Surround Sound: The Big Bang, Part 3

Twenty-eight. That’s how many soundtracks have shuffled through the always open transom of Short Ends and Leader Central in the last couple of months. As usual, the extra workload makes it almost impossible to keep up, especially when dealing with the demands of Award Season and the upcoming Oscars. So like our lifetime, the scores have been piling up, begging us to address them with the usual critical aplomb. So, as part of a February special, every Wednesday will feature a Special Surround Sound column covering this glut of motion picture music. Hopefully, over the course of the next four weeks, we’ll be able to access the value in these often overlooked cinematic souvenirs. If the first batch is any indication, there are quite a few gems to be unearthed within this stack.

In week three, numbers 15 through 21 reveal a true divergence in approach and idea, beginning with a direct to DVD title that, while marginal, still offers fine musical accompaniment:

Cool Dog: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

From what we can tell, this is the score to a new kids movie featuring…you guessed it, a cool dog. Details from normal press avenues are sketchy at best, while an enclosed studio press release references Rin-Tin-Tin (now there’s something contemporary) and the story of a young boy leaving Louisiana for the eye opening wonders of The Big Apple. Oh yeah, and there’s a pup tossed in there somewhere for good measure. Stephen Edwards work here is actually very good, building on simply melodic signatures and orchestral flourishes to give the direct to DVD title a sense of scope and space it probably otherwise lacks. Sure, it can get repetitive, the hook from the films “Theme” showing up in tracks like “Jimmy Gets Picked On” and “Left at the Zoo.” Elsewhere, the standard action/comedy elements mar decent selections like “Do You Allow Mutts” and “Illegal Pet Shop Chase.” Still, for a low budget indie offering, the music is quite memorable.

Jack Goes Boating: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

For his directorial debut, Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman adapted the unconventional romantic comedy stage play by Robert Glaudini for the big screen, and musically, he’s brought along a varied assortment of mainstream and indie artists to provide an aural backdrop. Beginning with the neo-folk lilting “Oliver James” by Fleet Foxes and moving through equally impressive tracks from Grizzly Bear (“All We Ask”), Evan Lurie (“Snow”), Cat Power (“Where is My Love”), and DeVotchKa (“Dearly Departed”), it’s a gorgeous grand cross section of melancholy pining. In between are tracks from Goldfrapp (“Eat Yourself”), Mel Torme (“Hello, Young Lovers”), and The Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon”). While the collection can occasionally sound too happening and hip for its own good, it’s still a stunning aural overview, a nice emotional landscape for Hoffman to work his earnest, artistic magic.

Megamind: Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 5]

Certain names are indicative of the type of score you are going to receive. For genre chameleon Han Zimmer, the desire to turn everything into a spectacle of the highest order taints the otherwise workmanlike joys of his Megamind efforts. Collaborating with Lorne Balfe here, we get the standard sweeps and swoops that falsify scope without actually providing any real sonic significance. Even more odd is the desire to toss in the occasional pop song, like “Bad to the Bone”, a hip-hop remix of the Elvis hit “A Little Less Conversation”, and the Minnie Riperton weeper “Lovin’ You.” While the inclusion of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally” is always welcome, the rest of the music is marginal and mainstream. Tracks like “Crab Nuggets”, “Ollo” and “Rejection in the Rain” lay the blueprint for an otherwise basic if often bland experience.

Fair Game [rating: 8]

After two decades of trudging through the fringes of film scoring, UK composer John Powell has finally earned his first Oscar nomination. No, it’s not for this otherwise moody and ambient work, but for the CG heroics of How to Train Your Dragon. Honestly, his work on this contemporary thriller is just as compelling. Rhythm based and employing unusual sounds, the backing for sequences like “The White House” and “Gathering Intel” has an inherent drive all their own. Even better, the quieter moments help the sudden bombast of “Sixteen Words” and “Ready to Fight” stand out. Along the way, the beauty of “Uncomfortable Love” stands in stark contrast to the percolating political intrigue onscreen. As with the best of this aural souvenirs, the music both enhances the story being told while capable of standing on its own stanzas.

Tamara Drewe: Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 5]

Based on a witty contemporary comic strip (itself taken from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd), the Stephen Frears’ film Tamara Drewe is fun, frivolous piffle. Alexandre Desplat’s musical support is exactly the same – twee, quirky, and almost wholly forgettable. This is the kind of score that acts like lace under an elaborate place setting – it does a nice job of complimenting the core, but does little to stand out on its own. Take tracks one and two – “Opening Title” and “Going to Nadia” They are more or less the same notes simply switched around and played at different levels. Similarly, “Biggest Shagging” steps in to repeat the same phrase – and that’s a shame. Elsewhere, Desplat does a nice job with “Dogs and Cows” and “Spring”. Sure, we grow weary of the overused oboes and xylophones. Yes, there is an air of eccentricity to the compositions that gives away too many of the movie’s motives. But the majority is quite listenable. A word of advice -skip the last three tracks. They represent the songs by the film’s fictional band Swipe, and they are more irritating than endearing.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1:Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

At this point in his franchise tenure, if you’ve heard one Harry Potter soundtrack, you’ve heard them all. Sur, John Williams handled the first three films, with Patrick Doyle tackling number four and Nicholas Hooper staking out five and six. So Alexandre Desplat really has his work cut out for him here. Not only must he model his music after the other entries, but he has to find his own voice among the many. For the most part, the decision is to turn things down. Moments like “The Will” and “Death Eaters” start out so quiet they are barely audible, only to build back up again into substantial sonic statements. Dissonance also rules, especially in places like “The Locket” and “Godric’s Hollow Graveyard.” Spread out over 73 minutes and 26 tracks, Desplat delivers an interesting if interchangeable bit of boy wizard magic. While maybe not the strongest sonic sketch work in the entire series, this is still a decent aural offering.

Francis Lai: The Essential Film Music Collection [rating: 9]

While you may not know his name, you surely know his work – and if not his vast catalog of scores and songs, then his signature Parisian sound. Accordionist and composer Francis Lai left an indelible mark on the movies when he began adding his own formidable French flash to some of the ’50s and ’60s most important films. Still active at 78 – he just handled soundtrack duties for Claude Lelouch’s Ces amours-là, Lai is the subject of a twenty track tribute. Personally conducting the capable orchestra, we are treated to everything from “Love Story” (which one him an Oscar) to his wistful work on such unusual films as Emmanuelle II and Bilitis. Along the way, such classics as Le Genre Humain, La Belle Histoire, and “Un Homme et Une Femme” are featured. As much a part of the post-modern movie age as auteur theory and the New Wave, Lai’s legacy lies in these amazing songs – and the sophisticated sounds that supported them.