“Beyond the Clouds” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon 2

“Beyond the Clouds” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon 2

by Brian | Aug 17, 2014

When Dragon flew into theaters in early 2010, I had no clue what I was walking into opening weekend. As “luck” would have it, I’d seemingly missed seeing any trailers or TV spots. All I had was a 98% RT rating and I’d just finished listening to the score. I knew it had some nice big moments and themes, but since I was only paying half attention to it (because I was at work) all I could truthfully say to my friends was: “This film is either amazing, or a complete dud.” Of course not only was the film not a dud, I’d also say it’s arguably one of the best animated films of the last decade and certainly one of the best film scores ever written for the genre. Dragon not only broke the mold for DreamWorks’ normal fare of films, but it also proved that a great story with great characters, a huge heart and a timeless message about being yourself can (and does) steal the show. Now, four years later (or five years later film time), we catch up with Hiccup, Toothless and the rest of Berk, and likewise, we get to see if lightning can be bottled a second time, and spoiler: Yes, it can!

One of the things that Powell did so well with Dragon was something strange in Hollywood these days and that was to create large amounts of thematic elements, develop them, and execute and expand on them over the course of the score. Now, that is not to say that Hollywood these days is totally devoid of this kind of “sound,” but scores like the original Dragon are a rarity these days. So, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Dragon 2 not only energizes Powell’s original thematic material, it also keeps the Celtic influences abound and adds a wealth of complexity in their arrangements and performances. True to a good sequel score, Powell also expands his musical language for the score, adding a number of new thematic elements to give the score more emotional weight than just a “typical” sequel score. Simply put, this is not a simple “rehashing” of the original but stands strongly on its own two legs and then some.

The two first cues are a great reintroduction to the score and the world of Dragon. Beginning with “Dragon Racing,” this fast paced almost five minute cue kicks off the film’s score as we find the characters (with the exception of Hiccup and Toothless) racing their dragons around Berk while playing a game similar to Quidditch, only with not-very-amused sheep as the Quaffles. (There’s even a black sheep that doubles as a Golden Snitch like point grab.) The cue quickly reintroduces the audience to the main themes from the first film including bits from “This Is Berk,” “Test Drive,” and “Romantic Flight” to name a few. But they’ve been rearranged for a fast paced performance and the tempo is more frenetic. The cue combines the force of the orchestra with the choir to provide the overall power and feeling of the cue. “Together We Map The World” finds Hiccup and Toothless out on their many adventures. The cue is much slower than “Racing,” and references ever so lightly some of the new thematic underpinnings that we’ll hear expanded later on as well as the familiar “Forbidden Friendship” and a string based version of “Romantic Flight” which of course is the theme for Hiccup and Astrid. With these two cues setting up what we’ve heard and very light hints of what’s to come, Dragon 2 begins its journey.

One of the great things about the new material is that it’s crafted with such skill that it’s inserted effortlessly into the existing musical landscape. Two new themes that appear are what I’d call the “Family Theme” for Hiccup, his father Stoick, his newly found mother, Valka, and of course Toothless. The villain of the film, Drago Bludvist also gets his own brooding and brassy motif. The “Family Theme” first appears in low notes in “Together We Map The World,” but it’s there to serve as a general idea and only when Hiccup meets Valka does the theme begin to be fully realized throughout “Should I Know You?” and “Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary.” The theme fully blossoms in “Losing Mom / Meet The Good Alpha.” The cue carries with it the weight of the scene as Valka tells Hiccup her story. Powell makes grand use of the Metro Voices Choir for this cue too by putting them front and center for the key section of performance. Backed by a light string and bells performance, the choir performs the cue with an air of somber force as the scene comes to an end. The theme of course makes various appearances in the rest of the score including the singing of the song “For The Dancing and the Dreaming.” It’s then used to great effect in the later part of the score where the story is hitting its emotional stride and the stakes are high for everyone, especially Hiccup and Toothless in cues such as “Stoick’s Ship” and “Toothless Found.” Put another way, the “Family Theme” is one of the most flexible pieces of music in the score and that’s a credit not only to Powell’s writing, but the performance of the orchestra. They’re able to take his arrangements and play them with such raw emotion that at times the theme takes on a gut-wrenching tone that just goes along with the rest of the equally emotional music on the later part of the album.

“Meet Drago” introduces us fully to the villain character of the film. Low strings, drums, and brooding choral passages go a long way in telling you exactly who this character is. His theme is the darkest piece of music across both films. As it’s something we’ve never associated with the universe before, it’s easy to hear and identify that this character is not a happy one, and given his backstory, the music conveys that in spades.

There has been some criticism that this score lacks any highlights in the first half. While I’ll agree that it doesn’t have anything like “Forbidden Friendship” or “Test Drive” early on, I’d also argue that it’s not needed. Like the films, the scores can almost be played back to back to keep the height of emotion flying high and as such, big set pieces like that are not needed in my opinion. The majority of big emotional cues come at the later half of the score, which are appropriate when seeing how the score works within the context of the film.

