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Zimmer, team, alums Pt 6 - RC 2008-10: Supes, Sequels, and Sherlock, oh my! (6d)
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Monday, July 11, 2022, at 5:47 a.m.
• IP Address:

This is part of a series. The third part of the 2008-10 set is here:

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) - ***½
Hans Zimmer; add’l music by Lorne Balfe, Jim Dooley & Geoff Zanelli; add’l arrangements by Ryeland Allison & Jacob Shea;
ethnic woodwinds Richard Harvey; orchestrated by Kevin Kaska & Rick Giovinazzo; conducted by Gavin Greenaway;
choir conducted by Mark Ford; new songs by Zimmer &; ‘Chums’ by Zimmer & Heitor Pereira

RC discovery #51.

This sequel had the animal gang from the first Madagascar film leaving that island and crash-landing in a nature preserve in Africa. The film got a more favorable reception from critics than its predecessor did and was a smash commercial success. Hans Zimmer had overseen a team effort for the first film’s music and would play a similar role here. His primary role was collaborating with singer-songwriter on some songs (a carryover from the early days of Dreamworks Animation when a prominent pop artist was part of the marketing). For the score Zimmer set the template (he did compose two new takes on existing themes) and then managed the team writing it. Jim Dooley would continue owning the riotous caper jazz that covered the antics of the supporting penguin characters. Geoff Zanelli would cover a variety of things, most notably absurd polka arrangements of John Kander’s New York, New York and the main theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Zimmer once again sneaking his love of Ennio Morricone’s music into a blockbuster). Ryeland Allison would help with some of the songs and remixes. And this would also be one of the first scores where Lorne Balfe would play a significant role; most of the tracks not involving penguins or parody have his name in the credits.

Zanelli: “I did other things, but as far as interesting writing assignments [go] it’s hard to top polka versions of classic film music themes.”

There aren’t many obvious recurring new ideas - the only readily apparent one is a series of darker tones for the villain Makunga - but what’s appealing about this score is how it expands on the two primary themes from the first film (the whimsical Best Friends and the rhythmic rescue idea) in a variety of new and interesting ways. African elements are at a minimum - the team seemed to score the characters rather than the region - though the few moments when they’re prominent are fun, like the Afropop funkiness of the early party music and the rowdy percussion when Ben Stiller’s lion character is tied up over a spit. The appearance of drum pads and some legacy Media Ventures action mannerisms in the opening track Once Upon A Time in Africa seem to be a sly callback to Zimmer’s work on The Lion King.

Like the music of the first Madagascar, the score would be released as part of an album that focused more attention on the songs. The new ones featuring contributions from are fine enough. Two of these are singing lyrics over existing themes. The hippo-centric flirty songs are inoffensive but don’t function that well outside of the film. The rave-like Volcano Song might be a bit much for some listeners, though it does weave in an action version of the Best Friends theme. Most of the full score would eventually leak out as a bootleg; like its predecessor, it’s still a “bitty” score - lots of short cues - which may impede the listening experience for some listeners. Still, on the whole the work is definitely an improvement over the first film's music.

Wanna get a huge surprise? Go listen to Alex on the Spot, the song that takes’s lyrics from the traveling song near the start of the film and puts them over a hybrid electronic/orchestra arrangement of the rescue theme. Then go listen to Lorne Balfe’s recent Rumble music.

The score would appear to be the first instance where future Planet Earth II composer Jacob Shea got to write some tracks of his own; he’d received “technical assistant”-type credits on some earlier RC entries. “When I was in college, I saw Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The score was brilliant. I thought it must be Thomas Newman - I knew him and John Williams and no one else. It said on the credits Alex Wurman. I reached out to him via email and said I’ll work for free. He got back to me! I hung out in Los Angeles for the summer. It sold me on the idea of trying to do this for a living.

