HERCULES – Fernando Velázquez
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There have been lots of films made about Hercules, the muscle-bound demi-god from Greek mythology, over the years. Steve Reeves played him in the classic Italian ‘swords and sandals’ movie in 1957, Arnold Schwarzenegger played him in his film debut in Hercules in New York in 1970, and Kellan Lutz played him in The Legend of Hercules just a few months ago, but in this latest version directed by Brett Ratner the bulging biceps and undersized loincloth are sported by former wrestling star The Rock, now thespianning under his real name, Dwayne Johnson. The film is based on the comic book series by Steve Moore and is a tale of revenge and betrayal involving the death of Hercules’s wife and sons years previously. The film co-stars Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan and John Hurt, and has done pretty brisk business at the box office in a summer crowded with action blockbusters.
Whatever you may think of Brett Ratner as a director, one thing that cannot be disputed is his excellent taste in film music. Ratner gave Lalo Schifrin a brief late-career renaissance via the Rush Hour movies, hired Danny Elfman for The Family Man and Red Dragon, and brought John Powell into the world of super heroes with X-Men: The Last Stand. For Hercules, Ratner gave a first mainstream Hollywood assignment to Spanish composer Fernando Velázquez, one of the leading lights in the group of outstanding young Spanish and Spain-based composers that includes Roque Baños, Federico Jusid, Arnau Bataller and Vìctor Reyes. Velázquez’s scores for films such as El Orfanato, El Mal Ajeno, Mama and The Impossible show him to be a wonderful dramatist capable of truly beautiful orchestral themes and moments of great power. Hercules is a different animal, though, and intentionally so: this is Velázquez’s first attempt at a balls-to-the-wall contemporary action score.
I’ve heard some commentators compare Velázquez’s score for Hercules unfavorably with some of the lesser action-adventure works to emerge from Remote Control over the past few years. I have also read some comments about how Hercules is a step down for him, and how he seems to have ‘dumbed down’ his music from its usual standard in order to meet the lower expectations of less discerning Hollywood executives. However, I think that to dismiss this score in such a way is doing a disservice to Velázquez. Yes, there are more electronic elements in this score than we have heard from Velázquez before, and yes, there are even some hard-edged rock and heavy metal moments that are quite unexpected. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the score is still fully orchestral, and very powerful; rather than comparing it to the work of someone like Steve Jablonsky, a better comparison may be John Debney’s score for The Scorpion King, Patrick Doyle’s Thor, or even Joel Goldsmith’s Kull the Conqueror, and in those terms Hercules actually succeeds very well. As was also the case with Debney and Doyle, Velázquez’s knowledge of the orchestra, and his penchant for interesting performance flourishes and artistic timbres, come shining through regularly, elevating the score way beyond the usual run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster mush many of us have come to lament over the last few years.
The score’s main theme, which is introduced during the first cue “Son of Zeus”, is outstanding. Strong, majestic, often accompanied by a choir, and versatile enough to play as an action motif, a more heroic anthem, and something more reflective and thoughtful, Hercules’s Theme is one of the most memorable things Velázquez has written in his career thus far. It ties the score together as a leitmotif for the might and nobility of the central character, and provides an anchor point from which Velázquez can develop all his various creative touches in the orchestration and performance as the score progresses. The conclusive performances of the theme towards the end of the score are the best, with “Comrades Stand Together”, “Alternative Ending” and the emotionally stirring “End Titles” being especially noteworthy, while the chorus-only version of the theme in the score’s very last track further highlights its malleability.
Some of the compositional embellishments Velázquez introduces into his music are superb, and remind me of the similar flamboyant accoutrements James Horner would insert into scores like Krull, for no other reason than he was amusing himself and having fun. “Lord Cotys’ Palace”, for example, has a regal, pompous little march for cellos that illustrates the formalities of courtly life that Hercules must endure prior to his next bout of skull-crushing. Some of the intricate ostinatos the string section performs are very impressive, as is the phrasing in the brass (just listen to those triplets in “Dungeon & I Am Hercules”!), while some of the percussion patterns Velázquez uses to underpin his action sequences are clever and complicated. There are a couple of quieter moments too, including a beautiful performance of the main theme in “The Lion’s Tooth” for flute and harp that is just gorgeous.