As for that later part of the album, the final eight cues on the soundtrack that begin with “Battle Of The Bewilderbeast” are nothing short of an emotional powerhouse. All of the themes from both films make it into these cues as the film races towards its emotional finale with what could be described as a flawless performance from the orchestra. Just like the first film, the finale cues serve up some of the finest music on the album with soaring emotion all around. Of course Powell’s score is fantastic in the film, just sit back and listen to how Powell moves the music along. It’s a wonder because he does so with what seems like little effort. Now, of course that also comes down to how director Dean DeBlois is moving the story forward, but as you’ll be able to tell from the performance (masterfully recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Shawn Murphy) how special this type of film scoring is. It’s a great example of what can happen when a director and composer are in sync and that in the end serves the story.

For me, the raw emotion of the score comes out of my love for the characters, story, and film scores in general. There are a number of cues in the finale that got me misty while listening even before I saw them within the context of the film. Film music by its nature is not created to be an outside listening experience, but every now and then, you find a piece of music that does just that. It pulls at your heartstrings and you give into it. The final eight cues, including “Stoick Saves Hiccup,” “Stoick’s Ship,” “Toothless Found” and “Two New Alphas” are some of the finest music written this year. Period. Music like this reminds listeners why a film score is so important to any film, be that animated or live action.

The bottom line is that as of now, you will not find a finer score than Dragon 2 in 2014. A bold prediction I know as the year is already half over, but I think that once again, John Powell has risen to the task and delivered one of his finest. It would be nice if the Academy once again would recognize Powell’s work come awards season. But their ginned up rules regarding the subject of material previously used in a film are all well documented. That said, there could be hope! Howard Shore’s The Return of the King was nominated and won even though it contained material from his earlier Oscar winning The Fellowship of the Ring as well as The Two Towers, so, I’m optimistic!

That said, I’m ready for How To Train Your Dragon 3, a score that’s sure to roar louder and fly higher than all the rest.

Rating: 5/5
Favorite Tracks: All of them!
Special Thanks to: JJ Hinrichs and Matt DeTurck

“King’s Cross” – The Music of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part II”

“King’s Cross” - The Music of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II”

by Brian | Sep 28, 2011

It’s all come down to this, the finale of one of the most ambitious film projects ever produced. What David Haymen and his crew of talented collaborators have contributed to cinema is undeniable. I’m a bit sad to see Harry and his friends go, but in the end, they’ll always live on in Rowling’s books and the eight films that have been immortalized on celluloid.

When Alexandre Desplat took up the baton from Nicholas Hooper, he didn’t have big shoes to fill. In fact, the only shoes that needed filling were those of John Williams. Up until The Deathly Hallows, Williams’ score for The Prisoner of Azkaban had been the high point in terms of fantastic underscore coupled with heavy thematic ideas carried from the first two films. It was the score to beat. Desplat’s score for The Deathly Hallows – Part I was a breath of fresh air when stacked against Hooper’s contributions. Which again, were not horrible, just a little too freshman for a series such as this. The composer need to be more mature, and Desplat delivered that. While no thematic ideas was taken from the other six scores aside from the slight use of Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme,” Desplat did give the score that sense of growing up in a very big way and I was very excited to hear how he would close the series.

The score for Part II needed to be a lot of things: big, epic, and memorable. Both the film and score needed to be at their finest. I felt his work in Part I suggested that he had a plan and that it was simply the build up to something more grand and epic for Part II. What Desplat delivers is a beautiful final bookend. An understated and delicate score packed to the brim with emotion.

Interestingly, Desplat doesn’t carry over a lot of his ideas from Part I save for the motif heard in “Polyjuice Potion” and a very light reference to his “Oblivate” theme in “Harry’s Sacrifice.” A lot of the themes here are their own original work and really capture the essence of what’s on screen. Kicking off with the first cue, “Lilly’s Theme” glues the score together. This tender theme is performed on light strings with solo vocalist Mai Fujisawa completing the sound. The tragic cue serves a multifunctional backbone that ties in different cues throughout the score. Referencing Harry, Snape, and the tragic end of Lilly and James, this theme plays its role with gut wrenching precision. The theme appears again in altered orchestrations and performances in “Snape’s Demise,” “The Resurrection Stone” and finally rounding out “Voldermort’s End.”

Another of the standout new motifs is first heard in the “Statues” cue. Performed with driving strings, brass and drums, this action cue ramps up the excitement as the forces of Voldermort advance on Hogwarts. The theme is further expanded upon in the “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue and finally comes to a grand driving finale with Williams’ like driving strings and brass in “Showdown” and “Voldermort’s End.” It’s one of the best moments in the film. A lot of the action set pieces contain his newest material. Williams fans will appreciate Desplat’s orchestration in the action pieces. In fact, the score as a whole sounds a lot like a Williams’ score. Desplat has professed his admiration for the series original maestro and its themes. Orchestrating his two scores using that “William’s Sound” pays homage and carries a lot of weight for this score, and Part I as well.

