Surround Sound: Stereo-Typing

In the domain of movie music, there are several standard maxims. Romantic scores must be syrupy and weepy. Dramatic attempts can combine a little of both while maintaining a certain aura of seriousness. Comedy can be crazy, confused, cocky, cheeky, or a specialized combination of both, and action films mandate a certain over-adrenalized approach to sound. Last, and almost always least, horror has to be hackneyed, giving into specific aural contrivances that someone is convinced scares the bejesus out of the dread demo. Certain subgenres have their own unique rules as well, while those unsure of how to proceed typically toss the Billboard Charts at the backdrop and hope the combination of hits and cinematic histrionics gives the viewer the necessary sonic structure.

Call it composer cliché or stereo-typing, but in general, Hollywood rarely deviates from the formulas that have found success in the past. It’s even true for periods of time, the era cementing the auditory approach – and lo the filmmaker who fudges with that motion picture paradigm (right, Sophia Marie Antoinette Coppola?”). This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound delves deeply into the realm of redundancy, looking at three soundtracks who mimic their main theme (the ’60s, fright, and the comic book superhero) to a fault. However, as we soon learn, there is really nothing wrong with embracing the obvious, especially when you have the talent and tenacity to perfect the particulars. Indeed, when you run the risk of revolution and attempt to reinvent the type (a Batman musical???), the results can sometimes be more laughable than the chestnuts you’re avoiding.

Taking Woodstock: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

When Danny Elfman was tagged by Tim Burton to create the songs for his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, many wondered how the former rock and roll radical would re-imagine what was already a seminal storybook experience. After all, who could ever forget the sinister Oompa-Loompas and their morality tale tunes about excessive TV watching and brattish behavior. Oddly enough, Mr. Oingo Boingo went for a more overall atmospheric approach. Instead of giving the characters a single melody to work with, he composed different tracks for the different visitors to Wonka’s wonderfully weird factory. Perhaps the most memorable was the ’60s psychedelia inspired piece for the uber-spoiled Veruca Salt. As day-glo pop art backgrounds throbbed and pulsed, actor Deep Roy mimed the telling lyrics, creating a Byrds-inspired belittling of anyone as spoiled as she. Now take that Peace Generation perspective and multiply it by 20 and you’ve got Elfman’s work on Ang Lee’s universally dismissed (and little seen) Taking Woodstock.

By its very nature, a movie centering on the “Three Days” of communal hippy consciousness-raising would be filled with sonic references to the era, and for the most part, Elfman covers all the bases. We get faux Hendrix riffing (“Titles”) and fancy folk nods (“Elliot’s Place”, “At Ease Men”), all the while, fuzzy electric guitars sneak in to accent the ambience. Most of the tracks here are mere snippets, the melancholy of “Welcome Home” barely making itself known before it slowly fades away, while “Life Goes On” and “In the Mud” suffer from the same brevity issues. The longer form numbers work much better, the excellent “Groovy Thing (Office #1)” sounding like a Summer of Love outtake, while “Woodstock Wildtrack #1” is a nice bit of acoustic atmosphere. Elfman repeats themes and melodic sequences here and there, giving the entire score a unity and cohesiveness that mirrors the mindset of the original concert attendees. While the film was unfairly ignored during its brief theatrical run, at least the music remains.

Trick ‘r Treat: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Horror movies typically get stuck with the same old sonic statements – jagged, staccato strings, sinister choirs, the neo-religious hymnal overtones. When they don’t however, when the macabre moviemaker strives for something unique or different, they usually run into the same aural stereotypes – death metal, manic hard rock, or even worse, weepy shoe-gazing junk. So what does one do when they are making the quintessential homage to all things Halloween, when they are purposefully trying to invoke all the dread, terror, and mischief of the holiday in 18 ethereal tracks? Well, if you’re Douglas Pipes, working on the soundtrack to Michael Dougherty’ demented labor of love, Trick ‘r Treat, you don’t avoid the clichés – you embrace them as fully as the film does. Indeed, the best part about both the feature and the music backing it is that both understand the beauty in the hoariest of horror archetypes, and both monopolize them to the hilt.

