Category Archives: Film Composer

Soundtrack Review: The Alienist (2018)

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The Alienist is an American television period drama mystery series based on the novel of the same name by Caleb Carr. The ten episode series currently running on TNT stars Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning as a team assembled in late 1890s New York City to investigate a ritualistic serial killer who is murdering street children. The title comes from a late-19th century belief about mental illness. At that time, the mentally ill were considered to be “alienated” from their true nature. Those who studied mental illness were therefore known as “alienists.”

The titular alienist is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), a criminal psychologist hired to secretly conduct an investigation into the case by police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (the future President of the United States). Kreizler is aided in his task by newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) and Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning), the police commissioner’s secretary.

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The music for The Alienist was composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. A truly versatile composer, Gregson-Williams has written a wide range of scores for many feature films, including the Oscar-winning Hotel Rwanda for which he was awarded the European Film Award for Best Composer, the blockbuster DreamWorks animated films Over The Hedge and Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie, for which Rupert was nominated for an Annie Award for his original score and the independent BBC Films’ Love + Hate, for which he was awarded the Reims International Composer Award.

Most recently, Gregson-Williams scored the blockbuster and critically acclaimed Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine; the award-winning war drama Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield and directed by Mel Gibson, and the international hit The Legend of Tarzan. His upcoming film projects include “Terminal,” starring Margot Robbie and written and directed by Vaughn Stein.

Having cut the cable cord several years ago, I haven’t been able to watch the show yet, but based on the soundtrack, I think I need to. From the very start with “The Streets of New York” and “Brooklyn Bridge,” there is an old-time sound that is meant to recall the late-19th century. In fact, I was strongly put in mind of the soundtrack to Sherlock Holmes (2009) which is set in a similar time period (albeit in London and not New York City).

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The cue titled “Dr. Laszlo Kreizler,” which I assume is his theme, intrigued me. Given that he’s the titular character, it struck me how sinister his theme sounds with a descending three note motif that recurs in strings and piano. This could be because he studies the mentally ill and crimes committed by people who suffer from mental illness and as a result he’s “tainted” for lack of a better word by what he’s seen. Of course it could also be a musical hint that Kreizler is a villain in disguise, but I can’t say for certain (though now I want to read the book and watch the show to find out if I’m right or not).

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Another cue that caught my attention is “Madness of the City” which literally starts with a growl that briefly settles back before exploding into a mad cacophony that literally sounds like someone trying to break through a locked door (which may have been what they were going for) with repeated “banging” sounds. The entire track is underlaid with raging strings (primarily the cello) that continually make their presence known. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks. “Alienated Mind” is also an interesting piece because it consists of long musical drones that remind me of a Buddhist monk chanting “Ommm…”

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Finally, I’ll talk about the main title theme for the show, which is very short (only 35 seconds) but contains a wealth of detail. Instead of possessing a distinct theme as most shows do (for example Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, Star Trek and NCIS just to name a few), the main theme for The Alienist more closely resembles what music theorists call a “sound cloud,” that is to say a mashup of music that is loosely organized (otherwise it would just be noise) but has no distinct melody. It contains elements from several of the tracks I’ve looked at already, and it carries an air of mystery about it.

And those are my thoughts on the soundtrack for The Alienist. The soundtrack is currently available via Lakeshore Records. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this soundtrack available for review. Let me know what you think of The Alienist and its soundtrack in the comments below!

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See also:

Live Action Soundtracks A-E

Live-action Soundtracks F-L

Live Action Soundtracks M-Z

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Soundtrack Review: Altered Carbon (2018)

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Based on the classic cyberpunk noir novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is an intriguing story of murder, love, sex, and betrayal, set more than 300 years in the future. In Netflix’s Altered Carbon, Society has been transformed by new technology: consciousness can be digitized; human bodies are interchangeable; death is no longer permanent.

Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is the lone surviving soldier in a group of elite interstellar warriors who were defeated in an uprising against the new world order. His mind was imprisoned – on ice – for centuries until Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an impossibly wealthy, long-lived man, offers Kovacs the chance to live again. In exchange, Kovacs has to solve a murder … that of Bancroft himself.