Speaking of John WIlliams, Desplat is the only one to really capture that “Williams’ Sound” and also works “Hedwig’s Theme” in a lot. His writing in cues “The Tunnel,” “Underworld,” “Dragon Fight,” “Panic Inside Hogwarts,” and “Battlefield” to name a few, not only go from the action to the tender, but nail down a finality and homage to John Williams. It’s nice to hear bits and pieces the Williams’ Sound throughout the score, it gives it a strong forceful ending that I think fans will really enjoy. In terms of “Hedwig’s Theme” it pops up in numerous cues. Including two cues not heard on the CD where it is performed almost verbatim from The Sorcerer’s Stone.

The action cues for Part II are second to none some fantastic string and brass writing. A lot of these cues hit in the top and middle of the score, while the end is more of the softer moments with the exception of a few towards the end. If you take “Sky Battle” from as a frame of reference, he only escalates that style of writing. Lots of frenetic strings brass and woodwinds. A few cues in the beginning play as one big set piece. From “The Tunnel” to “Dragon Flight,” Desplat is at his best. Using all the talents of the LSO to create a powerful set of cues that are a throwback to good old fashioned action writing. He even works in Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” to grand and mature effect. The two finale cues, “Showdown” and “Voldermort’s End” bring the score to a powerful and epic close. Finally, Neville gets a theme with a heroic beat in “Neville The Hero.” The unsung hero finally his own theme, complete with slow building strings and brass from the get go, the theme evolves into a grand performance with heavy brass and light choral backing.

The score has its share of heart string cues too. These cues are sprinkled throughout the score and offer some balance to the onscreen action with “Lilly’s Theme” gluing them all together in some form. Her haunting melody symbolizes that love transcends all boundaries, even death. As the story begins to finally close, we learn a great more back story between James, Lilly, Snape, Harry, Dumbeldore and the roles that everyone played in the grand scheme of this story. Cues like “Lilly’s Theme,” “A New Headmaster,” “Snape’s Demise,” “Servus and Lilly,” “Harry’s Sacrifice,” “The Resurrection Stone,” Harry Surrenders,” and “Possession” all offer light expressions from brass, strings, woodwinds, chimes and choir. While the emotion of the cues run deep, the orchestral expression conveys a sense of great sadness. The players play with great sensibility and that transitions through the music and makes what’s on screen that more powerful.

In the end, The Deathly Hallows – Part II delivers something really wonderful. The music, while very Williams’ like is able to cast it’s own spell on the listener and transport them emotionally to the final battle at Hogwarts. As much as I have yearned for some type of thematic cohesion for years, one never came, but in the end, it was not needed for these final films. That’s because the series finally got a composer who was talented enough to deliver music on a deeper level. And in all honesty, that’s what the series needed for the later films. While Williams’ themes are fantastic in their own right, they worked for the early films, but I think even if Williams has stayed on, his music for the later end would have been much different. Like John Williams and Patrick Doyle, Alexandre Desplat gave the series what it deserved. In this case, a grand and emotional send off that reflected the story and its characters. Exactly what this kind of score should do!

Rating: 4.5 / 5
Favorite Cues: 1, 9, 15 and 23

Brian Costa is a contributor to MovieMusic.com and is a Ravenclaw. Special Thanks to JJ Hinrichs and Alex Bornstein.

“Magic Is Might” – The Music of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

"Magic Is Might" - The Music of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

by Brian | Nov 23, 2010

Here we are at the final act of this seven part epic. The stakes have never been higher: the greatest wizard of a generation, Albus Dumbledore, has been killed and the Death Eaters control Hogwarts. Wizards and witches that will not bend to Voldermort’s will are on the run. The Ministry of Magic has fallen and – pure blood or not – any act of defiance will be your last. No one is safe. Thus is the stage for The Deathly Hallows. This is a story about family, loss, forgiveness, fear, hate, redemption and above all, the power of love and friendship. The themes explored in the book are as old as time itself, all turning toward a conclusion that frankly, is epic.

It has been no secret that my opinion on Hooper’s last two scores have been less then enthusiastic. As such, my expectations for The Deathly Hallows were high. This is a series that demands a musical identity, on screen activity be damned, and we needed more then just “Hedwig’s Theme” and the first three Williams scores. When I heard that Alexandre Desplat was signed to score Part I, I was excited about it. While not being all that exposed to his music, I had heard and was generally a fan of some of his newer American films including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and surprisingly, New Moon. I felt surely if anyone would bring this series back to the type of thematic cohesion that Williams had started, Desplat could.

I equate this score to what Doyle delivered for Goblet of Fire, sans the strong thematic content. While Desplat might not give the film the thematic cohesion they have been missing, he does indeed give the film something the last two lacked. This is a score worthy of the growing up that Harry, Ron and Hermione have done over the past seven years. This score runs the gambit over its 73 minutes: from the tragic and somber, to the heights of orchestral glory, all the way to the depths of atmosphere and texture. Desplat has laid some interesting ground work here, and I hope he delivers on the lack of large thematic set pieces in Part II.

