Home > Reviews > SIN CITY – Robert Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell

SIN CITY – Robert Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell

sincityOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been interesting to chart Robert Rodriguez’s career since he first burst onto the international movie scene at the helm of the ultra-low budget crime thriller El Mariachi in 1992. Since then his films have oscillated between violent thrillers and horror movies like Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty, and unexpectedly kid-friendly fire like the Spy Kids trilogy and the upcoming The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Sin City is most definitely in the former camp, and can be seen as his attempt to make the ultimate modern film noir. Based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Frank Miller, Sin City is a crime thriller set in the fictional Basin City, the kind of place where Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade, or anyone from a Quentin Tarantino movie would feel right at home. The film focuses on three separate stories, all of which take place in the same place, at the same time, and with cross-over between the three (not unlike the story structure of Pulp Fiction, but more linear). In the first, Bruce Willis plays John Hartigan, a tough cop who sets his sights on solving one last case before he retires: to save an 11-year old girl from the clutches of the serial murderer/rapist Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl).

Elsewhere in the city, Marv (Mickey Rourke) finds himself taking on the role of a vigilante when his girlfriend Goldie (Jamie King) is murdered while he sleeps, and he is framed for the crime. Meanwhile, Dwight (Clive Owen) finds himself caught between the police and the town’s organized crime bosses when he agrees to help a group of prostitutes after they accidentally kill sleaze ball cop Jackie Boy Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro). With a supporting cast to die for – including Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Madsen, Josh Hartnett, Brittany Murphy, Rutger Hauer, Carla Gugino and Jessica Alba (whose svelte figure adorns much of the film’s publicity material) – and shot in moody black-and-white by Rodriguez himself, Sin City has been praised by many critics for being one of the few comic-book adaptations to succeed on the big screen, and looks set to be one of the sleeper hits of 2005.

In what is possibly one of the most unique musical approaches in recent years, Rodriguez decided that, as each of the three main characters had their own specific voiceovers and storylines, each would have their own composer as well. To this end, Rodriguez hired John Debney (who he worked with previously on Spy Kids) and Graeme Revell (who he worked with previously on From Dusk Till Dawn), and asked them to score the Dwight and Marv stories respectively, while Rodriguez himself would score the Hartigan story, and provide the film’s overarching main themes. Even more interestingly, he gave each composer specific instructions on what kind of instrumentation to use: Revell was told not to use an orchestra, and so ultimately used the unusual combination of synthesizers, a saxophone, a trombone, bass and solo female vocals. Debney, on the other hand, was to try to emulate the great film noir scores of the past, and specifically Bernard Herrmann, and as a result made use of a full symphony orchestra with solo parts for a moody, smouldering trumpet.

While this film music smorgasbord had the potential to be disastrous, the end result is actually surprisingly cohesive and enjoyable, especially if the listener has a penchant for dark, moody jazz and frenetic action. Rodriguez’s timbre-du-jour is a throaty, rattling saxophone, prominent in the first track, “Sin City”, where the ever-descending main theme collides with a fairly sizeable orchestra and a modern, urban beat in a manner not too dissimilar to something Elliot Goldenthal might write (think In Dreams, or parts of Titus). Cues later in the album, notably “Prison Cell”, the surprisingly attractive “Kiss of Death” and the thunderous “That Yellow Bastard” show an increased level of awareness and understanding of the way film music works, and prove that his own musical talents are increasing in quality the more films he scores.

Cleverly, Rodriguez does not keep his musical ideas totally separate: when characters from different sections of the story interact, so does the music, with Rodriguez’s sax playing off Revell’s electro-brass combo in “Marv” and “Old Town Girls”, or Debney’s trumpet-and-orchestra in the exciting pair “Old Town” and “Deadly Little Mino”. It’s testament to the skill involved that these disparate elements, all of which were written independently of each other, gel together so easily in the final mix.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, some of Revell’s jazz textures actually sound like the kind of psychobilly surfer music Quentin Tarantino tracked into his seminal classic Pulp Fiction (think of the scene where Ving Rhames is raped by the hillbillies in the basement). Cues such as “Goldie’s Head” and the slightly more lyrical “Her Name is Goldie” have a shadowy, gritty jazz vibe, while “Bury the Hatchet” makes great use of a pounding piano ostinato deep beneath the action material, and “The Hard Goodbye” becomes increasingly frenetic with layer upon layer of female vocals and harsh electronics – one motif here reminds me of the commanding “Leviathan” music Christopher Young composed for Hellbound almost 20 years ago.

