Home > Reviews > MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – Tom Holkenborg

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – Tom Holkenborg

madmaxfuryroadOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been 30 years since the end of director George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy – comprising Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – which starred Mel Gibson as a former Australian highway patrol officer in a dystopian post-apocalyptic society, who gradually loses the last vestiges of his humanity as a result of his run-ins with various lawless biker gangs and opportunistic self-proclaimed leaders. Miller’s films were noted for their simple plotting, the monosyllabic central character, and the creative visual concept design, as well as for their mind-bogglingly spectacular chase sequences and car stunts, some of which are regularly cited amongst the most impressive ever filmed, and Fury Road continues the trend. In this latest film, which appears to continue the chronological adventures of Max, Tom Hardy takes over from Mel Gibson in the lead role; here, he finds himself involved in the civil war that develops between Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the fearsome leader of a clan-like cult known as the War Boys, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the driver of a heavily armored War Rig gasoline tanker, who escapes from Joe’s Citadel with his five wives – women specially selected for breeding – and intends to take them to safety in a mythical ‘green place’ beyond Joe’s control.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, visually and conceptually, utterly spectacular. The entire movie is an over-the-top visceral onslaught of sounds and images, overwhelming the viewer with a series of brutal chase and action sequences involving some of the most astonishing physical stunt work I have seen in a film in many years, and a heightened, almost demented sense of chaotic forward motion. The film is also quite shockingly beautiful, with Miller and his cinematographer John Seale capturing the barren beauty of the Australian outback (actually the Kalahari Desert in Namibia) in all its Technicolor glory. Unfortunately, the screenplay and performances are generally underwhelming; Tom Hardy is especially anonymous in the lead role, suffering greatly in comparison to Nicholas Hoult, who brings a great deal of jittery energy to his role as the confused, impressionistic war boy Nux. The plot is paper-thin, the dialogue is clunky, and the character development is virtually zero, making the connection between the audience and the protagonists difficult to grasp. I enjoyed the film enormously as an adrenaline-fuelled visual spectacle, but found myself not caring at all for any of the people on-screen.

The score for Mad Max: Fury Road is by the Dutch producer and DJ-turned-film composer Tom Holkenborg, also known as Junkie XL, who took over the musical reigns from John Powell, and then Marco Beltrami, who were both attached to the project at one point or another during its development. The fact that George Miller chose Holkenborg to score this film is in itself rather perplexing; the original Mad Max films were scored by the more classically-minded Brian May and Maurice Jarre, while his subsequent efforts as a director have featured scores by composers like John Williams, Nigel Westlake and John Powell. Holkenborg does not have the pedigree of any of these composers, and in my opinion has never really shown that he has the compositional chops to handle a film of this magnitude through any of his previous scores to date, which have included films like 300: Rise of an Empire, Divergent, and Run All Night from earlier this year, plus ‘additional music’ on various Hans Zimmer-led projects such as The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel. Miller apparently approached Holkenborg after hearing his score for 300: Rise of an Empire, and was impressed by his references to both Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann in their initial conversations, and as such he began work on the score in October 2013.

In many ways, Holkenborg’s approach to Mad Max: Fury Road is perfect. Immortan Joe’s society is humanity stripped bare to its most primal nature – survival – and as such Holkenborg’s choice to use percussion – the most ancient and primitive form of human musical expression – as the driving force of the score reflects that most basic of instincts. Similarly, the combination of drums and electric guitars is a direct visual representation of the on-screen music rig that follows the War Boys around, a thunderous cadence of encouragement which is amped up to almost frenzied levels by the Doof Warrior, who shoots 10-foot flames from the neck of his guitar as he shreds his way through the apocalypse on bungee cords. Holkenborg augments the drum-and-guitar cornerstone of the score with a small string section, a few brasses, a sampled choir, and a whole host of synthesized electronic textures and sounds, fleshing out the orchestration and the sonic world a little more deeply.

Some of the action material, once it gets going, is very impressive indeed. Cues like the second half of “Escape,” “Spikey Cars,” “Storm is Coming,” the dubstep-inflected “Brothers in Arms,” and parts of “The Bog,” contain multiple overlapping percussion patterns, a prominent descending string cascade motif, and an undeniable sense of forward motion and kinetic energy that is hugely enjoyable on a base level. In addition, cues like “Blood Bag” and “Chapter Doof” feature what I am going to call the ‘war boys ostinato’, an unstoppable tribal beat which mirrors the on-screen drumming of Immortan Joe’s hilariously brilliant personal music troupe; many of these cues also work in the Doof Warrior’s screaming electric guitar, raising the bar further to untold levels of awesome ridiculousness. In contrast, the drum solos in “Water” seem to encompass literally dozens of different percussion items – orchestral, metallic, and otherwise – and are also very creative. Parts of “Immortan’s Citadel,” “Storm is Coming,” and the heroic conclusive “Let Them Up,” also see the welcome return of the epic ‘vowel choir’ that Hans Zimmer used so wonderfully in 1990s action scores like Crimson Tide and The Peacemaker, and the fact that Holkenborg resurrects it here gives those moments in which it features a positive nostalgic quality.

