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Zimmer, team, alums rundown Pt 5 - RC intro + 2005-07: (B)atmosphere Man Begins (5e) [EDITED]
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Saturday, May 7, 2022, at 5:49 a.m.
• IP Address:
Message Edited: Saturday, May 7, 2022, at 5:58 a.m.

EDIT - I realize in the last post I implied that Dead Man's Chest would be covered here...but the word count got to be too high, so it got bumped to the next one. Whoops!

This is part of a series. Part 5d is here:


Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) - ****
John Powell; add’l arranging & programming by John Asthon Thomas & James McKee Smith;
orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Bruce Fowler, Brad Dechter, Mark McKenzie & Randy Kerber;
conducted by Pete Anthony; Germaine Franco as Powell’s assistant;
features adaptations of ‘Adagio from Spartacus’ by Aram Khatchaturian and ‘Food Glorious Food’ by Lionel Bart

“I love watching the film growing in front of me, because you don’t get the finished film [in animation] when you start [and it’s] maybe 90% done when I finish recording. I [usually] don’t see the finished film until the premiere.”

The second Ice Age movie would build on the success of the first one, taking Blue Sky Studios’ adventures of a mismatched trio of prehistoric mammals into the box office stratosphere and leading to (at this point) four more sequels in the franchise plus a bunch of short films, TV specials, and video games. Considering this and Dreamworks’ Madagascar, the mid-aughts were a very good time to have an animated movie with a bunch of famous people voicing a gang of talking animals. Critical reviews were mixed, though pretty much everyone praised the occasional diversions from the main story to showcase the Charlie Chaplin-like hijinks of the squirrel Scrat as he vainly tries to acquire an acorn.

John Powell would take over the music of the franchise from David Newman after having scored the studio’s prior film Robots. Powell often talks about getting to the subtext of a film through music, and he manages to realize that in some rather smart ways here. The theme for Ray Romano's mammoth character Manny ends up becoming a magisterial theme for the species more broadly when a herd marches through near the end. Another idea originally signaling what Manny thinks is the herd of mammoths turns out to be for Queen Latifah’s mammoth character Ellie and her possum brothers which doubles as an adventure theme and a burgeoning love theme. And, intriguingly, a sad oboe idea originally played for a flashback when baby Ellie is alone (and sounding somewhat similar to Manny’s theme) is reprised on choir when adult Ellie gets trapped during the film’s climax, then gets transferred to represent Manny’s thoughts when he thinks Ellie is leaving him. It’s a surprisingly intellectual way of handling characters in what could’ve just been treated as a zany Looney Tunes cartoon. It also proved Powell was becoming adept at writing extremely malleable themes and arranging them in a variety of ways throughout a film.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of absurdity here. A gong appears for some kung fu fighting. There’s a brief gospel revival moment. Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food from the musical Oliver gets rewritten as a parody song for hungry vultures. Powell’s loony clarient theme for the sloth Sid gets turned into a chattering piece of tribal worship that is delightfully daffy even if it is sure to give a few listeners a headache in both its scene and the opening of the end credits. Most hilariously, Scrat’s trip to acorn heaven is taken over-the-top by an exultant arrangement of the Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet, an idea which Powell would return to in the next sequel. These moments are exceptionally effective in context, though on the album they are likely to make some folks’ heads swivel around in confusion. Still, the bulk of the work focuses on character themes and hyperactive action rather than nonsense, and even the moments of silly comedy don’t play like standard kiddie animation fare.

One thing worth mentioning on its own - the theme that plays over the main titles. It’s an absurdly catchy, toe-tapping delight of an idea that shows up in many scenes involving play or antics. Powell would barely return to it in his sequel scores, which was a minor disappointment but does help create more affection for its usage in this work.

Curiously, this is one of the few Powell animation scores that doesn’t have an action track or two I return to with great regularity. None of it’s subpar; it’s more that Powell has just hit much higher highs in this genre.

Not scoring most of the Scrat antics was absolutely the right call here. Those scenes were funny enough without needing music to call attention to them.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) - ****½
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming by John Ashton Thomas &
James McKee Smith; orchestrations by Brad Dechter, B & W Fowler/Moriarty, Randy Kerber,
John Ashton Thomas, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kliesch, Conrad Pope, & Ken Kugler;
conducted by Pete Anthony; choir conducted by Edie Lehmann Boddicker; Germaine Franco as Powell’s assistant

John Powell in 2014: ”I’m a terrible overwriter.”

