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.
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.
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).
The Kernels of course would pop, and we got a whole lot of...
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.
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!"
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.
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!
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...]
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.
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.