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Zimmer, team, alums Pt 6 - RC 2008-10: Supes, Sequels, and Sherlock, oh my! (6g) [EDITED]
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• Posted by: JBlough   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Saturday, July 30, 2022, at 6:37 a.m.
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Message Edited: Saturday, July 30, 2022, at 6:37 a.m.

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


How To Train Your Dragon (2010) - *****
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming by James McKee Smith, Paul Mounsey,
Dominic Lewis & Michael Mollo; orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas & Dave Metzger; add’l orchestrators Gavin
Greenaway, Jessica Wells, Daniel Baker, James K. Lee, Angus O'Sullivan, Stefan Schneider, Germaine Franco &
Dominic Lewis; conducted by Greenaway; ‘Sticks & Stones’ written & performed by Jónsi; thank you to Hans Zimmer

“You know you can write a pretty shitty score for an Oscar film. The history of the Oscars bears that out. However, it's right for the movie. It’s sometimes hard to compose music for the film if what’s needed is dull. I’ve always felt I’ve needed to write something that has musical integrity. I’m really not a cinephile. My favorite films are not arty. I’ve never managed to stay awake through Citizen Kane, but you can’t tell me that Babe isn’t one of the greatest films of all time, or Moonstruck. [laughs] I’ve always loved certain types of films and no one will shake me of that because of what they do to me emotionally.”

Discovery #...hahaha, yeah right.

How To Train Your Dragon, a loose adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s children’s book series, was an oddity among Dreamworks Animation films at the time. Unlike nearly every film from the studio, the movie wasn’t built around a prominent cast; that’s not to say it had no stars, but the marketing didn’t really focus on, say, Jay Baruchel as the lead voice. It didn’t ground its humor in pop culture references. You could almost sense some uncertainty from Jeffrey Katzenberg and the studio in how to advertise this thing that was so atypical for their brand, even extending to the choice to release it in mid-spring instead of the usual summer blockbuster season. And yet the studio turned out to have a real winner on their hands, a heartfelt joyous adventure that worked for all ages. The movie would be a steady player at the box office for weeks, garner heaps of critical praise for being Pixar-level good, and win a host of adoring fans. As with Shrek and Madagascar, the studio would have no quibbles about turning it into a franchise, with two sequels coming later in the decade as well as a bunch of short films, a television series, and a video game.

Dragon was not just a stylistic break for the studio in its filmmaking style. It was also a huge pivot for its music. The Zimmer-supervised “house style” of Dreamworks Animation scores at the time had trended towards bustling, pseudo-comic, mostly orchestral romps. They would sometimes hit fairly high highs, but a number of them had also felt fairly interchangeable, the sheer energy of the material sometimes more compelling than the themes. In the case of Dragon, no one could accuse it of sounding like any Dreamworks score that came before. In hindsight, this should’ve been no surprise given that the directors at the helm were Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. The two had first collaborated on the story for Disney’s Mulan, another “well, gee, that didn’t come off like animated movie music” entry thanks to the last consensus great score from legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith. Said Sanders, “it’s animation, but it’s feature animation, so the score you’re looking to get is grand and emotional and moving.” It was about as far away from Mickey Mousing or goofiness as one could get.

It was also arguably a minor step away from the established animation music style of John Powell. Powell had actually been fired mid-production on the first Shrek score for being argumentative but had been brought back into the fold as a co-composer on Kung Fu Panda. “I did a good job. Jeffrey had fun. So when How to Train Your Dragon came up, that would be the first I got to do on my own.” Powell’s earlier animation efforts had often provided opportunities for him to indulge in what he called “chaotic wonderment”, a kind of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to composition for the admitted “overwriter” that could be wildly entertaining for some but feel horribly schizophrenic for others. This score would certainly have its active moments, but it was far less likely to hop moods every so often, indulge in wild instrumental flares, or cause several different styles to collide frequently (in other words, it was pretty clear it wasn’t a Blue Sky Studios joint). Powell clearly took the cue from Sanders & DeBlois to have fun but treat it a bit more like a serious work. “Animated movies tend not to be stable structurally. In some of the Ice Age movies we had to make sure that the tone was funny enough, what I call the stalling number, how cartoonish the music is. The music in How to Train Your Dragon is very uncartoony.”