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The soundtrack is composed by Jeff Russo, who has also composed music for Star Trek: Discovery and Fargo. For the latter, Russo earned a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special in 2017. Russo began his music career in 1990, after founding his rock band TONIC. The group quickly achieved great success and in 2003, received two Grammy nominations, one for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” for “Take Me As I Am,” and one for “Best Rock Album.” The band was a great showcase for Russo’s guitar work and songwriting that allowed him to branch out and begin his solo career in producing and composing.

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I’d heard that the soundtrack for Altered Carbon was unusual for a story in the cyberpunk genre, and now that I’ve listened to the soundtrack album I can definitely attest that this is true. As a general rule, the music in any show or film set in the future (and particularly in a cyberpunk future like Altered Carbon) has an “edgy futuristic” feel to it. Notable examples of this practice include: Blade Runner and its sequel; Automata; The Machine and Forbidden Planet. These films have soundtracks with weird electronic noises, guitar riffs and descents into heavy rock beats during action sequences.

 

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But the soundtrack for Altered Carbon doesn’t do this. Instead, the music, beginning with the “Main Title” has a mysterious quality to it. There are long, held-out string drones that combine with soft vocals (that are half muttering, half singing) and a cello solo. The opening title has the slightest touch of a drum beat, but it only lasts for a short time and doesn’t dominate the track.

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Most of the album: “Consciousness,” “Bancroft Shows Kovacs,” “Her Daughter,” and “Attacked by Troopers” are all variations on the same musical arrangement: strings with a prominent solo cello, combined with female vocalizations and an on-again/off-again background of electronic music. This is not a bad thing: In fact it shows that the world of Altered Carbon has a consistent musical background (and consistency is never a bad thing in film and television music). It’s actually refreshing to listen to a science fiction soundtrack that doesn’t include heavy rock music. Jeff Russo has composed a beautiful soundtrack for an amazing show. If you haven’t watched it yet, the first season is currently available on Netflix. The soundtrack became digitally available from Lakeshore Records as of February 9th, 2018.

Let me know your thoughts on Altered Carbon and its soundtrack in the comments below! My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this soundtrack available for review.

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Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of composer Miklos Rozsa’s film scores. Rozsa (1907-1995) was a titan of film music and his epic score for Ben-Hur (1959) remains a benchmark that few have ever equalled (let alone surpassed).

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I am pleased to announce that Tadlow Music is releasing a completely new recording of this 157 minute score on October 3rd, one that will feature previously unrecorded music. The music has been recorded by the City of Prague Philarmonic and is conducted by Nic Raine.

If you haven’t seen the 1959 epic, it is NOTHING like the travesty that came out in 2016 (in fact, forget that movie even exists). The 1959 version of Ben-Hur is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning a record 11 Academy Awards (a feat that has only been equaled twice and NEVER surpassed) as it tells the story of a Judean prince (played brilliantly by Charlton Heston) whose life is thrown into turmoil at the same time that a strange carpenter begins preaching a new message to the people.

When you listen to this soundtrack, I highly recommend starting with the Overture. While it may seem strange now for a film to have an “overture” like an opera, back in the day it was fairly common for an epic film to start with a musical overture of some kind (there was also intermission music and exit music) that would play as the audience took their seats.

Another track that I absolutely recommend is the “Parade of the Charioteers” (this is usually preceded by a series of fanfares). This is the music that precedes the climactic chariot race (where Ben-Hur and Messala settle their differences once and for all) and is rightly considered one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. Curiously, the race itself has no music, something I’ve talked at length about.

Another track that I must recommend is the music that accompanies the “Lepers!” scene. As I’ve said previously, this scene features some amazing musical work, as Rozsa must convey with music alone that something terrible has happened to Ben-Hur’s mother and sister without the audience actually seeing what it is.

Truthfully, I could recommend this entire soundtrack, as it is a beautiful masterpiece, whose importance to film music cannot be overstated. In fact, parts of the score were used as temporary music for Star Wars (1977) (and it is said you can still hear its influence in certain places). If you want to hear some fantastic music, please pick up this new recording when it comes out in October. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this information available.

