Apr 20, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS - composed by Steve Jablonsky

I should start off this review by stating this is not the original album I was going to scrutinize as my next review. In fact I was planning on ripping apart Steve Jablonsky's uninspired Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen score from 2009. I was planning on treating it to a very poor rating and bury it in my cat's litter box to see if the cat shit improves the quality anymore. That was until I heard Jablonsky's score to Your Highness...and with that my mind took another direction.

Your Highness is a 2011 stoner-comedy, taking elements of adventure and fantasy then rolling them into a medieval time period. With the intent of being a comedic tribute to '80's fantasy actions films, such as Conan The Barbarian, Krull and Beastmaster, Your Highness was beginning to sound as if it was going to be a fun way to waste 2 hours at the cinema. Starring Danny McBride, from television's hilarious Eastbound & Down and James Franco, as two not so bright prince brothers that embark on a dangerous mission to rescue Franco's bride-to-be (Zooey Deschanel) from an evil wizard, played by writer/actor Justin Theroux. Along the way they team up with a female warrior, far more skilled than the both of them combined, played by Natalie Portman (who seems a little embarrassed to be seen in such a film) and encounter many dangerous creatures and 'colorful' characters, both human and...well...not human.
The film is silly and inane, not to say that 'silly' is bad when it comes to comedy. You can be silly and still be good, as Monty Python and Ghostbusters proved or you can be silly and just be really bad, as Austin Powers and all the Date/Epic/Scary Movies proved. Mel Brooks tends to teeter back and forth between the two, just for the record. Sadly, Your Highness falls into that 'bad silly' category.
However, what came as a very pleasant surprise to me was Steve Jablonsky's highly entertaining straight-up adventure score.
Here he seems to be channeling Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Miklós Rózsa's The Knights Of The Roundtable and even goes as far back as the late 1930's swashbuckling stylings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his score for the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood. While he does manage to capture a lot of that feel, he does resort back to the tired MV/RC style and mucks it up a bit with some electronic textures and synths that seem so ridiculously out of place in this "period piece".
Beyond that minor criticism, Jablonsky's Your Highness is by far his best work since the 2004 Katsuhiro Ôtomo anime Steamboy. While it's nowhere near as good as Steamboy it's as equally entertaining as his score for the first Transformers film. After so many years of scoring aimless synthetic slop for shitty Hollywood blockbuster Slasher flick remakes and TV's Desperate Housewives, Your Highness must have been a welcome breath of fresh air for Jablonsky.
Here he is able to develop and layer multiple themes that seem to be constantly taking turns as the main focal point. To be frank, that's what I believe a good film score should do.
Jablonsky takes the film score seriously for the most part and hands in a solid action score with a few elements of a period piece as well, instead of a goofy comedy score most would expect. This writing is much like what Theodore Shapiro did for Tropic Thunder, Christopher Lennertz did for Vampires Suck and Debbie Wiseman did for Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Right off of the bat, Jablonsky almost lost me with an electronic loop and ambient synth textures that seemed nothing like what one would expect for such a film. Instead it came off as sounding like something no different than any other action score today. It may as well serve as the opening notes for a movie about Shia LeBeouf saving the U.S.A. from an Alien nuclear bomb. That was until 40 seconds in and the string section began. It immediately started to give off a medieval folk like feel with somewhat of a modern twist. Joined by a beautiful solo violin and a muted choir, Jablonsky builds upon that while creating a feel of heroism and grandeur. It seems the orchestra is ready to explode and then Jablonsky drops everything and speeds things up a bit with an upbeat single mandolin strumming with all it's heart, that's quickly joined by a strong percussion and brass stings and a swashbuckling styled fiddle racing up and down the scales. It begins to sound like something not much different from Hans Zimmer's entertaining Pirates scores and there's nothing wrong with that. Soon enough an oboe comes into the mix and plays as if it's dueling against the fiddle which proves to be quite effective and suiting to the the sword-fighting in the film.
