Feb 22, 2009

DEFIANCE music composed by James Newton Howard

In the same tradition of his previous films, Glory, The Last Samurai & Blood Diamond, Edward Zwick tells the story of another violent time in history, this time during World War II in Defiance. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are cast as three brothers who escape the invasion of Poland by the Germans and hide deep in an Eastern European forest. There they begin building makeshift homes in the cold, uninhabitable forest, only to attract other Polish Jews on the run who want to hide in their "community". This not only puts a strain on the brother's relationships, but also the secrecy of their new "homes".
Zwick knows how to pick the composer for the film he is making, as all his film's scores are well received by the critic and the fans alike. There was James Horner's beautiful scores to Glory and Legends Of The Fall and Hans Zimmer's mysterious and haunting The Last Samurai. Before Defiance, Zwick teamed up with Zimmer's pal/composer James Newton Howard for Blood Diamond, a score which I can not say enough good things about...I absolutely loved Howard's work on that film....loved it.
James Newton Howard, ofcourse, is mostly famous for his 8 Acamdemy Award nominated scores, most notably the hauntingly wonderful The Village and now Defiance and was also the co-composer of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, with Hans Zimmer.
For Defiance, Howard and Zwick originally wanted a less obvious sound for the Jewish culture of that time in history (meaning the Itzhak Perlman violin solos of John Williams' classic Schindler's List and other films depicting such atrocities of the Holocaust), however after they went through a long list of instruments to represent the sound, they finally gave in to the beauty of the violin. Howard was no stranger to using the violin as a solo instrument in his scores, having used it to perfection in The Village, with violinist Hilary Hahn. This time around, Howard would call upon another young violinist, Joshua Bell, who shined quite brightly on John Corigliano's score to The Red Violin, to play as a soloist for Defiance.
Unlike William's fully orchestrated Schindler's List, Defiance plays much more subtly, almost to the point of minimalism in some spots. The instruments weave in and out of each others spotlight, rather than play together to reach an emotional climax of Hollywood grandeur, like some WWII Holocaust films before it would do.
From the first track we know immedietely this is not the album to put on while doing housework or going for a brisk walk. This album requires you to sit down and absorb the pain and emotion that is bled into each note.
"Main Titles" starts out with a low ominous growl with the brass section rumbling away, only to be broken by a lone stark violin angrily played by Joshua Bell, followed by the string section becoming more and more anxious or urgent. It's the perfect way to let you know the next 45 minutes of listening is going to be a dark one and will sour your good mood.
So be warned.
"Survivors" manages to break one's heart with Bell's violin playing at the outset, followed by Howard's recognizable string composition of string over string over string, which wouldn't sound out of place in The Village. "Make Them Count" continues with the dissonant ambience we briefly heard in "Main Titles". This ambience suffocates you and puts you into a place most would rather not visit, but we are given a breath of air with the strings filling in the end only to well up the tears.
"Your Wife" allows Bell's violin to play over a brand new string section theme. This theme is perhaps the most heartbreaking beautiful score cue to come across the screen in 2008...and that's just the music without the amazing scene it's played over...absolutely unforgettable. Howard and Bell are at their best during this cue.
"The Bielski Otriad" threatens to completely smother you with that brooding ambience again, even more so than previously, however this time around it plays like a desperate crescendo. The strings elegantly rush past you with anger and despair alike, played with perfection and a sense of urgency that gets your heart racing and just when you think your going to have a heart attack, the brass and percussion jump in and make sure you have that heart attack.
"Camp Montage" almost echoes Michael Kamen's Band Of Brothers or Williams' Saving Private Ryan, with the lone horn section introducing the cue and developing into a sad string heavy cue, that begs you to stare off into the grey sky off the shore of a lonely beach.
"Police Station" acts as if it's watching you from a distance and creeps in closer and closer...if the dreading dissonant tracks before didn't do the trick, this one will. It's ripped right out of the pages of a Hans Zimmer war score...the low synths sounds, the long brass tones and the high-note string section that almost pierce the ears.
"Tuvia Kisses Lilka", "Nothing Is Impossible" & "The Bielski Brothers/ Ikh Bin A Mame" end the album and prove to be 13 and a 1/2 minutes of solid music...not a second to be wasted. These three tracks pretty much round up all the themes and motifs heard throughout the rest of the score and play them to absolute perfection. Joshua Bell's playing on "Nothing Is Impossible" is something most players probably dream of being able to perform. Never have I heard such beauty and emotion put into one track before. I can't even do it justice, I believe it is that good. "The Bielski Brothers/ Ikh Bin A Mame" finishes off everything with a glimmer of hope and sadness rolled into one.
While the album does end on somewhat of a hopeful note, the last few notes played on the violin somehow doesn't let you forget the tragedy you've just experienced as well. The emotions linger for awhile and most often I find myself sitting in silence for a sometime, after finishing off the album, deep in thought and heart.
I've picked James Newton Howard's Defiance as my pick for the the Oscar Winner this year, for it's stark beauty, sadness and astonishing solo work by violinist Joshua Bell, all done with subtly and perfection you hardly notice how much it is affecting you until your far into the score all ready. In the end, whether Howard wins the award or not, it still proves he is one of the best film composers today and so far he has only gotten better and better. Hopefully he keeps going that way, which I'm sure he will for the years to come.