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Soundtrack Review: American Assassin (2017)

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I was fortunate enough to be able to experience the soundtrack for the upcoming film American Assassin, due to be released next week in theaters. Directed by Michael Cuesta, American Assassin follows the rise of Mitch Rapp, a CIA black ops recruit, after losing his parents in a car accident and his girlfriend to a terrorist attack shortly after they were engaged.

The soundtrack was composed by Steve Price and is simply amazing. This review will look at several pieces from the soundtrack, to give you an idea of what is to come. The opening track is titled “The Proposal” and begins with a quiet melody, partially played on piano. This is later mixed with a cello; it is simple but romantic at the same time. The twist comes halfway through the track: the music suddenly turns dark (emphasized by very low tones on the piano) and the tension is slowly turned up as the mood turns from light and happy to dark and unsure. Even though the film hasn’t come out yet, the music allows me to visualize what is likely happening: Mitch has just proposed to his girlfriend (or maybe he is getting ready for it), when, according to the music, something terrible happens.

The fifth track is titled “Plutonium” and is not so much a melody as it is a cluster of sound  waves that rise and fall in volume. The opening moments are dripping with menace (appropriate for plutonium, which can be deadly in the wrong hands), and for most of the track there is no motion in the sound, but this begins to change toward the end. I don’t mean to imply that lack of motion is a bad thing because it isn’t. Sometimes the soundtrack just needs to convey the threat of something, it doesn’t necessarily have to move the audience along, so to speak.

The tenth track is titled “I Trusted You” and it might just be my favorite in the soundtrack. The first minute is pure frenetic energy, but then it slides back into a contemplative mode, as if the scene began with a burst of action and then tapered off, perhaps into dialogue. I loved the mix of energy between the different instruments, and how seamlessly it transitioned from action to drama (fast-paced to slow-paced, it’s a slight oversimplification, but it gets my point across).

And that is my brief preview into the music for American Assassin. I absolutely loved everything I heard and I believe Steve Price has done a magnificent job. I apologize deeply for not getting these music reviews out sooner, the dissertation has taken over a large chunk of my life and I was forced to place these reviews on the back burner. But now I promise that if I blog on nothing else for the near future, I will get some reviews out to you every week. I hope you enjoyed this one, there’s plenty to come I promise. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making the soundtrack of American Assassin available. Have a good weekend everyone!

 

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An Interview with Paul Henning

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Last month I was privileged to conduct an interview with composer Paul Henning where we discussed (in part) his work in orchestrating Star Wars: The Force Awakens, his work as a performer in film orchestras and the ongoing work of the legendary John Williams. I was fascinated to learn about the process that goes into recording a film score and how the process of orchestrating a score actually works. If you follow the link below, you can check out the audio interview I conducted with Mr. Henning. I hope you enjoy!

An Interview with Paul Henning

Film composer and musician Paul Henning’s most recent project was writing the score for the Tribeca Film Festival opening night documentary ‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives’. The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Paul had a somewhat unconventional role writing music for this project. While the focus was the cadre of huge music artists Clive has worked with, Paul scored key moments of conflict, loss or emotional gravity that were vital to the story.

Paul also recently released his debut album, ‘BREAKING THROUGH’. The album was crafted with a nostalgic, Americana vibe drawn from Paul’s love of the expanses of the Western US and his love of American History. The album features piano solos performed by the Paul and recorded live with a 48-piece studio orchestra. Here is a link to selections of the album for your review: http://www.paulhenning.com/breaking-through.

Paul has served as Concertmaster for the Golden State Pops Orchestra since 2004. He’s also worked on the score orchestrations for over 50 feature films, including ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens, ‘The BFG’, ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’ and ‘Chocolat’. In addition to his film writing, he also works on orchestral arrangements that have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and London Symphony.