Alex said Media Ventures was a great learning environment and it’s tough to get in there, so he introduced me to some people he knew there. Getting minimum wage was better than spending $20,000 to sit in a classroom [potentially] learning outdated approaches from someone who’s not working. 20-30 years ago, the way was to pair up with an up-and-coming director and become indispensable to them, growing with their career. That avenue is still possible - Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz on La-La Land and Whiplash - but it’s probably something that doesn't happen as often as it did back in the day. An apprenticeship with a composer that is working is a great way to start out because you’re not in the hot seat from the get-go; the stress isn’t firmly on your shoulders.

If you write good music and people realize it, then you work more than you’d ever thought you would, and then you start giving work to your assistant to keep up with the business that’s coming in. Spending time as an assistant will give you a lot of information I don’t think you can get anywhere else. You gain all these abstract talents.

It’s not the job of a film composer to be Beethoven or Mozart. The function is to create something that blends with the narrative that enhances the emotional experience for the viewer, and so little of that has to do with it being a symphony.”

Bolt (2008) - ***½
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming by James McKee Smith, Paul Mounsey &
John Ashton Thomas; supervising orchestrator John Ashton Thomas; orchestrations by Randy Kerber, Dave Metzger,
Kevin Kliesch, Germaine Franco & Pete Anthony; conducted by Pete Anthony; digital score production Michael Mollo

Despite some production turmoil (namely then-Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter replacing the original director and overhauling the story mid-production), Bolt was the first computer animated film to be done by Disney proper (i.e., not Pixar) to perform well both critically and commercially; the earlier Chicken Little got a poor critical reception while Meet the Robinsons barely made its budget back in theaters. The story of a canine screen star who gets removed from his set but still thinks he’s the superpowered character on his television series would feature pop singer Miley Cyrus in the voice cast and thus a song by her on its album, along with another by singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis - but most of the rest of the movie’s music would be an original score by John Powell, now with a third animation studio under his belt after prior collaborations with Dreamworks and Blue Sky.

Bolt would deliver a lot of things fans had come to expect from John Powell’s animation scores - memorable themes, gleefully chaotic stretches, darn near every section of the orchestra getting its moment to shine. There’s a tricked-out action sequence from the dog’s show that’s fun (Scooter Chase), as well as some Western-style traveling music and a few nods to the New York jazz sounds of composer George Gerswhin - plus one absurd comedy aside where a possibly-psychotic supporting character sings Bolt’s action theme in-film. But at this point Powell’s style in this genre was a tad familiar, and the score, despite its charms and a lack of outright weaknesses, has a “been there done that” feel. Around a half hour of Powell’s music would be released; the full score is almost three times that length and would eventually leak out as a bootleg.

Gears of War 2 (2008) - ***
Steve Jablonsky; add’l arrangements by Pieter Schlosser; orchestrated by Penka Kouneva & Danail Getz; conducted by Tim Davies

“I basically use anything I can get my hands on when composing a large score like Gears.”

RC discovery #52.

A year earlier gamers had heard the Call of Duty franchise pivot from its established sound to something more Zimmer-adjacent. Now they would find the Gears of War franchise doing something similar, with the developers largely eschewing the material composer Kevin Reipl had written for the 2006 entry and turning to Steve Jablonsky. The guys at Epic wanted every aspect of the game to be bigger, darker, meaner, crunchier, and even more insane than the original game. And I guess they had heard some of these qualities in my film scores.” Jablonsky would marshal a large orchestra and a choir, as well as some electronic embellishments and ambience, to create a very Transformers-adjacent soundscape. It wasn’t anything terribly innovative, and the relentless hour-long album release probably exhausted some listeners, but it was a fun exercise in Remote Control bombast.

“The game designers explained to me the concept of ‘destroyed beauty’. The landscapes have clearly been ravaged by war. And they wanted me to translate that into music.”

