Home > Reviews > SUPER 8 – Michael Giacchino

SUPER 8 – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Super 8 is director J.J. Abrams’ sentimental homage to Steven Spielberg. One part monster movie, one part children’s fantasy, it takes inspiration from films such as E.T. and The Goonies in that it looks at a terrible event from an adult perspective, but filters it through children’s eyes, so that the simple and uncomplicated central truths of that event shine through, especially the ones which the adults cannot see. It’s also a loving tribute to a childhood obsessed with movies, sitting in darkened theaters, munching popcorn, dreaming of making movies one day yourself. Abrams did this, Spielberg did this, and Michael Giacchino did this too.

The film stars Joel Courtney as Joe, a young boy in 1970s small-town America who passed the time making Super 8 films with his friends during their summer vacation. Joe is emotionally distant from his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the chief of police in the town, following the death of his mother, but has a crush on Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the man whose heavy drinking indirectly caused his mother’s death. While out shooting their home movie one night, the children inadvertently witness – and record – a terrifying train wreck, and before long strange happenings begin to occur in their town. With Government agents attempting to cover things up, the children put two and two together and realize that the train crash and the unexplained deaths are connected, and set out to solve the mystery themselves.

Michael Giacchino has worked on almost every one of Abrams’ works to date, both small screen and theatrical, ranging from hit TV shows like Lost, Alias and Fringe to big-screen smashes such as Star Trek, Mission Impossible III and Cloverfield. Their relationship is such that Giacchino understands Abrams’ deeper meanings in his films, and such is the case with Super 8, where the film – and the score – looks at things with an unmistakable sense of child-like wonder. Written for a large symphony orchestra with an unexpected emphasis on woodwinds and harp, Giacchino’s score drips with the ghosts of John Williams’ 1980s Spielberg scores, in the way certain instruments are phrased, his chord progressions, and in the general “sound” of the piece as a whole. This throwback sound, which Giacchino captured so well in his early Medal of Honor scores, gives Super 8 an immediate sense of time and place which is rare for a film of this type, as well as giving it all a wonderfully nostalgic sheen for anyone whose first experience of film music was through those classic Williams scores of the period.

The centerpiece of the score is the Children’s theme, which usually centers itself around Joe and his feelings, but often acts as a broad motif for the entire gang of children. First appearing in the opening “Super 8”, it’s a nostalgic and hopeful cue for the full orchestra, and as it develops through the score it most often accompanies Joe’s moments of self-reflection and, especially, the memories of his mother. The tender piano-led performance in “Family Matters”, the intimate statement for solo harp in “Model Painting”, and the gentle recapitulation in “Thoughts of Mom” are all lovely, and allows the theme to make itself known without becoming obvious or maudlin.

Several secondary themes act as leitmotifs for different aspects of the story. There’s a recurring motif for the budding relationship between Joe and Alice; it first appears with timid hesitancy in “Acting Chops”, and later plays with a light-hearted fluidity in “We’ll Fix It Post-Haste”. The monster gets a motif of his own – a growling four note piece – which first appears in “Aftermath Class” and which goes on to accompany the monster’s many rampages through dark and vivid action material in cues such as “Circle Gets the Cubs” and “Breen There Ate That”. A lot of the suspense material that also follows the monster around involves high string sustains and tumbling, slithering woodwind effects, creating a creepy atmosphere of dark unease. However, as the score progresses, the monster motif starts appearing everywhere, hovering in the background, as the search for the creature intensifies. Listen for it, for example, played on searching strings and harps at the end of “Neighborhood Watch – Fail”, on rumbling low pianos at the beginning of “The Evacuation of Lillian”, and with an almost breathless nobility during the spectacular “The Siege of Lillian”.

The final thematic idea is a staccato militaristic motif for the Army-types that invade the little town, whose unwillingness to reveal information about the monster and its origins raise the suspicions of the gang in the first place. Usually played on fluttering muted brasses, the Military motif actually seems to be rooted in Giacchino’s early video game scores such as Medal of Honor and Secret Weapons Over Normandy, further elaborating on the Williams similarities. Following brief snippets in cues such as “Gas and Go”, “Radio Haze” and towards the end of “Thoughts of Mom”, its centerpiece performances come in the aforementioned “The Evacuation of Lillian” and “Lambs on the Lam”, two of the barnstorming highlights of the score.

