SERENITY – David Newman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A big screen re-working of the short-lived TV series Firefly, Serenity marks the return to the cinema of writer-producer-director Joss Whedon, whose first abortive attempts to crack the big screen market resulted in the laughable Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie in 1992. Of course, Whedon’s revamping (pardon the pun) of his own idea became a smash hit through the subsequent Buffy TV series, and as such his stock has risen to the stage where he can now develop his own projects without fear of studio meddling. To this end, and to many people’s surprise, Whedon hired David Newman to score Serenity – an assignment many people had been hoping would come Newman’s way, having been subjected to little more than pointless comedy and sequel scores from him for most of the new millennium.
A solid science fiction adventure story, Serenity stars actress Summer Glau as River, a young woman blessed with the gift of telepathy, who is being manipulated by the evil Alliance to become a weapon. River is rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), and the two take refuge upon the mercenary ship Serenity, captained by the gruff but compassionate war veteran Malcolm (Nathan Fillion). Friction quickly develops between the refugees and the Serenity’s pan-demographic crew (Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin), but petty differences are soon put aside when it become apparent that one of the Alliance’s elite operatives (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is relentlessly pursuing River and Simon, and he will stop at nothing to eliminate her.
For all his obvious talents as a dependable, occasionally excellent, orchestral composer, David Newman continues to be something of an enigma. In the last five years alone he has written music for such execrable films as Viva Rock Vegas, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Dr. Dolittle 2, Daddy Day Care, Man of the House and Are We There Yet?, all of which made a ton of money at the box office but did absolutely nothing for his standing as a “serious” Hollywood composer. Many people have often named him in the list of composers who should get “better assignments” – meaning ones which will afford him the opportunity to write the large scale, lavish orchestral scores we know he is capable of delivering – and so it is the ultimate irony that, now that such an assignment has finally come along, he has largely failed to deliver the goods.
The orchestra is certainly there, and there’s plenty of it thrown around over the course of the 50-minute running time. Unfortunately, quite a lot of it seems rather rushed and unfocused, and even more of it is buried underneath a mess of synthesised enhancements, electric guitar chords, and various drum-loops and break-beats. Obviously, director Whedon wanted Newman to steer clear of the familiar Star Wars style of writing for science fiction films and embrace the modern, hip edge Christophe Beck brought to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In appealing to the younger generation of sci-fi geek cinema-goers, Newman’s music fits the bill perfectly. It just doesn’t make for an especially cohesive or enjoyable album.
Parts of Serenity are unexpectedly quiet – the opening moments of the album in “Into the River”, and later cues such as “River and Simon in Locker” and “Truth/Mal’s Speech” have the listener almost straining to pick up the piano-led softness of the music. The ship Serenity herself has a quite lovely cello motif which first appears during “Serenity” and then re-appears during “Sheperd Book’s Last Words”, standing at odds with the rather less-than-beautiful music that surrounds it. Once or twice, some of brother Thomas Newman’s familiar tones creep into the mix, notably the during violin and banjo passages in “Going for a Ride”, “Haven Destroyed”, “You’re Not a Reaver” and “Rebuilding Serenity”, which seem so out-of-place they could almost have been written for a contemporary western.
Having said that, there is also plenty of action music, but whereas Newman’s earlier scores such as Galaxy Quest or The Phantom had action music which seemed to have a point, a structure, and a sense of togetherness, “Escape”, “Trading Station Robbery”, “Mal Decides”, “Mal & Op Fight” and the extended “Space Battle” instead seem rather chaotic and directionless. The orchestra does its thing, the brass section belts out beefy chords, and the electronic percussion thunders away over the top, but somehow it never truly seems to gel together properly, or develop any recurring ideas to link one sequence to another. In an attempt to leave no cliche unused, Newman even breaks out the ethnic female vocal, the erhu and the sampled duduk. In other circumstances, this could almost be a Trevor Rabin score. Only during the finale, from “Jane & Zoe/Final Battle” onwards, is there any hint of the full-throated heroism everyone had hoped there to be, but even here it is so restrained as to be more tantalising and frustrating than it is satisfying.
Considering how much pre-release hype surrounded Serenity, and how much expectation was placed behind Newman, in many ways this score could never be anything but slightly disappointing – but for it to be this bland is a surprise indeed. I still maintain my standpoint that David Newman is a supremely talented composer who, given the right opportunities and the right project, could throw off the shackles of his lacklustre recent filmography and blossom into the composer we all know he can be. Sadly, Serenity is not that project. Roll on Scooby-Doo 3 and The Flintstones: Flogging a Dead Horse.
- Into the River (3:10)
- Escape (1:30)
- Serenity (0:50)
- Going for a Ride (2:24)
- Trading Station Robbery (3:07)
- River Goes Wild (1:28)
- River and Simon in Locker (0:55)
- Population Dead (3:55)
- Haven Destroyed (0:54)
- Sheperd Books’ Last Words (1:00)
- You’re Not a Reaver (0:56)
- Mal Decides (3:09)
- Truth/Mal’s Speech (3:36)
- Space Battle (3:21)
- Crash Landing (1:59)
- Run to Black (2:5)
- Generator Room (03:06)
- Mal & Op Fight (2:11)
- Jane & Zoe/Final Battle (2:44)
- Funeral/Rebuilding Serenity (2:19)
- Prep for Flight (1:33)
- Love (1:06)
- End Credits (1:38)
Running Time: 50 minutes 03 seconds
Varèse Sarabande VSD-6682 (2005)
Music composed and conducted by David Newman. Orchestrations by Greg Jamrok. Featured musical soloists Tony Mandracchia and Billy Sullivan. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by Jeff Carson and Andy Dorfman. Album produced by David Newman.