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THOR – Patrick Doyle

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

An epic comic book action-fantasy based on Norse mythology. Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair. Patrick Doyle providing the score. For film music fans Thor was a mouth watering prospect that promised to be one of the most exciting and adventurous scores of the year. The film stars Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous hero, who is cast out of the Norse god stronghold Asgard after disobeying his father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Arriving on Earth, and no longer able to channel the power of his hammer Mjolnir, Thor teams up with scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in an effort to reclaim his power and return to Asgard in time to stop his duplicitous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from overthrowing Odin. The film, which also features Stellan Skarsgård, Colm Feore and Samuel L. Jackson, is part of the Marvel Avengers series of movies which includes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and the upcoming Captain America, and will culminate in a combined Avengers movie slated for 2012.

Despite all this potential, Thor is actually a somewhat disappointing score, for one significant reason: it doesn’t sound like a Patrick Doyle score. Now, let me be clear, I’m not in any way suggesting that composers should limit themselves to writing in one particular style, or that they should never attempt to do new things, or veer off in different directions as the film dictates. What makes no sense to me, though, is when a composer basically ends up sounding like someone else, to the point where you can’t actually hear the original composer’s voice any more. If you hire Patrick Doyle to write a score, you would imagine that it would be because you want him to bring his personal voice to the project: for Thor, you can imagine the epic scope of something like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Eragon; the vivid action music of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Dead Again; the bold drama of Henry V or The Last Legion. What we actually get is a well-orchestrated variation on the Remote Control sound that composers such as Ramin Djawadi, Steve Jablonsky and Geoff Zanelli have been writing for films like Transformers, Iron Man and Clash of the Titans over the last few years. This isn’t a case of blinkered temp-tracking; this is a case of one composer suppressing his beloved personal style so much that it sounds like he’s aping someone else’s sound and style entirely.

On the one hand, I understand why the producers of Thor would want their film to inhabit a similar sonic world to Iron Man and the others, as they intend to bring all the characters together in a unifying feature a few years down the line. I also understand that the reason Doyle got the job at all is because of his enduring relationship with director Kenneth Branagh, who has never worked with another composer. But, other than to have a comfortable composer-director partnership, I really don’t see the point of Doyle pretending to be Djawadi or Jablonsky when you could have hired Djawadi or Jablonsky to write the score and got essentially the same result without asking your composer to be someone he’s not. One of the reasons John Barry had his scores rejected from so many movies towards the end of his career is because he refused to compromise his standards. An oft-told (and possibly apocryphal) story is that he told Robert Redford that if he “wanted the Horse Whisperer to sound like Thomas Newman, he should hire Thomas Newman”. Had Thor had a different director, I could well imagine Doyle saying a similar thing.

The music itself is enjoyable enough on its own terms, and certainly maintains a large-scale and epic scope throughout its 72 minute running time. The cues which directly concern Valhalla, Asgard and Viking lore are generally typified by a deeper, more prominent brass element, and by the inclusion of metallic percussion parts, clearly to reflect the sword, hammer and anvil society in which the Vikings lived. “Sons of Odin”, the stately “A New King”, the “Ride to Observatory” and “To Jotunheim” all include performances of the score’s main theme which are quite memorable, while “Thor Kills the Destroyer” is one of the few cues in which Doyle’s own voice comes shining through, a heroic and stirring anthem reminiscent of his theme from Eragon.

The action music, of which there is a lot, tends to be based around repeated, ever-changing string figures, dominant brass phrases, and prominent, propulsive percussion writing, overlaid with a vast array of electronic and synthesized samples to keep the energy levels high. Cues such as the opening “Chasing the Storm”, the second half of “A New King”, as well as later efforts such as “The Compound” and “Brothers Fight” are nothing if not high octane, and they do show that Doyle is proficient at this kind of writing, a lot of which exceeds the quality of those who are better known for writing it. Once in a while Doyle is able to introduce an orchestral touch or performance flourish – a certain kind of string run, the way different parts of the brass section play off each other, a special drum riff – which keeps things interesting, most notably during the aforementioned “The Compound”, which is probably the best action track on the album. Elsewhere, cues such as the exciting “Frost Giant Battle” and “The Destroyer” briefly interpolate a chanting choir into the mix to add a sense of grandeur, although even with that addition there is nothing here to rival the overwhelming dark power of something like Frankenstein’s “The Creation”.

Some of the best parts of the score are actually the quieter, more emotional moments; as one might expect, “Banishment” and the darkly emotional “Odin Confesses” have more than a hint of string-laden tragedy, and there’s a gorgeous viola solo at the beginning of “Can You See Jane?” which is clearly intended to illustrate the budding romantic relationship between Thor and Jane.

