The Birth of a Nation (composed by Henry Jackman)
On to Jerusalem
The sounds of Africa are heard throughout The Birth of a Nation via congo drums and somewhat subdued strings. Vocals drive home the religious, aspect the movie trumpets.
On to Jerusalem accompanies the movie’s iconic moment in the uprising. The piece itself isn’t something that one would necessarily think would accompany such a particularly violent incident, but Henry Jackson explains it best:
“I think it’s really important in the third act of this film that the nature of the uprising has to feel spiritual … it’s almost sacrificial. They’ve already lost. It’s not really a battle scene, it’s a scene about the triumph of enough brave people to stand up against something that is so oppressive that there’s no other means.”
Narrative issues aside, the power of this moment isn’t lost on anyone, and the particular piece of music does reflect not so much a desire for victory, but a desire to stand up against injustice, even if it will get you killed.
The Girl on the Train (composed by Danny Elfman)
Riding the Train
Many adult oriented thrillers as of late seem to go all electronic with their scores, for reasons unknown. Maybe it is the distortion aspect, as using a digital approach does allow for a few different creative motifs. Danny Elfman’s The Girl on the Train is the latest to go predominately electronic.
Starting with Riding the Train, Elfman paints the picture of a woman who’s at a distant place in her life and extremely fragile as a result. It’s a very cold and even frightening at times score (befitting for a cold, somewhat dull movie) as well, getting into tracks such as Rachel and Really Creepy. Wah-wah guitar and one-note piano keys stand out on some of the better pieces of the score.
The Accountant (composed by Mark Isham)
The Trial of Solomon Grundy
With a main character such as The Accountant’s, one that is extremely meticulous yet layered at the same time, it makes sense that much of the movie score would follow much of the same inspiration. Sometimes it’s super bold, other times it is hardly nonexistent but noticeable enough to be felt. Rice Farm is explosive, like someone turned a switch onto a sleeping volcano. Tracks like Famous Mathematicians and The Trial of Solomon Grundy (the latter possibly the single best track I’ve heard of any musical number in 2016) are extremely precise in their musical detail and time signatures.
Doctor Strange (composed by Michael Giacchino)
The Hands Dealt
A Long Strange Trip
For as beautiful and mesmerizing as Doctor Strange can look, its score is a little of a letdown to be honest, often sounding like a third-rate Star Trek score. I feel like I’ve already heard some of this this year…oh wait, I did! The busy Michael Giacchino, who in 2016 has done Zootopia, Star Trek Beyond, and Rogue One, sometimes feels like he’s going through the motions here, most not that discernible from his space franchise work. The Doctor Strange motif isn’t bad;
I just don’t want to be reminded of Star Trek when I see Stephen Strange, and I feel like I might now. The best tracks are those that largely exist outside of the main motif, such as The Hands Dealt, a somber sounding track in which is mainly dominated by piano (the only song on the score done almost entirely by piano—being the instrument most associated with working hands). The best moment, however, is easily A Long Strange Trip, accompanying the moment in the film where Stephen truly gets his mind opened. Sounds are played frontwards and backwards, soaring and subdued. In two minutes and twenty-eight seconds one feels like they’ve journeyed across the vastness of the universe. At least twice.
Hacksaw Ridge (composed by Rupert-Gregson Williams)
Japanese Retake The Ridge
One Man At A Time
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t just a great war film, it’s a great film, period, telling an interesting story about an individual and his convictions that is extremely moving and inspiring. But with that said, Hacksaw Ridge has been mentioned as the best war film since Saving Private Ryan for a reason. Its final third is absolutely brutal and visceral with tension at almost every step.
Part of that can be attributed to the score Rupert-Gregson Williams crafts in the later stages of the movie. The title track is especially harrowing, and evokes a sound of impending doom with its oriental sounds and drawn out crescendos. This segues right into Japanese Retake The Ridge, a straight-out take-no-prisoners song.
The heroic tracks are uplifting and full of determination. Damn near impossible not to smile and cheer when One Man At A Time and Rescue Continues play. Whereas some scores can sometimes seemed forced with trying to inject emotion into the on-screen events, Gregson-Williams seems to strike the right balance between enhancing them and letting them stand on their own.
Arrival (composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson)
One of Twelve
When it comes to scores and creating an actual atmosphere for the respective film, no one may be better right now than Jóhann Jóhannsson. The score for Arrival sounds foreign, but not just in a “different country way.” No, the sounds that make up the score of Arrival are completely–well—alien, stuff I’ve never heard before.
At times it sounds ominous, and other times, welcoming and even warm. But it is always mysterious and engaging. I don’t think I’ve heard vocals injected into a score so uniquely like they are injected here. Jóhannsson’s doesn’t appear to be a composer who concerns himself with melody, though there is a motif here and there that pops up. Rather, he’s all about immersion, and regardless of how one may feel about the actual film, it is undoubtedly immersive. Eager to see what he does with his longtime collaborator, director Denis Villeneuve, on Blade Runner 2049.
Moonlight (composed by Nicholas Britell)
You Don’t Even Know
The Middle of the World
Moonlight probably is 2016’s truest depiction of a film in poetic form. I close my eyes and hear the score composed by Nicholas Britell, and it has the vibe of something one would hear at a late night open mic poetry event downtown. The three themes in Little’s, Chiron’s, and finally Black’s, are all the same but tweaked ever so slightly either in tempo or octave to reflect the progression/change in Chiron’s life.
Moonlight‘s raw, and even the usage of a pretty classical instrument in the violin doesn’t change that on a track like The Middle of the World, for example. Another observation: I thought I wanted Moonlight’s score to be longer, as most of the pieces don’t last over two minutes. But upon further review, Britell does the best thing in a movie as moving as this. Sometimes, the lack of lengthy tracks allows the storytelling and the images to stand out more, and it can actually help the score itself to be more memorable.
Photo credits go to filmmusicreporter.com, theguardian.com, ilyaefimov.com, heroichollywood.com, isham.com, cinetropolis.net, and blackfilm.com.
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