Philip Klein, more recently known for contributions to the scores of James Newton Howard as well as his own scores like The Last Full Measure and Wish Dragon, would get one of his earliest credits in the industry as an orchestration intern - he’d refer to lead orchestrator Penka Kouneva as his ”Hollywood mother” - and would show up in a variety of roles on scores by Jablonsky, Zimmer, Örvarsson, and Harry Gregson-Williams over the next seven years.

And yes, that was future Bob’s Burgers Movie composer Tim Davies doing the conducting.

Frost/Nixon (2008) - ***½
Hans Zimmer; add’l music by Lorne Balfe; ambient music design Mel Wesson;
featured cellist Martin Tillman; featured drums Reyland Allison; technical assistant Jacob Shea;
George Martin’s ‘By George It’s David Frost’ performed by Atli Örvarsson; other source music by James S. Levine

“Before Ron went out to shoot, we spent three weeks together in my room talking about the movie and the script and songs and shots. Then dailies started coming in and it was fantastic because there are certain shots that ask for it. We were talking about the ‘music could do something good, if you had a shot like this or the other,’ and dailies started to appear. I think that’s a collaborative process. I think that’s very much being heard.”

This film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play about the famous interviews between British TV host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon ended up as one of director Ron Howard’s more well-regarded films, though despite significant critical praise and awards consideration it barely made its budget back in theaters. Howard would re-team with Hans Zimmer after their successful collaboration on The Da Vinci Code. Zimmer and his composing team would create a score defined far more by its rhythms than by its melodies, with a lot of varied ways of maintaining momentum that were far beyond basic string / synth chugging common to Remote Control scores from this time.

The propulsive music was an extremely effective addition to its talky film and made for an engaging half hour-long score program on its album (mostly film tracks, along with the pre-film suites Status and Money). It wasn’t the most virtuosic or revolutionary music, but it didn’t need to be for that movie - no one said anything about “reinventing the interview drama.” And it was proof that Zimmer could deliver interesting work with a highly restricted soundscape…mostly churning low strings, rolling piano parts, bass pulses, and ticking percussion, although the few moments that veer off that template are intriguing - the metallic sounds and electric bass in Hello, Good Evening & Welcome and Beverly Hilton, for example.

The album also featured Zimmer’s demos from his original brainstorming (First Ideas). These were slower and more minimalist and austere than anything that ended up in the film (somewhat of the halfway point between the earlier The Ring and the atmospheric parts of the later Interstellar), with little of the near-constant energy that would define the work at its best. But you can pick out little elements here and there that evolved into the actual score, and the track was, if nothing else, an intriguing window into the composer’s working process.

Bedtime Stories (2008) - ***½
Rupert Gregson-Williams; add’l music by Christopher Willis & Tony Clarke; orchestrated by Alastair King;
conducted by Michael Novack; ‘At The Nottingham Broadway Mega Resort’ by Marc Shaiman

RC discovery #53.

Adam Sandler’s first family-friendly film about a handyman whose bedtime stories he tells to his sister’s kids start coming true was a big holiday hit in spite of its negative critical reception. This was Gregson-Williams’ fourth work for a Sandler movie, and the first (and still only) one to actually receive an album release. The music is basically the halfway point between a Dreamworks romp and an homage to the fantasy whimsy of James Horner, with bits of the mannerisms of James Newton Howard, Patrick Doyle, and Danny Elfman thrown in for good measure. Given those influences, the resulting score isn’t exactly the most distinctive work, but it’s still delightfully orchestrated (ten French horns!) and consistently charming - you can tell the composer had fun toggling through the various genres (Western, medieval, science fiction, Ancient Greece) - and the main theme is a real winner.

As with Bee Movie, the film also included a parodic song written by Marc Shaiman, though here that seems more to do with Shaiman re-teaming with director Adam Shankman after both of them had worked on the film Hairspray a year earlier.

