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PAYCHECK – John Powell

December 26, 2003 Leave a comment Go to comments

paycheckOriginal Review by Nate Underkuffler

Budda-budda-bumpa. Is that what film music has become? There has been an undoubtable trend in the past decade, perhaps even for the last half of the century, of an increased use of alternative elements in film music apart from the symphony orchestra. Composers such as Goldsmith and Herrmann experimented and implemented synthesizer and other effects into their scores, later composers like Hans Zimmer in part defined themselves by it, and now a young writer like John Powell sees no inappropriateness or novelty in the idea. Powell has thus put his own spin on the techniques, and created unique soundscapes through both an orchestra and anything he can get his hands on in the studio. Nearly all of Powell’s recent scores since breaking away from Media Ventures and his productive tenure on children’s films with fellow MV student Harry Gregson-Williams have been driven by a quirky set of samples and percussion, as well as his now distinctive orchestral style. His latest score, Paycheck, continues this approach, but now adapts it for a futuristic film noir.

Based on the celebrated short story by Philip K. Dick and set in a corporate America of the future, Paycheck stars Ben Affleck as Michael Jennings, a hot shot computer engineer who is hired on a regular basis by huge companies to design systems. Aside from the millions of dollars he is paid, the only catch is that, once the job is completed, Jennings routinely has his memory of working there erased, to counter the threat of industrial espionage. After undertaking a major project for his old friend James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), it becomes necessary for Jennings to have five years of his memories erased. However, when the five years are up, Jennings soon finds himself pursued by the authorities, who want to know the details of something he has no memory of doing, all will stop at nothing to find out. Teaming up with colleague Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman) – with whom he had a four year relationship, which he now does not remember – Jennings becomes embroiled in a dangerous game of cat and mouse between the cops and his former employers, who seem to have something to hide themselves…

A close cousin to films such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and last year’s The Bourne Identity, director John Woo again explores Dick’s pet themes of memory and reality distortion, wrapped up in a neat little package as a fairly standard action thriller. Affleck is passable in the lead role, but it not really action man material, looking uncomfortable and out of place in some of the more elaborate stunt sequences. Uma Thurman and Aaron Eckhart fair better, achieving a great deal of credibility despite under-written roles, and supporting members such as Paul Giamatti, Joe Morton and the superb Colm Feore add their own unique touches. Despite generally negative criticism, Paycheck actually works quite well both as a techno-thriller and as a thoughtful rumination on the nature of reality, and stands as one of Woo’s more successful North American ventures.

Score wise, what we get are orchestral writing techniques pioneered by those like Herrmann and other classic film noir composers, but with the unique twist of Powell’s indescribably funky propulsive electronic and percussive undercurrent. Perhaps some of these electronic effects are unnecessary at times, as film music fans could complain that technology is distracting composers from writing music that is actually any good. With Paycheck, however, this is far from accurate. The electronic effects are equally intelligent to the orchestral writing, and the orchestral writing is the work of effortless sophistication. There are film composers who rely on their synthetic effects to distract the listener from simplistic and derivative writing. There are also others who use synths to supplement their orchestra for a certain effect. John Powell however is a composer who has refined his technique to the extent where in a score like Paycheck experienced listeners should hear the soundscape as an entirely cohesive composition.

Paycheck also offers more than only interesting influences and soundscapes. There is a beautiful main theme melody heard in pieces throughout the score and with more complete performances in the crowd-pleasing “Hog Chase Part II”, and unexpected but delightful string quartet arrangement in the final track, “Rachael’s Party”. The romantic falling piano lines and ever present but somehow perfectly matched rhythmic undercurrent in “Intruder” is a new high point in Powell’s suspense scoring. Complaints? Well, after the standout “Hog Chases”, the album loses a bit of dramatic steam with the longer cues towards the end being unable to stand out with as memorable an idea like some of earlier tracks. Not to say the score ever gets boring – Powell has the gift for interesting underscore. In what is likely a case of a beloved temp track, Powell borrows an amount of inspiration from Newton Howard’s Signs score, but saves himself by putting his own twist on the minimalist patterns, and in the brilliant cue “Wolfe Pack” actually takes the ideas further to create an exhilarating action cue.

John Powell’s Paycheck score on album is a modern, sophisticated, layered, stylish and creative work. It is, for the most part, contemporary film music at its best. Expect to be hearing from this Powell fellow for quite some time.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:10)
  • 20 Items (2:53)
  • Wolfe Pack (2:54)
  • Crystal Balls (2:09)
  • Mirror Message (3:37)
  • Imposter (3:53)
  • Hog Chase Part I (3:13)
  • Hog Chase Part II (4:04)
  • I Don’t Remember (1:28)
  • Tomorrow’s Headlines (4:02)
  • Future Tense (7:14)
  • Fait Accompli (6:09)
  • The Finger (0:33)
  • Rachel’s Party (2:47)

Running Time: 48 minutes 08 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6535 (2003)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Suzette Moriarty, Ladd McIntosh, Walter Fowler and Elizabeth Finch. Featured musical soloists Michael Fisher and Randy Kerber. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Tom Carlson. Album produced by John Powell.

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