by Jason Comerford
Putdowns aside, the summer film score crop has been every bit as disappointing as the films in which they're featured. There used to be a time when we could halfway expect that the composers could at least come up with something listenable to bolster the mediocre films for which they were written. I guess that movies have gotten so bad that even the composers are demoralized as well.
The summer's biggest initial draw, Steven Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park, was but a blueprint for the lack of creative output that was to follow it. The film, a muddled, heartless mess combining astonishing special effects with an equally astonishing lack of empathy, opened big, as any film featuring big CGI beasties would, but word of mouth inevitably set in, leading to fast diminishing ticket sales. The Lost World was every bit as bad as the effects-laden, dramatic-lite time-wasters that have flooded the cinema market ever since the evolution of digital technology; it's an exercise in craftsmanship and commercialization instead of story and reason. John Williams' pounding score, though certainly listenable, features plenty of Predator 2-esque ethnic percussion and a nicely portent-oozing new main theme, but like the film, none of it makes much sense; it just bangs away at you with little variation in the orchestration, and absolutely no letup. Where is the (suitable) grandiosity of the first score, the low-key suspense passages ("Dennis Steals the Embryo"), the thrilling climaxes ("T-Rex Rescue and Finale")? Certainly not here. Williams has fallen prey to commercialization almost as hard as his longtime boss and creative collaborator; it's flash over substance.
The biggest of the summer blockbusters are a mixed bag, music-wise.Men in Black, the delightful science-fiction comedy from Barry Sonnenfeld, boasts the first collaboration between Sonnenfeld and Danny Elfman, and it's a treat to see their styles complement each other, idiosyncrasies and all. Elfman adopts a groovy Peter Gunn-esque bass line and a toe-tapping theme that Elfman uses to typically quirky effect throughout the film. Elfman certainly isn't breaking any new ground with MIB, but compared with the rest of the summer fare it's practically genius.
By far the most offensively bad is Face/Off, an otherwise spectacular John Woo actionfest that mixes mayhem with fascinating psychological layering. The lead performances of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage mix as brilliantly as the several action set pieces director Woo throws in for good measure. It seems that Woo, a former ballet instructor and movie-musical buff, doesn't realize the power of a good score that can match the undertones of his film. Face/Off's score was composed by Zimmer underling John Powell, who a) doesn't have a particularly bright future ahead of him, and/or b) needs to work with a director who understands musical needs a trifle better. The film's story (FBI agent Travolta is forced to literally wear the face of heinous terrorist Cage, who turns around and starts wearing Travolta's) could benefit strongly from a good leitmotific structure; even the use of two primary themes with innovative orchestrations weaving them in and out with each other would have worked extremely well. Powell, instead, just ops for another Team Zimmer hack job that sounds just like any number of similar scores from the past several years: Con-Air, The Rock, Broken Arrow, Crimson Tide, Backdraft, etc. The really disturbing thing about Zimmer and his cronies is not the alarming repetitiveness of his scores; rather, it's the high, repeated demand for them! Powell doesn't add any interesting effects outside of a quasi-religious main title theme; other than that, it's business as usual, synth percussion pounding at you relentlessly with no letup and no variation.
Other than Jerry Goldsmith's Air Force One, the summer was otherwise devoid of interesting scores. AFO was yet another notorious last-minute rush job from the Grand Maestro, replacing Randy Newman at the 11th hour with additional help from Joel McNeely (who's actually getting paid to rip off Goldsmith this time around). What's interesting about AFO is Goldsmith's majestic main theme; ever since Star Trek: First Contact, Goldsmith has been writing sweepingly melodic title themes that balance unevenly with his trademark ferocious action material. AFO has some of the best Goldsmith action passages since Total Recall; the film (an uneven but nonetheless entertaining airborne-nightmare flick) has its best sequence early on, the hijacking, and Goldsmith unleashes the best material he's written in years: chest-thumping, sweat-inducing action music that makes an already spectacular sequence one of the better action setpieces committed to film in years. However, it's the sweepingly "patriotic" main theme that presents problems. Jeff Bond aptly noted that with the genesis of Goldsmith's newly enriched melodic writing, his main themes tend to conflict with his more muscular action material, resulting in the uneven balance between psychotic action passages and near-cathartic main thematics. However, it's one of the better efforts of the Goldsmith oeuvre of the past few years (after a string of disappointing scores), and the 35-minute Varese score album for my money is an excellent representation of the score, those damnable AFM re-use fees notwithstanding.
