A soundtrack, by its very definition, is a supplement. It’s not meant to overshadow the movie, or make a statement separate from the vision of the director, actors, producers, etc. At its best, it’s a seamless interpretation of the moments, a way to enhance the drama, amplify the comedy, misdirect the suspense, or rev up the action. It’s a cog in the machinery, a part leading up to a much bigger whole. But there are times when the creativity of a composer can be much, much more to a piece of media. It can be the missing element in an otherwise uninspired effort, the memorable bit out of 90 minutes (or more) or boredom. It can be the saving grace, the aural albatross, the defining facet, or the last straw on a cinematic camel’s already broken back. When it works, it works wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it draws far too much attention to itself.
In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at four examples of scores as symbols, each one pointing to a problem or potential pitfall in their production. In each case, the sounds employed and the themes explored say more about the movie (or in a rare bit of diversity, the graphic novel) being supported than the entity had to offer itself. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the case of these soundtracks, the artists involved had an idea for what to say that differed somewhat from the initial intent of the project. Only in one case does it work out for all involved. In the rest of the situations, the sound flounders. By bucking the trends and pushing outside the boundaries, these collections also manage to patch holes that other aesthetic aspects (acting, cinematography, writing) couldn’t correct. Let’s b begin with the best:
Spooks - The Original Score [rating: 8]
It’s not everyday that a comic book gets its own soundtrack - but then again, not every pen and ink title is Spooks. Originally released in a four part series back in February of 2008, this past July saw all the material collected together to form a full blown graphic novel adaptation. With a new short story as a bonus and the reinsertion of some unnecessarily deleted material, this tale of a military-based ‘ghostbusters’ that “keeps humanity safe from things that go bump in the night” has oversized ambitions out the Fifth Dimension. While the book itself was unavailable for review, Adelph Records sent out copies of the limited edition score for critics to contemplate. One things for sure - composers Lalo Schifrin and Andy Garfield sure have their hookey homages down pat.
Sounding like what would result if Paul Verhoeven and Michael Bay got really really drunk, had the ability to procreate, and ended up doing the dirty deed, the Spooks soundtrack is a short but sweet loony lark. This overblown pomp and pseudo-epic circumstance is brilliantly cheesy and absolutely pitch perfect. One can easily imagine over-pumped future marines kicking werewolf butt while lost in the middle of a warlock’s coven. Granted, “Omega Team” sounds like a rejected theme song for the supernatural people’s court, and “Zach and Felicia” has the flavor of a ‘70s TV movie wrapped in a velvet David Lynch longing, and there are far too many nods to John Williams and his entire Star Worn-out space operatics. But for something meant to complement an already larger than life concept, Spooks is sensational.
Appaloosa - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]
Westerns used to be the bread and campfire butter of multiple old school mediums. Between radio and early television, film and comic tie-ins, Cowboys and Indians set the standard for many an entertainment ideal. That they dropped in popularity was not a question of quality. It was almost exclusively a matter of overkill. Now, almost five decades later, the genre is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Films like The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, and Ed Harris’ recent Appaloosa reintroduced the dynamic to a cynical and sheltered generation. In the case of the latter of these otherwise fine efforts, the story of a pair of lawmen trying to bring justice to a small settlement has its problems (namely, the casting of Renee Zellweger), but overall, it was a wonderful update on a stock cinematic style. Heck, Harris even crooned the movie’s “love theme”, just like days gone by.
Similarly to listening to a cowpoke concocting his own surreal take on New Orleans jazz, Jeff Beal’s oddball backdrop for Harris’ horse opera is endlessly fascinating. In the end, however, it’s also entirely flat. It’s the kind of soundtrack that needs the actual images to make a lick of sense. Take track four, for example. Entitled “Allison French”, we are supposed to get a real feeling for Zellweger’s coquettish character. There is even a hint of duplicity in the melody (which happens to be appropriate). Instead, it sounds like the opening to an episode of High Chaparral. Elsewhere, inadvertent moments of improvisation are probably meant to suggest the “American-ness” of the project, how its Western sensibility really matches with other ‘USA-A-OK’ elements. But it’s an uncomfortable match. Tracks like “Dawn in Appaloosa” have a loose, funky feel. Yet other material like “Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg” sound like incomplete tone poems. For a thoroughly winning film, Beal’s score is only partially satisfying.
Max Payne - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 2]
Marco Beltrami has quite an impressive resume. A partial list of the films he’s scored includes Mimic, Resident Evil, Hellboy, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, and last year’s winning Western 3:10 to Yuma (for which he received a well deserved Oscar nom). The winner of numerous ASCAP awards, as well as the holder of a formidable geek fanbase, you’d swear he was a true genre genius. Yet in collaboration with longtime production partner Buck Sanders, his work on the videogame turned big screen snoozefest Max Payne argues against both his talent and timelessness. For a movie already confused about its tone, and totally schizophrenic in its storytelling, this is one soundtrack that does little to help in our understanding. In some ways, Beltrami’s blasts of insignificant sound only add to our befuddlement.
Truth be told, the score for Payne is a series of orchestral farts followed up by unnecessary techno lifts from The Matrix and any other implausible predictable post-modern thriller. Instead of setting a mood and atmosphere, Beltrami gets in, passes a little symphonic gas, and then disappears into the filmmaking firmament. None of the tracks are memorable here. Interchangeable titles like “Deathlab”, “Storming the Office” and “Factoring Max” are like blank canvases occasionally blotted with uninspired sonics. There is no tension or style, no real feeling for the movie’s mindless addiction to slo-motion chaos. Instead, we get a purposeful placing of notes, followed by a close facsimile to something resembling a soundtrack. It’s instantly forgettable - which in many ways reflects the feature film experience flawlessly.
The Express - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
Ernie Davis’s story is inspirational. It’s also perplexing. As an icon, he holds a singular place in sports memory - college or otherwise. He’s the first African American ever to win the Heisman Trophy. It was an achievement his predecessor at Syracuse, the legendary running back Jim Brown, never managed to achieve. He also helped his team win a National Championship, a high tension game played against the backdrop of a racially charged Cotton Bowl deep in the heart of a segregated Texas. But for some reason, his myth has been marginalized, forgotten and faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated football fan. He deserves better. That being said, the cinematic interpretation of his life was supposed to jumpstart his reconsideration. Instead, it ended up flopping, playing like Brian’s Song without the sentimentality or staying power.
Oddly enough, the soundtrack is even more disconcerting. If you didn’t know that The Express was just your standard feel-good five hankey sports film with the horrendous cloud of racism hanging over its collection of formulaic clichés, you’d swear it was the most dour and disturbing drama this side of Grave of the Fireflies. Mark Isham may have a long history as both a recording artist and helmer of major motion pictures (Quiz Show, Crash, Lions for Lambs, to name just a few) but he completely misses the point here. Instead of being uplifting and generous of spirit, tracks like “A Meeting” and “Don’t Lose Yourselves” sound like funeral dirges retrofitted for a pragmatic purpose. Even events which call out for celebration, like “Heisman” or “Draft”, are unexpectedly downbeat. Isham may have been trying to underscore Davis’ meteoric rise with his doomed date with destiny, but The Express needed more heart to battle the history. This soundtrack offers neither.