PRIME EXAMPLES OF THE 90s ACTION SCORE

By Kjell Neckebroeck

Years ago, when Jerry Goldsmith was asked about the direction he thought film scores were going to take in the coming decades, he stated that synthesizers and electronics were bound to develop their considerable potential and claim their rightful place on the film music scene. At the time, the last and most venerable of all veteran film composers probably didn't realize just how prophetic these words were. From the early eighties on, Goldsmith himself started incorporating electronics into his symphonic scores. (SUPERGIRL, BABY and EXPLORERS are among his finest here, that's an avowedly subjective selection). However, in spite of not altogether unqualified hits such as RUNAWAY and CRIMINAL LAW, Goldsmith remained true to his symphonic and orchestral roots, and has never quite produced a score that is fully driven by non-acoustic instruments. In the early nineties, as Goldsmith seemed to return to purely orchestral scores (RUDY), one Hans Zimmer got his foot in the door and started invading the film music scene with a style he had spent years developing. In his early African phase, Zimmer combined ethnic vocals with a vast electronic sound palette, first in A WORLD APART and later, to great effect, in THE POWER OF ONE. The latter, a self-professed "Voices of Africa" -score, remains to date one of Zimmer's best efforts. THE POWER OF ONE's synths were a blueprint of the way this German-born composer was going to handle the pyrotechnics in BACKDRAFT. The latter marks the first of a string of action scores that have become the foremost trend in nineties film music : the electronic action score.

In the Year of Our Lord 1996, Zimmer has procreated in a rather spectacular way. In fact, things are racing ahead at such breathtaking speed that one of the fledglings has already left the nest. But more on that precocious bird later on. Zimmer's disciples include Mark Mancina, whose powerhouse SPEED managed to transcend its steals from BACKDRAFT and gained well-earned recognition as a downright effective film score; Zimmer orchestrator Nick Glennie-Smith, who did a few cues for DROP ZONE and got his own material kicked out of K2's CD album (but that's okay, because Zimmer got all of his score kicked out of the movie's US release); Jeff Rona, who produced a lacklustre score for WHITE SQUALL under Zimmer's careful supervision; and Harry Gregson-Williams, who popped out of nowhere with a frantically energetic accompaniment to the San Francisco street chase that stole the show in THE ROCK. CRIMSON TIDE, SPEED, FAIR GAME, MONEY TRAIN, BROKEN ARROW, DROP ZONE and THE ROCK are just a few examples of the Zimmer Way. On the sole strength of his major influence on nineties film music, Academy Award recognition was probably deserved. (Of course, Zimmer got the statuette for the one score where his style sorely failed to do justice to the movie. Tinseltown moves in mysterious ways!). Maybe the time has come to take a closer look at the electronic action score as opposed to the orchestral tradition, embodied by the four big J's : Jerry (Goldsmith), James (Horner), John (Williams) and John Barry.

The following analysis is admittedly influenced by my humble opinion on what film music should do. Musical originality and the whole musical question are a minor issue to me. Maybe that's because I can't read musical notes and don't know any better in any case. However, maybe it's true that film music is music's illegitimate baby, certainly as far as the Hollywood blockbuster genre does. Alan Silvestri has been widely criticised for his alleged lack of musical baggage, yet his PREDATOR is vintage film music. Devoid of musical inventiveness and thematical development (Silvestri never develops his main motif beyond its basic 4-note form), the incredibly muscular writing and extensive use of the obsessive ostinato figure make PREDATOR one of the most effective action scores ever written. And the STAR WARS effect was due not to the music's originality (in fact, Williams gladly helped himself to Holst's The Planets) but to the novel concept of the "space opera" and an unashamed return to the film scoring heydays of Korngold et al. I feel an underscore for a Hollywood biggie is all about concept, effectiveness, musical colors, timbre, intensity and the need to understand the movie and give it what it needs. References will be made to our common musical heritage, when appropriate. Sometimes, regrettable though it may seem, the composer will have to go against his own sensibilities and choke down the ego factor. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the Zimmer Way has to offer.

One : for all its use of electronics, the Zimmer-type electronic action score still bears a strong symphonic stamp. The difference with Goldsmith is that the synths are given priority and that any development now applies to synthesized sounds and electronic intensity rather than themes. Moreover, Goldsmith will use a 100-piece orchestra with synth accompaniment, whereas Zimmer has a myriad of synths crawling over a small orchestral ensemble. Zimmer's very busy electronics are always bound together by a central musical line (theme). In BACKDRAFT, he had a set of themes - the proud main theme and the "Brothers" theme, to name a few - but recent efforts like CRIMSON TIDE and BROKEN ARROW are emphatically monothematic. Unless inspired by plain laziness (I hope not!), this is very likely to be a conscious decision. Having just one theme allows Zimmer to catch the audience's attention in a much more direct way. Also, it generally makes the score simpler and more straightforward. Simplicity is a definite plus by any standards, since the score should not cloud the audience's perception of the movie. Is the monothematic approach sacrosanct ? Well, I guess it all depends on the movie. THE ROCK and all the aforementioned actioners are straightforward slugfests whose characters fail to develop in any way. (Nicolas Cage's changing attitude towards guns is so hackneyed it hardly qualifies as a character turning point). On those counts, I believe an elaborate set of melodies would have been superfluous : there are quite simply no other (film) themes to write (music) themes to.

