Favourite soundtracks – for those about to rock…

Today, I am writing about 3 soundtracks with strong rock influences.

Pacific Rim is perhaps my #1 movie of this summer. Giant monsters battling giant mechas…if only all movies had this plotline…sigh! Right through the film, I was more aware of the music than I usually am, feeling that it really added to the intensity of the scenes, especially in the run up to the battle scenes – both inside the Shatterdome and out in the open. I loved all the little touches like the foghorns and choral chants. As the credits rolled at the end, the main score reappeared, this time a darker variation played in a lower key, leading with trombones, but with that familiar hook. It stayed in my mind throughout the drive back home and soon enough I was listening to the entire soundtrack. The main theme has Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) on guitars, with a mix of electronics and orchestral elements that all works very well together. Of particular note in the main theme are the 3 blasts of the foghorn at 1:23 and 3:06 and the 4-note stomps at 1:12 and 2:13. I love the way these components are adapted and repeated throughout the film; no wonder that hook stayed in my mind after the film. Kudos goes to 39-year-old Iranian-German composer and Berklee College of Music alumnus Ramin Djawadi, who also created the memorable theme music for HBO’s Game of Thrones. I didn’t think much of his score for Iron Man, but I will certainly be watching out for his next composition.

Another piece of film music built around a killer guitar performance is Battle Without Honor and Humanity, by Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei. Anyone who has watched Kill Bill: Vol. 1 or even watched the trailer will be familiar with this track. What I didn’t know was that the instrumental originally appeared in a Japanese yakuza film titled New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka Another Battle) back in 2000, in which Hotei also acted. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised that this was not an original composition; Quentin Tarentino is well known for his use of other people’s music in his films…something I am not a big fan of, but at least viewers get to listen to a whole range of fantastic songs when they watch his movies. Since then, this instrumental has become very popular, appearing even in Transformers and is parodied in Shrek the Third soundtrack (Princess Resistance). It is also used by various sporting teams for their home games. I think this live version is the best rendition of the track.

The last piece which has rapidly become a favourite is ‘Magneto’s theme’ from X-Men: First Class composed by British composer Henry Jackman. At one end of the spectrum, Jackman has composed for violent action films like Kick-Ass, and GI Joe: Retaliation; at the other end, he has done a number of animation films like Winnie the Pooh, Puss in Boots, Wreck-It Ralph and Turbo! But coming back to Magneto’s theme, this is a beautifully composed piece of music which is perfectly matched with Magneto’s sinister personality. The main musical elements, particularly its rising structure, initially appears in the soundtrack sections Pain and Anger and Frankenstein’s Monster before coming out in full force at the end of the movie in the piece titled Magneto. Just like the Pacific Rim theme, this is a great combination of guitars, low-end brass and synthesizers.


Favourite movie soundtracks – all that jazz

Today I have two soundtracks in mind, both with strong jazz influences.

I watched Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) about 7 years ago. The simplicity, intelligence and subtle humour was a revelation to me. Tati is perhaps the first director since the days of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Chaplin to create humour so effectively without spoken words. And while the early silent classics got their laughs mainly through slapstick (although of course, there were strong elements of satire and social commentary), Tati’s films lean more towards gentle social satire. His humour is not likely to give you a stitch in the side, but rather a quiet chuckle in appreciation of his orchestration of sight and sound. The absence of dialogue in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday brought to the fore a truly memorable soundtrack by jazz composer Alain Romans, particularly the theme music ‘Quel Temps Fait-Il A Paris?’. This relaxed, though rather repetitive composition appears to have all sorts of instruments in it – piano, electric guitar, trumpet, sax and even a xylophone, I think. His subsequent work for other Tati films like Mon Oncle and Playtime has similar musical themes, although I feel they became progressively complex, conversely more generic and therefore less memorable.

Henry Mancini’s Oscar-nominated theme for The Pink Panther (1963) is universally known and liked. Even kids who haven’t seen or heard of the Peter Sellers comedy franchise are familiar with the animation series. For me, the sax-based composition’s brilliance lies in how it seems to cue someone cool, smooth and suave, but equally also sounds like it’s describing a pompous, bumbling idiot.

This ageless piece has survived and evolved, well beyond the popularity of the films themselves. The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) had a funky bassline and even some electric guitar (at 3:06) thrown in. Bobby McFerrin did an a capella version for Son of the Pink Panther (1993). Outside of the films, it’s been covered countless times. There is a tango version by Cuarteto Almagro called Pantera Tanguera (sounds like the Twelve Monkeys theme, which is also tango-based) and a mambo version by Colombian group La 33 called La Pantera Mambo.

Favourite movie soundtracks – The John Williams specials

From 1975 to 1981, John Williams produced 5 of the most memorable scores in modern Hollywood. The scores were all written for a full orchestra and along with his previous work for The Tower Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake, he defined the sound of the 1970’s blockbuster, before synthesizers and electronics began to dominate ‘80s film scores. Many of his themes are firmly ingrained in pop culture and are frequently played at awards shows, sporting events and parodied.

In his first collaboration with Steven Spielberg he created the famous two-note score for Jaws, which went on to win the Oscar for best score. The mechanical sharks created for the shooting frequently malfunctioned in the water, forcing Spielberg to improvise and only hint at the shark’s presence most of the time. As a result, it was Williams’ score which effectively became associated with the creature.

Two years later, he had his first collaboration with another up-and-coming director, George Lucas, and the famous Star Wars theme was born. The rousing title theme which plays during the ‘opening crawl’ is frequently considered to be the most recognized film score. That year, John Williams received two Oscar nominations – for Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Spielberg and for Star Wars. He won for the latter.

