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This is my first Top 10 list for Badass Digest. Personally, I love lists. It's easily my favorite article to write each year and I take great pride and supervision putting it together. As an ardent lover of film music with a platform to express it, I bear great responsibility communicating my opinions with sincerity and passion. You won’t always agree with me, but I promise I will always be completely honest.
This was an incredible year for film music. In the past when cobbling these lists together, I’ve often had to rummage around for scores to occupy remaining slots. In 2013 there was an abundance of selections I had to whittle down. Unfortunately that means there are a healthy number of well-deserving scores that I won’t have the pleasure of writing about. It’s a tough predicament; however, it means we have been bombarded with memorable film music and for that I am truly thankful.
As with all my reviews, I try to remain pithy and on point. I could easily wax lyrical about each and every one of these scores until my fingers bled; however, I respect your time and am humbled you would spend it reading my words.
To every composer who penned a score in 2013, whether it was for a feature film or a short, a narrative or a documentary, know that I am forever in your debt and thank you profusely for adding to this wonderful craft I so dearly love. Keep up the great work and I look forward to hearing more from you in 2014.
Without further ado, here’s my ten for ’13…
10. The Ultimate Life by Mark McKenzie
The humongous heart of this small score was instrumental in helping a struggling story find its true identity. Directed by Michael Landon, Jr., The Ultimate Life is a quasi-prequel to the award-winning post-theatrical darling The Ultimate Gift (2006) starring James Garner (also scored by McKenzie). The later film chronicles the heyday of Texas oil prospecting where the main character, hell-bent on becoming a billionaire, discovers the true meaning and value of his life.
The Ultimate Life is somewhere on par with a made-for-TV movie or something you’d enjoy on the Hallmark Channel; however, its exquisite music, composed by Mark McKenzie, singlehandedly elevates the sincerity of the picture to create a more heartfelt cinematic experience. Anchored by enduring themes awash in the soul of early Americana music, McKenzie nudges the heart with crooning fiddle solos, plucky banjos and melodramatic string passages that aren’t obtrusive or offensive. He skillfully traverses the fine line between authenticity and sensationalism and nestles notes into a comfortable pocket that feels sincere without devolving into hyperbole. Deprived of this potent emotional connection to the picture, the narrative would undoubtedly stagnate and become dull. The music alone gives this flawed film a fighting chance and I found myself eventually believing its characters and the message the film was trying desperately to convey.
Good films almost score themselves. It takes the deft hand of an experienced composer to aggrandize an imperfect film through the power of music. I’d love to see what McKenzie would do under the weight of a well-crafted and impeccably performed drama that isn’t vulnerable to the limits of its own budgetary restrictions. Regardless, I shall continue to look forward to any score penned by this remarkably talented composer.
The score for The Ultimate Life is available on CD by Varèse Sarabande Records (302 067 219 8) and is available for purchase at Amazon.com. It is also available as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon.com.
My My Favorite Cue: Track 19 - “I Want To Be With You: The Gift Of A Day” (3:08)
9. Gravity by Steven Price
I struggled putting this score on my list. There are astonishingly fresh moments crowning it as an exemplar of modern creativity in film music. Then there are instances I felt the score devolved into a pastiche of cliched concepts and tired techniques. After significant deliberation, I felt passionate enough about this score to recognize it as one of the best written this past year.
The first act is certainly where the music shines brightest. Modern audiences are savvy enough to understand that sound does not travel in the vacuum of space, so director Alfonso Caurón took a hyper-realistic approach to how sound is presented throughout the picture. Environmental noises were filtered through the point-of-view of the astronauts. The bump of the astronauts’ tools on the space station panels, for example, are heard by way of vibrations transferred through the astronauts’ space suits. It sounds muffled as if underwater. The audience hears only what the astronauts hear.
As a result of the film’s unique approach to sound design, conventional limitations placed upon non-diegetic music are subsequently dissolved. Now music has the freedom and responsibility to suggest more of the environmental sonic palette without breaking the integrity of the overall approach to sound design. While the Space Shuttle is systematically being destroyed by the orbiting debris field, the music literally becomes the mechanistic shit-storm that puts each astronaut in peril. From the audience’s vantage point, there are no environmental sounds to be heard. We’re only allowed to hear what the astronauts hear inside their space suits. The music triggers our imaginations and fills in the rest. The resulting aural textures are unlike anything we’ve heard in cinema and it’s truly remarkable.
My Favorite Cue: Track 2 - “Debris” (4:25)
8. Mama by Fernando Velázquez
There is a growing trend in modern horror films (especially throughout Europe) where sheer terror is married with muscular melodrama. For half the film you’re scared out of your mind and then suddenly you dry your eyes and realize you’re smack dab in the middle of a gut-wrenching drama. There is a logical fear amongst filmmakers that elements of the two genres could potentially nullify the other leaving a story that is neither scary, nor dramatic. Mama is a superlative example of the brazen attempt to fuse these two opposing genres together.