Debney’s music, by comparison, embraces the classic orchestral noir stylistics, notably featuring a lonely trumpet solo as a recurring leitmotif for Clive Owen’s unlikely savior of the city’s hookers. There’s a decidedly tense quality to “Warrior Woman” with its piano, persistent ticking percussion, frisky strings and hefty brass blasts, but after the manic, flamboyant “Jackie Boy’s Head”, “The Big Fat Kill” rises to a quite magnificent orchestral finale which revels in rich crescendos and an engaging statement of a brooding, darkly romantic theme for undulating strings.

There are also two pieces of source music: the song “Absurd”, performed by Fluke, is a familiar piece of comic-book inspired modern electronica which has featured previously in soundtracks ranging from La Femme Nikita to Tomb Raiser, while the wildly flamboyant “Sensemaya” was written by the late Mexican classical composer Silvestre Revueltas in 1938, and is a ferociously uncompromising piece inspired by a poem by Afro-Cuban writer Nicolas Guillen which describes an ancient snake-killing ritual. Once again, it fits in perfectly with the dark, dramatic sensibility of the score as a whole, and at times actually reminds me of some of the more impressionistic parts of John Williams’s Star Wars scores, or the turbulent jungle music Max Steiner or Herrmann might have written in their heyday.

I am actually rather surprised at myself for how much I like this score. While John Debney has always been a favorite of mine, neither Graeme Revell nor Robert Rodriguez impress me on a regular basis. This, combined with the fact that the music itself is written for a genre and in a style not often conducive to standout soundtracks, would usually result in a score which is middling at best. However, for some reason, I find myself discovering more and more things to like about Sin City, either in the textures, the way Rodriguez combines the disparate three styles into an engaging whole, or just purely because of the down-at-heel, slightly disheveled, but effortlessly cool vibe of the score overall.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Sin City [Rodriguez] (1:55)
  • One Hour to Go [Rodriguez] (2:12)
  • Goldie’s Dead [Revell] (2:15)
  • Marv [Revell/Rodriguez] (2:10)
  • Bury the Hatchet [Revell] (2:40)
  • Old Town Girls [Revell/Rodriguez] (0:44)
  • The Hard Goodbye [Revell] (4:32)
  • Cardinal Sin [Revell/Rodriguez] (2:14)
  • Her Name is Goldie [Revell] (1:00)
  • Dwight [Debney] (2:11)
  • Old Town [Debney/Rodriguez] (3:16)
  • Deadly Little Mino [Debney/Rodriguez] (2:58)
  • Warrior Woman [Debney] (2:19)
  • Tar Pit [Debney] (2:11)
  • Jackie Boy’s Head [Debney] (0:36)
  • The Big Fat Kill [Debney] (3:16)
  • Nancy [Rodriguez] (1:34)
  • Prison Cell [Rodriguez] (1:48)
  • Absurd (written by Mike Bryant and Jon Fugler, performed by Fluke) (3:40)
  • Kiss of Death [Rodriguez] (1:58)
  • That Yellow Bastard [Rodriguez] (1:36)
  • Hartigan [Rodriguez] (1:43)
  • Sensemaya (written by Silvestre Revueltas, performed by The New Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Eduardo Mata) (5:59)
  • Sin City End Titles [Rodriguez] (3:16)

Running Time: 58 minutes 03 seconds

Varèse Sarabande 302-066-644-2 (2005)

Music composed by Robert Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell. Conducted by John Debney and Bruce Babcock. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, George Oldziey, Mike Watts, Frank Bennett and Bruce Babcock. Special musical performances by Johnny Reno, Dan Savant and Dan Higgins. Recorded and mixed by Alan Myerson. Album produced by Robert Rodriguez and Robert Townson.

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