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ZODIAC – David Shire

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The last time David Shire had a film in the top ten at the American Box Office was in July 1988, when director George Romero’s horror-thriller Monkey Shines became a moderate success. It’s been a long road back to the top for the composer of Saturday Night Fever, All the President’s Men, The Hindenburg, 2010 and Short Circuit, but here he is, nineteen years later, writing the score for David Fincher’s dark thriller, Zodiac.

San Francisco in the late 1960s was a scary place. A serial killer, known by members of the press as the Zodiac Killer, murdered five people between December 1968 and October 1969 in the most brutal of circumstances, but gained a great deal of wider notoriety after he sent a series letters and bizarre cryptograms to the offices of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, taunting those who sought to stop his killing spree. Director David Fincher’s film Zodiac is based on the 1986 “true crime” book by Robert Graysmith, and features Graysmith himself as the lead character, back when he was a political cartoonist working for the Chronicle, and who began his own series of investigations into the identity of the killer. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Graysmith, while the supporting cast features Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as Toschi and Armstrong, the lead detectives on the case, Robert Downey Jr. as Graysmith’s journalistic colleague Avery, John Carroll Lynch as lead suspect Arthur Allen (who was never arrested due to a lack of evidence), and Chloë Sevigny, Brian Cox and Dermot Mulroney in smaller roles.

That David Shire got this gig at all is nothing short of remarkable. David Fincher apparently temp-tracked his film with earlier Shire scores, and both he and the executives at Warner and Paramount fell in love with the moody, understated jazz textures Shire’s 1970s contained, and the sense of overbearing oppression they brought to Zodiac. Fincher originally intended to simply track Shire’s existing music into the new film, but then some bright spark had an idea: why not simply hire Shire to do new stuff in the old style? So, the 70-year old was brought in, and here we are – with the first new major film score from David Shire in almost two decades.

Zodiac, as befits the subject matter, is generally a dark, menacing score, and utilizes a stripped-down Skywalker Symphony Orchestra comprising just strings, piano, a solo horn, a solo trumpet, and occasional guitars. In many ways, this is as much a David Fincher score as it is a David Shire score, and sits well within the director’s pantheon of accompanying musical elements, like Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien 3 and Howard Shore’s Seven. Scores for Fincher movies provide a large amount of atmosphere, and more often than not drip with overwhelmingly oppressive textures, eschewing a theme-based approach almost entirely. So it is with Zodiac.

The bulk of the score is made up of shifting, slightly dissonant-sounding string figures, accompanied by piano percussion chords inspired by American classical composer Charles Ives’ famous 1908 piece ‘An Unanswered Question’ – a very appropriate choice, considering the intentionally frustrating and ambiguous tone the film takes to the murders themselves. Listeners familiar with James Horner’s 1982 score for the werewolf horror film Wolfen will hear echoes of that here. Cues like the opening “Aftermaths”, “Law and Disorder”, “Are You Done” and “Confrontation” churn away moodily, and when the mournful sound of the solo trumpet interjects into the proceedings, the cumulative effect is one of definite isolation and unease. In the album’s liner notes, Shire talks about the notion of ‘irresolution’ which permeated the entire tone of the film, and one can certainly feel the musical depiction of that here.

Elsewhere, Shire revisits the lonely jazz textures he utilized to great effect in his 1970s scores The Taking of Pelham 123, All the President’s Men and The Conversation, allowing his fractured piano to lazily depict the mysterious circumstances Graysmith finds himself, almost depicting him as a modern gumshoe working a case. “Graysmith”, “Avery & Graysmith/Toschi & Armstrong”, and the conclusive pair “Graysmith’s Theme” and “Toschi’s Theme” are perfect examples of this, the latter pair featuring the strongest melodic content of the entire score, albeit in the form of subdued piano motifs.

“Graysmith Obsessed” is one of the few cues to adopt a sprightlier aspect, using a cavalcade of pizzicato effects to illustrate Graysmith’s increasingly frantic efforts to crack the Zodiac Killer’s codes. “Closer & Closer” is about as close as the score gets to an action cue, with the pizzicato returning to underpin a faster tempo of rolling pianos, undulating strings and almost Herrmanesque orchestral stabs.

Zodiac is an easy score to admire, but less easy to like. As I mentioned before, there is no thematic content to provide a musical hook, and very little in the way of warmth to leave the listener with any kind of catharsis or happy ending. The Zodiac Killer was, and still never has been, caught; and the lack of resolution and overall bleakness of Shire’s score reflects this. I personally would find it difficult to revisit Zodiac over and over, such is the general understatedness of the music and the less-than-inspiring tone the music has overall – but that in no way should detract from the evaluation of the effectiveness of the score in context. The one thing I applaud is the decision to bring Shire back into the film music fold – this fact alone makes Zodiac an essential purchase. Let’s hope this is not a flash in the pan, and that he keeps working on films of this kind of profile in future.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Aftermaths (4:08)
  • Graysmith (1:29)
  • Law & Disorder (4:16)
  • Trailer Park (2:51)
  • Dare To Dream (1:21)
  • Avery & Graysmith, Toschi & Armstrong (3:29)
  • Graysmith Obsessed (4:09)
  • Are You Done? (2:22)
  • Closer & Closer (3:14)
  • Confrontation (3:34)
  • Graysmith’s Theme (2:35)
  • Toschi’s Theme (Unused) (2:10)
  • Graysmith’s Theme (Piano version) (1:48)

Running Time: 37 minutes 26 seconds

Varese Ssrabande VSD-6799 (2007)

Music composed and conducted by David Shire. Performed by The Skywalker Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by David Shire. Recorded and mixed by Leslie Ann Jones. Edited by Jonathan Stevens and Marie Ebbing. Album produced by David Shire and Martin Erskine.

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