Oh, and there were bagpipes. Plenty of bagpipes! I recognize that somewhat trivializes how Powell injected a number of regional influences into his music. But good luck not noticing those resoundingly unsubtle bagpipes. This was somewhat a function of Powell originally taking a more Scandinavian approach to the music and being told by Katzenberg to, as Powell later put it, “throw some [expletive] Enya at it. Everybody’s got Scottish accents in the movie. Enya’s Irish. There’s this kind of mismatch going on. But Irish, Scottish, and Old English folk songs can have a warmth to them that perhaps I wasn’t utilizing. And before I knew it I had bagpipes.”


I thought about trying to effectively summarize my thoughts about the score in full, but that seemed silly for what might be the most well-known piece of orchestral film scoring from the last dozen years. So, as with my At World’s End perspective, I’ll just pick some sequences and say what I liked about them.

1) The opening (This Is Berk + Dragon Battle) - Powell’s gift for writing tunes that speak to story themes more so than they do individual characters was exhibited in spades in Dragon. Dang near all the major themes (and there are many of them) are memorable and go through a tremendous amount of variation in this film, never mind their continued evolution in the sequels. “I thought I’ve got to make sure I get every cue right and the tunes as well. Often when you’re with Hans, and you’re working on tunes – he’s very good at tunes, he sorts [those] out easy – if you’ve got a problem with a tune or Jeffrey doesn’t like a tune, you just throw it to him. With How To Train Your Dragon, I had to get the tunes just right and it was a struggle. Often I spent quite a lot of time finalizing and getting the balance of the tunes as I wrote the cues.”

Most of those ideas get introduced in the film’s first six minutes where the dragons attack the viking village as the main character introduces the narrative and other village residents. Hints of the main flying/friendship theme lead into three different viking-related themes, the love theme, and the menacing dragon theme. Rarely do films start in a way that provides for such an extended, almost in-your-face introduction to a score’s central ideas - and it certainly wasn’t being done in the bustling “house style” that many prior Dreamworks Animation scores had operated in. The two tracks that covered this on the original album (combined on the recent Deluxe release) functioned as a big statement of purpose: things were going to be different this time.

“One of the requests: let’s be very thematic about this rather than textural. Believe it or not, that’s a less and less requested thing in movie-making today. My theory is that it has to do with realism in filmmaking. Add a big theme to a very realistic scene and it will make your audience question why the music is so overwrought when the scene is gritty — it doesn’t really want the musical commentary. Animation breaks reality simply by the very nature of how it’s made and the way it looks. It survives musical commentary or it actually enjoys it.”

2) “The Black Stallion moment” (Forbidden Friendship) - Powell understandably saved composing the music for this near-silent scene (where Hiccup and the dragon start to understand each other) for last, and instead of going big with his main flying/friendship theme he pivoted to something almost more abstract - the relentless sound of slate and glass marimba percussion instruments, the former an inspiration from the song by Icelandic musician Jónsi that DeBlois had temped the scene with. Slowly adding in a penny whistle, a wordless female vocal, and the recurring rhythm that functions as a theme for the Night Fury dragon, Powell turned the sequence (one you could’ve imagined a more impatient studio telling the directors to cut from the movie) into something magical and essential.

3) The montage (See You Tomorrow) - This boisterous musical sequence gets compared a lot by score fans to the equally boisterous montage track Building the Crate from Powell’s own Chicken Run, which seems be akin to how people compare the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony to the last movement of Brahms’ first symphony - they’re covering similar terrain, they’re both memorable, and they aren’t subtle about their themes. The Beethoven and the Brahms have other similarities (thematic structure, tempo, and musical key, though most casual listeners won’t pick up on them or won’t care), but See You Tomorrow has enough uniqueness to stand on its own, and is fairly removed from anything close to a copy of the earlier piece.

4) The first successful flight (Test Drive) - Powell would unleash his flying/friendship theme in its first moment of full brassy glory, matching the grandeur of the music with the grandeur of the seaside visuals and bringing the work as close as it would get to power anthem territory. Helping elevate the coolness of the scene was the subtle use of an electric guitar in the mix. “I was playing around with the test drive [sequence], and I was doing some big drum loops - like, if you were doing a hip-hop track, you’d get a drum machine going. They were giant taikos and African drums, and I made this rhythm to see if I could find something that was the right speed. So once I got that drum loop going, I had a guitar, and I did these heavy chords and I just let the power of it go. I built everything on top of that. I then probably played that the next day to the filmmakers, and they loved it — that kind of cracked it open.”


