Surround Sound: Stacks of ‘Tracks

It’s another one of those “over the transom” moments, a chance for SE&L and Surround Sound to catch up with what seems like a never-ending stream of scores and ‘music from the film’ collections that constantly clog our “To Do” box. We get a lot of these titles every month, everything from the obscure (there are companies out there now specializing in the forgotten and the infamous) to the standard “part of the post-production contractually mandated release” paradigm. What’s even more shocking is the sense that, instead of dying off like the dinosaurs of a seminal cinematic age, the soundtrack seems to be having a renaissance of sorts. Thanks to digital downloading and the instant access to media, movie music is once again seen as a viable souvenir of the overall motion picture experience.

Of the dozen offerings discussed here – that’s right, 12 separate soundtracks – we can see what makes the score collection so attractive, as well as what continues to keep it a very isolated enjoyment indeed. There are more genre titles than any other category and that seems to go with the geek obsessive mentality of such cinema. In addition, a lot of RomComs get their scores selected for release, the adult contemporary feel to their dynamic making for easy Soccer Mom appreciating. Comedies are hard to come by, the examples here exploring the various reasons why and the drama is all but left out of the mix. In fact, it’s safe to say that the era of the signature soundtrack, celebrated entries like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman, and 48 Hours has been replaced by a generic attempt to be everything to everyone, sonically speaking. Just like the movies they are supporting, when you come to think of it.

Let’s begin this mammoth undertaking with a classic score from four decades ago, a pristine example of function and form:

Get Carter: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Anyone who owns the Human League’s hit album Dare, or who actually remembers this seminal ’70s UK crime film will instantly recognize the barebones keyboard theme here. It’s evocative of its time while arguing for the “less is more approach” to film scoring. Roy Budd’s often riveting soundscapes are balanced out with snippets of dialogue – some iconic, others less memorable – all meant to take you back to the story of a gangster out to avenge his brother’s death. This is the noise made by a post-peace, less than Swinging London, a dark and gritty place of jazz beats and sinister soulful subtext. The entire soundtrack (when not interrupted by talking), is a moody, atmospheric piece, with stand out tracks including “Main Theme”, “The Girl in the Car”, and “Manhunt”. Elsewhere, a true sense of the cinematic is expressed by selections such as “Hallucinations” and “Plaything”. Unlike today’s composers who feel the need to constantly throw bombast at the audience, Budd’s contribution is more subtle and secure. It’s not begging for attention. Instead, it does what a soundtrack does best – accent and support.

Hot Tub Time Machine: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

It’s an ’80s mix tape for those too young or too disconnected from the decade to care about consistency. As with the goofball farce itself, this 15 track compilation is hit and miss – with an emphasis on the former. Sure, one could argue about tossing years together randomly (The English Beat’s brilliant “Save it for Later” is from ’82, while Salt ‘N Pepa’s “Push It” comes from ’87) or the combination of obvious (“Safety Dance”) and the more obscure (The Replacements “I Will Dare”). Still, it’s a fun trip down musical memory lane, cuts reminding you of the one hit wonderment of Scritti Politti (“Perfect Way”), the cash grab sell out phase for David Bowie (“Modern Love” from Let’s Dance) and the always lethal power of Public Enemy (“Louder than a Bomb (Back Into Time)”). With a chance to celebrate the era that brought us a bravura cross section of sonic youth, do we really need another cliched shot of Spandau Ballet (“True”) or INXS (“What You Need”)? There was definitely more to the ’80s that the winsome but wonky Whitman’s Sampler offered here.

Dinner for Schmucks: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 4]

Apparently, the bongo is a funny instrument. In fact, all space age bachelor pad like percussion is the pinnacle of motion picture satire – or so composer Theodore Shapiro would have us believe. All throughout his work on the sunny Steve Carrell/Paul Rudd laugher, the man behind the memorable music in Old School, Dodge Ball, and Tropic Thunder uses the perky polyrhythms of divergent styles to suggest the quirky (“Booty Parade”), the quaint (“Mousterpieces”), and the quixotic (“Brain Control”). Over the course of 23 similarly sounding entries, the melodies may deviate slightly, but the overuse of counterbeats and unusual aural approaches is so obvious as to be annoying. It’s not that they seem antithetical to a movie made in 2010 about contemporary people and their proposed “gathering of the exceptional.” In fact, the fault lies in how reminiscent it is of three decades back when directors like John Landis or Ivan Reitman would overload their offerings with as much mannered mania as possible. At some point, the performances have to speak for themselves. With the hand jive provided here, we are constantly being reminded how clever – or cloying – the scenes are supposed to be.

