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ELYSIUM – Ryan Amon

elysiumOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Elysium is the sophomore theatrical film from South African director Neill Blomkamp, who made such a splash and received such critical acclaim following his debut effort, District 9, in 2009. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic future where 99% of the world’s population lives in overcrowded slums on the planet’s surface, eking out a meager existence as best they can despite desperate poverty and a lack of adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 1% live in an orbiting space station, named Elysium, in lavish comfort, with access to the best of everything that money can buy. Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con working in a factory, dreaming of a better life, but whose dreams are shattered when he is involved in an industrial accident and exposed to massive amounts of radiation, giving him just days to live. Desperate to find a way out of his dilemma, Max decides that his only possible salvation is to somehow make his way off the planet and up to Elysium, where their state-of-the-art medical facilities will easily cure his problems. However, when news of Max’s plan of action starts to spread around future Los Angeles, it causes stirrings of civil unrest and rebellion in the population, attracting the attention of Elysium’s harsh governess Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who will stop at nothing to enforce Elysium’s draconian anti-immigration laws which ensure that her utopian paradise remains isolated and protected from the masses below. To this end, Delacourt activates a sleeper assassin, Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to deal with the troublemakers – and Max is the first one in his sights.

As much as District 9 was a movie about racism and apartheid, Elysium has an equally front-and-center political agenda, addressing such weighty and prescient issues as societal inequality, overcrowding, universal healthcare, and immigration reform, attached to an exciting science fiction/action story. The overtly left-leaning socio-political mindset of Elysium is sure to stir up lots of controversy and debate, which is always a good thing, especially with topics as important as these, but as well as asking difficult questions about the disparity between the world’s haves and have-nots, the film provides plenty of spills and thrills, large-scale action sequences, space fights, and a vivid visual juxtaposition between the pristine tranquility of Elysium and the squalid filth of the world below.

The music for Elysium is by newcomer Ryan Amon, whose back story is quite fascinating. Up until very recently Wisconsin-born Amon – who is still in his 30s – had only composed original music for trailers and advertising spots via his company, City of the Fallen, which he started while living with his wife’s family in Bolivia. In 2012 director Blomkamp heard some of Amon’s music attached to a trailer on Youtube and, purely on the strength of that, immediately decided to hire him to score his $90 million blockbuster; with the exception of a few weeks spent interning with composer Mike Post after winning the BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship award in 2003, and a few gigs ghost-writing for reality TV shows, Elysium is Amon’s first experience of working in film, ever – no short films, no TV show episodes, no straight-to-DVD low budget efforts, nothing. Elysium is his first score of any kind – and what a debut it is!

At first glance, it would be very easy to dismiss Elysium as little more than yet another Remote Control Zimmer knock off, as the first few cues of the score do seem to follow exactly the expected pattern of scores of that type: churning cellos ostinatos, fluttering electronic rhythmic patterns, very little in the way of melody. However, to do so would be to do the score a massive disservice, as there is much more depth and creativity going on than that. In truth, Amon has created a fascinating orchestral and electronic hybrid score that is fresh and exciting and daring, and which is very similar in its approach to the music Daft Punk wrote for Tron Legacy a few years ago, and to the outstanding video game score Remember Me by Olivier Derivière from earlier this year.

Thematic identity is not Amon’s driving force in Elysium; instead, it’s a score of texture, detail, and lots of unusual creativity, resulting in a sound palette and rhythmic core that we have not heard before. Subtle, shifting electronic tones occasionally interspersed with booming brass chords and a glittery electric cello typify the opening “Heaven and Earth”, setting the tone and introducing the mood.

Some of the action music clearly takes its inspiration from the contemporary Hans Zimmer Dark Knight school of action scoring, especially tracks such as “Fire Up the Shuttle”,”Deportation”, “Zero Injuries Sustained”, “I’d Like Them Dead”, and others, parts of which are clearly descended from “Like a Dog Chasing Cars”. Elsewhere, cues such as “Unauthorized Entry”, “Darkness” and the moody “Things To Come” are little more then exercises in tension building, pitting staccato rhythms and shifting string tones against various pulsing and whooshing electronic effects.

However, some of the other action music elements take on a completely different dimension: they are still loud and powerful and have the acoustic/electronic combo, but some of the things Amon does with his synthesizers are quite astonishing, and the way he allows his brass section to weave Goldenthal-style in and out of the mix like a relentless horde of buzzing insects is quite superb – listen to the second half of “Arming Projectile”, “Step Aboard”, or the wonderful, stirring “You Have No Idea” for great examples of this.

