Iconic film and TV soundtracks – an endangered species


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I grew up during a time when I took for granted that popular TV shows and movies would have memorable intro music or theme songs.

My particular favourite was the intro for The Six Million Dollar Man, composed by Oliver Nelson. Combined with clips of astronaut Steve Austin’s crash and transformation into a bionic man, along with the grim voiceover by his mentor Oscar Goldman, the entire package was thrilling and I never tired of sitting through it each week. At school, 8- and 9-year olds (myself included) would run around the playground in slow motion humming the tune as their personal background soundtrack. Another tune that gives me goosebumps to this day is the Hawaii Five-O opening theme, composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the famous instrumental rock band The Ventures. I can still recall the montage of surf waves, buildings and faces that was perfectly synced with the track, made so dynamic through zoom, jump cuts and shaky cam shots. And the theme music of the original Star Trek, composed by Alexander George and bonded with that opening monologue by William Shatner, is surely one of the most recognized around the world.

I discovered a few years ago while researching old TV tunes that Lalo Schifrin was the genius behind two other iconic intros – the Mission: Impossible theme which has been kept alive by the feature films over the years (loved the version that U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton concocted for the first movie in 1996) and the minimalist intro for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Schifrin also composed the original theme for Starsky and Hutch, but it was replaced from the 2nd season onwards by Tom Scott’s groovy synthesizer-based piece which is the version that pretty much everyone remembers.

Another favourite was M*A*S*H*, the tune became even more poignant for me when I discovered later that the accompanying theme song was titled Suicide is Painless. Of course, when it came to songs, it’s the happy ones that I would sing along with; and the two that lift my heart to this day are the intro songs of Happy Days and The Greatest American Hero.

There weren’t that many British shows that I watched, but of course the opening theme for Doctor Who remains well known to this day, with the show having been revived in 2005 and introduced to a whole new generation.

Later on in the 70’s as I got to around the age of 10, I started watching movies. This was mostly on grainy VHS and occasionally on TV – we didn’t have dedicated movie channels back then. And so it was that I came across the amazing Superman and Star Wars themes by John Williams, the quirky intro for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone, the playful Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini and of course, the theme for James Bond which has remained popular over the years even though it is built around the very dated surf rock sound of the 60’s. Many years later, as I watched other films from the 60’s and 70’s, I came across many more memorable themes such as Nino Rota’s evocative (and so Italian) soundtrack for The Godfather or Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score for The Magnificent Seven and John Williams’ scary score for Jaws. I think the last iconic theme from this era was John Williams’ signature tune for Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

In comparison, the only contemporary TV show themes that I consider memorable or iconic are Mark Snow’s theme for The X-Files and Ramin Djawadi’s complex and multi-layered theme for Game of Thrones. Sure, I watch very little TV these days, but even when it comes to movies, I can’t think of anything memorable or instantly recognizable that has been written in the past decade. I would have to go back to 1993’s surprisingly mellow and evocative Jurassic Park theme by John Williams and James Horner’s work for Titanic; I think these are the last of the ‘classic film tunes’. Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is also very good, but frankly I had to go online and search for the tune on YouTube because I couldn’t remember what it sounded like, just that I liked it a lot. I do have some personal favourites from recent years like Ramin Djawadi’s entire OST for Pacific Rim, or John Powell’s work for The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity both of which I have written about previously; but I doubt very much that you could classify these tunes as widely popular or iconic.

One of the reasons that the quality and distinctiveness of soundtracks has reduced over the years (especially in movies) is that film makers increasingly rely on existing pop and rock songs to fill out the film soundtrack. I call this lazy composing and have a real problem with it. It was innovative when the Bee Gees composed an entire album of hit songs for Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and nostalgic when Cameron Crowe injected a bunch of rock classics into Almost Famous in 2000 and of course, we all love director James Gunn’s mixtape selection for Guardians of the Galaxy. But now I feel that every movie (starting with the trailer) is using popular songs rather than coming up with catchy original compositions. How nice it would be to once again fall in love with a piece of music and have it stay with you for the rest of your life as a part of the memory of a beloved movie or TV show…

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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.

Summer movie rankings and scorecard


With the summer half done, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the movies I’ve seen so far.