This would be the first significant appearance of composer Christopher Willis, who would later compose scores such as The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield. “I’ve always written music since I was a little kid. I grew up with classical music and had a very traditional musical education at Cambridge. I listen to and think about Mozart a lot. But I also grew up listening to a lot of bands. I’m a big, big fan of Queen. I did not grow up really listening to film music. I would say I was a film nut, I was really obsessed with films kind of on the side. But I wouldn’t buy film music.

I became a concert pianist for a few years. After I had a brief stint as a musicologist and really wasn’t sure what to do from there. I was trying to write concert music on the side during that time but had difficulty with the concert music scene in Britain in the 90s. Quite suddenly I fell in love with film music and the idea that I could write music every day that people all [over] the world would hear.

My knowledge of movies was good but my awareness of the real nitty gritty aspects of film music was very superficial. I wrote this demo and was given a job by Rupert. Things moved very quickly and I found myself out of the UK and in LA. Rupert was willing to work with what he probably saw as a musical talent with limited knowledge about the movie industry. Compared with the composers that I knew, he wrote very quickly. If he didn’t like something, he would throw it away and write something else. His process was very organic and quick.”

The Unborn (2009) - **
Ramin Djawadi; ambient music design Rob Simon

RC discovery #54.

Plopped into theaters in January 2009, this lower-budget horror flick would get savage reviews and basically end the brief directing career of screenwriter and TV producer David S. Goyer. Goyer had used Ramin Djawadi as a last-minute replacement composer on his prior film, the catastrophic Blade: Trinity, and would collaborate again with him here. If former coworker Steve Jablonsky’s scores like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre represented a time when horror music was more grim and subterranean, this score is perhaps the inflection point (at least with the RC crew) when horror film compositions started to trend towards atmosphere. The score largely plays like an extension of the sound design-adjacent material Djawadi had done for works like Mr. Brooks, Prison Break, and Deception. It’s not all ambience - the twinkling chimes and tolling bells for a sense of mystery for example, as well as some relentlessly pulsing string/synth rhythms straight out of Iron Man (arguably these were one of the most obvious Remote Control staples at this point) - but ambience will still likely be the prevailing impression it leaves with many listeners, especially since the music seems to be almost entirely crafted from sampled sounds.

The album does feature quite a few musical “jump scares”, probably appropriate enough on film (if a rather overused trick at this point) but rather obnoxious as a standalone listen. Otherwise, it’s a functional soundscape that’s not terribly distinctive. Most score fans at least owe it to themselves to explore the stylish opening track on the album which adds a haunting female voice to the mix. MMUK reviewer Jon Broxton loathed this score when he reviewed it, but he at least thought this piece was solid.

Goyer and Djawadi would team up one more time on the NBC television series FlashForward which premiered later that fall.

Race to Witch Mountain (2009) - ***
Trevor Rabin; add’l music by Paul Linford; orchestrated by Rabin, Linford &
Gordon Goodwin; conducted by Goodwin; choir conducted by Marshall Bowen

RC discovery #55.

Disney’s third adaptation of the 1960s novel Escape to Witch Mountain was a modest hit at the March box office despite middling critical reviews, likely due to lead actor Dwayne Johnson’s ascendant film stardom. Rabin, no stranger to comedic action films at the Mouse House after working on both National Treasure films, would be along for the ride with his usual mix of orchestra, electronics, and samples, plus a midsized choir. There are some elements that differentiate this a bit from standard Rabin action fare. The score doesn’t shy away from using complex meters at times, recalling the 17/8 madness of Deep Blue Sea. Rabin’s woodwind writing (something that had become more noticeable this decade) continued to be solid. And there are a few moments of genuine wonder in here.