Feb 21, 2009


With the 81st Annual Academy Awards rearing it's golden little head around the corner, I thought I'd take the time out to run through the five nominees in the "Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score" category.

First off, we have Alexandre Desplat's


I have a strange feeling this will be the one to take home the award.
Alexandre Desplat is probably most well known for his previous Oscar Nod for The Queen in 2006 and his impressive scoring job in 2007's The Golden Compass.
Benjamin Button is a rather slow moving, subtle score, like the David Fincher directed movie itself, that really begs for the listeners to sit down and enjoy the score with no distractions whatsoever. Desplat displays some interesting techniques with this score, particularly the theme which he very subtly reverses in play during the duration of the film. He also never really makes use of any fully orchestrated melodramatic cues and instead opts for a series of intimate instrumental solos played over a slight rhthymic waltz timing that quietly weaves it way through the score. While, I find the score to be a pleasant listen, the disc probably won't leave it's case that much in the near future. Even thouhg it is a 2-disc set, one disc featuring the score the other featuring most of the source material from the film's various eras. I won't listen to either of them that much, because the score disc is just too slow and quiet for me and the soundtrack disc, while I do like the songs, unfortunally contains dialogue clips which I really find irratating.

* * * out of 5

next up Danny Elfman's


Elfman's fourth collaboration with director Gus Van Sant, is generally a success, probably more so than the earlier Van Sant/Elfman Oscar nominated team-up Good Will Hunting. The Milk score, like Benjamin Button's, is quiet and subtle...well, mostly. It doesn't really have any recurring themes at the forefront, but Elfman does manage to sneak in some which the ear won't pick up at first and that's just fine. Unlike most of the composer's other scores, Milk proves to be very warm and optimistic. A piano and saxophone are Elfman's choice solo instruments this time around, which fit in the mood of the movie like a glove. While the score consists of mostly heart-warming cues, Elfman does throw in a few short "dittys" that sound like they just jumped out of the goofier moments of Edward Scissorhands. If you're looking for something like a Tim Burton/Elfman score, then this isn't for you...it leans more towards the tone similiar to some of Elfman's work he did in the early 2000's. Ofcourse, I do enjoy this score, but don't think it deserves the Oscar, mostly because the Academy ignore some of Elfman's better work this year such as Standard Opertating Procedure and Wanted and I hope Elfman wins an Oscar for something that people will remember for years to come, rather than a subtle drama score, which most likely quickly be forgotten.