Beginning with “Oblivate,” and “Snape To Malfoy Manor,” Desplat quickly distances himself from the other films by kicking the film off with some very strong string and woodwind ensemble pieces. The film kicks off as if in mid thought with a lot of things happening at once. Desplat uses a driving (primarily string) motif heard throughout the first two cues in the film, quickly establishing it’s not business as usual. While slightly off putting, the music, juxtaposed with the film, is undeniably masterful. The strings propel the motifs along and carry the film at a brisk pace from the first montage sequence to Snape’s arrival at Malfoy Manor.

The score is dotted with heart-tugging motifs, and they all sound like the beginning of bigger ideas that hopefully will play out in Part II. “Polyjuice Potion” is really the only piece in the score that has a tone of happiness and flourishes of string “magic” throughout the score. Performed mostly by strings, woodwinds and light choir, the music hearkens back to a simpler time in the characters lives. The music is a reminder of how far these characters have come and some of the darker aspects of the cue unconscionably inform us of where they’re going. “Hedwig’s Theme” comes in at the end of the cue; It’s performed by a light celesta and feels like a distant memory. “At The Borrow” and “Harry and Ginny” touch on a few of the more gentle emotional moments of the score. Again, lots of strings here, and some light choral conveying the sense of loss and tragedy. Desplat hints at a new motif for Harry and Ginny in their self titled cue. Again, strings and now piano create the cue. The motif is really beautiful and hopefully he’ll flesh it out in Part II.

“Ron Leaves” is a very poignant cue. For the first time, the trio is two. The string and light choral backing gives the cue a weight and the great sense of sadness. “Godric’s Hollow Graveyard” is one of my favorites on the CD. A light piano starts the cue, and then Desplat descends into strings and again, light piano. The cue then goes further and creates a motif for Harry’s parents. The cues end with an ominous tone as Harry and Hermione find that they are being followed. In “Farewell to Dobby,” Desplat delivers the most emotional cue of the score. Performed by light woodwinds and a light string backing, this cue does more then jerk a few tears loose. The cue embodies the soul of Dobby. The motif is light and small, but will of its own inner strength propels it along. It’s my favorite cue on the disc.

In terms of action set pieces, they are few and far between. “Sky Battle,” “Fireplace Escape,” and “Rescuing Hermione” are the big ones that stand out. “Sky Battle” fires up with some slow building strings and light brass, and then just takes off. The sheer size of the orchestra can be heard in this cue. With some great string and brass writing, the use of “Hedwig’s Theme,” and a new motif for Voldermort, this cue is a highlight of the album. I also think it offers a glimpse into what Desplat might do for the action set pieces in Part II. In “Fireplace Escape,” much of the action occupies the later part of the cue. Again with the strings, and even more for the brass to do, Desplat creates high tension and action as the trio runs from the Ministry. Finally, with “Rescuing Hermione,” frenetic strings kick this cue into high gear; The orchestra is quickly restrained to a light string performance and then right back again into the string style of “Sky Battle.” The cue has a few soft moments before giving us crescendo ending. The final cue on the disc, “The Elder Wand,” is a slow building cue that quickly establishes not only the end of the film, but that bigger things are coming for Part II. The cue hits the ground running and builds with strings and brass to a grand crescendo. Desplat wraps up his score with a perfect finale cliffhanger. The performance of the music is second to none. At 105 players, the London Symphony sounds fantastic. Orchestrator Conrad Pope and his team, Nan Schwartz, Clifford Tasner, Jean-Pascal Beintus, and of course Desplat himself, knock the ball out of the park and with score mixers and recorders Peter Cobbin and Sam Okell in terms of the depth of sonic beauty. This is how an orchestra should sound.

This score has a different sound then it did when I first listened. Context is absolutely required to appreciate this score. I really wanted to give this one a higher rating, but looking at other scores in the series, and the lack of any strong thematic cohesion, 3.5 is what I feel it earns, even within the context of the film. As I said earlier, this is a score worthy of the growing up that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have done over the past seven years. It is smarter and more grown up like them – and the films and music must reflect that, however, it’s missing that over arching thematic cohesion that the score (and series) desperately need, and that’s what keeps it from greatness. Personally, I’m quite anxious to hear how Desplat ends the series. Part II has some very big moments, and I think he’ll deliver.

Like Avatar last year, I hear the score in a whole new way after seeing the picture. It also helps that the film is absolutely solid in terms of the filmmaking aspects. This truly is the best Harry Potter film yet, and with Part II simply being the other half, I think when it’s all said and done, The Deathly Hallows will reign supreme as the best film of the series.

I’m off to Hogwarts to help them prep for what’s coming.

Rating: 3.5/5
Favorite Track: 25

Special Thanks to Stephen Weber, JJ Hinrichs, and Alex Bornstein.