An accomplished pianist and violinist, Henning has performed with the Hollywood Studio Symphony on the soundtracks to ‘Frozen’, ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, ‘The Maze Runner’, ‘Furious 7’, ‘Moana’, ‘Storks’, ‘Monsters University’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’, among many others. He has also played violin for artists including Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Neil Young, Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban. Henning has served as Concertmaster for the Golden State Pops Orchestra since 2004.

The magic of James Horner: Casper (1995)

Thanks to everyone who has participated in the blogathon so far. Today is the last day and here is my contribution. Enjoy!

It’s been two years since James Horner was ripped away from us, his passing left a void that may never be filled. He had a gift for creating magical themes that stuck in the head for hours after the movie was over. And one of my favorite examples from the mid-90s was the main theme from Casper (1995).

Loosely based on the comics character Casper the Friendly Ghost, Casper follows a paranormal therapist, Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman) and his daughter “Kat” as they travel from state to state in an attempt to make contact with the spirit of Harvey’s deceased wife Amelia. The pair come to Casper’s former home when the spoiled heiress who inherited the home wants the ghosts (Casper and his uncles) removed so she can claim the “treasure” hidden inside.

Casper’s Lullaby

Casper’s theme, listed on the soundtrack as “Casper’s Lullaby”, is a haunting piano melody that comes to the forefront particularly when Casper remembers the events of his death, and also during the Halloween dance when Kat realizes she’s dancing with Casper (who’s alive for one night).

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It’s such a haunting melody, one that highlights the tragedy of Casper’s short life, and the fact that he “didn’t go where he was supposed to” but stayed behind instead. Actually, ever since Horner passed away, I’ve had a hard time listening to this theme, as it reminds me that one of the greatest film composers is gone before his time. I hope you enjoy listening to Casper’s Lullaby, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blogathon today.

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See also:

2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon Day 1!!

2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon Day 2!!

Remembering James Horner Blogathon Day 3

Composer Interview with Scott Doherty

Scott Doherty is a lifelong musician, though some might say a reluctant composer. After moving from his hometown of Maine to Los Angeles at the age of 18, Scott’s early musical pursuits included playing live music to large audiences at venues like the House of Blues and the El Ray and performing in the South Coast Repertory Theatre production ‘Against Oblivion’, among other productions. He was led to study and pursue sound and music composition and since then, has composed music for numerous film and TV projects, including ‘Weeds’, ‘Orange is the New Black’ and most recently, ‘The Holdouts’. We sat down to talk with Scott about his career as a musician and composer.

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How did you get into composing for television?
Looking back, I feel like it was something I didn’t directly aim to do. I was in the band world playing keys for other bands and I hit a point with where I felt somewhat stilted, which moved me away from the record format and more into instrumental music. From there I dove into the recording studio and was just fascinated by everything. It was over the course of a year that I was asked to write a couple of score-based projects. I was asked to direct a few shows, music for a documentary called ‘Becoming Santa’, and these projects felt more like a perfect fit, using music to tell stories. Not long after, I ran into a friend who was a music supervisor and she’d become the head of music for the E! Network. I began to work on a string of shows for them, doing theme songs for different shows. I was still craving writing music to picture,  and about that time is when the opportunity for ‘Orange is the New Black’ came in. I was asked to join in the series that would be on Netflix, and at the time, digital wasn’t what it was today – so it was really a leap of faith.

Yeah, I remember at the time it was announced it seemed really weird like, television on Netflix? How does that even work?  *laughs* Yeah, people were really unsure of the platform, but I saw the entire first season of ‘Orange’ before the rest of the world did and I fell in love with it:  the story, the characters, the incredible actors. I just had no idea how lucky we would become with this series.

With each season (of Orange is the New Black’) being released all at once, what is the schedule for creating the score for each episode, compared to a regular television series? Has everything already been shot?  There are a lot of similarities actually, in the way that we have a similar production schedule to a regular show on network cable. There’s about a week to do each episode, and production is usually about three to four episodes ahead of us, but it is still the same production flow. The difference is that we’re not getting feedback week to week from audiences. Because all thirteen episodes are available at once, Netflix encouraged us (in fact they sent a note about it about halfway through the first season) to think of it really as a thirteen hour-long movie, rather than a normal, episodic TV show. And that changed the way that I look at the character theme arcs and making sure that whatever happens in episode one, that same day the audience could be watching episode eight, so the continuity needed to be there.