* * * out of 5

Now let's take a look at A.R. Rahman's


Let me start off by saying, when I started reviewing these scores I quickly went through all five of them again, skipping quite a few tracks on each disc, but with this score, I found myself listening to it from start to finish.
Allah Rakha Rahman (aka A.R. Rahman) really deserved this Oscar nod, with it's fresh blend of Bollywood textures and Electronica/Hip-Hop. Danny Boyle's Slumgdog and everybody involved in the film, are quite obviously the Oscars and critic's darlings this year.
The soundtrack album is 51 minutes of loud, fast-paced bliss, which kind of outcast itself from the majority of score listeners out there. Most fanboy score fanatics would prefer to leap around their mother's basement, in their Spider-Man underoos with a plastic lightsaber, to some bombastic Hans Zimmer & Friends' score (because it's so 'epic'), while the snooty score collector detested the idea of a hip-hop fusion score.
Rahman's score, to my ears, is absolutely wonderful and a very welcome addition to my collection. He cleverly fuses traditional Indian instruments with hip hop beats, electric guitars, sound manipulations, and even a muted choir at one point.
"O...Saya" opens the album (and the film) with a bang, with it's frantic drumming in the foreground and a brief vocalization from British hip-hop artist M.I.A. "Mausum & Escape" is my personal favorite at the moment, as it bounces solos back and forth with a guitar and sitar at first, but quickly develops orchestrally and electronically, with a wall of sound that practically smothers you. We are then treated to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes", with it's gun shots, The Clash-samples and all, from her Kala album. It's then followed by a remix of the same song, which is pretty good, but I wouldn't have put them back to back. "Latika's Theme" is one of two moments on the album where we are allowed a momentary breather. It's a beautiful piece with vocalizations provided by Bollywood singer Suzanne D'Mello. The album finishes off with "Jai Ho", an excellent, excellent, excellent uplifting song, that dares you not to feel good when listening to it. Both "O...Saya" and "Jai Ho" were nominated for best songs of the year, for this year's Oscar, alongside Peter Gabriel's "Down To Earth" from Wall-E . I'm sorry, but as much as I like Peter Gabriel, "Jai Ho" has easily taken the award.

* * * 1/2 out of 5

Let's move on to Thomas Newman's

Newman's second dive into the Pixar world, (Finding Nemo being the first) is a sucessful one in mood and tone for the film, but I really just couldn't get into it as a score album. I love Newman's work, especially on American Beauty, The Green Mile and Lemony Snicket's , but this album presentation just felt really off to me. I think I blame this on the length of most of the tracks on the album. 12 out of the 38 tracks are under one minute, the shortest being 15 seconds, while most other tracks barely make it to the 2 minute mark. As a listening experience, it just doesn't work for me. It barely gives the listener enough time to really get a feel for the track before it moves onto the next one. Newman could have mixed some tracks together to create some mini-suites, but instead opted for this poor presentation. Don't get me wrong, I actually do like what I hear, particularly the superb crystal-clear recording job, but it's over before I even knew what it was. I enjoy the genre-jumping throughout the score and the way Newman incorporated the feel of robot movements in his music. He sucessfully entered into the Sci-Fi score world for the first time in his career, which especially shows on the opening score track, "2815 A.D.". The album is a fun listen, but also very irritating as well. I'm sorry, but the short tracks were something I just couldn't get past and I do realize it's not Newman's fault, it's the director/producer's want in the film. It reminded me of the way Clint Mansell presented his Requiem For A Dream score, great music but too many 20 second cues. All in all, the score is fun, not award worthy though and the album presentation is a major drawback. I do look forward to Newman getting into some more sci-fi scores in the future if what he did here is any indication of what he can do.

* 1/2 for album
* * * as in context of the film

...i'm going to save the final score, which I think should take home the award, for a review by itself....