“Bourne was built on minimalism - I studied a lot of [Steve] Reich and Philip Glass in college - but that only gets me so far. I don’t find the music I write in that style gives me as much pleasure [as] when you get to write music for kids falling in love on top of a dragon flying.”

I picked four moments. I could’ve picked plenty more. The raucous music for the training pits (Dragon Training and Hiccup Focus). The gleefully playful feel of the first attempt at flying (New Tail). The astonishing first full performance of the love theme that Powell only hinted at in the overture (Romantic Flight). The bellicose take on the warrior viking theme that kicks off Ready the Ships. The nonstop thrills of the nearly ten minutes of music Powell delivered for the final battle. Or the way Powell distills his main theme down to solo piano for the bittersweet injury reveal near the film’s end (Where’s Hiccup?), which helps deliver an emotional gut punch even after multiple rewatches.

Heck, I could’ve picked dang near every track in the score to write something ecstatic about - a sign of a sure-fire era-defining classic. It wasn’t just the finest score for a Dreamworks picture to date. It was by far the finest score to come from this musical lineage (surpassing Badelt’s The Promise and Zimmer’s Lion King, the only credible contenders for the throne at this juncture).

“[With Katzenberg] there was probably a slight father figure thing going on. It turned out well because I tried harder. Or it just turned out well because the film was good. Dragon was already a really beautiful film without me.”

Fun fact: Mark Mancina’s regular collaborator Dave Metzger would contribute here as an orchestrator.

Shrek Forever After (2010) - ****
Harry Gregson-Williams; add’l music Halli Cauthery; add’l arrangements Christopher Willis;
orchestrated by Ladd McIntosh, Jennifer Hammond, Geoff Stradling & Kevin Kliesch; conducted by
Gregson-Williams; assistant music editor Meri Gavin; thank you’s to John Powell & Hans Zimmer

“They’re so endearing [and] such strongly written characters. If I could stay true to the first movie that John Powell and I did, I would be able to track the emotional arc of Shrek and Fiona [and] everything would be fine. And I think that was the case.”

The fourth film in this lucrative franchise would add Rumpelstiltskin as a villain who tricks Shrek into an It’s A Wonderful Life “I wish I was never born” scenario. Despite substantial box office earnings and improved reviews over its predecessor, this would be the final flagship entry in the series, though Dreamworks would produce two spin-offs with the Puss in Boots character, and reports of a fifth film being in pre-production persisted for the rest of the decade. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams would thankfully remain with the franchise, though his score for this film arguably had more in common with his other epic music of the aughts than it did his earlier music for the franchise. There is shockingly little pastiche in Forever After, so those who found the earlier Shrek scores to be all over the place generally found this one to be the best thanks to it being a more consistent listening experience. It’s a robust orchestral fantasy effort through and through, bolstered by solid new themes for Rumpel, his witch villains, and the ogre army. And applause was due for how the composer continued to find new ways to feature the original fairy tale and Shrek themes, recalling his comments made before Shrek 2 that he had no desire to repeat himself.

“On every Shrek movie, new characters [are] usually my starting point. When I first watched the movie, one of my first questions was: who the heck voiced [Rumpelstiltskin]? We were like a year before the film was finished. And the director proudly let me know it was one of the storyboard artists of the crew, Walt Dohrn. He had done this voice in a temporary way, so that perhaps the filmmakers would go out and get a named actor to do this. But there was no way anybody could do any better and they kept coming back to Walt.”

The score didn’t have anything as sensationally entertaining as Gregson-Williams’ arrangement of I Need A Hero from Shrek 2, but it was still a marvelous way to wrap up the series.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (2010) - **½
Steve Jablonsky; add’l music by Penka Kouneva

RC discovery #69.

The hugely successful Prince of Persia video game franchise had previously used music composed by Stuart Chatwood (perhaps better known as the bass player and keyboardist in the Canadian rock band The Tea Party), but for its new 2010 console entry The Forgotten Sands Ubisoft elected to go with Steve Jablonsky - or more specifically something in the same musical realm of his Transformers and Gears of War scores. You got your expected large orchestral and choral sounds (all seemingly sampled this time) as well as a healthy dose of Middle Eastern flair. It all made for an entertainingly bombastic score, but also a predictable and somewhat cheap-sounding one. I docked a half star due to the album having some awkward track starts and stops; you’ll be surprised this is a commercially released album instead of a game rip at times.

