May 21, 2010

Soundtracks: Popcorn Music

I AM going to Iron Man 2 tonight, no matter what else the universe tries to pull on me this week! Though I am looking forward to this movie a lot, and I love the first movie so much, one thing I'm not anticipating enjoying is the music for this film. The first film's music was awful (but more on that in my next Soundtrack post...)

It is thinking about Iron Man's score that has me writing this particular post on soundtracks. Iron Man falls into an odd genre that is becoming all the more common in film scores these days. I can't say it is my favourite breed of scores, but yet a few tracks from some of these records still make my favourites.

There is no agreed upon name for this newly emerging sub genre, but there are plenty of features to define them (in particular the select "usual suspect" list of composers typically involved in their creation... with some film directors and producers also being a sign of such music as well). I personally refer to them as popcorn scores, as they have substance when you listen to them, but much like eating popcorn you get little of value out of it in the end.

At its core film music exists to assist the storytelling through making the emotion audio during the movie so that the audience knows what they should be feeling. However good composers also find ways of injecting personality into this music, causing the soundtrack to suddenly give the film a unique musical identity different from other movies. Thus differentiating one film from another just by listening to the music for a few moments. At least in normal soundtracks...

Popcorn scores certainly obey the first convention of conveying the emotion of the film, but yet their most defining feature is they all fail at attaining or defining their own identity. In essence they are scores that could all be easily swapped with each other and you'd barely notice watching the film. I personally look at them as feature length trailer music samples, and often these are the soundtracks studios take trailer music from!

The question is what is the purpose of this music if it is not defining its film? For a movie maker the answer is it provides simplicity for the audience. Popcorn scores are the equivalent of animated scores for adults. They provide a simple set of musical rules for the audience to gauge what they should be feeling. However unlike children's scores, popcorn music is devoid of the intelligence and craftsmanship of (good) animated scores. It is the lowest common denominator of film music in every sense. As of it such it can safely be said to lack any intelligence.
So why do I listen to them? In the short answer, they are a guilty pleasure. Essentially popcorn music is the equivalent of pop music in film scores (the boy bands of soundtracks as it were). It is music you listen to when you are brainless, don't feel like being overly engaged, or when you don't want a specific genre of music.

What is interesting about Popcorn music is that it is a very recent phenomenon. In its true form it emerged just this decade, but it didn't have too! My list here today includes scores that go back into the 1990's, but when these scores were released they were novel break outs of originality. However rather than take the new musical constructs that they offered to new and interesting levels, the pioneering group of composers choose to basically keep rehashing them to the point that, sadly, even the original 90's albums became popcorn.

You'll notice this list includes many albums by Hans Zimmer, master of the Popcorn score. He was one of my favourite composers in the early 2000's . Yet a few years later I'd come to immediately dismiss his work unless he was teamed with someone else I liked. His music all sounded the same!

Virtually every other composer of the following albums worked for Zimmer at some point or another. Typically as a ghostwriter. This is an odd situation in the soundtrack world. With most Zimmer scores you have up to a dozen ghostwriters, blurring who created what in the first place. Then even when some of these guys go independent you won't know the difference between them or their boss.

(With the notable exceptions of my two favourites John Powell [who doesn't come up here, due to being a transparent ghostwriter pre 1998] and Harry Gregson-Williams who would break out into his own man as of the 2000's!)

All these Zimmer employees running around creating the same sort of music has given rise to the term "Zimmer clones" in soundtrack circles. I could have called this genre Clone music, but I felt Popcorn music was more descriptive of what it really was.

It is a real shame this genre even came to be, as Mr. Zimmer invented some brilliant new musical constructs for people to play with. Many other composers have employed them in effective non-popcorn manners. Yet Zimmer himself has fallen into a comfort zone he rarely breaks out of (though when he does it is quite good!). Let's look at a few (of my favourites... but by no means all) of the first proto-popcorn scores.

The Kernel Albums

The Rock by Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and many more!

This score is probably one of the biggest sources/causes of the popcorn movement. Not only did the Rock have very satisfying action music, but the project had practically the whole Zimmer team onboard. Meaning all of them were involved/exposed to the Rock's sound, and many seem to have imprinted on it for good!