Immediately toning things down and playing at the other end of the thematic spectrum is "Isabel The Strong". A gorgeous woodwind led theme, backed up by a delicately placed harp is nothing short of impressive. Jablonsky brings in film score regular, Lisbeth Scott for some beautiful vocalizations that seem to act as the romantic and melancholy voice of Natalie Portman's Isabel character. Once he allows the orchestra and vocals fully flourish, Jablonsky proves he is fully capable of writing for not just electronic hogwash, like he's been known for in the past few years but able to compose organically as well. This beautifully penned cue reminds me of the more tender moments in Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell's scores for the Shrek series, once again establishing that the MV/RC guys don't stray too far from the nest.
"Goodbye Mr. Tinys" is an album high point and serves as Danny McBride's character, Thadeous' theme. Highlighted with some plucky harpsichord playing and a delightful pennywhistle, this cue seems to be written for a cheeky, mischievous type of anti-hero, much like Jack Sparrow or Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, that is not the case for McBride's portrayal of the character and instead he comes off as just an idiotic stoner that calls for a much different style of them played by a tuba. Whether or not Jablonsky was instructed to write such a theme or didn't quite get the character is not certain. On screen, it's a little misplaced, on album is nothing short of highly entertaining and can be forgiven.
"Best Man" is more of slower thoughtful heroic piece, backed by a string and brass section, concluding with a harpsichord tapping in a few final notes. It almost makes you forget this is for a stoner comedy...almost, until the next track that is.
"The Greatest Most Beautifullest Love Song In All The Land" reminds us that this score is indeed for an incredibly ridiculous film. With half-decent vocals performed by Zooey Deschanel and absolutely horrendous vocals by James Franco, I can't help but enjoying this terrible song for what it is. Although it is a little out of place and immediately snaps you out of the mood set up so far with the first 4 cues, it couldn't be better timed on the album.
"The Virgin Is Plucked" is a rather stirring and intimidating action cue that makes wonderful use of that Transformers type of choir chants. It wouldn't be out of place approaching the Realms of Mordor, with it's threatening low end cello stirs and taunting high end string section, joined by a blaring brass section and synthetic, pulsating textures
We are reminded of Vangelis' work in Alexander and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, with the rousing "Not In My Castle". Making use of the cliche MV/RC string crescendos, it raises the bar with an inspiring brass section and percussive marching.
"Playful Secrets!" tick-tock's it's way with wonder and the majestic that takes me back to an old SNES game called ActRaiser or some of John Williams' work on the Harry Potter series.
While the cue "Leezar’s Date, Belladonna’s Hate" reminded me too much of the Fallen's theme from the Transformers' sequel, "Here Come The Marteetee" and "A Fistful Of Snakes" are the tracks that really degrades the score into the boring and mundane. They could be written for any run of the mill action score, from biker cyber punk attacks to Will Smith fistfighting with aliens or monsters and in the end, that lack of creativity just can't go unnoticed. A middle-eastern style flute is what grounds these cues in it's time period a little but not enough to keep one from rolling their eyes, unless you're merely into what sounds "epic" to you.
Jablonksy enters 'horror' scoring territory with "Labyrinths And Humps". It's riddled with orchestrated anarchy and well placed stings that would make Marco Beltrami smile.
Jablonsky stirs the emotions with excitement and suspense on the climatic and wonderfully titled "Orgy Of Violence" cue. One of the finest details I have to point out is a well placed chime hitting the same notes as the choir chanting, which requires a good sound system to really get feel of the impact and intimacy of such a huge piece and it's many finer specifics. I can't help but wonder why Jablonsky didn't go with this sort of action writing for the rest of the score. It's almost entirely orchestral hardly relying on any electronics or synthesizers and is one of the most pleasurable cues he's written in his career.
Concluding the album presentation is the rallying concert cue "Thadeous" reprising the theme with much more heroism and bravery than it's initial performance.
As delightfully enjoyable Your Highness is, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed with Steve Jablonsky's use of out of place electronics and synthetic textures. I don't mind electronics and synths in scores at all, I just feel there's a time and place for them...a medieval set film is not one of them.
Had Jablonsky stuck to the purely organic and orchestral composing I would have awarded it an extra star. He proved he could do it with Steamboy and many cues on this album, why didn't he stay with it?
When it all comes down to it, Your Highness is nothing short of pure fun and keeps Jablonsky on my list of composers to keep an eye on.

3 out of 5

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