“You Just Gestured To All Of Me!” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon

“You Just Gestured To All Of Me!” – The Music of How To Train Your Dragon

by Brian | Jul 16, 2010

It’s rare that I don’t know anything about upcoming movies (I’m not kidding; you should see my Google Reader!) but for some reason, How To Train Your Dragon had fallen off my radar. Probably because it was from DreamWorks, and I’d kind of written them off as the “Pop Culture Fizzle Animation Studio.” I went to see Dragon on a whim its opening weekend. I had not seen a trailer, TV spot or anything. In fact, hearing John Powell’s score is what made me want to see it in the first place. It had perked my ears. A score with this much thematic wealth and character? This movie is either really bad or maybe, just maybe, DWA had finally gone back to their roots and done something awesome. Of course, had I known that it was helmed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who brought us the lovable Lilo and Stich, and produced by Bonnie Arnold who brought us Tarzan and of course the original Toy Story, I would have been signing a different tune. This trio is from Disney. These guys know a good story. Period.

To say I was floored by Dragon is an understatement. When it was over, I just wanted to watch it again (and I didn’t feel that way with Avatar!) I wanted to take it home with me. Here was DreamWorks’ first masterpiece in a very, very long time. There’s not an aspect about it I don’t like, or the message it delivers: “Be the change you want to be, and be your own person.” This was the film that was going to give Toy Story 3 a run for its money.

There was a time when I wasn’t a John Powell fan. The score that did it was X3, and I’ve been hooked ever sense. I got the soundtrack back in March, and it’s never stopped playing. I still listen to it more then a few times a week. Yes, it really is that fantastic. The amount of development this score has is a throwback to the classic film scores of old, lots of sweeping and bombastic action, tender moments and great multiple memorable themes. I think Powell does some of his best work for animated films, and with Dragon, I think he’s composed his best animation score to date.

Four themes drive the score. Three of them come into play with the first cue, “This Is Berk.” The first, which I call “Hiccup’s Theme,” is a soaring heroic theme that appears throughout the score with different orchestrations and instrumentation. It’s the first thing you hear in the film. It’s performed with low brass over the DreamWorks logo. The theme is touched upon throughout the first half of the score and finally coming to full orchestral might in “Test Drive.” It’s a big theme that captures Hiccup’s idealism and bravery and as such; it’s weaved in throughout the fabric of the score as a whole.In cues like “Test Drive” and “Coming Back Around,” Powell takes the theme to new heights as he brings the orchestra firing on all cylinders for a grand performance.In other parts of the score, the theme is tender, as in the later half of “Where’s Hiccup?” It really is the life blood of the score and it glues all the other themes together.

The second theme that we hear in “This Is Berk” is what I guess I’d call “Hiccup’s B Theme.” It’s a big bombastic brassy theme that is derived from Hiccup’s original theme. It’s usually played with a very frenetic pace and, like “Hiccup’s Theme,” appears as another major thematic idea throughout the score. While established in “This Is Berk,” this theme doesn’t see much full throttle action until “New Tail,” “See You Tomorrow” (where it blends with another theme for Hiccup and Toothless), “This Time For Sure,” and finally “Astrid Goes For A Spin.”

The third theme is a much slower romantic theme for Hiccup and Astrid. It’s also derived from “Hiccup’s Theme”, but used to great effect in some of the slower sequences in the film. We hear it first in “This Is Berk”, about half way in with a huge orchestral performance. It also comes into play at the opening of “The Kill Ring”, with some low brass instruments and light chimes, and another big orchestral performance in “Coming Back Around.” The highlight of the theme is “Romantic Flight.” Performed with light chorus performances with some strings and brass, Powell tugs at the heart strings on this one and delivers a beautiful performance.

The fourth theme, and it doesn’t appear very much but I love it anyway, is the theme for Hiccup and Toothless. It only appears in a few cues, “Forbidden Friendship”, “See You Tomorrow”, and “Battling The Green Death”. Powell beginsthis one early on in “Forbidden Friendship”. A note here and there on strings, light drums, percussion and a restrained xylophone. The theme builds from the first few notes of the cue and takes the whole four minutes to grow and develop. Along the way, Powell brings in the full weight of the orchestra and choir for a big finish. In “See You Tomorrow”, Powell takes the theme further and brings in some celtic instrumentation, using some pipes and woodwinds. We might only hear this theme a few times in the score, but it’s the friendship knot between the two. Toothless is not just a family pet, he’s become Hiccup’s best friend.

Powell comes to the table with some excellent action music too. The last few cues not only score the big battle at Dragon’s Den with some heavy action music for choir and orchestra, but also make great use of the character themes that have been developing throughout the score. Between “Battling The Green Death” and “Counter Attack”, Powell delivers some of his best action music since X3. A lot of the themes we’ve been hearing morph into the heavy hitting action music used in these final cues. Some of the more ominous textures heard in “Dragon Training” and “The Dragon Book” come into play here as more developed thoughts for the dragons. But for me, the real treat of this section of music is the end of “Battling The Green Death”. Here Powell brings Hiccup’s Theme into play as his father, Stoick, not only saves Toothless from drowning, but in the middle of the action, Powell brings Hiccup’s Theme in for a break in the action and creates a tender moment for father and son. The music offers a lot of underlying emotion between the two of them and adds to the dialogue – but on a deeper level. The music picks up again as Hiccup mounts Toothless and shoots towards the sky to save his tribe. You can almost hear Jay Baruchel (who voices Hiccup) yell “C’mon on bud!” to Toothless towards the end of the cue. The momentum continues into “Counter Attack”. Here, more of the ominous music that symbolizes the Evil Dragon, comes back with some big choir moments. Then, at the finale, we hear Hiccup and Toothless’ Themes again before the cue ends with a lone, somber choral performance.

