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ROBOTS – John Powell

robotsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The first time I sat and listened to John Powell’s score for Robots the two words which immediately sprang to mind were “un-focused” and “schizophrenic”. I had planned for this review to say things like “it’s a score in need of a point”, and talk about how the whole thing lacked coherency and a sense of itself, how it jumped from style to style and genre to genre with such reckless abandon that it rendered the whole thing almost redundant, a chaotic mess of clashing approaches. However, as I have listened to it more and more, my attitude towards it has changed considerably, to the point where I now think it comes close to being one of the best scores Powell has yet written.

Directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha (who previously made Ice Age for Fox) and written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who previously wrote Splash and City Slickers, among other things), the film is a mechanical Pinocchio crossed with The Wizard of Oz. Ewan McGregor provides the voice of Rodney Copperbottom, an idealistic young robot who leaves his home the sleepy hamlet of Rivet Town and travels to the metropolis of Robot City to seek out his hero, Bigweld (Mel Brooks). However, when Rodney learns that Bigweld has disappeared and that things are being run by the evil Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) and his mother Madam Gasket (Jim Broadbent), Rodney teams up with his new friends Fender (Robin Williams) and Cappy (Halle Berry) to find Bigweld and rescue the city from the clutches of Ratchet.

As one would imagine, for a film which has machinery as its central characters, the core of Powell’s score is rhythmic: everything is built from a starting point of metallic and percussive tempos which drive the whole thing along. To add that extra level of percussive drive, Powell hired the world-famous Blue Man Group, whose sell-out shows in Las Vegas see them using a multitude of everyday household objects to create a sonic soundscape akin to a metallic symphony. The percussive stylings of the Group underpin Powell’s orchestral writing throughout the score, adding a sense of drive and motion to the proceedings, while at the same time reminding the listener in subtle ways that, although the film is dealing with very human emotions, it is set in a hyper-reality world of metallic people.

The main theme, which first appears in the first moments of the “Robots Overture”, is warm and sentimental, but suddenly gives way to a burst of rousing big-band jazz and hyper-fast percussion writing – the first of many, many unexpected changes of musical direction throughout the score. Despite the standout orchestrations at work in each of these elements, it is this choppiness which eventually mars the score just a little. One moment you’re in a bed of tender string-and-choir writing, the next you’re in Carl Stalling-style xylophone chase music, then saxophone led film noir, then you’ve got Gershwin Americana, followed by vaguely Copland-esque western music – and all this within the space of the first three and a half minutes of the score!

Having said that, the actual musical parts which make up the sum are, at times, amazing. The “Rivet Town Parade” is a blast, encompassing the ebullience of a downtown carnival with big fat brass performances, rattling percussion and a insanely catchy upbeat theme which carries on into “Bigweld TV”, where it is taken up by a swinging Hammond organ. “Creating Wonderbot” features a jaunty string motif which British readers will find reminds them of the famous BBC ‘Ski Sunday’ music, before bringing the Blue Man Group’s tin-pot percussion to the fore once more.

“Train Station” is an unexpected emotional high point early in the album – a soaring, sweeping theme not too dissimilar from his finale music from Shrek, replete with high strings which build from warm woodwinds, and with a definite orchestral twinkle. The second half of the cue is an homage to the Golden Age of Broadway, as the young rube first arrives in the big city accompanied by a musical depiction of the cosmopolitan buzz that could have almost been written by Leonard Bernstein or Richard Rodgers.

The sadly brief theme for “Madam Gasket” is a dark, but yet somehow amusing march with harrumphing male voices and a slight East European gypsy inflection, which is carried over into the equally metrical “Chop Shop”, which achieves the same notions of mechanized industry as Danny Elfman’s “Cookie Factory” cue from Edward Scissorhands. The choir first enters the fray during “Crosstown Express”, and adds a sense of both icy menace and glorious wonder to the increasingly frenetic and action-packed “Bigweld Workshop” – which then inexplicably turns into a breakneck zydeco guitar piece reminiscent of The Refreshments’ theme from the animated TV show “King of the Hill”.

As the score progresses, Powell increasingly embraces his orchestral-and-choral writing, allowing the percussive elements to fade into the background as the emotional content of the film begins to dominate. Some of his symphonic writing is reminiscent of Antz, Shrek and Chicken Run (which he co-wrote with Harry Gregson-Williams), and his solo scores for Evolution and Agent Cody Banks – not in any thematic way, but more in the way Powell allows the music to develop a life and energy of its own.

The 15-minute action sequence towards the end of the album is almost indescribable – it seems to want to nod its head to a multitude of genre clichés, and encompasses everything from militaristic ‘making preparations’ montages (which brings to mind the similar sequence from Chicken Run) and Dirty Dozen snare drum riffs (“Gathering Forces”), to science fiction circular string writing, James Bond-style jazzy brasses and Planet of the Apes-style percussion (“Escape”), bagpipes with big male voice choirs (“Attack of the Sweepers”), enormous heroic statements of the main theme with heavy metal guitars (the wonderfully-titled “Butt Whoopin’”), and everything else in between. Just when you think you are heading down one musical road, Powell changes course completely – the music remains unquestionably brilliant throughout, but the pacing and dizzying direction leaves you reeling.

Some listeners may find Powell’s tendency to pull musical 180’s out of the bag every few seconds incredibly distracting, and even annoying – I know that, on the strength of the first listen, I was one of those people. The score is incredibly diverse in its stylistics, and you can never be sure which direction you’ll be heading in next. However, once you’ve reconciled with the fact that the score has this unashamedly scattershot approach, Robots actually turns into an immensely rewarding listening experience.

The orchestrations are at times spectacularly intricate – the depth and the sheer mesmerizing number of things going on at once is at times nothing short of staggering. They don’t often get name-checks, but here we go anyway: Brad Dechter, Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Randy Kerber, Suzette Moriarty, John Ashton Thomas, Mark McKenzie and Jon Kull, your work here is sensational, and I salute you. The sense of fun Powell injects into every cue is endlessly engaging, and then, at the center of everything, are the core themes, which keep the score in focus when the rest of it is bouncing around from genre to genre. It may not be high art, but it’s likely to be the most entertaining hour of film music in 2005 to date.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Robots Overture (4:02)
  • Rivet Town Parade (0:54)
  • Bigweld TV/Creating Wonderbot (2:45)
  • Wonderbot Wash (2:08)
  • Train Station (3:50)
  • Crosstown Express (1:19)
  • Wild Ride (1:36)
  • Madam Gasket (1:00)
  • Chop Shop (1:50)
  • Meet the Rusties (2:07)
  • Bigweld Workshop (3:13)
  • Phone Booth (1:29)
  • Gathering Forces (3:28)
  • Escape (4:42)
  • Deciding to Fight Back (1:13)
  • Attack of the Sweepers (1:27)
  • Butt Whoopin’ (3:42)
  • Homecoming (1:33)
  • Dad’s Dream (1:24)

Running Time: 43 minutes 44 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6640 (2005)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Randy Kerber, Suzette Moriarty, John Ashton Thomas, Mark McKenzie and Jon Kull. Special percussion performances by The Blue Man Group. Additional special musical performances by Michael Fisher, Brian Kilgore, Richie Garcia, Alan Estes, Greg Goodall, Dan Greco, Chris Limonick, Don Williams, George Doering and John Powell. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Tom Carlson, Josh Winget and Dan Lerner. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by John Powell.

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