Directed by Andrés Muschietti, Mama is often horrific, sometimes terrifying, and will frequently make your hair stand on end; however, there are moments of unquenchable drama that doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of your heart in order to deliver its scares. To do this successfully, you need a brilliant composer with a flawless understanding of these two diametrically opposed concepts who can take advantage of their differences and their commonalities to successfully propel the narrative. Fernando Velázquez is such a composer.
Velázquez’s music is an integral component to making this film so enjoyable and proof you don’t always have to rely on ear-splitting stingers to scare your audience (although there are certainly elements of that in this film). Throughout the entire picture, Velázquez serenades the heart in order to lure the audience through each impending scare. His music persistently stimulates the emotional relationship between a mother and her children and takes advantage of the inherent fears that accompany such fervent love: separation, harm and neglect. This allows the audience to identify with the antagonist (in this case, a ghost with acute maternal instincts) and relate to the fears associated with her motives. The result is a playground of seemingly limitless scares instigated and perpetuated by Velázquez’s masterfully composed music.
My Favorite Cue: Track 18 - “Final Reel” (13:13)
7. Big Bad Wolves by Frank Ilfman
I typically require several well-composed scores from a particular composer for me to feel confident enough to crown them as a rising star; however, Frank Ilfman wooed me with just one. A shadowy and unapologetically sinister score on par with Howard Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs, Frank Ilfman’s Big Bad Wolves is insanely good. It reeks of old-school classicism yet is still innovative and modern. It romanticizes the darkness and the evil that lurks within the shadows of our vulnerability. Ilfman employs an infectious theme introduced during an eye-catching slow-motion main title sequence and expertly develops this theme throughout the picture. The surgical placement of each thematic variation acts as red-herrings so as to obfuscate the secrets within the narrative.
Composers take note. I’m a pushover for scores that place double-reeds in the spotlight, especially the lower members of the family like bassoon and contrabassoon. These instruments are woefully neglected in modern film music and the infinite textures they create are so uniquely sublime that when I hear them, it’s like candy for my ears. Ilfman utilizes the low double-reeds liberally throughout his score to perfection. The contrabassoon’s flagrant rudeness paired with the warm wooden belches of the bassoons add a layer to the soundscape that is pure bliss.
This is the first score I’ve heard from Frank Ilfman and already, I’m hooked.
The score for Big Bad Wolves is available on CD by MovieScore Media (MMS13022) and is available for purchase at MovieScoreMedia.com. It is also available as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon.com.
My Favorite Cues: Track 1 - “Big Bad Wolves: Main Theme” and Track 16 - “Bike vs Car” (2:37)
6. Iron Man 3 by Brian Tyler
Brian Tyler had a Marvel-ous year! His scores for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were wholly successful in establishing an overall blueprint for future Marvel movies. Each score flawlessly captures their respective characters while elevating the various nuances of the narrative. Most importantly, these scores add an element of fun to the Marvel universe that I believe was sorely lacking in previous attempts, resulting in a more enjoyable listening experience.
Between the two scores, I have to tip the nod toward Iron Man 3 which I think could be the best Marvel score to date (although I’m still particularly fond of Captain America: The First Avenger by Alan Silvestri). When you listen to this score you hear, feel and see Tony Stark as Iron Man, not simply as the character he is, but who he has become. It’s too obvious and restrictive to simply rip a heavy-metal guitar riff every time Stark does his schtick. What I love about Tyler’s take is that he utilizes a magnificently heroic theme which is developed throughout the picture to expose Stark’s evolving emotional and psychological states.
The physicality of Tyler’s music is equally as impressive. When The Mandarin attacks Stark at his Malibu home, the music is unforgivingly raucous, heightening the tension of Stark’s vulnerability. Tyler’s theme for The Mandarin layers mysterious shadows over a simple character we don’t learn much about from the narrative alone. The Mandarin is built up as an unquestionable badass whose threats send chills of fear down the spine of even the bravest of heroes. Tyler’s music encapsulates these elements to perfection making The Mandarin’s subsequent revelation that much more enjoyable.
I have to admit that throughout the previous Iron Man films, and even The Avengers, I was growing weary of Tony Stark and his paltry gimmicks. Who I always felt was an intricately complex character on paper, was devolving steadily into a one-dimensional snooze-fest on screen. Tyler’s music for Iron Man 3 allowed me to fall in love with the character all over again and renewed my hope that Stark’s sustainability throughout future Marvel endeavors would not be in jeopardy.