The finale cues, “Where’s Hiccup?” and “Coming Back Around”, still get me every time – even after five months. They wrap up the score as only great films can do. As much as I love Hiccup’s Theme in “Test Drive”, the piano performance at the end of “Where’s Hiccup?” and the big finale of “Coming Back Around” I think seal the deal for this score. If you don’t have a huge smile, want to yell out a huge “Whoopee!”, and maybe a shed a tear all at once for these cues, then I think you’re crazy.

I can count on one hand – OK, maybe two and some toes – how many films I’ve gone back to see multiple times in the theatre and loved this much. I’m happy to say that Dragon is one of those rare films that not only brought DreamWorks Animation back to the field of great animation filmmaking, but also gave us something really timeless in terms of story, character, message, and music. With Shrek ending, it looks like Dragon will become another franchise for the studio. I can’t wait to join Hiccup and Toothless on their new adventures, and, of course, I hope that Powell comes back to score them.

With the year half over, Powell’s Dragon rules the skies, and, right now, it’s one of the best scores of 2010 – if not the best.

Rating: 5/5
Favorite Tracks: All of them!

Special thanks to Stephen Weber and John “JJ” Hinrichs.

“12 Years Later…” – The Music of Avatar

“12 Years Later…” – The Music of Avatar

by Brian | Jan 2, 2010

I saw my first James Cameron film when I was 10. It was T2. Like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron’s films have always had an impact on me and I’m always excited for a new one. If you asked my high school friends (and teachers) how much of a Titanic nut I was, they’d simply laugh and shake their head at you. Loving that film has never been an issue for me, and say what you will about it, the level of filmmaking mastery can’t be disputed in my opinion. Seeing it opening day with my friend Jason was one of those life moments that I’ll never forget. It was that film that cemented film editing as something I wanted to do.

So here we are, 12 years later, with Cameron finally back from his underwater documentary adventures to the feature film arena. With a rumored budget of over $300 million (varied reports place it at $400 with marketing costs, and it’s already made that back and then some) Cameron’s SciFi epic, “Avatar” promises to change the way we “see” films forever. To create this living and breathing world, Cameron brings newly developed technologies to the table, even creating some himself. Shot with the stereoscopic Pace/Cameron Fusion 3D camera system, and combining it with motion capture and photo realistic visual effects from the masters at WETA, Avatar paints a vidid jaw dropping picture of the living alien world, Pandora. Avatar is one of the most beautifully rendered films ever put on screen and it takes George Lucas’ idea of a “digital backlot” and elevates it to levels beyond anything we’ve seen or dreamed of.

Given his Oscar wins on Titanic, it was no surprise that Cameron asked James Horner to take this journey with him. Horner’s been MIA this past year and a half and returns to the screen with probably his most solid effort in the last decade.

The score opens with the ambient haunting sounds of “You Don’t Dream In Cryo.” Plenty of soundscape scoring here with very minimal use of a bold orchestra. Opening with tribal elements and drums, the cue slowly builds. Horner’s infamous “4 Note Danger Motif” makes a few appearances throughout the cue. Solo vocals mixed in with ethnic instrumentation glide in and out of the musical structure. There’s plenty of musical ambiguity here.

“Jake Enters His Avatar World” is a musical blueprint for a lot of what we’ll hear later, only very simplified. Using more tribal and ethic elements (mainly woodwinds) with some heavy breathing performances, Horner weaves these as a cushion before we first hear the main theme, which is largely string and brass based. It’s very whimsical, almost care free in tone, but it will be expanded and build upon throughout the score.

The next series of cues really go all out with the tribal and ethic instrumentation. “Pure Spirits Of The Forest” is largely woodwinds with some orchestral underpinnings. The main theme makes an appearence, but it’s only hinted at, a few notes here and there with various instruments and your brain connects the dots. Some light synth work hits around the middle of the cue while playing the main theme before giving way to the cold sound that was touched upon in the “Cryo” cue. Here Horner’s use of darker orchestral colors and atmosphere creates the sound for the humans in the film. The cue ends with sparse performances of a deep tribal vocal. With “Bioluminescence Of The Night,” Horner brings a softer performance of the main theme with the woodwinds again. As the title of the cue suggests, he uses chimes mixed with some light use of choral, ethnic instruments and the main theme make up a theme for the Pandorian night. The main title shifts into a grander dramatic performance for “Becoming One Of “The People” / Becoming One With Neytiri”. It morphs into a more tender love theme performance as Jake and Neytiri share a kiss (and then some) in the later half of the cue, which rounds out with another tender performance of the main theme. “Jake’s First Flight” really gives a grand performance of the main theme. Using the same instrumentation as the last few cues, Horner lets the orchestra have a go and really delivers a nice performance.

