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UP – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When we look back on his career, 2009 could well be seen as a watershed year for Michael Giacchino in terms of public awareness and his place in the film music hierarchy. Film music fans have known about Giacchino for a long time, of course, initially through his work on the Medal of Honor video game series and the TV shows Lost and Alias. This year alone he has already scored the rebooted Star Trek movie and a new big screen version of Land of the Lost. However, it is his new status as one of Pixar’s go-to guys (alongside Randy and Thomas Newman) that may cement his reputation. The Incredibles was a critical and commercial success, Ratatouille earned Giacchino his first Academy Award nomination, and now he has Up, which many writers have acclaimed as the best Pixar movie to date.

The film, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, is the wish fulfillment fantasy of an old man. Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) is a man in his 70s living in suburban America, who has become bitter and withdrawn from life following the death of his beloved wife Ellie. Faced with eviction from his house, Carl decides to fulfill his lifelong dream – and keep a promise he made to his wife before her death – by attaching thousands of helium balloons to his house, thereby turning it into an airship, so he can find his childhood hero, adventurer and explorer Charles Muntz. However, Carl is unaware that he has a companion on his journey: a ten year old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who inadvertently stowed away on Carl’s porch. The film, which also features the voices of Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo and John Ratzenberger, has at the time of writing grossed $264 million at the US box office, making it one of the most successful films of 2009.

Whereas The Incredibles was a wonderful pastiche of the John Barry spy sound and Ratatouille was drenched in stereotypical Gallic charm, Up has a less well-defined sound; in fact, it starts with an unexpectedly whimsical jazzy air in “Up With Titles”, a cue filled with muted trumpets, pizzicato strings and swing rhythms that drip with the nostalgic sound of the roaring 20s. An equally old-fashioned waltz theme appears in the short and sweet “We’re in the Club Now”, acting as a leitmotif for Carl’s wife Ellie, before moving into the longer montage sequence of “Married Life”, which explores the up-and-down emotions of a life-long relationship, concluding with a bittersweet piano motif, echoing the sorrow Carl feels at the loss of his wife.

Interestingly, these themes develop and mutate as the score progresses, forming the cornerstone of what actually becomes a richly-textured and multi-layered score. “Carl Goes Up” features an effortless graceful statement of Ellie’s theme, underpinned by a palpable sense of freedom and adventure, while later cues such as “The Explorer Motel” rework the jolly main title theme into something quite unnerving and stark.

The action music, of which there is quite a bit during the score’s latter half, is somewhat Williams-esque in its construction, all swirling string writing, staccato percussion hits, frantic xylophone runs, and bold, punchy brasses. Cues like “52 Chachki Pickup”, the madcap “Three Dog Dash” and the energetic “Escape from Muntz Mountain” are furiously exciting, while “Canine Conundrum” and “Giving Muntz the Bird” have a King Kong-style tribal sound, underpinned by jungle drums and a portentous attitude. “The Small Mailman Returns” even starts encroaching into Miklós Rózsa’s spectacle music territory, reminiscent of some his more opulent marches from Sodom and Gomorrah or even Ben-Hur. Everything comes to a head in the spectacular “Seizing the Spirit of Adventure”, which features repeat performances of the main theme, Ellie’s theme, and the Rózsa-esque march theme, in all in an especially rousing fashion.

Elsewhere, laid back tropical grooves highlight cues such as “Walkin’ the House” and “Kevin Beak’n”, reminding us that, at its heart, Up remains a film for children and the young at heart. And speaking of heart, Up reaches its emotional zenith in “Stuff We Did” and “Memories Can Weigh You Down”, which begins with a tender recapitulation of Ellie’s theme for piano and flute, before exploding into a stirring, heraldic version of the main theme for soaring brasses and searching, heroic strings. Everything concludes in the delightful pair, “It’s Just a House” and the gorgeously tender “The Ellie Badge”, before Giacchino wraps everything up into a neat little package with an 8-minute end credits suite which recapitulates all the score’s main thematic content.

For some reason, Disney chose not to release the Up soundtrack album in regular stores, and as a result is only available as a digital download from various online retailers such as Amazon. Quite why Disney did this is a mystery – The Incredibles and Ratatouille were both decent sellers – and it is sure to put off the purists who like to hold a shiny silver disc in their hands. Personally, I don’t care whether I have a physical CD or a set of high quality MP3s, as the music all sounds the same to me anyway, but it’s still necessary to mention the issue here.

Up is a wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable score, a real departure from Giacchino’s most recent work on Lost and Star Trek, illustrating perfectly his lighter, thematic side, and more than confirming his newly acquired status as one of Hollywood’s rising music stars. It make take a few listens for the casual listener to get past the 30s jazz which opens the score, because although this is not indicative of the score’s main content it still may not be to everyone’s taste, but those who are willing to persevere will find plenty of delights in store.

Rating: ****

Buy the Up soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store (MP3 download only)

Track Listing:

  • Up With Titles (0:53)
  • We’re in the Club Now (0:43)
  • Married Life (4:10)
  • Carl Goes Up (3:33)
  • 52 Chachki Pickup (1:14)
  • Paradise Found (1:03)
  • Walkin’ the House (1:03)
  • Three Dog Dash (0:51)
  • Kevin Beak’n (1:14)
  • Canine Conundrum (2:03)
  • The Nickel Tour (0:52)
  • The Explorer Motel (1:26)
  • Escape from Muntz Mountain (2:43)
  • Giving Muntz the Bird (1:57)
  • Stuff We Did (2:13)
  • Memories Can Weigh You Down (1:22)
  • The Small Mailman Returns (3:11)
  • He’s Got the Bird (0:29)
  • Seizing the Spirit of Adventure (5:19)
  • It’s Just a House (1:59)
  • The Ellie Badge (1:30)
  • Up With End Credits (7:38)
  • The Spirit of Adventure (performed by Craig Copeland) (2:30)
  • Carl’s Maiden Voyage (Bonus SFX track) (0:52)
  • Muntz’s Dark Reverie (Bonus SFX track) (0:52)
  • Meet Kevin in the Jungle (Bonus SFX track) (1:32)

Running Time: 53 minutes 23 seconds

Walt Disney Records Digital Download (2009)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Peter Boyer, Jennifer Hammond, Jack Hayes, Larry Kenton and Tim Simonec. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Stephen M. Davis and Mark Willsher. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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