Feb 7, 2009

DOGMA music composed by Howard Shore

It's a world where Alanis Morissette is God, a descendant of Jesus works in an abortion clinic, Chris Rock is the forgotten 13th Apostle and stoner-characters Jay & Silent Bob are prophets...it's the world of Clerks & Chasing Amy writer/director Kevin Smith.
Released in 1999, Dogma, without a doubt would have controversy ready to run it down with an army of tanks going 200 miles a hour. It's satirical look into the Catholic Church and it's beliefs, were enough to cause protests all over the world (Kevin Smith even joined one himself under a pseudo-name) and an astonishing number of death threats aimed at Smith and the then film company behind Dogma, Disney. Death threats from practicing Catholics....Death Threats From The Children Of God Towards Disney?!?! That's like Mister Rogers tossing puppies and kittens out into traffic...something so very wrong.
The film itself was pro-God and pro-religious, but that was overlooked by many, as some people were so quick to label it blasphemous before they even saw the film and forgot how to look at their own views from a different angle or perhaps they just had a crucifex lodged up their ass. I still think it would have helped, if Smith included a homosexual character on the good side, to really stir the all ready overflowing pot (or maybe just a platypus...if you know what I mean Dogma-fans).
In a strange twist of events (for Smith), instead of littering the film's background music with rock songs, he opted for a more traditional style by using original orchestrated music. Enter Canadian composer Howard Shore, famous for his Oscar Award-winning Lord Of The Rings' masterpieces, The Departed, Se7en, The Silence of The Lambs and pretty much every single David Cronenberg film there is, as well as the original Saturday Night Live musical director and one of the brains behind The Blues Brothers.
While, Shore up to that point had become known for his generally dark, brooding scores, (with the exception of Tim Burton's Ed Wood), Dogma was sort of a change for him. And I mean you to take "sort of" very lightly, in a good way ofcourse.
What could of been a silly comedic score, which I loathe, Shore took a different approach and createad a melodramatic, almost epic sound for the film. It suited what would end up on screen, as Smith decided to shoot with more of a theatrical visual style for once.
The score portion of the Dogma album begins with the title track, "Dogma", a delightful little track, which slowly eases you into the mood of the album. It's almost scary horror sound sneaks up on you with with it's church bells and tense brass section and shades itself with a Bernard Herrmann Psycho-esque string section.
We are then treated to "Behold The Metatron", starting with a gothic choir, provided by the always wonderful Metro Voices, then devoloping with a church organ and a string section that drives at you as if Beetlejuice (or in this film's case, The Voice Of God) was about to appear in your bedroom.
"Mooby The Golden Calf" is an album highlight, as it was played during the scene that fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby, violently punish a room full of office executives for worshipping a false idol. With it's childish vocals, that mirror that of "It's A Small World" only not as annoying, "Mooby" is a strange creature, indeed. Fortunally the lyrics are included in the liner notes as the words are difficult to decipher from just listening to it.
"The Golgothan" creates a steady sense of dread and fear of The Shit Monster. The gothic organ is a major part on this particular track, but remains very well mixed in with the rest of the players, so you aren't immedietely drawn to it.
An ascending brass section introduces "The Last Scion", which serves as the Bethany character's theme. Although it begins with a sense of fear, "Scion" quickly evolves into a rather peaceful and mystical mood, which sounds as if Shore is toying with the Elven theme from the future "Lord Of The Rings" compositions.
"Stygian Triplets" twists back and forth with a psychotic orchestrated charge, that could please the ears of The Cryptkeeper. A fun little sweeping piece that reminds me of the first scene with The Wicked Witch in the tornado from The Wizard Of Oz for some strange reason.
The gothic organ and orchestra is really turned up for the "Bartleby and Loki" track. The pure melodrama of this piece is like heaven to my ears, it pretty much makes me want to stand on top of rocky mountain during a violent thunder storm and cackle loudly up to the sky.
"John Doe Jersey" eases in very gracefully after the previous track, as the climax approaches, the action motifs ride through better than most "serious" action movie music would. The religious tones of each theme throughout the entire score, clash back and forth, only to have some superbly composed choral work climb into the mix and completes this piece.
Finishing off the album is "A Very Relieved Deity", which continues with the heavenly chorus and orchestrations. Playing as a variation on Bethany's theme and introducing a new theme, which would serve as God's motif, this track would definately not be out of place on "The Lord Of The Rings".
While the album plays a mere 41 minutes, 35 minutes of that is given to Howard Shore's wonderful score and the other six is saved for Alanis Morissette and her original song, "Still".
This sole "rock" song opens the album and is suprisingly suiting to both the film and the soundtrack album. With it's world music sound texture and it's religiously controversial lyrics, I think Morissette holds up pretty well, like she did with "Uninvited" on the City Of Angels soundtrack. Other than those two songs, I'm not much of fan of her work.
I could of done with a longer playing time for the album, but am not sure how much music Shore actually wrote for the film, so this might be a pretty accurate presentation of the whole score.
All in all, I think that any Howard Shore fan will be fairly pleased with this early score, as would most film score collectors. So if your looking for a fun, dramatic, but not too serious, almost epic score then this Dogma's for you........unless your the President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (that's right, Little Willy Donohue, you ass, here's looking at you).