Nevertheless, the thing that nags away at me is how conventional it all sounds, and how much it falls into the safe, predictable “summer blockbuster” mould that has infected Hollywood over the last decade. The incessant churning cello lines that permeate the entire score are straight out of the Clash of the Titans/Transformers playbook, and the ever-present bubbling and rumbling synth samples follow the same formula as those other scores, attempting to give the score a modern, contemporary edge. I am reluctant to say that Thor is a bad score, because it isn’t, and God knows Patrick Doyle’s take on this sound is infinitely more interesting than anything Djawadi or Jablonsky have written for films of this type, but I can’t help feeling a touch disappointed. The whole thing seems to be crying out for a score which has a much more Nordic flavor, a more epic scope, and fewer echoes of fighting robots and men in metal suits.

Rating: ***

Buy the Thor soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Chasing the Storm (3:11)
  • Prologue (3:09)
  • Sons of Odin (1:48)
  • A New King (3:01)
  • Ride to Observatory (2:10)
  • To Jotunheim (2:19)
  • Laufey (3:40)
  • Frost Giant Battle (4:22)
  • Banishment (1:53)
  • Crisis in Asgard (2:19)
  • Odin Confesses (2:43)
  • Hammer Found (1:11)
  • Urgent Matter (2:21)
  • The Compound (7:40)
  • Loki’s Lie (1:54)
  • My Bastard Son (2:39)
  • Science and Magic (2:53)
  • The Destroyer (2:57)
  • Forgive Me (2:40)
  • Thor Kills the Destroyer (1:53)
  • Brothers Fight (6:59)
  • Letting Go (3:17)
  • Can You See Jane? (2:23)
  • Earth to Asgard (2:33)

Running Time: 71 minutes 55 seconds

Walt Disney Records B001365602 (2011)

Music composed by Patrick Doyle. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by James Shearman and Patrick Doyle. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Christopher Benstead and Steve Durkee. Album produced by Patrick Doyle.

  1. Luke
    May 5, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    “this isn’t a case of blinkered temp-tracking; this is a case of one composer suppressing his beloved personal style”. I’d say a case of a composer who feels (and in a way is) forced to suppress his style. God knows Doyle must really need to recover from an irregular decade of irregular movie choices with only a few interesting works (Killing Me Softly, released this year, Nouvelle France, As You Like It) and one masterpiece (Harry Potter). I think he is between keeping up with mainstream’s (i.e Zimmerian) sound or being almost left aside. Unluckily, his romantic-classically inclined and beautiful writing seems to find no much place in this cruel industry.

  2. CHRIS
    May 6, 2011 at 4:27 am

    While I’m a great fan of Patrick Doyle, I must confess that THOR is a real catastrophe ! If this music works in the context of the film, it is just as sound design.It has nothing to say. It reminds me the Michael Kamen bland music for X-MEN.
    I’m sorry to say that John Powell would have been a better choice on this project. But is Patrick Doyle completely responsible for that disaster ?

  3. May 6, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Well, interviews seem to indicate that this was a stylistic choice by Doyle, firstly to test himself to see if he could do it, and secondly because the producers wanted to maintain a unified sound across the different Marvel Universe character movies. I’d say the drive was more from the producers than Branagh, although Doyle was happy to oblige.

    Also, re: Kamen. I disagree with your point that his music was bland. I still think it’s the best of the X-Men scores to date, and would have been better still had it not been for even *more* meddling producers.

    • May 6, 2011 at 10:14 pm

      Happy??? Quoting one of the earlier interviews “it was like someone was standing on my shoulders” doesn’t sound that he was “happy” about it.

  4. chris
    May 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for this informative answer, Jon. Well let’s hope for melodic developments in the Thor sequel. Concerning X-MEN , it seems to me that the music has improved in the last episode with richness in orchestrations and great lyricism. But well it’s another topic and another discussion ( certainly worthwhile ! ).

  5. July 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Great idea! Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh worked with previously movies like: “Henry V”, “Dead Again”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, “Hamlet”, “Love’s Labours Lost” and “Sleuth”. They’re genius.

  6. Bob
    September 8, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree. I actually think the majority of this score is brilliant, and it does remind me of his previous work. I do agree that there is similarity between this score and Iron Man and other Marvel movies, but as has been said, that was required. And even within that closeness I still find this score stands out.

  7. Cellofan
    September 27, 2011 at 3:59 am

    It’s a cello solo…. not a viola.

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