Avatar (2009) – James Horner

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AvatarMusic Composed and Conducted By: James Horner

Label: Fox Music/Atlantic

Total Playing Time: 78:57

Listen to One: 07 Climbing Up “Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven”

Hollywood always works in a very narrow set of ways, the same scenarios recurring at regular intervals and seemingly nobody growing any the wiser. Take this classic one for example: James Cameron makes a film that pushes technology to new levels (albeit with a very old-fashioned storyline), is absolutely enormous in scale, costing so much to give the studio execs sleepless nights. Before its release the project is thrown amongst the critics and the bloodthirsty to see how much they can take it apart (in “Avatar’s” case it was a dissatisfaction with the first teaser trailer) and when it finally does hit cinema screens everyone suddenly loves it and Cameron walks away with a wad of cash and probably with a few award gongs as well. They never learn do they? In many ways, these sentiments of predictability could be applied to Cameron’s composing regular James Horner, a man so often criticised for plagiarism and self plagiarism yet his scores are still beloved by so many fans. So when the announcement was made that Horner was going to score “Avatar” we had our bets firmly placed on what it was going to sound like, right?

And a good bet it was too because the score certainly delivers in this regard: Large scale orchestration mixed with synths and some speciality instruments (Gamelan bells and so forth) as well as a choir and vocal soloists chanting in native Na’Vi. And just for good measure Horner throws in his (in)famous “danger” motif. However by no means does this render the score redundant or as a simple rerun of everything Horner has written over the past two decades. While it does check the boxes in terms of predictability to a certain degree, “Avatar” is written with such gusto and style that it grows into something that can only be described as epic. Horner spent over a year working on the project and the end result is over three hours of music. With a few exceptions the album presents all the score’s highlights,the music only slightly loosing it’s power when divorced from the film.

The CD opens with a very strong cue – “You don’t Dream in Cryo…” which sets up the following material nicely. It will remind listeners of passages from the likes of “Willow” and “Braveheart” but is an excellent ‘suspense’ track nonetheless. Like the film, the music begins firmly with the human side of the tale, easing us gradually into the world of Pandora and its inhabitants. This is achieved in the following tracks as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) enters his alien body for the first time. The real emotional power of this transformation lies in Jake regaining the ability to walk and the music really soars with wonder in the second half of “Jake Enters his Avatar World.” There follows an extended period of interaction between Jake and his new surroundings, until he is lead by Neytiri  into Hometree itself. The sense of wonder that has gone before is replaced by the first subtle statements of the “I See You” theme that will serve as the basis of the film’s love story, as well as a harsher theme played on French Horns that seems to serve a function as a theme for the Na’Vi in general. It’s appearance in “Pure Spirits of the Forest” is harsh, almost intimidating and contrasts with the later statements of the theme in a more heroic context (although sadly many of these statements were left out of the commercial album).

But where the score really soars is in its middle section beginning with a full performance of the “I See You” theme opening track number five, on the album with a beautiful boy’s vocal and then an expansion of that to full choir that really puts the score on the map as something special for the first time. In the film Horner exchanged the boy for a flute which works as well but is nowhere near as powerful. As the film’s imagery becomes ever more grand – in particular with those floating mountains – so the music swells, a series of excellent tracks from “Climbing up to “Ilknimaya – the Path to Heaven” to “Jake’s First Flight.” Together they perfectly capture Jake’s integration into the Na’Vi way of life and when heard played alongside the film creates several spine tingling moments!

The third and final section of the score is an exploration of the humans’ takeover of Pandora and in particular our antagonist, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Horner talks of “the feeling of sharp metal of rotorblades” in relation to the character’s musical conception. Harsh brass statements and heavy percussion underline this over four cues, namely “Scorched Earth”, “Quaritch”, “The Destruction of Hometree” and the final ten minute cue “War”. Put simply, this is Horner action material at its finest, melding full orchestra with electronic rhythms and a choir chanting. The highlight of all these efforts comes just two minutes into “Scorched Earth”. Certain Shostakovich sensibilities (a favourite of Horner’s) are to be heard here as well as the danger motif but this is some fantastic writing for brass.

As an interlude comes the wonderfully restrained “Shutting Down Grace’s Lab” with violin solos that could give “Iris” a run for her money. This cue leads into “Gathering the Na’Vi Clans for Battle” which is probably the most heroic track on show here, providing another one of those shiver-down-spine moments in the cinema. The only real disappointment on the album is the dreadful Leona Lewis track stuck on the front of the end credits. While it is, to a certain extent in keeping with the synth style of earlier tracks and is one of the only performances of a neglected theme (on the album at least) but it just feels out of place and it certainly isn’t another “My Heart Will Go On”. Shame. Instead it would have been nice to include some extra score material instead.

