Home > Reviews > WATCHMEN – Tyler Bates

WATCHMEN – Tyler Bates

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Watchmen is, by all accounts, one of the most important comic books – or graphic novels – ever written, a critical watershed in the history of the art, and one which set the standard by which all future efforts in the genre were judged. Written by Alan Moore in 1986 with illustrations by Dave Gibbons, it marked one of the first times that the comic book genre had tackled the world of the ‘super hero’ with adult themes and sophisticated contemporary political overtones. Moore’s story is set in a world where the United States is on the verge of nuclear war, vigilantism has been outlawed, and the traditional costumed superheroes are in retirement or working for the government. When one of these government sponsored superheroes is murdered, five other super heroes – Nite Owl, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias, the mysterious Rorschach, and the sexy latex-clad Silk Spectre – come out of retirement and team up to solve the mystery.

Director Zack Snyder’s film has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the story, despite Moore himself distancing himself entirely from the project; the film stars Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup and Matthew Goode at the five super heroes, and features a new score by composer Tyler Bates, who has worked with Snyder on all his previous films, including Dawn of the Dead, and the commercially successful but musically controversial 300.

I want to be able to tell you that Watchmen marks a turning point in Bates’ career; that, after the critical mauling he took on 300 and on his last major score, The Day the Earth Stood Still, this score is the one which finally shows Bates to be a composer with talent. I want to be able to tell you that Watchmen proves the doubters wrong, that Bates is capable of writing something contemporary yet timeless, memorable and thematic. I want to be able to tell you that Watchmen has finally provided a showcase for Bates that doesn’t rely on Elliot Goldenthal and Hans Zimmer rips, and where he has finally come into his own and shown why he is so regularly hired to score the big-budget high-profile movies other composers dream about. I want to be able to tell you, but I can’t, because for the most part Watchmen is, unfortunately, rather crap.

OK, that’s perhaps a bit unfair, but the score really is a quite monumental let-down considering the potential for great music source material like this provides. Written for 87 members of the Hollywood Studio Symphony orchestra and a moderate-sized choir, and augmented (inevitably) by lots and lots of electronics, Bates’ score for Watchmen has a curious, unfinished quality to it, as though he sat down and wrote all the filler music first to get it out of the way, but then forgot to write any themes or give it any real sense of identity.

The action music tries so hard to grand and epic, with all its cooing choirs and propulsive rhythms and orchestral mayhem, but far too much of it seems to have no focus; it’s loud for the sake of being loud, as though Bates had no other tricks up his sleeve or thoughts in his head than “bigger is better”. Despite the number of orchestral performers and choral singers Bates uses in cues such as “Tonight the Comedian Died”, “Silk Spectre”, or the god-awful “Prison Fight”, everything is overwhelmed by the sludgy and grating electronics. There’s no depth or sophistication to the music, no countermelodies, no creative performance techniques – just lots and lots of instruments all playing the same note simultaneously and at great volume, while electronic samples grind away in the background. The only action cues which leave any kind of positive impression are the admittedly quite good opening “Rescue Mission”, and parts of the apocalyptic “Just Look Around You”.

It may be an odd analogy, but compare Bates’s electronics to those employed by A.R. Rahman in his Oscar-winning score for Slumdog Millionaire; Rahman, a Hollywood outsider but by no means a newcomer, made his electronic arrangements fresh and exciting, intelligent and intricate, multi-layered and full of energy. Bates’s, by comparison, seem dull and labored, and completely lacking in creativity and innovation. Listen to cues such as “Only Two Names Remain”, or “Dan’s Apocalyptic Dream”, or “Who Murdered Hollis Mason?”, or “I’ll Tell You About Rorschach”: is the rasping, pseudo-industrial mush which typifies most of these tracks honestly the best they could do?

And then there are the cues into which Bates works an electric guitar – “You Quit!”, “Edward Blake: The Comedian”, and the conclusive “I Love You, Mom” for example – which sound like the lonely, soulful music Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton wrote for Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series back in the mid 1980s, only nowhere near as good. It sounded fresh and contemporary twenty years ago, but seems bizarrely out of place here, unless Bates was making subconscious allusions to the period when the comic book was initially written.

The few bright spots come during the moments when Bates tones everything down and writes clean, simple, emotional lines: cues such as “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed”, the trumpet-led “The American Dream”, and “The Last Laugh”, which briefly make us believe that Bates can in fact write music which has elegance and delicacy. They are over far too soon, though, and before we know it we’re back to the overbearing marches and pounding electronica.

I guess the bottom line is that I’m just not part of the target demographic for scores like Watchmen. This is a score aimed squarely at young consumers who think Pirates of Caribbean and The Dark Knight are the best things ever written, who think orchestras are passé, and who wouldn’t be able to pick out a countermelody if you hit them over the head with it. What bothers me about this, though, is the fact that you can guarantee that the Watchmen soundtrack will sell in huge numbers, make a boat load of money for Reprise and Warner Brothers, and will lead to other films of this type having similar scores commissioned, because they too want a piece of the youth market pie. It’s a dispiriting vicious circle which leaves dozens of enormously talented composers marginalized in favor of this populist twaddle, and to which I can see no obvious solution.

Rating: *

Buy the Watchmen soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Rescue Mission (2:13)
  • Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed (1:36)
  • Tonight the Comedian Died (2:44)
  • Silk Spectre (1:00)
  • We’ll Live Longer (0:56)
  • You Quit! (0:39)
  • Only Two Names Remain (1:42)
  • American Dream (1:56)
  • Edward Blake: The Comedian (2:41)
  • Last Laugh (0:57)
  • Prison Fight (1:45)
  • Just Look Around You (5:51)
  • Dan’s Apocalyptic Dream (1:17)
  • Who Murdered Hollis Mason? (0:56)
  • What About Janie Slater? (1:34)
  • I’ll Tell You About Rorschach (4:10)
  • Countdown (2:47)
  • It Was Me (1:25)
  • All That Is Good (4:58)
  • Requiem [Excerpt] (composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (0:55)
  • I Love You, Mom (2:41)

Running Time: 44 minutes 54 seconds

Reprise/Warner Bros. 516750-2 (2009)

Music composed by Tyler Bates. Conducted and orchestrated by Tim Williams. Recorded and mixed by Gustavo Borner. Edited by Darrell Hall. Album produced by Tyler Bates.

  1. David
    March 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I listened to only the “music from the motion picture” CD, and I liked it, but I’m definitely not buying this.

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