When this soundtrack came out, it was one of my favourite action scores. It was fresh and new. Sadly in the following 14 years it has been rendered the most generic of generics as this one movie seems to be the basis of so many more that follow...

Sitting down to think about describing this score, I'm at total lose because of this. I haven't listened to anything except the opening title and climax battle piece in years! Even with these two, all that comes to mind is generic action music. Yet I can recall a time I would have been able to describe all that was unique and cool about this album... How the times change :(

Backdraft by Hans Zimmer

This is still one of Hans Zimmer's strongest albums, which makes sense as it is very early in his career. The best parts of this album have never been definitively ripped off (which is perhaps why they remain my favourite?). Some of his music constructs from this film pop up elsewhere, but never to the same epic levels or intelligent executions.

The most memorable themes from this album are the variations of the march for the firefighters. It is a combination of catchy snare drums, synthetic bass, and choir. Yet in the action music for this film you can hear the birth of The Rock's action music.

Crimson Tide by Hans Zimmer

Was the height of Zimmer's creativity, and this is a standout album! Seriously despite my misgivings about later Zimmer, this is the man's best work. It is a true classic of soundtracking.
The music constructs the confided nature of not only the submarine on which the story plays out, but captures the equally constricted attitude of the captain whom the conflict comes from. The heroic theme for the mutiny is still a highlight of Hans Zimmer music... Just sadly it is no longer unique to this album...

So powerful and original was this when it came out, that Steven Speilberg commented on how he was very impressed with Hans Zimmer's work. If not for the long standing relationship Speilberg had with John Williams, Speilberg stated he'd have hired Zimmer for his films. Considering the timing of all this, I'm not sure it would have turned out much different (Williams began his spiral towards plagiarising his own work within a few short years of 95... meaning it either be Williams regurgitated of Zimmer regurgitated).
Gladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard
This was the last album by Zimmer I would ever think "wow he is so original", and it was for its time.
Though this music has an ethnic flavour to much of its composition to try and lend a feel of the Roman era, in the end it is so mellow most of the time it barely registers. A trend with Zimmer clones to follow. Even when they try and inject identity, they do it within their comfort zone, or drown it out with all their other stuff.
Where Gladiator is still the best, is the Zimmer masculine style. The two battle tracks are boiling to the top with muscle, and are very awesome action tracks. They would lend a great deal to the sound of other Zimmer projects down the line. Notable is Kung Fu Panda, which made the cut of my top animated scores. Here Zimmer teamed up with his former ghostwriter John Powell and took this masculine method and apply it to Kung Fu in a amazingly original way. I just wish it were true for other Zimmer projects...

The Kernels of course would pop, and we got a whole lot of...
True Popcorn!

These next albums are in no real order, basically the order I downloaded the pictures. This is partially as I couldn't be bothered to resort them, and more to the point I couldn't figure out a clear way to do so... Again these are so close to each other I could switch them between their films and you'd barely notice.
Though you might say to me, "hey I remember the theme from *insert movie*!", but I challenge you to think about the difference in a film having a individual theme (any score should have tracks recognizable to that film) and this theme having a true character. All these scores while having individual themes, don't have individual character. You won't be able to tell musically that a film is about giant robots, pirates, or space etc. without the film to tell us this.
This is why they are popcorn. They are so generic they can easily be removed from their film, and not give a hint of the movie they were attached to beyond emotion. So functional yes, but still generic!
Transformers by Steve Jablonsky