A year later, he composed the heroic introduction to Superman the Movie and received yet another Oscar nomination. I actually feel that the Superman title theme is even more thrilling than that of the Star Wars opening.

In 1980, Williams returned with the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back and created The Imperial March. I don’t think there is any other piece of film music which is so instantly associated with a villain. In recent times, I would say that Henry Jackman’s Magneto theme from X-Men: First Class is the only one that comes close to capturing the essence of a screen villain, but still a distant second to The Imperial March. This produced yet another Oscar nomination for Williams.

Another year, another Oscar nomination; this time for the rousing score of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a collaboration between two of Williams’ favourite film makers – Spielberg and Lucas.

 Williams continued to write scores for all Spielberg’s films thereafter. In fact, I think he gets nominated for an Oscar every time he scores the music for a Spielberg film. He also composed the film score for two other big blockbusters – Home Alone and Harry Potter. But the only piece that I think reached the same heights as his work in the late 70’s is the beautiful string-dominated main theme for Jurassic Park in 1993. 

With 48 Oscar nominations (and 5 wins, the first of which was for Fiddler on the Roof in 1971 and the last one for 1993’s Schindler’s List) , Williams is the 2nd most nominated person after Walt Disney.

Favourite movie soundtracks – A Western union

The first 3 minutes of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) ranks as one of my favourite opening sequences of all time, alongside the first 5 minutes of Lord of the Rings and the first few minutes of Star Wars. It certainly features the coolest introduction of a movie hero that I can recall. The score by Masaru Sato plays a big part in creating this impactful scene. There’s lots of percussion and then a horn section (which all sound like traditional Japanese instruments) punctuated by what sounds like a trumpet. Later on, I think he uses a cello and perhaps even an electric guitar. I have tried to read up about how the score was composed, or about the instruments used, but have not been able to find any material on this so far. Sato has composed scores for other famous Kurosawa films but none as inventive as his work on Yojimbo.  He has also composed scores for some of the Godzilla movies and apparently worked on over 300 films before his death in 1999.

Kurosawa made Yojimbo as a Western, with Toshiro Mifune playing the equivalent of a ‘lone wolf’ gunman. Three years later, Italian director Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistfull of Dollars and the ‘spaghetti western’ was born. Leone’s ‘Man with no Name’ trilogy has been lauded as a revisionist take on American Westerns, creating a much more realistic and gritty world peopled by morally ambiguous characters in stark contrast to the clear-cut ‘white hat, black hat’ world of Hollywood.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is the 3rd film in this trilogy and Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is my other big favourite. Morricone composed the scores for all the 3 films, eschewing a traditional orchestra (they probably didn’t have the budget for it) and instead using vocals, gunshots, cracking whips and whistles. I think scores became more sophisticated and innovative from the first film to the third and certainly, the title theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best known of perhaps any Western ever. The soundtrack also contains the famous and beautiful piece Ecstasy of Gold, which has been covered by Metallica in their live performances as well as on their S&M album, playing with the San Francisco Symphony. Mr. Morricone has produced a vast body of work, resulting in 5 Oscar nominations (including The Untouchables and Bugsy) and incredibly, is composing scores for films even today, more than 50 years after he first started.

Favourite movie soundtracks – the sounds of the apocalypse

Today’s two soundtracks have a common theme around the apocalypse and time travel, but are very different in terms of instrumentation and influence.

The Terminator released in 1984, made Hollywood sit up and take notice of director James Cameron, and launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movie career (he already had two Conan movies out by then). Brad Fiedel’s soundtrack is one of the several elements that works in this movie. The pounding nature of the main theme, with that metallic highlight, is grim and relentless, just like the Terminator. The electronica also makes it eerie and bleak, in keeping with the apocalyptic theme. Of course, all this was born out of reality – this was a low budget production and Brad Fiedel was not a big name composer. He was a keyboardist (having played for Hall and Oates at one time) and therefore he composed a simple and serviceable electronic score (I believe it wasn’t even recorded in stereo originally), which was par for the course for so many action thrillers of the time. But somehow, he captured the very essence of the film. The soundtrack he composed for the sequel Terminator 2, was an evolution of this one, but with a bigger budget, he was able to add some depth and sophistication to it. I thought he did a decent job with another James Cameron-Schwarzenegger film, True Lies, but ultimately the soundtrack for The Terminator will remain the defining work of his film career.

The Twelve Monkeys soundtrack by Paul Buckmaster is built upon existing compositions and songs, so it’s not really an OST, I feel. Buckmaster is an English cellist, who also worked as an arranger and sessions musician for David Bowie and Miles Davis. So, scoring for films is not really his primary vocation and the only work that he is known for is the soundtrack for Twelve Monkeys (1995). I have always liked the main title theme with its unusual use of strings and what sounds like an accordion; it very much echoes what Bruce Willis’ character is going through as he tries to navigate this pre-apocalyptic world he keeps getting sent to. It was only while writing this piece that I discovered that the credit for the theme goes to Argentine composer Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, as it is a derivation of his Suite Punta del Este. The piece sounds like it was specifically written for the film, but actually it’s a Tango Nuevo composition written back in 1982. I learnt that the accordion sound comes from an instrument called the bandoneon, popular in South America as part of a Tango ensemble. Piazzolla’s music continues to appear in documentaries and short films, well after his death in 1992. Buckmaster on the other hand, hasn’t composed any music for films since 1997.