Favourite soundtracks – Serendipitous Songs Part 1

Many films are famous for their extensive use of pop or rock songs, integrating them so well into the script that they are part and parcel of storytelling – Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Almost Famous and Pretty Woman are good examples of this. Some films films hit songs even when the songs just appear at the end or in one scene – think Titanic (My Heart Will Go On) and Rocky II (Eye of the Tiger). These songs have sometimes become more famous than the movie they were featured in. For every such hit song, there are as many great movie soundtrack songs that go completely under the radar. In the past year, I have stumbled upon 5 such tracks that are worth listening to in their own right, but also utterly suited to the films they have appeared in. I am covering 2 of the 5 songs in this post:-

The Fighter (2010) is an Oscar-winning boxing drama continuing the Hollywood tradition of emotionally powerful films like Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby. Directed by David O. Russell, it stars Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his half-brother and coach Dicky. The film chronicles Micky’s tortured attempt to rise up the boxing ranks, battling with several family related issues involving his over-protective mother, brood of ever-present sisters, a crack-addicted and frequently unreliable brother and his combative girlfriend who is intensely disliked by the rest of his family. Ultimately, they set aside their differences and come together to help Micky deliver an upset victory and claim the world welterweight title. Although a boxing film, it is really a story about family dynamics and blood ties. The film ends with the two brothers sitting on a sofa being interviewed; Dicky talks into the camera, so very proud of his brother, struggling to contain his emotions. The scene then cuts to the 2 brothers walking down the street while Ben Harper’s Glory and Consequence plays in the background. I am not a fan of Ben Harper’s vocal style, but I love the arrangements and musicianship on this song and the lyrics. It is the perfect uplifting, inspiring song to end an emotionally draining 2 hour film. Sadly, the song seems too complex to reproduce live; I have listened to a few live recordings and the song always comes across half-baked or rushed. Best listened to on the original The Fighter OST recording or on his 1997 The Will to Live album.

Earlier this year, Richard Linklater released the 3rd film in his ‘Before trilogy’, titled Before Midnight. The films brings back Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the soulmates who met by chance in Vienna in 1995, then reunited in Paris in 2004 and are now married with kids and on vacation in Greece in 2013. The film deals with the inevitable anxieties and regrets of a couple entering middle age, who feel they have sacrificed a fair bit for each other but are not receiving the expected appreciation or support. The climax of the film features an extended and bitter argument between the couple in a hotel room, which is almost too painful to watch. It seems impossible that there could be any reconciliation after such a showdown, but somehow they find a way to sit together at the restaurant downstairs and tentatively start a conversation. As the credits roll on this hopeful scene, a soulful love song called Gia Ena Tango plays out. Sung by Greek songstress Haris Alexiou, famous for her earthy voice, it creates a heartbreaking coda for an outstanding film and an outstanding trilogy of love stories. I don’t think the song is featured in any of Alexiou’s albums, I see it listed only as a single or as part of the Before Midnight soundtrack.

In Part 2 of Serendipitous Songs, I will talk about two Brazilian songs and one from an American indie film.


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 – 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 – 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.

Favourite movie soundtracks – The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity

This is actually the first time I have ever written exclusively about movie soundtracks. Not even sure how to articulate my thoughts or describe music, but here goes!

I’m trying to create a list of my top movie soundtracks. This is not the way the Oscars pick their nominees, there is no evaluation of technical skill or difficulty. It’s just music that I like.

I’ll probably write about one or two films in each post, based on some sort of thematic similarity. Today’s post is about two movie soundtracks composed by the same person – John Powell.

John Powell specializes in two very different genres of films. On one hand, he is the man behind the scores of many successful animation films from Fox Animation/ Blue Sky Studios (The Ice Age moviesRobots, Horton Hears a Who! and Rio) and Dreamworks Animation (Antz, Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon). But he has also composed the score for several high octane action films like Face/Off, the Bourne series, The Italian Job, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I don’t consider his animation work to be particularly memorable, but I am a fan of two of his action movie scores.

One is the opening score for The Italian Job remake of 2003. It feels like a perfect caper film score, starting off with lots of percussion, clicks and chimes, before the strings kick in at the 1:19 mark. I would describe it as intelligent, intriguing and upbeat.
The 2nd is the main theme for The Bourne Identity. There’s a long slow build up and then the string section kicks in with some staccato percussion which sounds like gun shots. It creates a sustained mood of excitement and anticipation, very much in keeping with the theme of the film.

Sadly, John Powell seems to be getting only animation projects these days, with his recent projects being Happy Feet Two, The Lorax and sequels to How to Train Your Dragon and Rio. I’m hoping he will get an action film assignment soon and there’ll be some more of that suspenseful music magic.