Just the other day while trying to give Peter "the" Transformers theme", we discovered that Peter didn't remember the true theme from this film! It was seriously funny. As I kept trying to give him the "Autobot" theme, which was so generic Peter didn't realize it was from this movie.
The one memorable piece, and the one that Bond sought, was the single action piece during the army taking on the robot scorpion. It is why I bought the album, and though extremely satisfying action music, could be from any film. This is in fact why I like it. As I often use music to spur my "massive imagination", I find Transformers action and "Autobot" themes very good trailer type music. The general emotion/pace is set, but everything else is blank for me to imagine to my hearts desire.
Transformers has a single exception to this genericness in having very unique villian music. A very deep choir chanting Latin over a synthesizer riff is actually quite haunting and effective, and somehow matches the Decpticons in a way the Autobots music never sticks to them...
You'll notice the sequel is not in this post. Where the first movie's score (much like the film) was a brainless chunk of fun, the sequel's music (much like its film!) doesn't connect to what made the first one good. Revenge of the Fallen will be included in my later When Popcorn goes wrong post...
Pirates of the Caribbean 1 by Klaus Badelt... though what they weren't allowed to say, was really by Hans Zimmer, with Badlet taking the credit due to a contract thing...

I recall when this film came out, and hearing the ongoing Pirates theme (which I'm sure you would recognize if I hummed it too you) at the end I said "I must own that generic hero theme!"
Because yes Pirates 1 certainly had a recognizable couple of themes throughout, there was NOTHING piratey about them! The golden age of film clearly defined the instrumentation, pacing, and construct for swash buckling music. This film completely ignored it all (much like it ignored swash buckling choreography), and as a result created music that could have worked as well on the high seas, as it could in space, or in a police car. Which is why I wanted it! It could be anything I wanted it for...
The sad part is that former Zimmerite, Harry Gregson-Williams demonstrated you could easily escape all the constraints of the golden age, so long as you kept some of their basics. He took a modern orchestra and created a brilliant pirate/swashbuckling score for Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas. Which puts all 3 pirate movies squarely in their place!
Pirates 1, much like Transformers hides a single gem. "Barbosa is Hungry" is among the closest any music from the Pirates franchise comes to actual Pirate music, but "Up is Down" from 3 robs it of the most piratey distinction. Barbosa is a solid effort though, and well having hints of the Pirate's themes standout from the rest the score. Had the rest of the music been this good, Pirates would have been a truly awesome score, as opposed to good Popcorn...
Pirates 2 by Hans Zimmer... which is what the first should really have just had!
This is my least favourite of the Pirates films AND scores. Overall it is just a bunch of random music playing aimlessly amongst the equally aimless plot. The first Pirate movie album while the most generic of the lot (I'll get to how Pirates 2 and 3 are at least less generic than 1 in a sec), had the most clear cut direction. It was the heroes theme all the time, and while boring from a construction point of view, was at least fun. Pirates two has a lot less pure fun, and a lot more random all over the place to its music.
Zimmer tries his best to try and infuse some piratey elements into this score, and thus remove the generic criticisms of the first film. To do this he grabs an accordion and some whistles and inject them into the mix. However that's what it feels like, some random accordion and whistle samples laid over top of otherwise generic music. These days whenever Zimmer tries to inject authentic elements into his music, he fails as he refuses to leave his underscore comfort zone.
Accordions and whistles need some adjustment from the rest of the orchestra if they are to fit in.
The singular highlight (noticing a theme with popcorn scores and the number of highlights they tend to contain yet :P) is the theme for the Kraken. It is very boring in its genericness, but a Gladiatorized monster(like) theme saves this album from my next post!

Pirates 3 by Hans Zimmer

Everything I hated about Pirates 2 is addressed in this score, and while not being quite as consistent as the first Pirates movie, Pirates 3 has some fantastic tracks.
There are some kickers though. First the music is still very generic, and very Zimmer. Second most of my favourite material is NOT avaliable on the official movie release. Rather two extra tracks were redone by a pure orchestra on a Pirates complilation album I picked up a while back (complilations are another area of soundtracks I need to do a post on...).
It is interesting to hear all the Pirates movies done with just a normal orchestra, and not Zimmer's standard synthetic setup. The Prague Orchestra has a long history of excellent compilations (where they rerecord existing soundtrack music), and this is one of their strongest products. It proves there is some swashbuckling potential to the Pirates movies. Reworking the timing a bit, as well as applying their own choice of instruments to the music they give a bit of life to the Pirates music. It verges on breaking out of the generic container. Yet fails short due to the snippets of The Rock, Gladiator, and various other Zimmer efforts.
The highlights here though are worth while. Pirates 3 also breaks the rules by having multiple highlights. The "Up is Down" track is the most pirate sounding music from all of the Pirates music, and Zimmer's whistles work for him here. It has a lot of quirk and fun. The two part "I don't think now is the time" from the compliation while squarely back in the generic, is a very solid offering of Zimmer action at its best.
Batman Begins by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