Most of the cues up to “Scorched Earth” are all using the same orchestral palette. You could call it the “Na’vi” sound. But when the listener arrives here, a larger, more traditional presence begins to clash with the Na’vi, that only means one thing…bigger things are coming. In the first part of the score, Horner shows great restraint and only now begins to loosen his grip before the final section. “Scorched Earth” and “Quaritch” set up a lot of the brass driven military thematic development. Of course what we get is reflective of the on screen action. But the “clashing” of these two musical ideas presents the listener with a much more interesting and layered orchestral palette then we’ve heard from Horner in a long while. As these two themes battle it out in the soundscape, Horner brings in the main theme once again with dramatic weight and sorrow. As we continue to “Destruction Of Hometree,” Horner expands greatly on what we heard in the two previous cues. Taking bits of development from each cue and fleshing them out, Horner makes you truly hear and feel the sadness for the Na’vi in this tragic cue. He employs the use of a large choir, a shakuhachi (from Willow and Legends of the Fall) and finally, his “4 Note Danger Motif” returns to end the cue on a sad note that is expanded upon further with a solo choral performance in “Shutting Down Grace’s Lab.”

The last two cues are worth the price of the CD, even if some of the representation here is less then fantastic. “Gathering the Na’vi Clans For Battle” and “War” are some of the best writing (if not the best) Horner’s done in the past ten years. For these cues, Horner pulls out all the stops on what he’s been building for the past 11 cues and hits it out of the park. Everything comes into play here, Horner leaves no orchestral stone unturned and layers the themes and orchestrations in such a way that leaves the listener in awe. Hearing these cues without seeing it in the film is a crime and there’s no way you’re going to get the full effect unless you hear every note (and that includes all the music they left off during and after the “War” sequence, the awesome end credits suite included).

I think ultimately what Horner delivers in the final film is nothing short of amazing. He really has worked the past year and a half and you can hear it. This score in complete form (as seen in the film) is one of Horner’s best, especially the last hour of the film. It’s awesome. But here on the CD, much of that grand effect is lost. It’s not a music issue, it’s a time issue. This is a score that deserves another CD. I’d even say more than just a second CD, a complete redo and release like The Lord Of The Rings. Rating this disc as a whole was difficult. The score as a complete whole is nothing less then 5.0 across the board. But the presentation on the CD really leaves a lot to be desired, and I think a 3.5 would be appropriate. Given both ratings, I think a 4.0 is a good average.

A lot of my enthusiasm for this score comes from seeing it with the film. Horner’s Avatar is a score that must be seen and heard first and listened to after.

Rating: 4/5 (3.5 CD / 5.0 Film)
Favorite Tracks: 12 and 13

“It’s Been Educational.” – The Music of Back To The Future

"It's Been Educational." - The Music of Back To The Future

by Brian | Dec 9, 2009

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a very early Sunday morning during the late ’80s, and I, not knowing any better, was actually awake and looking for some cartoons to watch. But of course, what kind of good cartoons were on Sunday mornings in those days? None. Instead, I found a rented VHS from the night before. I popped Back To The Future in the player and the logos rolled on.

For two hours I sat, totally absorbed. Everything from the story, characters, effects just bolted me to the floor. But in the end, it wasn’t any of those that got to me the way Alan Silvestri’s score did. It’s been about 23 years, and here I sit, writing this. And for me, it’s kind of awesome to finally be writing about the score that got me into this whole film score world in the first place and I know I’m not alone on this one.

It’s been no secret that we film score enthusiasts have wanted Silvestri’s masterpiece ever since the film came out and, even today, it’s a mystery why no score album was released given the popularity of the film and its $380 million worldwide gross (that was a big deal back then). The MCA soundtrack which features various songs from the film and two cues by Silvestri is still a decent seller today. But now, 24 years from it’s theatricalrun (and many bootlegs later), the team at Intrada Records has delivered what I’d imagine is the most requested title in recent history. Period.

BTTF is a classic film score in every tradition possible. It’s a massive orchestral powerhouse, around 98 players (one of the biggest orchestras assembled at the time) and listening to it, sounds so rich, full and big when compared to scores today. The complete score is surprisingly short compared to the other two films. “Future” clocks in around 50 minutes long (including the two source cues), yet listening to it and seeing it with the film, you’d swear it was longer. That’s the beauty of something this good, it doesn’t need to be insanely long to get the musical ideas across to the viewer/listener or to have the appropriate impact. (“Wall-to-Wall” scores that try too hard, I’m lookin’ at you.) The score as a whole is all built around a very small amount of material that is orchestrated in different ways, various tempo changes, and a series of very complex orchestra writing techniques that make for the perfect combination of notes and motifs that are able to be expanded to fill the soundscape of the Hill Valley night at the end of the film, or the tiniest orchestral “blink” of an eye as heard when Doc blinks his eye after he’s been shot. While none of this is new in crafting a film score by any stretch of the imagination, Silvestri is a master at using it to the effect that we hear in this film. Pure and simple, Silvestri’s totally in his element with this score.