My #1 movie of the summer is World War Z (8.5/10): (SPOILERS AHEAD)

When I first heard that the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ celebrated novel was going to be substantially different from the book, I had my misgivings. What was the point of adapting a book, if you were going to change the story and potentially leave out everything that made it so good? The novel is structured as a series of interviews with the survivors of a 10-year long global war against zombies, which eventually the human race won. The interviews, which take place ten years after the end of the war, act as a commentary on the political, economic and social state of different countries across the world. The novel touches upon everything from black market organ trade to apartheid to fudging of test results by pharmaceutical companies. Then came the first trailer and I was appalled that the film makers had re-defined the inherent properties of zombies, making them fast-moving and seemingly capable of coordinated attacks. But after watching the trailer a few times, I had to admit, this version of zombies did behave like humans would if they had been infected by a mutated strain of rabies, which is what the novel indicates as the source of the plague. Anyway, I watched the movie earlier this week and if one puts aside all the comparisons with the book and the news about the troubled film shoot, it turned out to be a smart, incredibly plausible globe-spanning thriller giving the viewer a real sense of having to race against time before humanity is wiped out.

A lot of the credit must go to Brad Pitt, who like Ben Affleck in Argo, plays a capable, intelligent professional who calmly goes about his job and deals with crises without any sort of melodrama. Normally this genre of film is made by directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich and is accompanied by all sorts of inane dialogue. In spite of the fact that the script had to be re-written and polished by multiple writers, the realistic behavior of the lead characters makes this feel like something that could happen to any of us.

The movie has 4 major set pieces, one in a Philadelphia traffic jam (scary and so real), one at a military base in South Korea, one in Jerusalem (tragic) and the last one in a medical facility in Wales. The film makers re-wrote and re-shot the entire third act of the film, switching from an epic battle in Russia to that tense cat-and-mouse game in Wales. I think it was a brave choice, because for a global disaster epic like this, the playbook says it must end in some sort of climactic battle. Instead, the change of pace really works without compromising suspense or the audience’s emotional engagement. I contrast this with the last act of Man of Steel, which surely takes the prize for the worst case of mind-numbing cinematic violence seen so far this summer.

There has been some online criticism of how overly calm some of the people are in the face of all this death and destruction, but I feel this is the reaction of critics who have become too used to the cinematic version of grief…very public and visual, never private. In fact, I feel that the small touches pack the biggest emotional impact – Brad Pitt’s character Gerry Lane reacts with a mix of shame and exhaustion after making an insensitive remark about another survivor’s family, Lane’s wife’s face silently crumples as she struggles to contact him via satellite phone, a team of Black Ops commandos stoically goes out to face almost certain death.

I’m hoping that WWZ makes enough money at the box office that they will complete the planned trilogy of films, perhaps even retaining some of the events from the book like the South African ‘solution’ and the Battle of Yonkers. But even if not, it stands on its own as one of the best disaster films made; at the same level as my other favorites like Independence Day, Deep Impact and War of the Worlds (all of which were much more American than global, in terms of storytelling scope).

Listed below are the remaining summer films I’ve seen in order of preference. Two big gaps in the resume are The Great Gatsby and Fast and Furious 6, all of which I hope to watch before the summer’s out:-

#2: Star Trek Into Darkness (8/10)

#3: Despicable Me 2  (7.5/10)- I just watched the preview this morning. It was as entertaining as the trailer promised it would be. Gru has to be sweetest dad in movie history (at least, in animation movie history) and the Minions must surely be one of the funniest supporting characters ever, ranking alongside Timon & Pumba as well as the Penguins and King Julien from the Madagascar films . The new character Lucy Wilde played by Kristen Wiig (who I’m not a fan of in her live action movies, by the way) is an excellent addition to the cast. To some extent, one could complain that the movie is just a series of skits/ comedy set pieces strung together, but when all those sequences are so funny, who’s to complain. I think I was laughing more than some of the kids in the hall today. And of course, my favorite part is when the head of the Anti-Villain League introduces himself “I am the league’s director Silas Ramsbottom”, followed by sniggers from two of the Minions. Steve Carrel’s voice acting of course, is beyond awesome.

#4: Iron Man 3: (7/10)

#5: Epic: (7/10): Perhaps the most beautifully animated film of 2013 so far. Great eco-friendly concept, although the bad guys were very stereotyped. Lovely theme song “Rise Up” by Beyonce will definitely go into my iPod.