I think if there were ever a soundtrack that let me down completely and utterly it was this one. This album came out at the height of my love of James Newton Howard music, and to hear he was attached to the revamp of Batman, I was overjoyed. At the time though I noted Hans Zimmer attached to the project as well. I had hoped that Howard could infuse some originality into the Zimmer methods. Instead what I got was a Zimmer album with just a minor hint of Howard on the edges...

The only material worth listening to on Begins is the isolated statements of Batmans hero theme. It works for the caped crusader, but not satisfyingly. This music could just as well be for a submarine, dragon killer, or intergalactic bounty hunter. I still enjoy the dark edge of this hero music, but won't lie in saying it is amazing. It does its trick and that's it.

The album also failed me, in that it only contained 3 tracks with this hero music, and not the two chief moments from the film!!! Fortunately for me one of them was the end credit music cue, so I simply recorded it off my DVD, however the music where Bruce Wayne rushes to the Batcave to suit up and save the girl elude me to this day :(

The villain music for the Scarecrow was the beginning of the real bad in Dark Knight, with Zimmer taking major samples of noise and mixing them into music. Additionally he plays with this meta sound a lot in both Batman scores, and in Begins the hero music's only Batman-like quality is the application of sound variation that simulates flapping bat wings. It works, but is nearly annoying. An annoying that would blossom in the sequel!

The Dark Knight by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Much to my relief James Newton Howard seemed to have asserted himself musically a lot more in the second Batman. There are tracks that don't fit into this otherwise Popcorn score. The good standouts are the Harvey Dent themes in tracks 3 and 6, which are unquestionably Howard music. I'll probably discuss these anomalies in another post...]
Sadly there are terrible standouts in Knight too. In fact I question whether they are music at all!?! These are all pieces with the Joker "theme", in which Zimmer has sampled irritating noises and mixed them into what often sounds like a plane crashing. It really isn't music at all, but an annoying racket, that while thoughtfully constructed, is still the sum of its parts! Zimmer claims this cleverly captures the chaotic nature of the Joker, but last time I checked he wasn't made of metal or crashing into the runway!
Beyond this Batman's hero theme gets some more material (which again was lacking in the first album...), and so I still like this album more than the first. Guilty pleasure it might be, but I like it on occasion.
However in the latter part of the Dark Knight the weirdest music shift I've ever seen occurs. Where Batman's theme was distinct (though still generic) in Begins and the early parts of Knight, suddenly in later Knight Batman's hero theme is replaced with the mutiny theme from Crimson Tide?!? Seriously, there is next to no difference other than the pacing... While I love the Crimson Tide music, this was a big let down to have it used for Batman!!!

King Arthur by Hans Zimmer

Is basically Gladiator with none of the attempted Roman ethnicity. You get a lot of very macho action music. There is nothing overall surprising about this album, but you get some good generic hero and action music.

Team America World Police by Harry Gregson-Williams

Perhaps the most amusing of all Popcorn scores, this music was composed by one time Popcorner Gregson-Williams to spoof other Popcorn scores! His results are hilariously on the ball, though so over the top he borders on becoming to distinct at times. In particular the cheesy theme for Team America is just a bit too much to stay within its generic target, but the rest of the filler music saves it.

What is even funnier is the nature of the overall soundtrack. Originally Team America's score was much more Zimmer in nature, but the studio didn't like it and brought in Gregson-Williams to make a more zany version. Both scores supplement lyrical songs including one satirizing Michael Bay, master of awful popcorn (several of my popcorn gone bad are from Michael Bay films).

Anyways my tummy is getting sick from all this popcorn ;) So I'm going to leave it off here. Next time I visit soundtracks we'll look at some of the worst vats of popcorn music ever produced.


Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

I really like Zimmer's job!

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