Right, so if each season is like a movie, does that mean there is more there in terms of character motifs?
Yes, and with ‘Orange’ there is such a diverse cast, with so many “lead” actors and actresses, so we really try and focus in on a specific melodic theme or sonic world that is created to support each character, and some of that makes its way into their flashbacks. Some of those themes are in fact born in flashbacks because with some characters we don’t get to really know them until those moments. But it really does feel more like scoring a film than a television show in that regard.

So with Season 5 coming on June 9th, have any of the (musical) themes changed over the years?
Oh most definitely. One of the biggest would be Dayanara’s theme, which started as her and Bennet’s love theme and as their relationship went on the rocks, it created a flipped version of the same theme, but more dark. Suzanne’s (“Crazy Eyes”) theme starts off more aggressive, but as we get to know her, the innocence comes out. And then there’s a hybrid of the two, and also there’s some situational themes that come back over time. I really feel the prison itself has a real character to it, there’s an “essence” of what prison sounds like.

Definitely. What about Piper? Because she’s the one who’s really thrown headlong into all of this at the start.
I feel like the way we’ve worked with Piper through the seasons is more situational in terms of themes. Some of them have been more whimsical, a theme to reinforce the isolation she was feeling (in the SHU), then in – I think it was season three –  there was the “Piper 2.0” theme with an aggressive Piper finding her voice and that carried over into season four. There really isn’t one central theme for Piper, it really changes from season to season for her.

I actually misunderstood what this show was going to be about. Because when the preview for the pilot came out, I saw that Piper was being sentenced to this relatively short time in prison, so I thought ‘Orange is the New Black’ was meant to be a one-off, a one season and that’s it sort of deal. And then I saw articles about season two, three and I’m like “why is this show still going?” And that’s when I read the summaries and realized this show was a lot more complex than I imagined.
*laughs* Oh yeah, but it’s really something like ’24′, which plays out in real time. And it’s also hard to gauge how much time is actually passing in these seasons. We’ve seen one Christmas and one Valentine’s Day so far. But it really does feel like we haven’t even covered a year yet. No one is too specific with covering sentences. But this latest season (season 5) will cover exactly three days. That was the story motif for this season.

Wow, so there’s a lot of stuff packed in to this season?
Yes! It starts off with a bang and keeps on going, I wish I could talk about it but there’s only a week to go now. What’s great about the first season though, is it uses Piper to introduce us to prison, to what it would feel like to have something from your past that you may have forgotten come back and affect you. And also what it would feel like to be one of those people outside of the walls and suddenly find themselves inside it. And so I think they were able to use her story to get us into prison, and as soon as the 2nd season started, the focus is now on every other inmate. It’s no longer about the singular struggle of this woman, it’s now more about the life of women in prison.

So in theory this show could run indefinitely?
Absolutely!

So, one last question, you said it was the same production flow as a regular television show. So is recording the music anything like film where you have the footage playing out in front of you?
Yes, it’s exactly the same. The way it breaks down is, we go to a spotting session where we sit down and watch the editor’s cut with temporary music put in. And we discuss it and say, “what do we like? Are there any character themes missing? Does it need to be funny or sad?”  And then we have about five to six days to complete twenty-five to thirty pieces of music for the show. We go to a music review and watch the cues one by one, and it’s usually “love it”, “change this one thing” or “try again”. Then we have another day to review it before we start all over again. I tend to write and record the music at the same time. The best-case scenario for me when writing is to turn the music off and watch the same scene five or six times to see if a natural pace or rhythm comes through. And a lot of times the performer’s work is so strong that I begin to hear the music in my head straight away. I try to capture that emotional reaction as quickly as possible.

Wow, that is so amazing! Well thank you very much for sitting down to talk with me about Orange is the New Black
No problem! Thank you.

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