#6: Oblivion: (7/10)

#7: Man of Steel: (7/10)

It seems a bit unfair to have Man of Steel all the way at the bottom of the list, but the scores for the last 4 films are all level at 7/10 and if that last act had been handled better, then quite possibly MoS could have ranked as high as #2. For me, the summer season ends with the release of Elysium in early August. But the 3 biggies to watch out for before that are The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim and The Wolverine…all worth spending the extra coin to see on IMAX 3D! Roland Emmerich’s White House Down starring Channing Tatum (the biggest box office draw of 2012, but yawn for me) is the possible joker in the pack.

Man of Steel flies high!


In the first act of Man of Steel, the actors wear the elaborate costumes of a Greek tragedy and enact a plot from a Shakespearean one. There is a military uprising, talk of treason, a blasphemous act and a Brutal slaying. (yes, there is a reason the ‘B’ is in caps). The actors delivering the stoic lines are certainly well chosen for it – Russell Crowe appears very stately as Jor-El and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (who had quite a good role in the 2008 thriller Vantage Point) who plays his wife Lara lives through the loss of child, husband and world with an impressive degree of forbearance. The actors who play the misguided Krypton council have been cast for their strong facial bone structure. And of course, there is the star of the show – Michael Shannon, playing General Zod, manages to impress as a villain in spite of his strong American accent (all the best villains usually have British or European accents, don’t they?). First of all, kudos to screenwriter David Goyer and producer Chris Nolan for having the smarts to take one of the most iconic villainous roles in the DC movie universe and insert it into the retelling of the origin story (I could not have put up with another helping of a cinematic Lex Luthor, after Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey). Second, kudos to whoever picked Oscar-nominated character actor Michael Shannon to play Zod; I had never imagined that anyone could top Terrence Stamp’s performance in Superman II (1980). But Shannon is the real deal. The man has played some disturbing characters in the past 4 years including his breakout performance in Revolutionary Road in 2008. Michael Shannon brings a level of physicality and menace to the character of Zod that is truly frightening, all the more so because unlike Gen. Zod from Superman II who was just a megalomaniac, this Zod actually believes he is the true Son of Krypton and Superman is the traitor to the cause.

And ultimately, this movie is about each man (oh that’s right, they’re aliens) having to decide where his moral center lies.

But before we get to that point, there’s a whole lot of story to cover.

We get to see a beautifully visualized Krypton (with an interesting insectoid design sensibility), falling to its inevitable apocalypse while the spacecraft carrying Kal-El wormholes its way towards Earth. We then cut to the present day where a grown-up Clark Kent playing a strong/ silent worker on a fishing trawler finds himself part of a spectacular set-piece where he puts some of his powers into play.

Director Zack Snyder plays liberally with flashbacks and that’s where we are introduced to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent respectively. I am a fan of both actors and very much enjoyed their grounded interpretation of these important roles. Costner has relatively little to play with, but there is a very memorable and poignant moment at the end of the tornado scene that will stay flash-frozen in my memory. Some of Clark Kent’s most ‘human’ moments came – not surprisingly – with his mother Martha Kent and these moments interspersed across the runtime of the film give it some much-needed breathing space. I think Russell Crowe, inclusive of his post-corporeal existence, eventually gets more screen time than Kevin Costner, but I don’t think there was really much chemistry in those scenes with his son (and why should there be, you may ask, when the son is talking to an image, projected by an Artificial Intelligence filtered through the consciousness of the father he never knew!).

Amy Adams is a pleasant surprise as Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was absolutely irritating in the Christopher Reeve films and Kate Bosworth didn’t even register in Superman Returns (2006). I was worried that Amy Adams would go the Margot Kidder way, as she eminently is capable of playing irritating and neurotic characters. But she was surprisingly ‘normal’ and sensible in this movie and I’m not sure if the credit for that goes to director Snyder or screenwriter David Goyer (neither of whom I would credit that degree of sensitivity) or to Amy Adams herself.

And so of course, we get to the 2nd half of the movie which features some seriously impressive action on a scale that we have perhaps never seen in a superhero movie – and by that, I include even Marvel’s The Avengers from last year. At some point, I found myself wondering how Superman could really claim to be protecting the Earth when he was partly responsible for all that destruction. Because of the almost total absence of humor, this will never be as beloved a superhero film as the Iron Man films or The Avengers. But, it is certainly an entertaining and suitably contemporary reincarnation of one of the most often-told stories in comic book lore. It won’t take long before Warner Bros. greenlights the sequel and while Henry Cavill will never be the equal of Christopher Reeve in this role, I think he will grow into it quite well if given the chance over the course of a sequel or three.