My Favorite Cue: Track 20 - “Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)” (2:42)
5. Escape From Tomorrow by Abel Korzeniowski
I almost disqualified this score from contention because there is only about twenty-two minutes of original music composed for this film. The rest is a composite mish-mash of non-original selections from various sources. While this doesn’t detract from the overall musical landscape of the picture, I wondered if the composers’ efforts made enough of an impact on the film to warrant recognition. Truthfully, it’s an earworm that I couldn’t shake from my consciousness. Escape From Tomorrow might be one of the more surreal and original scores penned in 2013. It’s a bizarre, non-expectant collection of cues for a peculiar film that never could have been anticipated.
We’re smack dab in the middle of an age fueled by temp score templates, studio insecurity and safety-first attitudes where films are scored utilizing “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” molds. Rarely are composers offered the opportunity to think “outside-the-box” or approach their films from alternate angles. In the past, I’ve compared Korzeniowski to Jerry Goldsmith solely for his penchant to take risks and compose scores you wouldn’t think would work initially, yet once you hear the music you couldn’t imagine anything else existing in its place. Goldsmith was a fearless and voracious risk-taker. Korzeniowski is following Goldsmith’s legacy by creating truly original music that defy modern trends and cinematic logic.
In only twenty-two minutes of original music, Korzeniowski dexterously penned an infusion of vintage spacey-synthesizer textures, primal children chants, syrupy melodramatic strings and the furious flurries of an epic piano concerto solo into one cohesive score. To wield such a robust musical vocabulary while maintaining continuity throughout a single score is a skill reserved only for those who have mastered their craft. Abel Korzeniowski is certainly on his way.
My Favorite Cues: Track 3 - “Fireworks” (2:46) and Track 8 - “The Grand Finale” (3:20)
4. Evil Dead by Roque Baños
This score is flat out terrifying! While there are many fantastic horror scores composed that aren’t necessarily scary to listen to by themselves, Roque Baños’ Evil Dead is one of those rare, bone-chillingly scary scores that I have difficulty listening to when alone in my studio.
An influx of modern horror scores relegate themselves to exhausting discordant bangs in order to deliver scares. I’ve always felt this was akin to cheating. If you’re surrounded by silence and a boisterous noise rips into your eardrums, you’re going to psychically jump. The specific sound itself is superfluous. Utilizing this technique is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s used judiciously and in moderation so that each instance is as fresh and invigorating as the last. If not, these cacophonous bombasts could easily become annoying and detract from the picture.
Baños’ nightmarish concoction is chock-full of well-composed stingers; however, it’s the music in between the scare-gags that really makes this score spine-tingling. One of Baños’ masterstrokes was the inclusion of the siren. Used as a percussion instrument by various composers throughout the early 20th century, the siren is a marquee instrument closely associated with fear. The psychology behind it can be traced back to World War II when air raid sirens across Europe would scream warnings of the imminent carnage raining down from above.
I’ve never heard the siren applied to a film score quite like this. The first time it cried out, it sent chills down my spine. High string clusters, creepy male chanting, vocalized whispering, wailing banshees, unnerving simultaneities that cause your hair to stand on end and well-scribed piano and violin solos all anchor this extraordinary horror-coaster ride.
My My Favorite Cue: Track 14 - “Abominations Rising” (7:00)
3. Star Trek Into Darkness by Michael Giacchino
Sequel scores are more difficult to compose than one might assume. In order to be effective as a functional score, the composer can not simply regurgitate material from the preceding film. Even if the sequel features similar characters, relationships, or other elements of the narrative, it’s usually perceived as a development or continuation of a previous story, and not simply a reiteration.
Many films require scores that are expositional. Themes are presented firmly establishing an aural symbol associated with certain narrative ideas. When you score a sequel, those themes have already been installed, freeing up the composer to create less exposition and focus more on development. There could even be an opportunity to create new expositional material in congruence with newly introduced characters or other narrative elements. A well-composed sequel score should sound self-reliant, fresh and wholly original, yet feel like it's been cut from the same cloth as the previous movie.
Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek Into Darkness is not the first sequel he’s ever scored; however, it is the first sequel he has scored having also composed the music for the previous film. I would easily place it among the pantheon of the best scored sequels in cinematic history. Giacchino ups the ante of his previous music in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and delivers a newfangled score for the Star Trek universe developed from the material he established in the preceding film. Instead of exhausting the old material, Giacchino re-energizes and expands the vocabulary and context of the music taking each new idea on invigoratingly new journeys. He also employs the instantly recognizable main theme at key junctions within the picture without overstaying its welcome. A good sequel score should instantly make the original film’s score even better. This is certainly the case here. I’m rather fond of Giacchino’s score for Star Trek; however, I also adore the music for Star Trek Into Darkness, making me love the original even more.
