Friday, July 29, 2011

Three Recent Soundtracks: Review

Listening to modern soundtracks apart from the films they support can be an odd experience. Of three recent acquisitions at KPAC, I’ve only seen one of the films. (It’s tough to get out with kids at home). However, I’m familiar with the material in all three movies. Does that count? I’ve been an X-MEN reader off and on since junior high school, and a Harry Potter fan for many years now. Ironically, of the three movies represented below, I *have* seen “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” Still, when I listen to a soundtrack, I’m usually thinking like a radio programmer – or at least a listener, not a film director. Which tracks would I want to hear again?

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: Henry Jackman

For "X-Men: First Class," the latest film in Marvel’s mutant franchise, director Matthew Vaughn turned back the clock for a prequel about Charles Xavier’s protégés when they were young, gifted students, not yet superheroes. The music is by Henry Jackman, a friend and colleague of Hans Zimmer, with whom he’s collaborated on a number of film scores, including “The Dark Knight” and two of the four “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. The opening track, “First Class,” sets the high-energy mood with heroic strings that are reminiscent of Daft Punk’s score for “Tron: Legacy.” An electric guitar tears through the mix; I quite enjoyed this music. The electric guitar reappears throughout the score, often providing arpeggios that echo the ticking of time, similar to Zimmer’s score for “Inception.” Other tracks, like “X-Training,” are a little cheesier, with a heavier rock beat and guitars. Much of the music on this disc is built around a six-note motif, including the quieter selections, of which there are few.


This is Alexandre Desplat’s second “Harry Potter” score, following the work he did on “Deathly Hallows, Part 1.” Amazingly, I read that when he was hired for the first film, he had not yet been given a contract for Part 2. It seems to me the continuity between the two films would have been damaged by such a move; but when you think of the Harry Potter saga as a whole, what’s the difference between John Williams writing music for “Sorcerer’s Stone,” Patrick Doyle picking up the baton midway through the series, and Desplat finishing it out? The answer is, a lot. Desplat’s score for “Deathly Hallows Part 2” embraces the dark nature of the plot. Even “Lily’s Theme,” representing Harry’s long dead mother, is a morose lullaby. We do hear some heroics with “Neville,” representing the character who rises to reform Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts following Harry’s absence. The magical sound of the celesta, used so memorably by Williams in “Hedwig’s Theme,” appears from time to time, including the “New Headmaster” cue. One of the tracks I enjoyed most was “Severus and Lily,” revealing Snape’s hidden connection to Harry Potter’s past. But overall, there aren’t as many lovely melodies as I would expect from Desplat; perhaps the nature of the story itself has sucked some of the joy from his pen.


For the melancholy film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” prolific composer Rachel Portman has written a score that includes Chinese flute, erhu, and pipa, as well as strings and piano. Most of the tracks on the disc work as stand-alone listening experiences. Their song-like melodies evoke both traditional and modern China, as befits the film, which is opens its parallel stories in 1827 and 1997. It's a little hard to listen to the CD all at once, for many of the tracks are musically and tonally similar. But taken a little bit at a time, the “Snow Flower” score is a very pleasing look to the east. Start with “Lily Meets Snow Flower,” and also listen to “Snow Flower’s Tears,” featuring some pretty solo cello.

--Nathan Cone, TPR Cinema

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