Throughout the score Giacchino cleverly blends these four themes together to create a sensible and intelligent progression of the ideas, often playing them off against each other in unusual and unexpected combinations. “Thoughts of Cubism”, for example, has the Children’s theme on piano playing off the Monster motif on woodwinds, allowing the conversation in Joe’s bedroom to foreshadow the events to come. The lovely pairing of “Mom’s Necklace” and “Alice Projects on Joe” both combine the Children’s theme with the Joe & Alice love theme in a sentimental and graceful arrangement for harp and strings. “Woodward Bites It”, “A Truckload of Trouble”, and the vicious-sounding “World’s Worst Field Trip” pit performances of the Monster motif against ragged, dangerous-sounding statements of the Military motif to excellent effect. Best of all, the middle section of “Neighborhood Watch – Fail” actually sees the Children’s theme and the Joe & Alice love theme play in simultaneous counterpoint to each other in a panicky way, illustrating the increasing danger in which the children find themselves.

The 20-minute finale, comprising “Creature Comforts”, “Letting Go” and the “Super 8 Suite”, stands as some of the most emotionally charged and conventionally beautiful music Giacchino has ever written for film, presenting large and powerful statements of both the Children’s theme and the Joe & Alice love theme for the entire orchestra. The uneasy atmosphere of “Creature Comforts”, in which Joe’s theme and the Monster motif reach their zenith via some dark and ominous orchestral rumblings, thunderous action moments and dissonant effects, allow the thematic power of the final two cues to really shine. The astonishing statement of the Joe & Alice theme towards the end of “Letting Go”, as well as the subsequent counterpointed performance of the two themes together, is goosebump-inducing stuff that clearly aspires to emulate the operatic finale of E.T.

The more I listen to Super 8, the more I think that this score is one of the most impressive cinematic works of Michael Giacchino’s career. While his TV score for Lost had the leitmotivic complexity to end all, and while his Oscar-winning score for Up had buckets of emotional pathos, and while scores like Star Trek had a great deal of action music power and resonance, Super 8 is the first of his scores to combine all three elements together into a satisfying whole that has worked personally for me as a standalone listening experience. This, combined with the obvious inspiration he took from the story and its deeper meanings, as well as the clear and intentional illusions to the classic work of John Williams, makes Super 8 a winner.

Rating: ****½

Buy the Super 8 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Super 8 (1:44)
  • Family Matters (0:28)
  • Model Painting (0:39)
  • Acting Chops (0:40)
  • Aftermath Class (5:52)
  • Thoughts of Cubism (0:48)
  • We’ll Fix It in Post-Haste (0:43)
  • Productions Woes (0:34)
  • Train of Thought (0:35)
  • Circle Gets the Cube (1:05)
  • Breen There, Ate That (1:11)
  • Dead Over Heels (0:48)
  • Gas and Go (1:33)
  • Looking for Lucy (0:48)
  • Radio Haze (1:06)
  • Mom’s Necklace (1:33)
  • Shootus Interuptus (2:33)
  • Thoughts of Mom (1:40)
  • Woodward Bites It (1:53)
  • Alice Projects on Joe (2:28)
  • Neighborhood Watch – Fail (4:44)
  • The Evacuation of Lillian (3:39)
  • A Truckload of Trouble (0:57)
  • Lambs on the Lam (2:39)
  • Woodward’s Home Movies (2:39)
  • Spotted Lambs (1:35)
  • Air Force HQ or Bust (1:03)
  • World’s Worst Field Trip (3:35)
  • The Siege of Lillian (2:56)
  • Creature Comforts (10:07)
  • Letting Go (5:15)
  • Super 8 Suite (5:54)
  • The Case [BONUS] (3:28)

Running Time: 78 minutes 00 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7107 (2011)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec, Ira Hearshen, Brad Dechter, Cameron Patrick, Chris Tilton, Andrea Datzman, Larry Kenton, Mark Gasbarro, Norman Ludwin, Peter Boyer and Marshall Bowen. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Alex Levy. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

  1. August 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Excellent review. I think people have been complaining too much about all the short tracks in the first part of the album without realizing how beautifully everything flows.

  2. A. Rubinstein
    August 24, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I wasn’t too impressed with that score, and I think the comparison to E.T. only emphasizes the huge gap between the two works. E.T. had one of the most spectacular, exceptional and stirring themes ever written for a film. In Super 8, however, the main theme is extremely simplistic, and while the secondary theme (for Alice) is slightly better, it still feels derivative. Other than those two themes, the rest of the score is effective but tiresome suspence material which is a bit exhausting as a standalone listening experience. I’m sure that Giacchino is capable of coming up with more complex and exhilarating music than that.

  3. August 24, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I’m sorry you feel that way. Obviously Super 8 is nowhere near ET quality – what score is? – but I like that he actually used that operatic, theme-heavy, emotional music as inspiration. Not enough composers do.

    I also disagree entirely with your notion that everything except the main theme and the Alice theme is “tiresome” – on the contrary, I think the Military theme is one of the score’s greatest strengths, bringing back pleasing memories of his early video game work.

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