Two : it is widely known that synthesizers allow the composer to hit split-second details in ways infinitely more accurate than a 100-piece orchestra. Harry Gregson-Williams's chase sequence from THE ROCK features a moment where Nicolas Cage drives past a police car barricade into a hangar, wondering whether or not to go on. At this point, the rhythm stagnates. A mere second later, Cage makes up his mind and blows the hangar's glass gates, at which point the music gains momentum again. 100 musicians would have had a really rotten time trying to catch the ritardando amidst five hundred other hitpoints and get going again that fast. Flexibility is therefore another plus.

Three : THE ROCK sounds dynamic, massive and dead solid. The short, flexible and catchy rhythm figure may not be the exclusive property of electronics, but in many cases it beats orchestral scores (RAIN MAN, TRUE ROMANCE, BROKEN ARROW et al. - and yes, I do acknowledge such eminent orchestral classics as JAWS.) Electronics also allow to deepen the dynamic range to subwoofer shakes and beyond. In the era of the digital soundtrack, electronics have bigger potential than an orchestra. A battery of synths has the merit of sounding extremely massive. Just check out THE ROCK's theme, presented over the main titles, and you'll know what I mean. Dynamics are another plus.

The Zimmer Way also has a couple of obvious disadvantages. No matter which of his action scores you listen to, they all sound alarmingly alike, in spite of an occasional Duane-Eddy-and-spaghetti-western approach. This sameness is evident in the sound palette, for one. Zimmer has used the same set of sounds movie after movie, and attempts to create a new sound sometimes lead to embarrassingly laughable results, such as the out-of place flute which the Syntho Trio uses to drown Jade and Mason's conversation in (the Jade cue from THE ROCK).

Apart from the pervasive sameness, the up-and-coming electronics action score has already developed a number of clichés. The best example is the solitary-"trumpet"-over-boring-"strings" as an epilogue to every goddamn action bit, or under every instance where something sad happens. The demise of Ed Harris's general, Nic Cage's first gunshot, the shower room carnage, Hummel's goodbye at his wife's graveside -- never mind, the trumpet'll do the trick. The Zimmer Way may be very simple and straightforward, but it is also affected by sameness, simplification and excessive use of clichés.

Electronics scores, even when complemented by a small acoustic ensemble, tend to be cheaper than the LSO or any other orchestra under union rules. The inherent danger is equally obvious : studios may start commissioning electronics scores to cut down on costs. When machines start replacing people 'cause people are too darn expensive, the shit is sure to hit the fan. Cheaper action scores run the risk of sounding cheaper.

Moving on to more technicals matters, the Zimmer-type action score has thus far not excelled in clever spotting decisions. Zimmer tends to load his movies with lengthy cues which are seldom cohesive, and he uses lots of filler music where starts and stops might have been more effective.

There is another problem. Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams and Mark Mancina are talented individuals, but what if the Zimmer Way extends to second-rate musicians who pound on their multi-dollar toys without putting any thought into the "symphonic" element, the themes which hold the electronic whirligig in check ? It is way too early to pass judgement on the guy, but Jeff Rona turned in a boring, electronic, Zimmer-inspired score for WHITE SQUALL. An obvious lack of strong thematic material seemed to be the main reason why the music didn't work. (Apart from the fact that a new-age-like score was fundamentally wrong for SQUALL's old-fashioned male- bonding story and ditto action material. But then again, Ridley Scott's commercial-inspired visuals were painfully out of place too.)

By and large, the Zimmer Way has so far produced fine film music, some of the best of which is featured in THE ROCK, with its numerous rhythmic motifs and very strong central theme. It is a score that grows on you, and after having seen the film three times, I can't help thumping my feet to the music. It's by no means a perfect score (for reasons discussed in this article), but it serves the film very well, it's very catchy, though not to the point of distracting from the movie, and it makes for a very rewarding listening experience. Its action music is some of the year's very best. (Although well crafted and exciting, James Horner's elaborate "Al Bathra" cue from COURAGE UNDER FIRE is no match for the Syntho Trio's catchy action.)

Nevertheless, THE ROCK is easily outdone by Mark Mancina's TWISTER, which is at once a typical example of and a first step away from the Zimmer Way. Electronics continue to play a considerable part, but the way Mancina handles rhythm and themes is like a pendulum that swings TWISTER away from Zimmer and back into the symphonic realm. After the beautiful poetic themes Mancina wrote for MOLL FLANDERS, TWISTER is the second time this student has moved away from his teacher. The orchestral Wheatfield theme is unusually eloquent, its rhythmic accompaniment sprightly and refreshing. Leading up to and serving as an epilogue to the tornadoes, but never competing with the sound effects, the action is based on electronics, yet with a choir in the background. And the final triumph ("Mobile Home") is scored for orchestra alone. TWISTER brings together all the tricks of the Zimmer Way into one cohesive orchestral whole, making it, to my mind, easily one of the year's top five scores.

Mark Mancina, Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-William, Jeff Rona. Many more are likely to follow, and many more electronic action scores are likely to come our way in the years to come. Perhaps it's a wagon only the four big J's may not feel like jumping on. At any rate, I hope the orchestral action score will not die, because film music would be a boring synth world without it ! But whether you like it or not, the electronic action score is here to stay.

The author gives a 4/5 for Twister, 5/5 for THE ROCK and 1/5 for WHITE SQUALL.

The EDITOR gives WHITE SQUALL 5/5.


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