You don’t even hear a note till about 20 minutes into the film, during the “DeLorean Reveal” scene. The “Main Theme” that everyone associates with the film doesn’t actually appear all that much in its full blooded form, but it does make plenty of little appearances throughout the score. The first time we hear it is when Marty goes back to 1955. It’s large, big, brassy and makes great use of the orchestra, not something you generally hear these days. But before we hear it, Silvestri lays some ground work. The score uses the first few cues to build the orchestral language that will make up the rest of the film, themes included for Doc and Marty. These early cues are giving the listener some hints before totally unleashing the orchestral onslaught at the end of “’85 Twin Pines Mall” that basically kicks the score out of the gate. The big performances are, of course, saved for the film’s bigger moments, including “Skateboard Chase” and the finale of the film. With “It’s Been Educational – Clocktower,” Silvestri brings his theme to new heights with tons of extra and large brass and string writing to compliment its expansion. (I’m not kidding, crank the cue up on a good sound system so you can hear what the orchestra is actually doing. There’s tons of stuff going on, it’s awesome!) All of these elements create the makeup for one great final cue. Fans that have seen the film, know this sequence well, and the various bootlegs have done what they could to preserve it, but hearing it now in this properly mastered state is just great. You can feel the weight of the orchestra as they play and it’s a constant ride till the end of the almost 11 minute cue. Crank it and let the neighbors hear it!

The softer, more intimate theme is first heard in “Lorraine’s Bedroom.” Silvestri brings this theme up when Marty or a reference to his family are mentioned. It’s very tender, and very much an off shoot of the “Main Theme.” It’s performed with some light woodwind, chimes and strings, or alternately, some light brass as in “Marty’s Letter,” and finality quality, in “4×4.” This same “theme logic” can be applied to Doc. In “Einstein Disintegrated,” Silvestri uses offshoots of the “Main Theme” to create a series of frenetic brass and string writing to symbolize Doc’s character.

Some of the darker brooding brass and string elements that come into play throughout the score echo what Silvestri would later develop into his darker score for BTTF 2 and Predator. We first hear these elements in the first half of “Peabody Barn.” These string and brass elements signify a “danger” type of sound with the orchestra. It’s not really a common theme per say, but it happens later in the score with a different motif and orchestration. Cues like “George To The Rescue Pt. 1” and elements of it are integrated into the “Clocktower” portion of the finale cue. Lots of strings, playing a mile a minute.

Speaking of the darker aspects of the score, another treat with this release is on the second disc. Here we are given early alternate versions of cues and it paints a very different picture of what this score was going to be when scoring began in early May of ’85. Some of the cues are similar, while others are very different from the final film editions. Some examples, the film version of “Peabody Farm” uses less of the dark brooding music in favor of some light theme usage and some light piano work before jumping to the theme towards the middle of the cue where Marty drives off the farm. In the alternate version, Silvestri uses more orchestral brass clashes mixed with some brooding string music. The “Main Theme” makes a quick appearance, then is ditched for more brass clashes. In the original “Skateboard Chase,” the cue does a slight build of thematic material, then right into the “Main Theme” (and variances) for the vast majority of the cue at a somewhat fast tempo, also completing the cue in that manner. With its alternate, it begins with more brass clashes and some orchestral dissonance at the beginning before going into the theme, yet the theme is slightly slower in its performance. That slowness is a slight distraction when compared to the other performances of the theme. The end of the cue also goes off into more brass hits without ending on the triumphant moment. The alternate reminds me of the much slower cue on Varese’s “Trilogy” CD. (In fact, these alternates might explain that CD as a whole.) “George To The Rescue” is a totally different cue between the two discs. The film version finds it much shorter with a source cue separating it, while the alternate is much longer and uses huge brass performances then the final version, not to mention tossing in some elements from the “Clocktower” cue. I don’t want to give all the surprises away, “Clocktower” included, but needless to say the second disc is a treat all it’s own. It really shows the growth of this score and how the tone of a film can change by moving some notes around, changing the tempo, or using brass dissonance versus hits of the main theme notes. A lot of the darker aspects found with these early sessions made their way to “BTTF 2” for which they are totally appropriate. I wonder, if the score had gone this way, would it be the hallmark score we know and love today? I doubt it, and we have Steven Spielberg to thank for it. According to Intrada’s liners (by Michael Matessino) during the early May sessions, Spielberg was reported to love the main theme so much, he felt there should be more of it in the final film. As such, more scoring days were scheduled, giving us the score we have today.

I think in the end, Back To The Future really does take us back in time. The ‘80s were a decade of some amazing score writing that influenced much of the work that was done over the past 24 years. Bottom line, buy this CD. It’s the biggest no brainer of the year, maybe even the decade. If you don’t, well, you might be paid a visit from Darth Vader from the Planet Vulcan! In that case, do what he says. Your future might depend on it!

A big thanks to Doug, Roger, Michael, Jeff, George, Mark, and Joe at Intrada for their fine work on this, and every project they do.

Rating: 5/5
Favorite Track 19