Some of the cues also feature processed vocal effects which are also very unique and interesting; “You Said You’d Do Anything” takes what sounds like a Tuvan throat singer and manipulates the heck out of it, processing it and distorting it to almost indistinguishable levels, so that by its second half the pitch has been altered so much that it sounds like a gang of evil chipmunks coming to assail you. The description makes it sound as if the cue is funny, but the reality of it is quite brilliant, the first of many examples of the creativity Amon brings to the project. Later, “A Political Sickness” features harsh, aggressive, grinding electronic tones that sound almost like wailing vocals set against a storm of throbbing percussion, another wholly unique and progressive sound. Not content to rest on his laurels, in “I Don’t Want to Die” Amon introduces an ethereal Lisa Gerrard/Lisbeth Scott-style ethnic female vocalization by singer Francesca Genco that is very evocative, and it revisited towards the end of the score in the tragedy-laden “Breaking a Promise” .

The score’s extended conclusion, which begins with the energetic, anticipatory “Heading to Elysium”, offers a rapid sequence of rip-roaring action cues which continue the trend of combining creatively-designed electronic tones with aggressive and powerful orchestral timbres, often with unique elements to separate one cue from the next. The brief “Keep Them Busy” has what sounds like an over-manipulated child’s voice that is very unusual; “We Do the Hanging” seems to feature what sounds like an alarm siren transformed into a percussion sound; and “Kruger Suits Up” revisits the processed throat singer before launching into another full-throttle assault on the aural senses courtesy of Amon’s wailing, churning trombones and trembling string ostinatos. Later, “I’m Right Behind You” takes the wholly unique sound of sampled Colobus monkey and baboon cries and thrusts them into a monumental action sequence fuelled by more driving percussion beats, string figures, and a re-occurrence of the alarm effect. Best of all, the ascending string effects and gargantuan flutter-tongues brasses in “Fire and Water” make it stand as one of the action-based highlights of the entire score.

The final two cues, “Elysium” and “New Heaven, New Earth” give the listener some closure. A more reflective piano solo that builds from thematic fragments heard earlier in the score anchors the former cue, which gradually picks up a distant-sounding electric violin and Genco’s haunting vocal work, while the finale begins with a hypnotic, undulating cello figure but ends with a truly astonishing flurry of string scales and brass clusters that brings the score to a close on a creative high.

Considering that Elysium is Ryan Amon’s first ever score, the music on display is remarkably assured, confident, and free from any sort of tentativeness one might otherwise have expected from a debutant composer. Some of the sound design elements show the mark of real musical free thinking, especially in the way some of the vocals are manipulated and transformed into wholly unique sounds. This is the hallmark of a composer who is clearly writing in his comfort zone, and who was given the independence to be inventive and inquisitive and experimental without compromising the integrity of the story. Kudos should also go to conductor/orchestrator Alain Mayrand and orchestrator Penka Kouneva, whose contribution to the project should not be overlooked.

As I started out by saying, I’m sure that many people who don’t give this score the attention and time it deserves will dismiss Elysium as “just another RC clone”, “more of the same”, or “same old same old”, but those people are missing out on what is actually an interesting, exciting variation on the style by a young, vigorous new voice making an audacious and auspicious entrance. Welcome to the film scoring club, Ryan Amon. I can’t wait to see where you go from here.

Rating: ****

Buy the Elysium soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Heaven and Earth (4:24)
  • Fire Up The Shuttle (1:45)
  • Unauthorized Entry (4:36)
  • Deportation (1:54)
  • Darkness (4:49)
  • Things to Come (4:36)
  • You Said You’d Do Anything (3:30)
  • A Political Sickness (3:48)
  • Arming Projectile (1:25)
  • Zero Injuries Sustained (1:30)
  • I’d Like Them Dead (1:21)
  • You Have No Idea (2:11)
  • The Raven (1:58)
  • Let the Girls Out (2:08)
  • I Don’t Want to Die (1:35)
  • Matilda (2:53)
  • Step Aboard (2:54)
  • Heading to Elysium (1:54)
  • Keep Them Busy (0:53)
  • When He Wakes Up (1:39)
  • We Do the Hanging (1:06)
  • Kruger Suits Up (2:25)
  • The Armory (:58)
  • I’m Right Behind You (2:25)
  • Fire and Water (1:51)
  • The Gantry (1:08)
  • Breaking a Promise (3:18)
  • Elysium (3:45)
  • New Heaven, New Earth (2:22)

Running Time: 71 minutes 31 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7212 (2013)

Music composed by Ryan Amon. Conducted by Alain Mayrand. Performed by The London Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by Penka Kouneva and Alain Mayrand. Special vocal performances by Francesca Genco. Recorded and mixed by John Rodd. Edited by Rich Walters and Dave Lawrence. Album produced by Ryan Amon.

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  1. August 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Sometimes I wonder if you review scores based on how they appear in the movie or how they appear on the album. You can barely hear the orchestra on the album so I hope it is better in the film.

  1. August 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm

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