But the abrasive retro synths used to represent the villain will likely be challenging for some listeners. And while the brassy grandeur of Rabin’s mid-aughts war scores The Great Raid and Flyboys seeps through every so often, other tracks sound more like 90s Media Ventures brass samples were deployed. One gets the sense after the album is over that they just heard a mechanistic National Treasure sequel score.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) - ***
Henry Jackman; add’l arrangements and ‘orchestral maneuvers in the dark’ by Matthew Margeson;
orchestrated by B&W Fowler, Rick Giovinazzo & Kevin Kaska; conducted by Gavin Greenaway;
thank you’s to Hans Zimmer, Ryeland Allison, Atli Örvarsson & Satnam Ramgotra

Remember Monsters vs. Aliens? I don’t, and I know I saw it. The film would feature a recognizable voice cast, get decent reviews, and do well at the box office, but unlike Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda no franchise of sequels and TV series would follow. It would be the first significant lead job for Henry Jackman who’d been toiling behind the scenes on various RC scores for the last few years. His score was very much in the “house style” of Dreamworks Animation music at the time - largely rambunctious from start to finish, predominantly orchestral with some choir and electronics, and having to work around a few pop song placements - though it also leaned in the direction of other silly scores by the likes of Danny Elfman and John Debney (and not just because the electronic theremin instrument, a science fiction staple, was used). The album release would largely play to expectations, delivering a pleasant and fun but not terribly distinctive 45 minutes of score - though there were hints of some impressive symphonic techniques (especially in the Ginormica Suite), and the work would lead to bigger and better things for Jackman.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) - ***
Harry Gregson-Williams; add’l music by Halli Cauthery; add’l programming by Hybrid; orchestrated by
Ladd McIntosh; conducted by Gregson-Williams; electric cello Martin Tillman; electric violin Hugh Marsh;
programming assistant Anthony Lledo; album compiled by Slamm Andrews; thank you’s to Toby Chu & David Buckley

This first “solo” X-Men movie was seemingly invulnerable to its poor critical reception (not to mention an incomplete version of it leaking out a month before release), though stars Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds have basically disowned it ever since. The film’s score was seen by many film music reviewers at the time as essentially the Remote Controlling of the X-Men franchise - which seemed to be triggered by the prominent male choir on the first track on the album, and also because the score played a lot more like an action thriller than a typical “superhero” score (or at least a less bellicose one than former Media Ventures coworker John Powell had done for the last film in the franchise).

But today that opener (Logan Through Time) seems much more like a robust extension of the mix of orchestra, choir, and synthetic elements that were (and still are) uniquely distinctive to composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Much of the music plays like the halfway point between Harry’s robust action mannerisms from his Narnia films and the edgy mix of electronics and percussion from his Tony Scott scores - along with some of the composer’s usual batch of atmospherics (that spectral whistling sound that shows up a few times, for example). There are little batches of compositional detail that extend the work beyond simple Media Ventures regurgitation - the woodwind parts in the background of Logan Meets Gambit, the heraldic build of brass and choir in the first half of To The Island, and the sensitive piano material for Logan’s love interest. Not to mention that its main theme was memorable; it's a pity none of the future films found a use for it. The overall work was underwhelming for many, but it wasn’t a bad one. If you dismissed it in 2009 like I did, you may want to revisit it now.

This would be the first credited appearance of future Legends of Chima composer Anthony Lledo, who would be part of Gregson-Williams’ team for the next few years. “I started playing music when I was 9 years old, and almost from the beginning I became interested in composing rather than performing. When I learned my first couple of chords, I would compose song after song just based on the two or three chords I had learned. I have always loved watching movies, and I think that I have always paid special attention to the music. I was a teenager in the eighties when movies like Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and some of the Star Wars and Superman films came out. It wasn't until the late eighties that I discovered a soundtrack on an LP record. One of my friends had bought the soundtrack from Hellraiser by Christopher Young -- my friend was a huge horror film fan, and I think he bought the album because it looked cool with Pinhead on the cover. We would sit and listen to it, and I think it was then I realised that somebody was actually composing the music that was heard in the movies! So from the mid-nineties or so I started composing music for student films, short films and the sort, working my way up through commercial music, documentaries, and a couple of things for stage plays.”


Next time: “Not seeing the third act until way at the end is difficult.”

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