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BEOWULF – Alan Silvestri

November 16, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The story of Beowulf is a classic of English literature, and the oldest single surviving work of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, having been written roughly in the year 900 by an unknown author. It deals with a noble Scandinavian warrior, the Beowulf of the title, who ventures from his homeland to come to the aid of Danish King Hroðgar, whose kingdom is being threatened by repeated attacks from an evil beast named Grendel. This film version of the classic tale has been brought to the screen by director Robert Zemeckis, using the same rotoscoped motion capture technique he used on The Polar Express. The cast of actors providing the movements include Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Crispin Glover as Grendel, Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, Anthony Hopkins as King Hroðgar, and Robin Wright Penn as Queen Wealtheow.

Of course, with Robert Zemeckis at the helm, Alan Silvestri is sure to follow to provide the music. Beowulf is their twelfth cinematic collaboration, following on from such classic projects as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump and Contact. Their last project ago, The Polar Express, was three years ago, and it’s been a long wait for this collaboration. Nine times out of ten, Zemeckis brings out the absolute best in Silvestri as a composer, which is why it is something of a disappointment to report that this score is probably their weakest collaboration in a decade.

Things start off poorly with the “Beowulf Main Title’, which is stymied by horrible synthetic overdubs and an ill-advised electric guitar element which clearly wants to be like John Debney’s The Scorpion King or Joel Goldsmith’s Kull the Conqueror, but ends up doing little else than detract from the powerful orchestral writing it masks. The choir, when it comes in, is shouty and abrasive, resulting in a collision of four different musical styles which never sit well with each other. Later cues, such as “What We Need is a Hero” and parts of the otherwise quite exciting “Beowulf Slays the Beast”, suffer from the same problem.

The recurring main theme for Beowulf – a stirring nine-note brass fanfare – appears often throughout the score in one form or another, but usually underlining an important heroic act by the sword-wielding protagonist. The Beowulf theme does have some replay value, and at least keeps the music anchored to a familiar core motif. Once in a while, the action music kicks up a notch, and becomes the kind of music one might have expected a story such as Beowulf to inspire. The rampant piano writing at the beginning of “Second Grendel Attack” is quite superb, underpinning the drums and strings with a charging forward motion. “Beowulf Slays the Beast”, when not layering the shouty choir and the bad synth on top of the orchestra, is generally very effective, often building to moments of great power and energy.

The two “Seduction” tracks concerning the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother are mysterious in texture, utilizing an echoing synth heartbeat effect, a vaguely hypnotic glockenspiel, and a cooing come-hither chorus to moody effect. This writing is much more effective than the battering-ram bombast of the action music, and represents probably the best musical moments on the album.

Two folk songs, “Gently As She Goes” and “A Hero Comes Home”, performed by Robin Wright-Penn in character as Queen Wealtheow, are soft and gentle, and have a prototypical Dark Ages lilt in the writing which makes them sound authentically ancient, as though they could have been performed on a lute or on a long-forgotten flute. The main melody of latter of the two songs, “A Hero Comes Home”, forms the thematic core of the epic, “I Am Beowulf”, by far the score’s best orchestral cue, which stirs the senses with rich choral writing. It also reappears in “He Has A Story To Tell”, the occasionally quite majestic “He Was The Best Of Us”, and the end titles track as a fully fleshed-out soft rock song, performed with vocal gusto by Tony Award-winning Broadway star Idina Menzel.

Ultimately, though, my biggest beef with Beowulf is that, for far too much of its running time, it sounds like a poor imitation of other, better Silvestri scores. The action music wants to be like Van Helsing, but never captures its energy or gregariousness. The main theme wants to be heroic, like Back to the Future perhaps, but it never attains those heights. The percussion writing wants to be like Predator, but it never recaptures the inventiveness of that 1987 groundbreaker. Instead, it feels like an unsatisfactory mishmash of all those styles, written by someone trying to recapture Silvestri’s sound rather than by Silvestri himself. I fully acknowledge that criticizing Silvestri for repetitiveness is hugely contradictory of me, especially considering my well-documented and regular defense of James Horner for doing the same thing, but I can’t change the way I feel about it.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Beowulf Main Title (0:56)
  • First Grendel Attack (1:53)
  • Gently As She Goes (performed by Robin Wright-Penn) (1:38)
  • What We Need Is A Hero (1:43)
  • I’m Here To Kill Your Monster (1:49)
  • I Did Not Win The Race (2:18)
  • A Hero Comes Home (performed by Robin Wright-Penn) (1:09)
  • Second Grendel Attack (4:03)
  • I Am Beowulf (4:34)
  • The Seduction (4:04)
  • King Beowulf (1:47)
  • He Has A Story To Tell (2:43)
  • Full of Fine Promises (1:14)
  • Beowulf Slays the Beast (6:03)
  • He Was The Best Of Us (5:26)
  • The Final Seduction (2:27)
  • A Hero Comes Home – End Credits Version (written by Alan Silvestri and Glenn Ballard, performed by Idina Menzel) (3:13)

Running Time: 47 minutes 05 seconds

Warner Bros./WEA Records 372924 (2007)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alan Silvestri.

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