Even more impressive are some of the emotional moments concerning Immortan Joe’s five magnificently-named wives – Toast the Knowing, The Splendid Angharad, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo the Fragile – which include poignant interludes such as “We Are Not Things,” “Redemption,” “My Name is Max,” and the superb “Many Mothers,” the highlight of the entire album. In these cues Holkenborg engages in some searing string writing that speaks to their importance to the story, and he even caps the latter cue off with some tender piano writing and a haunting solo for ethnic woodwinds, which shows he is capable of more subtlety and human emotion than the battery of sturm-und-drang action writing elsewhere in the album would have us believe.

Unfortunately, beyond these moments, far too much of Mad Max: Fury Road is little more than a barrage of noise, grinding its way through a swamp of sub-industrial soundscapes, simple repeated ostinatos, basic chord progressions, and growling metallic sound design elements from any number of contemporary Hans Zimmer and Zimmer-inspired action movies – take your pick. For all its pre-release hype about how groundbreaking this score would be, and how much blood and sweat Holkenborg put into working on it, the final product sounds pretty much exactly like everyone expected it to sound, and could have been accomplished by any one of three or four dozen composers working in the mainstream film music industry today.

There’s also a sense of the whole thing being a little obvious; perhaps Holkenborg was limited in what he could do by the lack of depth in the screenplay, but there’s little-to-no subtext in any of the music. When there’s a chase, we hear chase music. When there’s a conversation in between the chases, the quieter strings come in. It’s film scoring 101. Furthermore, the lack of any real character development in the film hinders Holkenborg in any effort he might have made to have his music develop over the course of the film. The action music in the first reel sounds exactly the same as the action music in the last reel, and because the characters never really change, the music doesn’t change either. Overall, there’s no real sense that Holkenborg made any attempt to do anything other than emphasize what was already there on-screen, and so the music just sort of sits there on top of the film, giving it a professional finish – shiny and chrome, perhaps – but making no real effort to delve below the surface.

In addition, the score is almost entirely bereft of thematic content. Other than a few prominent recurring rhythmic ideas, like the descending string action motif and the War Boys Ostinato, the average listener would be hard-pressed to take anything truly memorable away from the score. There is no theme for Max, no theme for Joe, and no theme for the unexpected relationship that develops between Nux and Capable, one of the fleeing wives. The slower string theme heard in “Many Mothers” and “My Name is Max” could be considered a lament theme for Furiosa, as the scenes in which these cues appear feature her prominently, but even that’s a stretch, and could be applied to other concepts or characters. Like virtually all modern action scores, Holkenborg’s music is concerned with texture and rhythm over melody, harmony and counterpoint, and so anyone who needs that in a score will be sorely disappointed.

Another major issue with the score, on CD at least, is its presentation. The standard release contains 17 tracks and runs for a touch over 81 minutes, and even at this length the score seems endless, with too much empty filler music between the good parts. However, there is also a ‘deluxe edition’, which features extended versions of 13 of the 17 cues, and nine bonus tracks, including the 11-minute behemoth “Immortan,” which increases the running time to a brain-melting 2 hours and 6 minutes. Unfortunately, some of the score’s better action cues (“The Chase”), moments of epic Zimmer-style power (“Walhalla Awaits”), and emotional highlights (“Moving On,” “Mary Jo Bassa,” the Herrmannesque “Coda”), are only found on the deluxe edition, meaning that some of the best music in the score is not found on the standard issue release. I may be in a minority here, but I find myself struggling to listen to 80 minutes of this music without feeling like my face has been squeezed through a food processor, let alone 2 hours of it. With a little editing, the deluxe edition could be condensed down to a really good 50-60 minute album that showcases the score’s many highlights, and wraps up before it turns into an exhausting chore to sit through.

The many fans of the film will undoubtedly lap this up. It has the same sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants energy that Miller’s vision required, and the gargantuan scope of the all-action drumming captures the relentless, primal, thrusting motion of the film’s endless car chases and stunt sequences superbly. The emotional moments are surprisingly effective, especially when they are juxtaposed against everything else in the score, lending parts of it an almost operatic feel. Taken at face value, I suppose this is Tom Holkenborg’s best score to date, and it makes me curious to see where his career will head in the years to come. However, as I mentioned, it’s overall superficiality, its disappointing adherence to conventional contemporary action music clichés, and the general sense of being battered into musical submission over the course of almost 2 hours, makes Mad Max: Fury Road a score I will not be revisiting with any regularity. Despite Nux’s now-iconic declaration of “oh what a day, what a lovely day,” having to sit through the deluxe edition again might be the stuff of nightmares.

