CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – Henry Jackman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Once upon a time there was a director who, along with some friends – a writer, a cameraman, some actors – made a movie. It doesn’t matter what the movie was about. It could have been about aliens, or cowboys and indians, or a young couple suffering through a rocky relationship, or a bank robbery gone wrong. Whatever it was about, the director wanted to make the best movie he could make, and for the audience who saw that movie to care about the characters, and to empathize with the emotions they felt. At some point, he approached a composer, in order to give that film a musical voice. The composer – who was well-versed in musical theory and composition – was as much of a storyteller as the director was, and wanted to enhance the film with his music; to bring out subtle emotions so the audience could feel them, to highlight subtexts that acting alone could not convey, to make it a better film than it would be without the music being there.
The director and composer decided what sort of music was needed, and how much, and then the composer went away and wrote: he wrote music which was specific to that film, tailored to those scenes, and those characters. His score gave the film an identity, with an overarching structure, recurring thematic ideas and musical reference points that drew characters, concepts and locations together, so that they felt like a part of the fully realized world the movie inhabited. He poured all his knowledge and craft into the score, making it interesting and compelling from a musical point of view, while simultaneously serving the drama on-screen. He made the action more exciting. The made the horror scarier. He made the relationships more romantic. He made the tension so tense you would bite your fingernails to the quick. Of course, the composer would have a musical style of his own, and once in a while a certain way of phrasing an instrument, or the way a chord progressed, would relate back to something else that same composer wrote before, but that’s inevitable when a composer writes as much personal music as a film composer does, and would not detract much from the new work. The composer then recorded that score, using the finest musicians he could find, bringing all that talent and experience to bear on the music. The resulting work was a perfect marriage of pictures and sound, with music that was memorable, musically compelling, interesting and complex, dramatically appropriate, emotionally powerful, and crafted solely to serve that film and no other. This approach was so successful that everyone decided that this should henceforth be the way films should be scored, and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.
Except that it’s not the end, because brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo decided that, when it came to their film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they would ignore all of that and ask composer Henry Jackman to write one of the most grating, themeless, emotionally barren scores I have had the misfortune of hearing in several years. The words “clichéd” and “generic” could have been invented specifically for this score, which takes all the worst aspects of modern film scoring and amplifies them a hundred fold, reveling in their lack of coherent musical ideas, individual identities, and musical inventiveness. In these circumstances I would usually break out my ‘polar bear with a migraine’ photo and leave it to speak for itself, but my friend and colleague James Southall’s excellent review of this score made me want to make some points of my own.
The film itself is apparently very good; more of a political thriller than a super-hero movie, it picks up Captain America’s story two years after the events of The Avengers. Now living in Washington DC and struggling to adjust to life in the 21st century, the Captain himself Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself thrust back into action when a SHIELD operative is attacked by a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier, whose exploits date back to the cold war. Teaming up with fellow super-heroes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Captain America must uncover the mystery surrounding the Winter Soldier’s identity, and stop the threat he poses to the world. The film has a fantastic supporting cast, including Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Emily Van Camp, and Marvel Universe regulars Samuel L. Jackson, Colbie Smulders and Dominic Cooper, and looks set to be one of 2014’s most successful films.
In musical terms, however, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an absolute disaster. The Marvel Universe films have always been a bit hit or miss when it comes to their scores, with little to no musical continuity between them, and a revolving roster of composers ranging from Ramin Djawadi to Patrick Doyle to Brian Tyler. Alan Silvestri’s score for the first Captain America film was excellent, filled with all the things I talk about in my opening paragraphs, and – best of all – containing a rousing, memorable theme for Captain America himself. Sadly, Winter Soldier’s composer Henry Jackman ignores everything Silvestri did, instead composing a more ‘modern’ score which emphasizes sound design and electronic textures over anything resembling actual music. I hate writing paragraphs like this, because historically I have liked Henry Jackman’s work a great deal. It’s astonishing to me that a composer who can craft such wonderful scores as Gulliver’s Travels, Puss in Boots or Wreck-It Ralph could turn around and write something as obnoxious as this.