The psycho orchestra leanings are there from the “Main Titles”, followed quickly by brief tone poems that set up characters (“Meet Charlie”), relationships (“Father and Son”), and situations (“To the Quarry”). By the time we get to the eloquent, eerie “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”, we believe in the power of old school scoring. The compositions here are meant to evoke a mood, to prepare us for moments we already expect from the genre while giving in to their decidedly archaic charms. This is especially true of later tracks like “Laurie’s First Time” and “Old Mr. Kreeg”, where the storyline and sentiment merge flawlessly. As the closing theme reminds us of the glorious edge-of-your-seat experience we’ve just gone through, we suddenly see why so many of these compositional truisms continue to be practiced: they work, and when done with reverence and respect, none work better.

Green Lantern: First Flight: Music from the DC Universe Animated Original Movie [rating: 7]

Who would have thought that the comic book super hero would suddenly turn into the steely action man for a post-millennial age? At one time, only geeks and true DC/Marvel connoisseurs championed the funny book idol as an expression of ultimate power and destruction. Now, he (or she) has become the benchmark for motion picture machismo, requiring other genres to mimic its superhuman happenstance. It’s even taken root in the medium’s ‘animated’ cousin. Once, cartoons used to be about mild entertainment and selling products. Now, even the most marginal title has to crank up the cinematics and become something larger than life. This is particularly true of the otherwise ordinary origin story for Hal Jordan, otherwise known as the second of multiple Green Lanterns. Starring in the pen and ink production First Flight, we witness the arrival of the power ring, the introduction of arch villain Sinestro, and composer Robert J. Kral’s attempt to provide an intense backdrop to what is essentially the beginning for a future franchise (or a warm up for an eventual big screen debut).

Kral has been here before. He’s worked wonders for other animated titles like Batman: Gotham Knight and Superman/Doomsday. Even though he’s mainly known for his work on TV shows like Duck Dodgers, Angel, and Miracles, he has a unique way of mixing classical with contemporary to bring a cross generational approach to the score. It’s obvious from the moment Track 3, “Labell’s Club” comes on. Before, we have the standard hard driving orchestration that amps up the scope toward something (“The Ring Chooses Hal”, “Hal Meets the Laterns/The Flight of Oa”) close to epic. From then on, anything goes, from more chase scene stylings (“Going After Cuch”, “The Corps Fight Sinestro”) to moments of sublime subtle significance (“Brutal Attack/The Fate of Kanjar Ro”). All the while, Kral keeps one foot in tradition, never letting technology or electronic tweaks destroy what is meant to be an auditory celebration of right over wrong, cosmic morality over insufferable evil. With the thematically similar “Green Lantern Pledge”, we are ready to sign up to fight the good fight.

Batman – The Brave and the Bold: Mayhem of the Music Meister: Music from Animated Television Show [rating: 6]

Okay, now this is just plain weird. No, not the premise for this continuation of the Caped Crusader franchise. In fact, the concept of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego teaming up with other members of the DC Comic Universe is not a bad one at that. What’s surreal here is the idea that Batman would battle a villain who uses showtunes as a way of controlling people’s minds. The plan – get the cowl-wearing vigilante to help him launch a communications satellite to melodically brainwash the world – and we get the actual songs with which he intends to do it. With music created by Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanic, and Kristopher Carter, and lyrics by Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, we get the Broadway version of a beatdown, complete with power ballads and earnest expositional exercises. Neil Patrick Harris is the only actor who could sell some of this schmaltz, especially the lilting “If Only” and the dopey “Drives Us Bats”. With help from other example voice actors like John Di Maggio, Grey Delisle, and Tom Keeny, what should be stupid succeeds – if only barely. In fact, the whole project seems bound and determined to fail, until you hear it. Then you realize it could work – and then it more or less does.