The action music which dominates much of the score is excellent, with the most memorable moments coming during the magnificent pair “Bessi’s Valley” and “Bessi-Battle”. This 12-minute tour-de-force takes some inspiration from the Brian Tyler school of action scoring; after a few minutes of anticipatory build-up for choir, rattling percussion, nervously energetic strings, and a number of industrial-style electronic pulses that are sure to annoy a great deal of people, everything explodes into a full-throated battle sequence of truly epic proportions that just doesn’t let up. Velázquez builds much of his action music around a repeated five-note motif in the strings, and this ostinato underpins much of the rest of the action going forward. When the main Hercules theme emerges from the rhythms during the second half of the cue, the effect is startlingly good, and the secondary theme that emerges at the 5:13 mark is almost as satisfying as the primary identity – so much so, that I wish the score featured it more frequently.
Elsewhere, the trumpet fanfares that herald the “Arrival at Lord Cotys’ City” are bold and arrogant, while the swirling string writing and bright trumpet calls in “Training” have the vaguest hint of Bill Conti’s Rocky about them. “Centaurs” and “The Battle” build on the material introduced in the “Bessi Battle”, but with a larger choral element and more prominent performances of the main theme, while “Dungeon & I Am Hercules” features a brief guest appearance from the familiar ‘wailing woman’ vocal effect, which has now gone so far beyond cliché that it’s almost ironic.
Then there are the rock elements, which include an electric guitar and an enhanced percussion section including tapped cymbals, and feature prominently in cues such as “Pirates Camp”, “Lord Cotys’ Palace”, the second half of “Dungeon & I Am Hercules”, and “Kill Eurystheus”. These are likely to be the score’s most divisive parts and, at this point, it all comes down to a matter of taste; you either like them, or you don’t, and no amount of purple prose is going to convince you one way or the other. Personally, I think they sound great; the Hercules of legend was a rock star of his time, and the guitar anthems Velázquez introduces suit the swagger that Dwayne Johnson brings to the title role.
Compared to some of the scores I mentioned earlier, like El Orfanato, El Mal Ajeno, Mama and The Impossible, Hercules is certainly not at the same level, and if that is the sort of music you expect to hear in your Fernando Velázquez scores, then Hercules is likely to leave you open-mouthed and aghast. However, once you’ve picked your chin up off the floor, I’d still encourage people to check this score out. Yes, it adheres to many of the cookie-cutter Hollywood blockbuster clichés we have come to expect, but the compositional imagination and technical excellence that Velázquez has still manages to make itself heard above all the pounding drums and chugging cello ostinatos, and if you approach it with an open mind free of preconceptions, you might be surprised to find yourself enjoying it as much as I did.
Buy the Hercules soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Son of Zeus (3:22)
- Pirate’s Camp (1:47)
- Hercules (0:23)
- Arrival at Lord Cotys’ City (1:31)
- Flashback (0:53)
- Athens (0:59)
- Lord Cotys’ Palace (1:44)
- I Will Believe In You (1:13)
- The Lion’s Tooth (0:52)
- Bessi’s Valley (6:29)
- Bessi-Battle (6:12)
- The Campfire (2:02)
- Training (1:43)
- Centaurs (4:27)
- The Battle (4:42)
- Rhesus Caught (0:55)
- Dungeon & I Am Hercules (6:30)
- Kill Eurystheus (2:11)
- Cotys Brings Out Arius (1:45)
- Final Fight & Tydeus’ Death (3:28)
- The Statue Falls (2:04)
- Comrades Stand Together (2:04)
- Alternative Ending (3:07)
- End Titles (3:24)
- Choir Theme (1:26)
Running Time: 65 minutes 30 seconds
Sony Classical 88843098892 (2014)
Music composed and conducted by Fernando Velázquez. Performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by Robert Elhai, Jessica Dannheisser and Jaime Gutiérrez Domínguez. Recorded and mixed by Marc Blanes. Edited by Tommy Lockett. Album produced by Fernando Velázquez and Johannes Vogel.