Clash of the Titans: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Two odd selections aside, this overwrought score by Ramin Djawadi is archetypal of its type at its most telling. We’re dealing with an ersatz epic here and the entire aural backdrop is a combination of faked finery and kettle drum concussion. From the opening drive of “There is a God in You” to the final flash of “Release the Kraken”, Djawadi does everything to remind us of the scope of our “good vs. evil” dynamic. Several members of this pseudo Greek mythos get their own musical cue, from the famous (“Medusa”, “Pegasus”, “King Acrisius”) to the flummoxing (“Scorpiox”?) and throughout, our guide gets the orchestra to play like their mortal lives depended on it. And then, just to stir things up (or screw them up, depending on your position), we get the head scratching addition of a smarmy ballad like “The Storm that Brought You to Me” and a techno track, “Be My Weapon”. For the most part, Djawandi delivers on his attempt to bring the cosmic and the chaotic to the action film universe. The inclusion of the genre-bending breaks just doesn’t work.

Predators: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

If the constant blast of brass farts were a commodity, this horn heavy ordeal by John Debney would be a multi-billionaire. As a Stomp style rhythm section reminds us of all the “action, Action, ACTION!!! ” on the screen, the trumpets and trombones stab at the air like random swipes from a sonic switchblade. Now this can be a good thing, especially in moments like “Free Fall”, “This is Hell”, and “Predator Attack”. But at the midway point through this 24 track aural assault, you want to surrender. Debney, whose massive filmography suggests a far more meaningful range, apparently has the soundscape truisms down pat. He injects little originality into his drive and drone selections, blatant set-piece like “Hound Attack” and “Predators Fight, Royce Runs” doing little to differentiate themselves in the listeners mind. If all he was trying to do was remind us of where the action beats are, of how suspense can be suggested with a Pixies-esque ‘quiteLOUDquite’ ideal, then his work on Predators succeeds. Otherwise, we’ve heard similar sturm and drang before – many times before.

Piranha 3D: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

When you consider that it’s just as formulaic as Predators, just as full of itself as Clash of the Titans, and reminiscent of about every horror movie soundtrack since Jason jumped the shark at Camp Crystal Lake, the work of Michael Wandmacher on this Alexandre Aja remake is remarkable. It’s instantly listenable and occasionally very catchy, overloaded with string arpeggios and other touches reminiscent of a symphony being murdered by a wild muskrat. Yet even then, the composer tricks us with ambient nods – in the intro of “Cold Feet”, same with “Mutiny” and “Bits and Pieces” – while always harkening back to the man who started it all: John Williams and his work on Jaws (the chug-chug chumscrubbing of “Marina Attack Part 1 and 2”). All throughout the Piranha score, there are homages to Hitchcock and the energetic insanity of Sam Raimi. Indeed, Aja seems to be making a motion picture satire that, while loaded with splatter, also acknowledges the masters of the horror genre who came before. Wandmacher is a more than willing accomplice in this design.

The Expendables: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

In his heart, Sylvester Stallone is a Golden Era Hollywood throwback. He’s not into revisionist deconstruction of the cinematic conceit or looking to put his post-modern stamp of a specific genre. Instead, he plays to his own personal strengths while pandering directly to the demo he knows supports such a strategy. Perhaps this is why the score to his recent hit The Expendables sounds so much like a throwback to the ’80s (when he was a God) and the ’50s/’60s (when such faux Westerns were all the rage). Indeed, his mercenaries on a mission narrative is served exceptionally well by the work of Brian Tyler. When the composer has to push the envelope and make everything sound like a man-on-man muscle slam, he more than delivers the goods (“Aerial”, “Royal Rumble”, “Giant with a Shotgun”). But he can also be lean and ethereal, using simple guitar work and understated melody for quieter sequences like “Lee and Lacy”. In combination with Stallone’s buddy flick on steroids style, you have the making of a powerful pairing, something both suggestive of and in necessary desire of each other.

