Home > Reviews > TRANSFORMERS – Steve Jablonsky

TRANSFORMERS – Steve Jablonsky

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Fanboys are funny creatures. On the one hand they are often derided for being misguidedly devoted to a particular composer to the point of obsession, and dismissed by film music ‘elder statesmen’ as being ignorant or – worse still – indifferent to the Golden Age glories of the past, or of any kind of musical endeavor outside their narrow genre preferences. On the other hand, they are also the lifeblood of the mainstream soundtrack industry, gleefully lapping up the latest new releases from the top of the box office charts, spending their money and spreading their enthusiasm far and wide, investing in the market, and thereby allowing it to thrive. One thing you can’t ignore is the power of their collective voices – as evidenced by this rather belated release of Steve Jablonsky’s score for the 2007 summer blockbuster Transformers, which exists thanks, in a large part, to the incessant clamoring for it by the aforementioned fanboys.

I don’t mind admitting that I thoroughly enjoyed Transformers as a popcorn-munching movie experience. A loud, frenetic, exciting summer extravaganza in the grandest tradition, the film is based on the toy line created by Hasbro in the early 1980s, which was itself subsequently spun-off into a well-loved animated show for kids in 1984, and an animated movie released in 1986. The basic concept is that the Transformers are a robotic alien life form from the planet Cybertron, and are divided into two warring factions: the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron. Their unique talent is that they are all able to “transform” into other, more innocuous forms, such as cars, trucks, planes, mechanical devices, and even animals, which allow them to remain undetected within communities alien to them. This year’s movie, which was directed by Michael Bay and starred Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight and John Turturro, tells the story of what happens when the Transformers come to Earth to continue their ongoing battle.

So, after much to-ing and fro-ing, the Transformers score is finally out. And, having now heard it separated from the film, my only question is “what was all the fuss about”? Steve Jablonsky’s career, in my opinion, has been one which promised much but delivered little. He worked for many years under Hans Zimmer at Media Ventures, and later Remote Control, contributing additional music to films such as Armageddon, Hannibal, Pearl Harbor, and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, before getting his own gigs on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, and The Amityville Horror and The Island in 2005. His score for the 2004 Japanese anime Steamboy impressed me to such an extent that I felt he was going to be the ‘next big thing’, but his work since then has largely failed to fulfill that early promise, and Transformers continues the trend.

Transformers is brash, raucous, energetic and, at times, very loud. It’s also, unfortunately, very conventional in the way it conforms to the now homogenized “summer blockbuster” sound producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and directors like Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Michael Bay have favored since the late 1990s. It’s easy to stoop to dismissive comments about it sounding like every other Media Ventures action score since time began, but the truth of the matter is that Transformers is yet another perfect example of the kind of ‘target demographic’ thinking that is permeating the film music world, and it’s worrying. It’s almost as though a group of executives sit around and have a discussion, after which they come to the conclusion that because Pirates of the Caribbean, and Gladiator, and Armageddon, and all the others made buckets of money, and all had similar-sounding scores, that the two must be linked, and therefore the new movie’s score must not buck the trend.

The result, however, is a series of scores for completely unrelated movies, which all sound the same. The themes are different, certainly, and some of the instrumentation may feature slight variations here and there, but the basic core sound is the same, irrespective of whether the film is set in ancient Rome, or Roman Britain, or is about pirates or modern cops or alien robots. Gone are the days when composers would be given the time to research their scores thoroughly, to give their films a specific sound, unique to its setting and its circumstances. Now it’s all about pandering to the lowest common denominator, and not rocking the demographic boat: those dreaded fanboys again.

Having said all that, what of the music itself? Well, Jablonsky’s technique seems to have been to generate as much energy and testosterone as possible. There are actually several themes which weave through the score, anchored by a positive, major key horn march for the heroic Transformers, first heard in the opening “Autobots”. You can tell that the Autobots are the good guys, because they are the ones who get the heavenly choir in their theme. The slightly less pleasant robots also have their own theme, first heard in “Decepticons”, which makes use of some ominous-sounding processed vocal chants to add a layer of menace to their staccato music. These two styles are combined quite cleverly in “Sam on the Roof”, as the leaders of the two robot factions come helmet-to-helmet at the film’s conclusion, while the finale, “No Sacrifice, No Victory”, pumps up the heavenly choir to the max, to provide a stirring and pleasant coda.