Marvel line-up: 2013-2015


With the announcement yesterday of Fantastic Four getting the reboot treatment from Fox Studios, we have now probably got the full line-up of Marvel films for the next 3 years:-

2013

Next year, the action begins in early May with Disney’s release of Iron Man 3, this time directed by powerhouse screenwriter Shane Black, who made his name in the 1980’s and early ‘90s writing the screenplays for the Lethal Weapon series. Of course, he lost his way a bit in the mid-90s with duds like Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but in 2005 he made a welcome return with the critically acclaimed crime caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That film also featured welcome returns by a couple of ‘washed out’ actors, namely Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. So, there was a sense of symmetry when it was announced that Mr. Black would be reunited with Mr. Downey Jr. in the 3rd solo adventure for the billionaire super-hero.

In July 2013, Fox extends its X-Men franchise with Hugh Jackman coming back after a 4-year gap to play the indestructible mutant Wolverine (not counting his cameo in X-Men: First Class last summer). Mr. Jackman soared to stardom 12 years ago playing Logan in the first X-Men movie, which can be considered as the launch pad for the vast and intricately linked Marvel movie universe of today. The new movie, titled The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold, who helmed the outstanding Sylvester Stallone crime drama Copland in 1997, helped Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon win Oscars for Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line respectively and directed the critically praised remake of 3:10 to Yuma in 2007. His only real misstep has been the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz ‘comedy’ Knight and Day and so he must be looking forward to getting back on to the critics’ love list with The Wolverine. Likewise, Jackman’s last outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine is considered a bit of a mess, so he’ll be keen to get it right this time around. Expectations are high among fanboys because the storyline is based on the famous 1982 comic series set in Japan.

It’s rare to see a Marvel release outside of the summer blockbuster season; next November will see another Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth reprise his role as the Norse god in Disney’s Thor: The Dark World, directed by Game of Thrones alumnus Alan Taylor. The choice of director clearly indicates that the story will stay primarily in the fantasy realm of the Nine Worlds. It will be interesting to see how this film fares commercially…no doubt Chris Hemsworth has a major fan following and the first Thor film collected nearly $200 million in the US, but Thor is the sort of character better suited to an ensemble piece like The Avengers and may have difficulty sustaining a solo career.

2014

Chris Evans gets things going early in with a spring release for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, also released by Disney. This is likely to be darker in tone that the first film, with the character of Bucky Barnes returning brainwashed as a Soviet assassin, code named Winter Soldier. Back in 1969, Marvel introduced the first ever African-American hero, The Falcon as a crime-fighting partner for Captain America and now we will get to see the superhero team-up featured on the big screen with Anthony Mackie playing the NYC-based birdman. I also see super-villain Crossbones listed in the movie credits, so one automatically thinks of the Civil War comic book storyline which features Crossbones assisting in the assassination of Captain America…I wonder if that’s how the movie is going to end. Of course, in the Marvel Universe, no one stays dead for very long and Cap will have to be back for the Avengers sequel.

A few weeks later, Andrew Garfield is back as Spider-Man with Marc Webb once again directing the sequel to this summer’s Sony Pictures reboot. This time around, it looks like we are going to have a love triangle with the introduction of Mary Jane Watson’s character to vie with Gwen Stacy for Peter Parker’s affections. The excitement peaked a few days ago with the announcement that Jamie Foxx will play super-villain Electro (as hinted in the post-credits sequence this summer) and Dane DeHaan selected to play Pete’s friend (and closet psychopath) Harry Osborn. DeHaan made quite a splash playing a super-powered psychopath in this year’s found-footage sleeper hit Chronicle and so I can see why the casting director has made this call, as Osborn eventually follows his father’s footsteps and becomes the Green Goblin.

Towards the end of the summer, we have a very exciting team-up arriving on the big screen with X-Men: Days of Future Past from Fox Studios. This is big for several reasons…Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films in 2000 and 2003, returns as director. This film is the sequel to X-Men: First Class (produced by Singer), which is one of the smartest and most fun films in the Marvel universe. Next year’s sequel features a powerhouse combo of the cast from the original X-Men movies (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) and the actors playing their younger selves from First Class (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). And last, but not least, the eponymous storyline is considered to be one of the most famous in X-Men comics canon, featuring time travel. I’m just hoping that audiences are not suffering from Marvel fatigue, with this being the 3rd Marvel film in as many months.

