and four, if you’re counting the recent Crystal Skull stumble among the representative efforts of all involved).
Williams was also responsible for what might be called the ‘soundtrack album experience’. Instead of offering one or two recognizable tracks, almost everything he writes becomes a memorable sonic experience. During Raiders, selections for sequences “Escape from the Temple”, “The Map Room: Dawn”, and “The Fist Fight/The Flying Wing” have their own individual recognizability. It’s an effect carried over to Temple of Doom (“Slalom on Mt. Homol”, “Children in Chains”), and The Last Crusade (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon”). Williams functions in compositional wholes, of making characters thematically clear and aurally symbolic. It does lend itself to a kind of reasonable repetitiveness that makes his scores so undeniably rock solid. And perhaps the best thing about the newly rereleased remasters of these soundtracks is the inclusion of material left out in previous editions. Getting to hear three new tracks on Raiders, ten on Temple, and seven on Crusade makes the experience that much more fulfilling.
Indeed, Williams work here is without comparison. He’s truly the gold standard of such high pitched bravado. The moment his Indiana Jones theme kicks in, we know we’re in for a wild rollercoaster ride of cheesy thrills and action—packed chills. Elsewhere, he evokes the mystical elements of each story quite well, be it the Ark of the Covenant (“The Well of Souls”), the sacred Shiva lingman rocks of India (“Approaching the Stones”) or the actual holy chalice of Jesus Christ himself (“The Keeper of the Grail”). Though his work is often oversized and stratospheric in scope, Williams never gives in to the excess. His compositions always seems compact and complete, not a single note out of place, not a single cue overcompensating.
While it helps to be working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the history of the medium (good melodies have to have visuals to cement their staying power), Williams walks the fine line between necessary contributor and stand-alone star. No wonder his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Las t Crusade are so timeless. Even in truncated (and now expanded) versions, they speak of one man’s undeniable talent, and his essential assistance as a part of the motion picture equation.