A film with a now-hilarious title given how many subsequent X-Men titles there have been, The Last Stand was originally advertised as the conclusion of the story from the earlier two films, though with the director of those entries off doing a Superman movie the studio instead turned to Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, who admittedly knew little about the original comic books. The film made loads of cash, seemingly on the basis of audience goodwill over the prior X2, but it is now regarded as wholly misbegotten, with a script that crammed two major plots together (a government-run cure for mutation and the famous Dark Phoenix saga), seemed to confuse character development with killing them off, and included a groan-inducing reference to an internet parody about the villain Juggernaut.

The X-Men films had not kept one composer or even one central theme up to this point (and would continue to do so for most of the franchise’s stewardship under Fox). John Powell would get the job because Ratner was a big fan of his Bourne music. Powell would claim he was “a bit puzzled” since that kind of music wouldn’t work in a superhero movie, but it turned out Ratner just trusted him to do a great job in a completely different genre. Said Powell, “I remember reading [the script] and thinking this is a great metaphor for ‘pray the gay away’. I loved that they were putting this story right in front of everyone, the idea that you could be cured by your supposed illness which is your superpower.” The studio was a bit anxious about having someone new to superhero music on board, and almost changed their mind when their production timeline almost overlapped with that of the Ice Age sequel.

This is maybe the only live action film Powell did in his solo career that hews close to his animation material in that everything but the kitchen sink was thrown in (and with all the noise being generated it’s possible a sink was hit at some point). There is an almost-insane amount of instrumental and vocal ruckus at times, with so many lines of activity that some listeners may find the music hard to follow. Even those who like the score might feel a bit worn down by all the rampaging material, namely the multiple sequences of banging percussion and frenetic brass that are seemingly at war with the loud sound effects in the film. “It is way over the top obviously. You’re trying to match the intensity of the actors and the story. The fact that Ian McKellan is wearing a cape and a strange hat, you cannot see that. You have to see the belief in his eyes and write to that.” Some of the volume would be toned down in the film mix and some of the choral outbursts removed, which Powell was cool with. “You don't want a viewer to be thinking, ‘Well I'm enjoying this, but why have I got so many women singing at me?’”

TEN orchestrators were required to make the whole thing coherent, which will make some people say “no duh, it’s a big score”, others to just shake their head at how many people seem to end up on projects run by Media Ventures alumni, and a large subset to say “who cares?” Amazingly, Nicholas Dodd isn’t one of the orchestrators, as this score rivals the intensity and immensity of the great David Arnold scores he contributed to in the 1990s (Stargate and Independence Day especially).

But don’t expect me to punish some scores in this era for being too “direct” or “simplistic” and then also equally punish a work for going in the completely opposite direction. Exhausting as it can be, it is still a marvelously ambitious, frequently rousing achievement, and pretty much the polar opposite of the sonic universe his former mentor crafted for the prior year’s Batman Begins. That’s not to say it would’ve been more appropriate music for Nolan’s film, just that it does a better job holding your interest standalone. It helps that a lot less than one-third of the album qualifies as “ambient”.

Like he would do in the later How To Train Your Dragon franchise, Powell would assign a number of his themes to ideas rather than characters, both to effectively enhance the subtext of the story and also to give himself more opportunities for thematic variation. So you get the main X-Men theme, a “freedom” theme (heard most prominently when the winged character Angel flies off), and a descending idea for the bad guys, plus a host of other rhythmic ideas. John Ottman’s score for the prior film had a lot of themes too, but many listeners found some of those a bit nondescript or underdeveloped; here you not only get thematic density, but also those themes developed in vibrant and often exciting ways. “The Freedom theme works in this big shot of him flying against the sky, but you also use it in a dialogue scene when they’re questioning whether they should be cured or not. There’s nothing wrong with you. But you might want to be cured just to fit in. That’s the whole point of the story. Brett very much liked the film’s subtext.”

There is character-specific theme though, and it’s a doozy - the Phoenix theme, a gorgeous idea that Powell transforms into something apocalyptic during two go-for-broke action sequences, the latter one with a gargantuan female choir singing in Latin. These astonishing sections are the high points of the score. Powell would actually come up with the idea when composing for the film’s final battle, and then had to work backwards and apply it to earlier parts of the picture. A uniquely marshal and heroic take on the idea in the end credits doesn’t make much logical sense (the character was vanquished), but it sounds utterly dope, so sometimes you just have to shrug these things off and embrace what sounds cool. “Someone said that some of my X-Men music is a bit overly operatic - he didn’t mean that, he meant I’d cranked it up a bit. [But] you have to sort of evoke God in these superheroes, so that is always part of the language.”

