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DIVERGENT – Tom Holkenborg

divergentOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Divergent is the latest “young adult” fantasy-action novel to be translated to the big screen, hoping to follow in the financially successful footsteps of The Hunger Games, and avoid the relative disaster that befell The Mortal Instruments. Directed by Neil Burger from the novel by Veronica Roth, it stars Shailene Woodley Tris, a young girl born into a post-apocalyptic society that defines and controls its citizens by their social and personality-related affiliation with five different factions representing selflessness, peacefulness, honesty, bravery and intelligence. When she comes of age, Tris discovers that she is a ‘divergent’ whose personality does not fit in with any one of the pre-determined factions, and is therefore a threat to the established order. Hiding her secret, Tris chooses to join the Dauntless faction associated with bravery, which is charged with the security of the city, but while she undergoes her training and initiation, Tris discovers a troubling plot which threatens to destabilize the world. The film co-stars Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz and Kate Winslet, and has a score by Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL.

Holkenborg is an interesting character. Classically trained as a child, he took a sideways move into dance music and production, picking up the Junkie XL pseudonym following the release of his big beat electronica solo album ‘Saturday Teenage Kick’ in 1997 (the XL stands for “expanding limits”, while the ‘Junkie’ means he is addicted to doing just that). He first came to true international prominence in 2002 when his remix of the Elvis Presley song “A Little Less Conversation”, originally done for a Nike commercial related to the 2002 World Cup, became a smash hit single, reaching number one in 24 countries. He subsequently contributed original music to several video games and released more solo albums, but began moving into film at the same time too, writing additional music for Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams on films such as Kingdom of Heaven, Madagascar and Domino. This year has seen his true breakthrough as a composer in his own right, both with this score and the near-simultaneously released 300: Rise of an Empire.

Given Holkenborg’s pedigree as an electronic and dance music composer, his score for Divergent is unexpectedly classical and conventional in nature. It’s light on actual melodic themes, but strong on atmosphere and texture, and Holkenborg uses these different instrumental colors to convey his ideas, rather than relying on traditional themes and variations. As a result, Divergent is not a score which will leave a strong thematic impression on its listeners, but all of the recurring textural ideas are pretty decent, and they fit the mood and setting of the film well.

The opening cue, “Tris”, presents three of the score’s recurring central instrumental ideas, setting the scene for the score to come. After opening with a soft piano melody augmented with guitars and a string wash, we are presented with the wordless vocal effect which acts as a leitmotif for Tris herself, and the prancing idea for a hammered dulcimer which represents the Abnegation group – the selfless peacemakers of Divergent’s society into which Tris was born. Tris’s wordless vocal motif is provided by the popular English singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, and her vocal stylings feature prominently throughout the score; her performance at the end of “Sacrifice”, for example, is especially effective.

The cue changes during its second half, becoming much more upbeat, with a rock-inflected style that not only fits in with the wannabe rebellious nature of Tris herself, and her starry-eyed affinity for the Dauntless faction, but represents Dauntless group as a whole – badass rhythms and carefree guitar chords that sound like pop song intros and bridges, and are intended to capture the leather-clad, tattoo-sporting, body-pierced bad boys with hearts of gold that Dauntless tends to attract. It’s all very contemporary, but it is also emotionally direct, and shows that Holkenborg, despite not writing actual themes in a traditional sense, is trying to adopt the tried-and-tested leitmotif technique, albeit molding it to fit the needs of modern-day filmmakers and their audiences.

Electronic pulses and textures, accompanied by more abrasive percussive rhythms and more dissonant orchestral ideas, tend to accompany the action sequences and moments of danger and intrigue. Cues like “Choosing Dauntless” mix the rock rhythms with Tris’s vocal motif, while “Capture the Flag” actually transposes Tris’s motif from vocals to strings in a rather impressive manner. Later, cues such as “The Test”, “Ferris Wheel” and the “Final Test” play it safe with fairly conventional contemporary action sounds pulled straight from the Hans Zimmer school of thought, while “This Isn’t Real” and “Fear” are angrier, much more dissonant, but very effective at conveying the sense of confusion and disorientation Tris feels during her internally-focused training sessions.

At the other end of the spectrum, “A Friend” revisits the more gentle textures heard at the beginning of the opening cue, and is really quite unexpectedly lovely, with a much more prominent string wash that rises to very pretty heights. In terms of sheer beauty, however, “Faction Before Blood” and the aforementioned “Sacrifice” are clearly the highlights, both featuring a large set of moving, shifting string textures that oscillate between the romantic and the tragic.

Action becomes the centerpiece of the score as it reaches its climax. “The March” is something of a throwback cue, with a sort of Brad Fiedel/Tangerine Dream/Vangelis vibe, which takes both Tris’s motif and the Dauntless motif, combines them, and twists them into a set of cold, mechanical, harsh variations that are very effective in context; this segues into the equally brutal “Dauntless Attack”, and intense set-piece which again presents the Dauntless motif in a much more unforgiving fashion. The epic 14-minute “You’re Not Gonna Like This” and the subsequent “Fight the Dauntless” are relentlessly exciting, with heavy percussion, thrusting electronic beats, frequent interludes where the action is underpinned by the Abnegation dulcimer motif, and occasional euphoric explosions of orchestral power that sound quite impressive when you hear them. I have to admit that, in hearing these pieces, I found myself being rather impressed with Holkenborg’s skill at maintaining the energy and sense of forward motion within these cues, while still finding numerous little opportunities to bring his instrumental ideas out into the forefront.

Divergent actually impressed me much more than I had thought it would, and listening to it away from the film reminded me that, as a film music reviewer, I must always set aside my preconceptions of what a composer may or may not be capable of writing, and judge the music on its own merits. Divergent is definitely a contemporary score, and anyone with an aversion to scores which have enhanced electronic and rock elements, or which rely on instrumental textures and colors rather than identifiable melodies, will likely criticize it for being another “Zimmer knock off”. Hans Zimmer’s influential fingers are all over the score – he is credited as Executive Music Producer in the film’s main credits – but, as Zimmer knock offs go, this is certainly one of the best I have heard in a while, and makes me curious as to where the mysterious Mr. XL will go from here.

Buy the Divergent soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Tris (7:48)
  • The Test (3:17)
  • Choosing Dauntless (3:44)
  • Capture the Flag (3:07)
  • This Isn’t Real (1:38)
  • Ferris Wheel (3:32)
  • Erudite Plan (3:21)
  • Fear (3:36)
  • I Am Divergent (1:39)
  • A Friend (2:48)
  • Conspiracy (5:27)
  • Watertank (1:50)
  • Faction Before Blood (6:48)
  • Human Nature (3:12)
  • Final Test (1:38)
  • The March (5:17)
  • Dauntless Attack (5:55)
  • Sacrifice (4:21)
  • You’re Not Gonna Like This (14:00)
  • Fight the Dauntless (4:14)
  • Everywhere and Nowhere (2:28)

Running Time: 89 minutes 40 seconds

Interscope Records 002047402 (2014)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Dave Fleming. Special vocal performances by Ellie Goulding. Recorded and mixed by Daniel Kresco. Edited by Bryan Lawson and Adam Smalley. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg and Hans Zimmer.

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