The score for Star Trek Into Darkness is available on CD by Varèse Sarabande (302 067 198 2) and is available for purchase at Amazon.com. It is also available as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon.com.
My Favorite Cues: Track 6 - “The Kronos Wartet” (5:27) and Track 10 - “Warp Core Values” (2:57)
2. Grand Piano by Victor Reyes
Victor Reyes’ music for Grand Piano might be among the single greatest technical achievements in the history of film music. Strong hyperbole I know, but when you see the film, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Directed by Eugenio Mira and starring Elijah Wood, Grand Piano is an old-school thriller that takes place inside an elegant concert hall during the performance of a classical piano concerto. What’s truly remarkable is that the music performed by the orchestra and Elijah Wood’s character literally becomes the score for the film. It’s source-scoring at its most elaborate! Not only does the ambitious three movement piano concerto have to sound like a plausible concert piece, it must also underscore the action unfolding on screen as Wood’s character is targeted by a vindictive sniper hiding in the rafters during his performance.
Each shot was carefully choreographed by Mira and Wood so that certain measures of the concerto would line up precisely with each individual cut. The results are astounding! The music is a legitimate work and not a Hollywood-ized perception of what classical music should sound like, yet it’s also a phenomenal score that functions precisely as a thriller score should function. The thought of assembling this nightmarish jigsaw puzzle of moving images and music is enough to turn the stomach of any veteran filmmaker.
Other than the three movement piano concerto there are two other pieces of music to note in the film. There is an encore piano solo entitled “La cinquette” which is dubbed in the movie as “the unplayable piece” and is credited to Patrick Godureaux, the composer posthumously celebrated in the film. When a movie narrative hypes a particular piece of music as being “unplayable,” any pianist such as myself will remain skeptical as to its ultimate difficulty. As advertised, “La cinquette” is indeed a masterfully composed piece of undeniable difficulty which Wood “performs” with flawless precision. This piece is also a major component to the story itself, making it all the more impressive.
The other standout piece is the wickedly cool “Main Titles,” which is composed of various layers of prepared piano. This is a technique in which wood, screws, paper, rubber or other industrial elements are placed within the strings of the piano at precise locations in order to vastly alter its overall sound. The result transforms familiar piano sounds to a quirky smorgasbord of percussive oddities: thwacks, clonks, clanks, whumps and dings.
There are ample instances of source music scoring in cinema; however, I never could have imagined that an entire film could be scored with diegetic music as it’s being performed live on stage by dozens of musicians. It’s an amazing cinematic accomplishment and a remarkable score!
The score for Grand Piano is not available on CD or as a digital download. The film will receive a VOD release on January 30, 2014 followed by a limited release in U.S. theaters starting March 7th.
1. Only God Forgives by Cliff Martinez
I’ll admit this movie isn’t for everybody. I myself was beguiled and ultimately seduced by Nicolas Winding Refn’s kaleidoscopic imagery and unexpectedly sparse dialogue. The film burrowed itself into my subconscious as I found myself reflecting upon it repeatedly in the days following my first screening.
Much of its intoxicating allure can be credited to Cliff Martinez’s immersive music. I’ve enjoyed and respected Martinez’s music for many years; however, this score has singlehandedly elevated my admiration for his work as an artist. Whom I once revered as a trendy cinematic soundscaper, I now revel as a mature composer of unparalleled artistry and craftsmanship.
What makes Only God Forgives so unique from a scoring perspective is the role music plays throughout the picture. The responsibility of the music is far more substantial than that of a typical narrative. Instead of being subservient to the images on screen, Martinez’s music sees itself more as an equal partner. This heightened functional responsibility required of the music could easily expose composers with lesser skill; however, in the hands of Martinez, the results are near miraculous. It’s an organic work of exquisite elegance and vicious brutality stemming from the phantasmagorical and unorthodox infusion of Thai karaoke music. Like an elegant ballet, each beat of music flips the cognizant perception of reality turning ugliness into beauty, brutality into security, and comfortability into anxiety while blurring the boundaries of benevolence and evil.
Martinez’s phenomenal music coupled with Refn’s extraordinary images are equally at home on permanent display in an art museum as they are inside a movie theater. For each pair of eyes and ears that gaze upon this film, an individualistic appraisal will render an array of various judgments. Only God Forgives is not going to be for everybody, but it certainly is for me.
The score for Only God Forgives is available on CD by Milan Music (M2-36637) and is available for purchase at Amazon.com. It is also available as a digital download via iTunes and Amazon.com and as a limited edition LP with digital from Amazon.com.
My Favorite Cue: Track 3 - “Chang and Sword” (2:24)