And if you’re thinking “hey, that Phoenix theme sure sounds Middle Eastern,” Powell has an answer for that. “To me, everything other than Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten is ethnic music. John Williams sounds American to me. Beethoven sounds German. Sibelius sounds Finnish. It's all ethnic music! I think i[the Phoenix theme] used a scale that people seem to think is linked with certain parts of the world. The film Endurance [had] Ethiopian music in it, and it used exactly the same scales as they do in Scotland [and] China! It was just an intention to be expressive - and I guess it turned out I was using that particular scale!” Powell would make similar comments about the accidental Middle Eastern feel to parts of The Bourne Supremacy, saying his “modal writing is very flexible.”

Powell would apparently get too close to cartoon land in his early demos - Ratner would tell him to make his next attempt “sound like the most serious thing ever” - which makes me curious how a more unhinged version of this score would sound. Regardless, it is truly remarkable that producer Lauren Shuler Donner let any of this stand, given how much of a fuss she supposedly made about not letting Michael Kamen write a big, orchestral, thematic score for the original X-Men film six years earlier.

The score is much too much for some folks, and it might’ve been that for Powell too as he would attempt works this ambitious in the future but rarely ones this consistently cacophonous. For me, the highs more than compensate for the challenges, and it’s probably the best score to come from the X-Men franchise - by far.

One nuisance - I believe this is the first instance of a weird thing Powell did with a few of his albums around this time where continuous sequences would be broken into several tracks. It’s almost worth seeking out the bootleg version of the complete score just to avoid that.

United 93 (2006) - **½
John Powell; orchestrated by John A. Coleman & John Ashton Thomas; conducted by Gavin Greenaway;
additional recording by Daniel Lerner; Germaine Franco as Powell’s assistant

RC discovery #13.

“I was doubtful that a CD release would make any sense whatsoever.”

The first dramatic film after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to draw its plot from those events, United 93 would chronicle experiences on one of the planes in real-time. It ended up receiving enormous critical acclaim. For director Paul Greengrass, it was also a return to his docudrama roots (think Bloody Sunday) after doing The Bourne Supremacy two years earlier, and he would bring along that film’s composer John Powell. Powell had to be convinced that a movie like this even needed music at all, though he and Greengrass would align on the need for some kind of momentum to be maintained throughout. ”If I was writing something like X-Men 3 for [United 93], you'd basically be sick of it within a few minutes - emotion being rammed down your throat. The idea was to make a score that resonated to what the viewer was feeling at the time. [The story was] so potent that it was important that the music doesn't do so much.”

Since Powell tried to avoid anything musically that created tension or emotion, the majority of the work is a huge challenge to appreciate on the album. It is a minimalist work that’s very conservatively scored. It’s practically mundane by design, with a lot of electronic drones, sustained notes, and some vaguely Middle Eastern sounds. Powell would admit to struggling for a while before coming up with the right approach, though he was pleased with the end result. “If you have a bass note that just sits there and doesn’t do much for a long time, when you change that bass note, again, it has a profound effect. But you have to find the right moment to change and the right way to change. This was three months of thinking and then four days of just working from my gut. Once I started writing, I just didn’t think. It came from a completely different part of me.”

It’s an album that’s not supposed to resonate with listeners; anything more assertive than this would’ve been wholly appropriate for the film. Most listeners will grab only the last few tracks for a Powell highlights playlist and avoid the rest. With Phone Calls things start to change slightly - a solo vocal (actually Powell’s son!) starts to creep in the mix. The End adds more brass and active percussion to provide a gradually building sense of nervousness and heroism, while the final track brings back the vocal and adds in some strings wandering around sadness in a Thomas Newman fashion.

”At the end, you have a bit of music which can be described more as prayers [to be] supportive of an audience that was having a difficult experience with the film. [My son] was five at the time. He always liked to come into the studios and put on headphones and sing into a microphone with reverb. I asked him if he would sing something for me, and he wouldn't sing it back to me. I couldn't actually get him to sing what I wanted him to sing! So I took the recordings, and I combed through them and looked for things, and took these little phrases, and I made a kind of 'round' out of them. He would sing one phrase, and then one part of the orchestra would start to play over and over, and then another phrase would come up, and the next part of the orchestra would come in, following him. I called up Paul and told him, ‘Have a listen to this. It either works, or it might be the most awful manipulative piece of rubbish that has ever existed in the history of filmmaking.’ I wasn't sure at all! Fortunately Paul liked it.”

Like Powell said, a full album of this might not have made much sense.

Glory Road (2006) - ***½
Trevor Rabin; add’l music & programming by Paul Linford; orchestrated by Gordon Goodwin;
‘I Will Make The Darkness Light’ by Charles P. Jones produced by Alicia Keys & Rabin

RC discovery #14.