Vampires Suck: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 4]

With its stunted source material, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could miss the boat on mocking Twilight. It’s Anne Rice retrofitted for cat ladies and lonely high school girls simply screams to be spoofed. Well, leave it to those unfunny lamebrains, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to screw up such a slam dunk, and bring the equally unspectacular work of composer Christopher Lennertz along for the lameness. He an Emmy award winner for crying out loud. You expect something more from a man who trained under Basil Poledouris and Michael Kamen, but his work has usually been reserved for outright garbage like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Soul Plane, and Dr. Doolittle 3. Though he evokes the syrupy sonic silliness of the Stephanie Meyer adaptations expertly, there’s nothing clever about the copying. We get ethereal arias backed by techno beats (“Meet the Sullens”) and lots of melancholy orchestrations (“Welcome to Sporks”), but for the most part, he misses the point. We want to laugh along with the various sonic shout-outs. Instead, we feel trapped in the same old vamp-romance ridiculousness, and that’s not conducive to laughs.

Tim Sullivan’s 2001 Maniacs – Field of Screams : Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Now this is a weird one. The first 38 tracks to this unusual indie effort (a sequel to a remake of a Herschell Gordon Lewis gore classic) are a combination of original songs, covers, and snippets of dialogue. In fact, the ratio is right around 50/50. The last 11 cuts are all from composer Patrick Copeland and embody the rather anemic score – at least from a running time stand point. Representing less than 20 minutes of actual music, the instrumental elements are actually quite good. Copeland has the proper tongue in cheek attitude, his tracks taking the over the top nature of the narrative to heart. Sure, such selections as “Shock Therapy” and “Brokeback” seem obvious in their horror film designs, but they do fit in nicely with director Sullivan’s method. The actual songs, however, are a mixed macabre bag. Standouts include “Killers on the Highway” by Clifford Allen Wagner, “Hottie Hottie” by Me and My Friends, “All Fall Down” by Shawn Mars, and “SLM (Suicide Love Machine)” by Sweet Cyanide. Misses include the awful hip-hop of “Facebook Superstar” and the droning “Go Zombie”.

Love Happens: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

It must be fun for Christopher Young, given his less than mainstream beginnings as the sonic statement behind Clive Barker’s brilliant Hellraiser (not to mention his work on The Dorm That Dripped Blood, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and Flowers in the Attic). But since those early days as an ’80s genre mainstay, the composer has expanded his repertoire, adding drama (Murder in the First), action (Hard Rain) and romance (The Glass House) to his creative canon. His work here on the Jennifer Aniston weeper is indicative of his ‘beyond fear’ approach. It’s light, lilting, and languid in all the right places. Believing in a strong central theme, Young repeats the “Love Happens” idiom throughout. There is a New Age feel to the tracks, selections like “Kaleidoscope Christmas” and “Crystal Flowers” reminding one of the best from the early ’90s. Young is not without his maudlin side, songs like “Around and Through”, “Past Isn’t” and “Vodka Logic” offering suggestions on where to put the handkerchief material. Together, it’s smart and sensible, which is a good way to describe the man’s work in total.

Countdown to Zero: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 6]

Once you learn the premise of this well meaning documentary, the musical choices by composer Peter Golub start to make a lot of sense. The international feel to the tracks, the combination of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, helps to cement the “no nukes” worldview taken by director Lucy Walker. We are supposed to feel a sense of urgency, a quirky call to action in every found sound supplement. But the ambient undertones, meshed with a planet-on-the-edge ideals, give this otherwise innocuous collection a sinister edge. You can hear it in “Splitting the Atom”, “Ship to US”, “Algeria” and “Missile Launch”. While there are times when Golub’s desire to be eerie and wistful gets in the way, for the most part, this is a sensitive, seductive score about a subject that few in the post-millennial age even consider. Nuclear proliferation is still a topic worth considering in this rogue nation/terrorist state age. While Countdown may be biased in its agenda, the message in the music is loud and clear.

The Least Among You: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 3]

Sometimes, a movie score is the perfect reflection of its filmic source. Such is the case with Mark Killian’s nondescript work on this independent effort. Writer/director Mark Young wants to highlight a forgotten facet of the civil rights movement – the story of the first black seminary student at an all white school. While the context is a little more complicated than the story suggests, the music is as simple as it is forgettable. As it moves along unenergetically, tracks like “Sam’s Story” and “Dean’s Montage” using vocal histrionics to underline their ersatz-significance, while cuts like “Set Me Free” attempt to emulate the era. That’s the most unusual aspect of Killian’s work. Rarely does he drop directly into the period piece mechanics of his music. There is more proto-Windham Hill noodlings than shout out to ’60s soul and R&B. While it might seem unfair for calling out a movie for failing to invoke the time frame featured, something like The Least Among You practically begs for such a strategy. Killian’s concept means a loss for mood and tone.