The rest of the summer was simply pathetic, full of genuinely bad scores with perhaps one a month peeking through the sludge. The insulting Face/Off was one; Carter Burwell's just-plain-strange score to the muddled disappointment Conspiracy Theory was another. Instead of taking off in another interesting Fear-ish direction, Burwell instead relied on howlingly anachronistic jazz riffs for main thematics, and bonkers percussion for the film's major action setpieces. I giveConspiracy Theory credit for the most part avoiding conventionalities, and Burwell's score follows suit, but even unconventional thrillers have to make sense. Instead of trying to add a little coherency to the film, Burwell's score merely echoes its murkiness.
Contact featured Alan Silvestri doing another retread on Forrest Gump territory. Gump, no groundbreaker for film music but one of the better Silvestri efforts, still remains a Rudy clone: you can dress up a lemon, but it still remains a lemon. Silvestri, as always, writes nice themes but his themes, along with his action material, all suffers from the same disheartening cookie-cutter approach. And, true to the recurring trend this summer, the film was a major disappointment considering the talent involved. Silvestri is on autopilot in Contact, and so is everyone else.
Late summer offered a few minor bright spots: Howard Shore's Cop Land and Marco Beltrami's Mimic. After a summer of toothless comedy-drama scores like James Newton Howard's My Best Friendís Wedding, Carter Burwell's Picture Perfect, and Marc Shaiman's George of the Jungle, Shore's Se7en-esque return to psychological drama was something of a breath of fresh air, even though he didn't break much new ground (if any at all). Cop Land mostly consists of a collection of Se7en/Crash-like orch/synth mood cues, the type that gnaw away at your defenses while the film works on your emotions. Cop Land, the well-performed James Mangold ensemble drama, is an uneven piece of filmmaking, and Shore's music at least tries to be coherent; but unfortunately Shoreís orchestrations are run-of-the-mill for him and the entire score suffers from an unrelenting case of the Drones. Droning mood cues can sometimes work to Shore's advantage, in psychological thrillers like Se7en, where the music counterbalances with the grimness of the environment. In Cop Land, there's merely a suggestion of darker, more insidious forces at work on the film's characters, and Shore's music simply overcompensates.
Beltrami's Mimic was another situation altogether. Beltrami's breakthrough score was for Wes Craven's deliciously clever horror smashScream, and he attracted instant notice for his spine-tingling music. His all-important second major feature, Mimic, shows that Beltrami isn't exactly a one-hit wonder but he's got a lot of maturing as a composer still ahead of him. Mimic, the disappointing mutated-bug thriller directed by Guillermo Del Toro, consists of a lot of scenes of dumb humans wandering idiotically into dark, dripping chasms where they're bait for various ugly-nasties. Beltrami's music isn't particularly brilliant at establishing a foreboding sense of suspense, but it does the job far better than many other scores have done in recent years, and it's certainly far from run-of-the-mill. His off-kilter orchestrations are for the most part reasonably innovative, albeit a trifle reminiscient of Chris Young's style, perhaps due to the contribution of Young orchestrator Pete Anthony. (On a related note: Scream writer Kevin Williamson's next major project, I Know What You Did Last Summer, is set to be scored by John Debney. Based on Debney's surprisingly good score to The Relic, it's safe to say that while Debney's music will likely not be as innovatively orchestrated as a Beltrami effort, it will more than likely do the job very well.)
Can we look towards the fall for quality film music? Most likely. With a spate of hotly anticipated dramas opening that will be sure to capture the Oscar flame, it's not an unreasonable wager to make that good filmmusic will come along as well. Suffice to say that we should keep our fingers crossed.