This story of the first all-black college basketball lineup to win a national championship didn’t seem like it would be in the wheelhouse of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but he likes making the occasional “important” film “ because I think people should remember individuals who made a difference. That’s why we made Glory Road, Veronica Guerin and especially Black Hawk Down.” Bruckheimer’s earlier sports movie Remember The Titans had received a well-regarded replacement score by Trevor Rabin, so it made sense that Rabin would be brought back for this one.

Rabin’s main theme functions effectively in gospel, bluegrass, and anthemic modes. Some typically rousing Rabin material occurs around the games, and in a few cases they seem to pull in a bit too much from his modern action style for what’s supposed to be a 1960s period piece, though the loudly mixed snare parts seem appropriate given the college basketball setting and the occasional intrusion of woodwind parts are a nice surprise. Voices occasionally wander into the mix and help to elevate the score about standard sports fare. The remarkable finale sequence even has the vocals carry the main theme - if the producers had given Rabin the latitude to write something like that in the rest of the score we could’ve been talking a Hoosiers-level sports score classic.

The full score is never worse than adequate and has a few rather strong tracks, though the fact that it’s mostly made up of short cues does hamper the listening experience. The commercial album would only feature a four-minute suite of Rabin’s material plus the song he helped produce. It would take until another film released that autumn for a Rabin sports movie score to finally receive an adequate standalone release.

Curious George (2006) - Not heard
Heitor Pereira; orchestrated by Bruce Fowler; conducted by Alastair King

This adaptation of the beloved children’s book series was the last feature initiated by Universal Animation Studios before Illumination became their in-house brand, and also a rare foray from Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment into animated movies. Despite barely making its budget back in theaters, the film spawned a TV series and a number of direct-to-video sequels. Klaus Badelt was on this as of July 2004 and spoke about working with singer-songwriter Jack Johnson at that time, but things fell apart for unknown reasons and Heitor Pereira took over. It wasn’t his first score credit; he had appeared with Zimmer on Riding in Cars with Boys and also scored Real Women Have Curves and the Dirty Dancing sequel on his own. But it would be the first time he worked in animation, a genre that has become a huge part of his output since - and it was for Universal, whose later Despicable Me franchise has used Pereira for every entry (in fact, this would be one of the scores that Hans played for Pharrell to convince him to team with Pereira on the first movie in that series).

The score has never been issued in any format, though some of Heitor’s sequel music would be released. The album of Jack Johnson’s songs did very well though; Upside Down was his best-selling single for years.

Over the Hedge (2006) - ***
Rupert Gregson-Williams; add’l music by Halli Cauthery;
executive music producer Hans Zimmer; ‘Family of Me’ and ‘Still’ by Ben Folds with arr. by RGW;
‘Lost in the Supermarket’ by Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon & Topper Headon;
‘Heist’ by Ben Folds; ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ by Ben Folds and also produced by Ben Grosse;
‘Still (Reprise)’ by Ben Folds with strings arranged & conducted by Paul Buckmaster;
conducted & orchestrated by RGW & Alastair King; add’l orchestrations by Seanine Joyce,
Bradley Miles & Simon Whiteside; Tony Clarke as RGW’s assistant; thank you to Lorne Balfe

“My dad used to wheel us out and make us play or sing. ‘Guys, you’re gonna do The Jungle Book but in a three-part harmony.’ And then once he had his fun he sent us upstairs. We had two pianos and we’d play two piano duets a lot - arrangements of Haydn and Schumann mostly. We were both sent to St. John's chorus. Harry was 5 years ahead of me. He left having been head chorister. I wasn’t there at the same time as him, which was good, [but] Harry was popular, he was a good sportsman - I didn’t mind [being his younger brother].”

RC discovery #15.

“Back in those days, Hans was very much an influence at the Dreamworks music department. I felt some responsibility. Animation often has two directors, which was strange to me, and Jeffrey Katzenberg had opinions. That was tough [at first], the politics - I was green.”

Originally planned at Fox Animation before the performance of Titan A.E. led to the studio’s closure, this film was picked up by Dreamworks (not too dissimilar from how it got the earlier Sinbad). It turned into a nice surprise - an entertaining if minor riff on suburbia and consumerism. This was Rupert’s first prominent lead composing job, coming after a producer and Hans liked his contributions to the prior year’s Wallace & Gromit, and it’s very much in the house style of the prior Dreamworks scores by his brother and John Powell. It’s energetic, well-orchestrated adventure music, even if it plays largely to expectations and doesn’t seem to establish any distinctive themes. The songs by Ben Folds and the score don’t cohesively fit together, but both are fine on their own.

“They’re animals that are talking and running, so nothing is believable. There’s nothing I love more than writing something cheeky or massively stupid. Having a soprano singing over 30 double basses was ridiculous because the scene was ridiculous.”


Next time: “You take Hollywood’s money and you eat Hollywood’s s**t.”

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