Which brings me ultimately to discuss the presentation of the music on the album as a representation of the music in the film: As previously stated the album is a very good collection of the score’s highlights. As is usually the case with fanboy films like these complete score bootlegs were quick to surface. In particular a three CD promo which sold for several hundred dollars on E-Bay soon appeared as a download and certainly contains so much more excellent music. Hopefully some day in the future this score will get a full treatment by the likes of LaLaLand or similar. To coincide with the DVD release of the films an album with five bonus tracks was offered for download.

Criticise both Cameron and Horner if you want, for recycling “Pocahontas” and “Dances With Wolves” for one or an endless rerun for the other. However that would not be entirely fair and this could indeed see Horner return to the high period he celebrated in the 90s. “Avatar” truly is an awesome achievement for Horner, a modern score that brims with both style and substance, a masterpiece. *****

Wow, long review! If you have any thoughts at all, feedback or comments please do leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed or e-mail sub. Until next time all the best!

The Departed (2006) – Howard Shore

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The DepartedMusic Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted By: Howard Shore

Featured Performers: Sharon Isbin, G.E. Smith, Larry Saltzman, Marc Ribot

Label: Silva Screen Records (Europe)

Total Playing Time: 41:44

Listen to one: 03 Beacon Hill

Like gangster movies and Leonardo DiCaprio, composer Howard Shore has almost become a trademark of Italian maestro Martin Scorsese and “The Departed” marked their third collaboration after “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”. The film, adapted from Hong Kong movie “Infernal Affairs” tells the tale of the Boston underworld, an eternal struggle between the police and Mafia boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) trying to run the city. Both sides employ moles to leak inside information, focusing on criminal-posing-as-cop Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and cop-posing-as-criminal Billy Costgan (Leonardo DiCaprio). It is by no means Scorsese’s best but is still a hugely gripping and entertaining gangster movie and thriller – and of course it finally won him that coveted Best Director Oscar statuette.

Several songs were used in the movie, most notably “Shipping Up to Boston” performed by the Dropkick Murphys, setting an excellent tone for the movie and (predictably) forming a large part of the first soundtrack release. The second soundtrack available comprises completely of Howard Shore’s underscore which may puzzle listeners at first but in the film makes perfect sense and makes for a superb album experience. Shore’s compositions are a series of tangoes, a direction unexpected to say the least. After all, with the film playing in Boston and Damon’s character being Irish there are no Latin connections whatsoever. The explanation can be found in the linear notes where Shore says “[Scorsese] had the idea to use a tango to portray the nature of the deadly game being played.” This developed into “The Departed Tango” and could very much be described as the main theme.

This tango seems to be utilised by Shore as a theme that encompasses both Nicholson and Damon’s characters, one the mastermind, the other his trainee. It forms the basis of the opening track “Cops or Criminals” and is reprised in “Colin” on accoustic guitar and a more electronic version in “Command” and “Miss Thing”. The tune is rhythmic, almost routine in progression, mirroring the ruthless manner in which Costello and Sullivan operate. Together with some suspense cues with an industrial or grunge edge (“344 Wash” and “Chinatown”) they inject into the score its main drive and intrigue. Although the main theme will garner most of the focus on a first time listen, what really stands out are the quieter interludes on the album. “Billiy’s Theme” is the signature of Leonrdo DiCaprio’s tough talking but insecure cop working endlessly to bring down Costello. He becomes the film’s main emotional outlet and rightfully his theme is hauntingly beautiful, Shore focusing on his softer side, those quiet moments in which he has time to breathe and ultimately the hopelessness of his situation.

Similarly the theme for Vera Farmiga’s psychologist Madolyn, her involvement with Colin and Billy and heartbreak at the film’s conclusion is designed to give the viewer something to focus on emotionally. “Madolyn” becomes gradually more downbeat as the track progresses and is then reprised in a slower, more mournful form in “The Baby”. However the highlight of the score is doubtlessly the third track “Beacon Hill” heard in the film as Matt Damon is viewing an apartment, looking up at the dome of the church where once he served as a child. Extremely sad on it’s own it becomes heartrending as we realise just what might have been for this man.

To perform his score, Shore employed four guitar soloists from New York: Sharon Isbin, G.E. Smith, Larry Saltzman and Marc Ribot. Although they never all perform together, the contrasts between their playing styles are very much in keeping with the divisions in the music. To accompany the soloists a string ensemble was put together, Shore as usual taking charge of conducting and orchestrating duties as well as composing.

The result of all this is a score that should sit very uncomfortably with its film but in fact the opposite is true, having exactly the effect Scorsese was hoping for. For some unknown reason it just works. Together with the popular songs the director has chosen – he does like the Rolling Stones doesn’t he – the score works really well. On its own the soundtrack is an excellent listen and, perhaps most remarkably, bears no resemblance whatsoever to any Shore’s previous works. Any expecting something along the lines of “The Lord of the Rings” may be disappointed but it all points towards a masterful composer, a true master of different genres. ****

As this is my first review I would be grateful for any advice, tips, suggestions, complaints or any feedback at all you may have. Feel free to leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed or my Twitter for updates. Until next time!