This wasn’t the only franchise entry to come out in May 2010. Heck, it wasn’t even the only entry with this name! Jablonsky’s music would feature into the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC versions of the game. The Nintendo DS, PSP, and Wii releases would have music by Tom Salta (otherwise known for his music for Tom Clancy video games and various trailers), who would deliver some of the same stereotypical Middle Eastern sounds but also drift more into world music vibes and atmospheric soundscapes.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) - ****
Harry Gregson-Williams; add’l music by Halli Cauthery; add’l arrangements by Anthony Lledo & Matthew Margeson;
add’l programming by Hybrid & Toby Chu; orchestrations by Ladd McIntosh, Jennifer Hammond & Geoff Stradling;
electric cello Martin Tillman; electric violin Hugh Marsh; oud & electric guitar Lledo; music editors incl. Meri Gavin;
‘I Remain’ written by Alanis Morissette & Mike Elizondo with string arrangement by Bruce Fowler

Less than a fortnight after the aforementioned video game came out, this lavish, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film adaptation was released to indifferent reviews and tepid stateside box office attendance. While the movie did decent business overseas and was certainly more well-regarded than most earlier movies based on games, today it is mainly remembered as an example of whitewashed action movie casting (star Jake Gyllenhaal later expressed ambivalence about appearing in it). Having Harry Gregson-Williams involved with a Bruckheimer movie was amusing, given that the composer had referred to the producer as a torture artist during the making of The Rock. “I guess this is the first film I did with Jerry [independent of Tony Scott and Joel Schumacher]. I was concerned that it wouldn’t suit me at all. I’m sure if Jerry could have waved a magic wand he probably could have Hans score Prince of Persia. But the challenge was too attractive to miss, really; the geographical nature of the film.”

Gregson-Williams would create a wealth of solid themes, including a banger of a main theme almost designed to create Lawrence of Arabia vibes. “I wanted to try something that, if you closed your eyes, you might be watching a film from the fifties or sixties, even if the movie had to catch and keep the attention of young kids. There were action cues, but the overall score remains a sweeping, romantic score.” His expertise with Middle Eastern instruments, largely cultivated from his research for the earlier Kingdom of Heaven, helped to give “a flavor of the geography” - you hear the plucked oud, the ney flute, the sitar, and various exotic percussion. A choir would pop in every so often singing a variety of ancient Persian words. Harry arguably overachieved for the concept, and in hindsight music of this nature was a bit shocking to hear from a Jerry Bruckheimer production, though Bruckheimer would have nothing but praise for it, calling it “a throwback to Old Hollywood and some of [Harry’s] best work.” Gregson-Williams and director Mike Newell also apparently got along famously after discovering they were both choir boys as kids.

The music did have its challenges. On its album it played like 30-40 minutes of solid ideas stretched to almost an hour, making some passages in its second half feel redundant. And while Gregson-Williams would describe the score’s hybrid mix of organic and electronic elements, including but not limited to his usual electric cello and violin collaborators, as “part of my process, part of my sound”, a few of the more modern elements would be a bit abrasive for some listeners, namely the borderline Arabic rock for the Hassansin villains. Still, the overall score was a richly textured, highly memorable adventure score with throwback vibes, and the opening fifteen minutes or so of the score (represented by the first four tracks on the album) was one of the best stretches of film music from 2010. And it only came out a week after Shrek Forever After, cementing the year as an excellent one for the composer before it was even half over.

Robin Hood (2010) - **½
Marc Streitenfeld; orchestrated by Benjamin Wallfisch; music programmer Sunna Wehrmeijer; conducted by Ben Foster

Getting Ridley Scott back in historical epic mode seemed like it would be catnip for fans of the director’s Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, especially with such a revered character as Robin Hood being the focus of the film. But Scott delivered a surprisingly joyless, grubby take on the character that was stripped of any romance or sense of adventure to ostensibly create something more “realistic”. Audiences were puzzled both by Russell Crowe’s accent and by a summer action blockbuster having so many references to the Magna Carta. Considering this was a more “realistic” take on Robin Hood, it wouldn’t be fair to punish the score for not having the swashbuckling feel of the scores for earlier films featuring the character, namely the widely regarded classic music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood as well as Michael Kamen’s generally well-regarded material from 1991’s Prince of Thieves. But Marc Streitenfeld’s music still felt tame, if not unimaginative.