Buy the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Survive (1:30)
  • Escape (2:14)
  • Immortan’s Citadel (8:41)
  • Blood Bag (2:30)
  • Spikey Cars (3:11)
  • Storm Is Coming (5:36)
  • We Are Not Things (1:37)
  • Water (3:15)
  • The Rig (4:13)
  • Brothers In Arms (4:22)
  • The Bog (6:58)
  • Redemption (1:45)
  • Many Mothers (5:15)
  • Claw Trucks (5:31)
  • Chapter Doof (7:04)
  • My Name Is Max (4:43)
  • Let Them Up (2:36)
  • Survive (Extended) (1:40)
  • Escape (Extended) (3:28)
  • Immortan’s Citadel (Extended) (8:58)
  • Blood Bag (Extended) (3:39)
  • Buzzards Arrive (BONUS) (1:26)
  • Spikey Cars (Extended) (4:08)
  • Storm Is Coming (Extended) (6:16)
  • We Are Not Things (Extended) (1:42)
  • Water (Extended) (6:25)
  • The Rig (Extended) (6:31)
  • Into the Canyon (BONUS) (2:49)
  • Brothers In Arms (Extended) (5:52)
  • The Chase (BONUS) (3:16)
  • Moving On (BONUS) (1:56)
  • The Bog (Extended) (12:32)
  • Redemption (1:45)
  • Many Mothers (Extended) (8:58)
  • The Return To Nowhere (BONUS) (5:17)
  • Claw Trucks (Extended) (5:43)
  • Immortan (BONUS) (11:10)
  • Chapter Doof (Edit) (6:49)
  • Walhalla Awaits (BONUS) (2:40)
  • My Name Is Max (Edit) (2:23)
  • Let Them Up (2:36)
  • Mary Jo Bassa (BONUS) (2:26)
  • Coda (BONUS) (4:43)

Running Time: 81 minutes 01 seconds (Regular Release)
Running Time: 126 minutes 16 seconds (Deluxe Edition)

Watertower Music WTM39642 (2015)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Orchestrations by Emad Borjian. Additional music by Christian Vorländer. Featured musical soloist Nick Zinner. Recorded and mixed by Tom Holkenborg and Bob Badami. Edited by Alex Gibson and Ryan Rudin. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

  1. June 1, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Reading your thoughts on the new Mad Max movie just made me think that you, Jon, is an excellent film music reviewer, but a terrible film critic. Sorry.

    And I guess that there is indeed a theme for Joe. Just re-listen to “Immortan’s Citadel” again, it’s some sort of ascending notes, and it kinda remembers the Persian’s theme for 300: Rise of an Empire. Then, it appears again on some of the action cues, like “Blood Bag”, “Spikey Cars” and “Chapter Doof”, and has its own suite, on “Immortan”.

    But, anyway, in the end, my conclusion is almost the same as yours. It’s a fun score to hear, but Holkenborg is not some genius composer that many people think – although his Mad Max score is enjoying a lot of success.

  2. June 1, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    Nice review, Jon. Indeed a difficult score to review, as there’s many parts that are extremely enjoyable on their own base level, but also can’t help but feel massively disappointed compared to what this score Could have been with a better composer (and as you point out, a sad continuation of the pretty high legacy left by May and Jarre).
    I would however disagree with your statement about there being no thematic material. The “descending action motif” seems to sort of act as the main theme, as as such is very disappointing, but serving just as something to tie the action together, I thought it worked very well. Plus in “Brothers in Arms” it gets some interesting development being turned into more of a rising, noble sound later on (wish that had been used more frequently). Immortan Joe definite gets some thematic ideas, even if they’re relatively simple, bum-bum-buuuum in style. I believe its anchored on a 4-note motif, but then that picks up into a fuller theme in certain moments.
    Furiosa’s music is harder for me to pin down. I’m not sure if she has a proper theme or whether that heavy, yearning string music is just used for the Wives/Vuvalini in general.
    Also, let’s not forget the big ‘power anthem’ theme as is a total callback to older Zimmer scores. This piece comes up in the end of “Storm is Coming”, and instantly jumps out compared to all the endless action churning that came before it. I believe this theme also shows up a few times later on in the score. That said, what this theme is actually meant to represent is very unclear to me, I’d have to re-watch the film, but it does at least offer some sonic variety.
    Overall, not what I wanted, but there is probably more there than you seemed to have picked up. I would have LOVED to hear what Powell (or Beltrami) would have done with this.

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