Martin Tillman’s ubiquitous electric cello provides the instrumental cornerstone of the theme for “The All Spark” (the mystical energy source which the Transformers are fighting over in the first place), the first of several pleasant variations on the Autobot theme, which later include a calming recapitulation for woodwinds and electric guitars in “Optimus”, and another electric cello interlude in “Cybertron”. The cue which everyone raved about – “Arrival to Earth” – is certainly the score’s thematic highlight, featuring a stirring performance of a noble theme, underpinned by patriotic snare drums, and accentuated by those dulcet, echoing choral effects which have become such a staple since they first appeared in Crimson Tide back in 1995.

The action music, of which there is a lot, tends to be underpinned by both electric pulses and synth percussion, relentlessly pounding underneath the impenetrable orchestral carnage churning on the top. Cues like “Soccent Attack”, “Downtown Battle”, “Sector 7” and “You’re a Soldier Now” are quite enjoyable in and of themselves, and certainly generate a considerable head of steam as they progress, often managing to make restatements of both the main themes emerge from out of the depths to satisfying effect. Others, such as “Optimus vs. Megatron” contrive to work a throbbing electric guitar into the mix, while the sadly brief “Frenzy” is another the score’s high points, injecting a real sense of menace and danger into the score through some tense percussive writing, low end piano chords which echo in the pit of your stomach, and ominous brass triplets.

Shia LaBoeuf’s character, Sam Witwicky, has his own theme, a faux-Thomas Newman/American Beauty motif for marimbas and guitars, which may actually owe more of a debt to Trevor Rabin’s score for National Treasure than anything else, although it’s as obviously out of place in this score as it was in that one. Nevertheless, its appearance in “Sam at the Lake” and “Witicky” is welcome, if for no other than reason than it provides a moment to take a breath while waiting for the next action onslaught.

The un-ignorable problem with the whole thing, though, is its general lack of scope. For all its blaring themes and huge choruses, Transformers remains a score which is little more than a pale imitation of other works, and throughout the entire running time its almost impossible to shake the nagging notion that you’ve heard it all before, and usually done much better. “Scorponok”, for example, is little more than a reworking of Hans Zimmer’s Davy Jones ‘biker gang’ music from the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and that’s just one example of many.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this review talking about the state of play in the film music industry today, and how this score fits into the equation, but most of the people reading this will simply be asking one question: is the music any good? So, instead of providing a straight answer, let me ask a couple of questions in return. Did you love the score for Crimson Tide? Did you think King Arthur was the best score of 2004? Did you consider Armageddon to be a turning point in recent film music history? Did you rush out and buy the CDs for The Peacemaker and/or The Rock? If you answered one or more of those questions in the affirmative, I don’t think I need to say anything else.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • Autobots (2:33)
  • Decepticons (3:52)
  • All Spark (3:35)
  • Deciphering the Signal (3:09)
  • Frenzy (1:57)
  • Optimus (3:16)
  • Bumblebee (3:58)
  • Soccent Attack (2:07)
  • Sam at the Lake (2:00)
  • Scorponok (4:57)
  • Cybertron (2:46)
  • Arrival to Earth (5:27)
  • Witwicky (1:57)
  • Downtown Battle (1:33)
  • Sector 7 (2:05)
  • Bumblebee Captured (2:17)
  • You’re a Soldier Now (3:28)
  • Sam on the Roof (2:03)
  • Optimus vs. Megatron (4:00)
  • No Sacrifice, No Victory (2:58)

Running Time: 59 minutes 58 seconds

Warner Brothers WEA-298812 (2007)

Music composed by Steve Jablonsky. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Elizabeth Finch, Walt Fowler, Rick Giovinazzo, Penka Kouneva and Ken Kugler. Additional music by Lorne Balfe and Clay Duncan. Featured musical soloists Martin Tillmam, George Doering, Mike Fisher and Frank Macchia. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by Steve Jablonsky.

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