His earlier scores for Scott’s films had been more defined by their instrumental mixes than their themes - the relaxed French feel of A Good Year, the rumbling blues edge to American Gangster, and the Middle East melting pot of Body of Lies. So it was somewhat surprising that Robin Hood would find the composer delivering more of a straightforward orchestral work. Sure, there would be a choir and occasional Irish elements (bagpipes, whistles, and such). But they couldn’t hide the fact that Streitenfeld’s themes were basic or that the constructs around them felt fairly simplistic. The dull villain idea was an obvious descendant of Zimmer’s “repeat the same note over and over” methodology (King Arthur Saxons, Pirates kraken, etc.). It lacked the ambition of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator and the beauty of Harry Gregson-Williams’ Kingdom of Heaven, and ultimately felt too safe.

Interestingly, this would be the first score by Streitenfeld that didn’t rely on any of Zimmer’s usual orchestrators (i.e., the Fowler clan and Rick Giovinazzo) to flesh out the work. Instead, British composer Benjamin Wallfisch, then better-known for having been part of Dario Marianelli’s team, would help out - and would become part of the Remote Control team a few years later.

Knight and Day (2010) - ***½
John Powell; add’l arranging, MIDI orchestration & programming by James McKee Smith, Paul Mounsey,
Michael John Mollo & Beth Caucci; orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas, Dave Metzger, Rick Giovinazzo &
Germaine Franco; conducted by William Ross; featured guitarists Adam del Monte, Rodrigo y Gabriela,
George Doering, Federico Ramos & Michael Ripoll; featured drums Joey Waronker & Satnam Ramgotra

This action comedy was in development hell for years, with one iteration being offered to Adam Sandler and another almost starring Chris Tucker and Eva Mendes. Eventually it became a vehicle for Gerard Butler and Cameron Diaz, then Diaz and Tom Cruise. Ironically it came out in the same summer as Salt, another spy movie that was at one time envisioned for Cruise. The end product was sufficiently entertaining for some, but it was a film unsure of whether it wanted to be a serious action film or a romantic caper or a spy parody, and audiences didn’t show up as they had for earlier Cruise blockbusters.

Like John Powell’s earlier work on Green Zone, this film’s score was far more memorable for its instrumental mix than its themes (even though it did have several adequate recurring ideas). Accordion, jazz bass, Latin flair, finger snaps - at times it’s almost as if the funkiness of the composer’s early work on Forces of Nature was injected into his thriller style from the aughts. Most of the action music would be grounded in Powell’s now-familiar mix of hyperactive orchestra and pulsing modern elements, all delivering the goods while not really standing out from other earlier scores in this vein. But there would be one raucous exception to that: the sensationally entertaining climactic track Bull Run with its wild guitars and furious flamenco energy.

Fun fact: recent Obi-Wan Kenobi theme arranger William Ross conducted the score.

Despicable Me (2010) - ***
Original songs & themes by Pharrell Williams; score by Williams & Heitor Pereira; produced by Hans Zimmer; add’l music
by John Sponsler & Tom Gire; add’l arrangements Jacob Shea; music programming Sven Faulconer (uncredited);
orchestrated by B&W Fowler, Rick Giovinazzo & Kevin Kaska; conducted by Gavin Greenaway

Done as the first film for Universal’s new animation studio Illumination Entertainment, this villain-centric family-friendly comedy would spawn a host of sequels and spin-offs, with increasing attention being paid to the gibberish-speaking yellow Minions supporting the film’s protagonist. Getting the music right was a bit of a challenge; Universal seemed to have taken a page out of the early Dreamworks playbook by getting a prominent pop artist involved, in this case Pharrell Williams, but it took a while to settle on a composer until Hans Zimmer introduced Pharrell to Heitor Pereira. “Hans brought Pharrell to my studio. It wasn’t working out with other composers. He brought me one melody - it was music for the three girls - and said, ‘Just go for it.’ I said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ And I just put my heart into it. Next day, he says, ‘Man, where have you been?!’ With the first one there was a lot of time spent looking for the right tone and themes. I was also trying to find my way of incorporating some of Pharrell’s material into the score. It worked to a point but I still had to find the right themes for the Minions, the bag guys, etc.”

The score was never officially released. A 17-minute promo and a 35-minute “for your consideration” album would both emerge later in the year, and the full score would eventually leak out as a bootleg. It made for well-orchestrated and spirited kiddie fare. Approach it as an adequately entertaining score with some retro caper jazz sounds (in the realm of Agent Cody Banks and The Incredibles), but also a somewhat forgettable and anonymous one.


Next time: “It sounds like 1968 on the French Riviera.”

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