Bolt by John Powell

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Now shooting towards the top of my favorite films is Bolt.  What a masterpiece of art.  The film, the score, the heart, the comedy, the action, and the journey across America.  It’s a perfect film for anyone who loves animation and anyone who has that connection with their dog.

Bolt is a testament to the genius of John Lasseter and his team at Disney. For one thing, the animation blends modern CGI techniques with old school hand-painted Disney backgrounds (later rendered into 3D models).  You can watch this film over and over to dig deeper into appreciating the level of artistry, love, and perfection behind it.

And here John Powell delivers one of his best scores (alongside How to Train Your Dragon).  What’s so fun about this score is the way it jumps between high octane action and sweet heartfelt moments driven by the simple piano melody that’s later played by a big brass section and swelling strings. 

The film has so many high points, like when Bolt discovers that he’s not who he thought he was, or the moments of disappointment when he realizes he’s been replaced.  Heart-crushing, but in the end you will be left with tears of joy reminding you of the beauty of a dog’s unbreakable loyalty to their best friend. 

Here’s a journey through the score in ten minutes. 

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Salmon Fishing in The Yemen by Dario Marianelli

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Right next to Life of Pi, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the other Best score of 2012.  One of my very favorite composers of the last five years has been Dario Marianelli.  He writes beautiful lyrical scores with class, elegance, and emotional depth.  Atonement and Pride & Prejudice are both excellent results of his collaboration with director Joe Wright.  This Lasse Halstrom film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt was an unexpected surprise.  I loved both the film and the score, which evokes a bright sun and a cool breeze mixed together.  Best of 2012. 

Get the full score on iTunes

Superman by John Williams

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This weekend marked the great John Williams’ 81st birthday.  So it’s fitting to dive into my favorite of his scores.  But where do I start?  There are too many.  Well, okay, anyone who knows me knows that my favorite movie theme of all time is his Superman.  But that’s not only why this magnificent score is so rich and meaningful.  To me, it’s because of the journey that it takes until we arrive at the fulfillment of this timeless three note motif, which by the way Williams derived from the same three notes starting Richard Strauss’s famous Also Spracht Zarathustra (which most people know from the opening of 2001 A Space Odyssey) in which Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Ubermench (the Super Human). 

To me, the best stuff is in the first half of the Richard Donner film.  It’s the dark material that starts at Planet Krypton as it approaches destruction, baby Supe’s journey to Earth, followed by the Coplandesque Americana music as he grows up, and then the atonal writing that takes us through the Fortress of Solitude. Only after that whole experience are we finally rewarded with the Superman theme. The moment it finally explodes, you feel like you just want to zoom up into the sky.  

There’s one more thing that has resonated with me ever since I was a little boy.  It’s the Helicopter Rescue scene, where after a suspenseful sequence where Lois is hanging off the top of the building about to fall off with the helicopter, Clark Kent walks out of the Daily Planet building and he notices everyone on the street looking up at the disaster about to happen, and here Williams pulls off one of the greatest movie music moments of all time.  Ta ta tum.  Ta ta ta, ta ta tum.  The hint at that Superman motif comes as Clark looks for a spot to change into Superman.  And you feel the goosebumps rise up, and then finally he opens his shirt as he runs towards camera along with the theme which finally goes into full blast as Supe saves Lois and the falling chopper. 

Here’s the full soundtrack album on iTunes

The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and Matrix Revolutions by Don Davis

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The Matrix closed the millenium with one hell of an action ride in this excellent score that took a few listens to digest before I was hooked. In the first album we get the post-modern insane brass clusters and one hell of an angry orchestra pumping adrenalin along with low-end piano rumbling right into the listeners blood (and brain). As the album progresses, the music takes us through a visceral ride through a classic hero’s journey. Some tracks add in the Japanese Taiko drums, and others have a huge choir accompanying the already gargantuan orchestra.

I used to listen to this album at the gym while running in the last row of treadmills while watching the pattern of machines everywhere around me as I raised the speed and ramp angle of the belt I was running on until I could almost take it no longer. But then, with the climactic high where Neo finally learns to break bullet time, I would break my pain threshold and feel a release of endorphins that would give me that euphoric experience that is unique to the Matrix.

If you want to push yourself to the limit at the gym, this is the album to listen to. (Warning: this might also give the faint of heart a good headache)

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With The Matrix: Reloaded, Davis teamed up with the brilliant techno group, Juno Reactor, creating a more accessible and fun (but just as aggressive) listening experience building rock/techno on top of the madness of the original Matrix orchestral/choral layers. Here’s the Burly Brawl as an example. Also check out Mona Lisa Overdrive. This is a score that will make sure you won’t slow your treadmill down at the gym… a good way to get a solid workout.

And if you thought it couldn’t get any bigger, The Matrix Revolutions goes there. Here’s the FINAL BATTLE.

Bottom line: if you’re ever pissed off and want to vent, go for an uphill run and let loose with these three incredible scores. To this day no score sounds like this excellent trio.