There is a new theme for Captain America – a bit of martial heroism for brass and snare drums introduced in “Project Insight” – although why Jackman decided not to use Silvestri’s established theme for the character is beyond me, especially when Brian Tyler even quoted it in Thor 2. There’s a bit of warm Americana which appears in the brief “The Smithsonian”. And that’s about it, in terms of positive things I can say about this score. Probably the worst aspect of Jackman’s score is that, for the most part, it’s not even made up of his own ideas. For example the opening track, “Lemurian Star”, is little more than a combination of Hans Zimmer’s now-ubiquitous extended brass note from Inception, John Powell’s synthy action rhythms from the Bourne series. Similarly, the big action set pieces which come later – “Taking a Stand”, “Into the Fray” and “Countdown: for example – have moments of power and grandeur, but have no real individual identity. Despite a couple of them containing repeat performances of the new Captain America theme from “Project Insight”, nothing about them ever really says ‘this is music for Captain America’. Jackman’s theme is so nondescript, it could be from any superhero or action movie from the past 20 years, and the action rhythms and percussive patterns Jackman employs sound like all the other action rhythms and percussive patterns everyone from Hans Zimmer down has used for the past decade.
At the other end of the scale cues like “An Old Friend”, “Alexander Pierce”, “Frozen in Time” and “Natasha” are quieter but say nothing; they just meander along for a couple of minutes, presenting muted orchestral textures, string sustains, serious timpani rumbles. Unobtrusive, understated, but completely inert in terms of anything resembling musical development.
Worst of all are cues like “Fury”, the truly awful “The Winter Soldier”, “Fallen”, “Hydra” and “The Causeway”, which are simply appalling: little more than exercises in repeated string rhythms and loops overlaid by various banging and clanging industrial sound effects, and groaning electronic textures. Both “The Winter Soldier” and “The Causeway” contain what sounds like a processed scream as part of the electronic sound mix, and which appears to be an attempt at a leitmotif for the Winter Soldier character himself; when I first heard it I had to stop and check that it wasn’t my own screams I could hear over my headphones.
I have been around the film music industry for a long time now – almost 20 years. I have attended scoring sessions, and attended lectures and seminars on the art. I have met pretty much every major composer working in Hollywood today, and I consider many of them friends. I understand fully that the demands put upon a film composer’s shoulders are enormous, ranging from ever-decreasing budgets and ever-decreasing timescales to having to deal with temp tracks, focus groups, musically illiterate directors, and boardrooms full of producers who all want to have their say about how the music should sound. Long gone are the days where one director and one composer would work together to craft their musical vision of a film, as in my rose-tinted once-upon-a-time story that opened this review. Truthfully, I’m not sure my idyllic fairytale of the film score world was ever what it was truly like. In many ways, you can’t blame Henry Jackman for giving his employers exactly what they wanted: that’s his job, after all. But, still, there has to be a way to write a score which fulfills all the demands set by the no-nothing money men, but doesn’t strip away all the emotion, doesn’t pander to the common denominator, and still manages to contain some semblance of identity, uniqueness, and inventiveness for both the composer and the film. There has to be a way.
Buy the Captain America: The Winter Soldier soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Lemurian Star (3:06)
- Project Insight (1:29)
- The Smithsonian (1:36)
- An Old Friend (3:06)
- Fury (4:07)
- The Winter Soldier (6:25)
- Fallen (2:52)
- Alexander Pierce (2:59)
- Taking a Stand (2:08)
- Frozen in Time (3:53)
- Hydra (6:47)
- Natasha (1:13)
- The Causeway (2:42)
- Time to Suit Up (2:06)
- Into the Fray (6:06)
- Countdown (4:27)
- End of the Line (2:52)
- Captain America (9:42)
- It’s Been a Long, Long Time (written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, performed by Kitty Kallen with Harry James & His Orchestra) (3:25)
- Trouble Man (written and performed by Marvin Gaye) (3:49)
Running Time: 74 minutes 51 seconds
Hollywood Records (2014)
Music composed by Henry Jackman. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman and Rick Ippolito. Recorded and mixed by Al Clay. Edited by Jack Dolman and Jason Ruder. Album produced by Henry Jackman and Al Clay.