Two weeks later, Disney launches a new franchise in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a real wild card for Marvel and I myself have never read any of these comic books. It is difficult to picture how this film will fit into the Marvel cinematic universe; one of the links will be the villain Thanos, who appeared in the post-credits sequence to this summer’s The Avengers. But, other than that, the film is unlikely to connect with any of the other Marvel characters or even set on Earth. You see, the Guardians are a 5-member team which includes an anthropomorphic raccoon (named Rocket Raccoon) and a plant monster named Groot. You get the picture…this is starting look more and more like a CGI-heavy space-adventure film that will appeal primarily to kids.

2015

The marvelous fun in 2015 begins with the just-announced reboot of Fantastic Four. It would be ten years since the first Fox film hit the screens in what was a reasonably enjoyable origin story, in spite of its low budget and lack of spectacular effects. In fact, that was the film that made current Captain America actor Chris Evans famous, playing the brash smart-mouthed Human Torch. Now Fox has brought on board young director Josh Trank to helm the reboot and casting news is sure to follow in the next few months. Trank is a fantastic (pun intended!) choice since he directed the critically and commercially successful found-footage movie Chronicle earlier this year, which featured 3 college kids who gain super-powers and then struggle to deal with the physical and emotional changes.

In May, Disney will release The Avengers 2, the much anticipated follow-up to this summer’s megahit. The entire gang is back – director Joss Whedon and all the actors – and the villain will be Thanos, who comes from an evolutionary offshoot of humans called The Eternals. We are likely to see large scale action once again, similar to the attack on NYC featured in the climax of The Avengers. The trick will be to maintain the inter-character dynamics and light banter which made this year’s film such a breakout hit beyond the hard core fans.

Finally, we have yet another rare November release, with the introduction of the long-gestating Ant-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe. British director Edgar Wright rose to fame with the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and the cop comedy Hot Fuzz, so one wonders what the tone of Ant-Man will be. Mr. Wright has been working on this script for many years now, but it was only this year that the movie was officially announced, although casting has not yet been finalized. The script has been through several iterations and as I understand the latest version of the story will have both the original Ant-Man Dr. Henry Pym and his successor Scott Lang.

So that’s it; we can look forward to 10 films over the next 3 years. Broadly, the movies are now clustered at 3 studios –the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters are at Fox, Sony has the Spider-Man franchise and the Avengers characters are all at Disney, which owns Marvel. Plus, any new character that enters the big screen henceforth will be through Disney (Black Panther and Dr. Strange appear to be closest to making the jump). For the next 3 years, Joss Whedon is at Disney to ensure that the different Avengers universe films maintain internal consistency and continuity. All of this is overseen of course by Kevin Feige, the President of Production and Marvel Studios. Mark Millar, the award winning Scottish comic book writer has been hired by Fox to do a similar job over there with their movies…in fact, it will be interesting to see if Millar engineers any crossovers between the forthcoming X-Men and Fantastic Four films.

Overall, the Marvel universe is in a good place. Over at rival comic book owner DC Comics, they are trying to get their act together; their Batman franchise has ended, the Green Lantern movie was a disaster, but they are expecting a successful reboot of Superman next year with Man of Steel. The big question though is if they can put together a Justice League ensemble film and replicate the success of Marvel’s The Avengers. Current rumours suggest that DC and Warner Bros. are targeting a 2015 release date for just such a movie.

New Superman Logo for “Man of Steel” has just been released


Warner Bros. has just released the official new Superman logo for the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill (yes, a British actor fighting for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”) and releasing on June 14th, 2013.

Looks very organic.

On one hand, I don’t like all this tinkering around with established icons.

On the other hand, I find it very exciting and of course, it generates lots of buzz and interest among the fanboys.

The movie is directed by Zack Snyder, who ranks up there with Tarsem Singh as the most visually inventive Hollywood director today. You may not like his storytelling style, but you can’t ignore the eye-popping visuals of movies like 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch.

Check out the full press release and the logo visual here on the Darkhorizons website.