Joel McNeely’s Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

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You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to love this amazing non-film-score album, composed by Joel McNeely using bits of John Williams’ Star Wars themes, but then building a whole arsenal of orchestral maneuvers that showcase McNeely’s muscles as an original composer.  This concept album is set between two of the films, and it’s loaded with bombastic action written with the freedom of not having to match a picture.  Joel McNeely delivers a dish of goodies here, from space waltzes to hyperactive frenetic movements, and culminating in a massive wall of choir.  I think he should take over scoring the new Star Wars films if Williams decides to pass the baton. Here’s a track as an example.  It kicks into hyper action after a minute and a half.  This is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in top form.  Get the full Varese Sarabande album here on iTunes and you won’t be sorry.

Total Recall by Jerry Goldsmith

Continuing where I left off last week…

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This 1990 Paul Verhoven/Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi presents Jerry Goldsmith’s busiest and most action-packed score.  It may not be for everyone, but if you like aggressive non-stop action with odd metering and lots of detailed writing and cool musical shifts, this is the ultimate action score.  In fact, this score was so difficult to play that after a day of recording in Munich, Goldsmith put the brakes on and took the recording to London’s National Philharmonic Orchestra.  It also showcases Jerry’s best use of electronics combined with orchestra.  Here’s a great sampler on YouTube.  This score demonstrates why most fellow composers consider Jerry Goldsmith the greatest action film composer of all time. 

Here’s the amazing Extended edition album from my favorite music label, Varese Sarabande

Waterworld by James Newton Howard

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Kevin Costner takes the trophy for actor with best film scores of the 90’s, and Waterworld is one of the most exciting action-packed soundtrack albums, no matter what you think of the film.  I remember being so thrilled with impatience when I found out that James Newton Howard was taking over scoring the film back in 1994.  This was at the beginning of his outbreak as the new hot composer, shortly after the success of The Fugitive, Wyatt Earp, and Dave.  

This score blends a huge orchestra with choir, electronics, African percussion, and a collection of odd ethnic instruments.  The Mariner theme is a lot of fun, and James Newton Howard finds all sorts of creative ways to play with it, like this for example. 

Then there’s the really meditative stuff like this track called Swimming.

Running at about an hour, the album is one of the most satisfying musical journeys on CD.  I’m surprised that it’s not available on iTunes.  If you like action, I can’t recommend this one enough, so find the CD at your local store. 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves by Michael Kamen

This week I’m focusing on my favorite action scores.  They’re all going to be delicious feasts of exciting music.  If you don’t already own them, I can’t praise them enough.  So here we go.  I’ll start with my life-long hero: Michael Kamen.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is Michael Kamen in top form and it’s the score that got me hooked on the orchestra.  It has everything you’d want from adventure music, especially if you enjoy relentless bombastic action.  Big brass and classic Kamen strings mixed with a whole collection of ancient Medieval instruments.  I’ve played this album a trillion times and to this day I can still hear something new in it every time.  This really is one of the greatest scores of all time as far as I’m concerned.

Most film score collectors already own this, but if you don’t, do yourself a favor and sample some Robin Hood action pie.

Also, here’s a great behind the scenes video with Kamen at work in 1991.

Get the full album on iTunes.

Two scores by Mychael Danna: Life of Pi and Ride with the Devil

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My favorite score of this year isMychael Danna’s Life of Pi.  The book is also one of my favorite recent novels.  I loved Ang Lee’s film for its harmony between the colorful 3D cinematography and the epic score (and of course Suraj Sharma’s fine performance with that little kitty cat on the boat).  Listening to the album recalls many of the fantastic visuals taking us through the emotional roller coaster of Pi’s metaphorical journey with his inner beast, Richard Parker.  The first few tracks are gentle and light, then things start diving into dark and desolate waters.  That’s the good stuff.  A really great score filled with small and massive emotions.  I love the opening song too. 

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I’d like to also recommend another great Ang Lee/Mychael Danna score that was a surprise discovery for me and a real gem: Ride with the Devil.  This is a 1998 US Civil War-set film where the music ranges from small intimate melancholy cues with banjo solos to massive balls to the wall blazing brassy orchestra with fiddles and penny-whistles running along with the horses that you can imagine the orchestra riding on while they play.  Fantastic score.  Great brassy action!!!  Sadly the album isn’t on iTunes or YouTube, but you can check out some samples here or Here at CD Universe

2 Scores for Sergio Leone by Ennio Morricone

Sergio Leone’s would’ve turned 83 today.  Here are two masterpieces, both the films and their scores, with his greatest collaborator, Ennio Morricone. 

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Once Upon a Time in the West‘s music is so good that I actually had it programmed into my wedding reception.  Check out this beautiful theme and tell me if there’s anything more haunting and nostalgic. But that’s not all, folks.  This film has the best framing and composition in film history and the best baddest motherfucking close ups ever captured on 35mm film accompanied by the man with the harmonica.  Here’s a montage of something you’ll never forget.

And here’s the full album on iTunes

Then there’s the other masterpiece we all know, The Good The Bad and the Ugly.  I don’t think this needs any introducing, but in case you’re ten and not familiar, here’s the remastered album.

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