MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION – Joe Kraemer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
I have, in my head, a list of composers whose level of talent is directly inverse to the number and quality of films they are asked to score. Some of them are composers who used to get major assignments but have fallen off the radar of late: people like Bruce Broughton, Cliff Eidelman, Trevor Jones, and David Newman. Others are composers who, for whatever reason, have yet to make that major breakthrough despite having talent in abundance: people like Neal Acree, Scott Glasgow, Federico Jusid, Nuno Malo, and too many others to list here. For the longest time Joe Kraemer was on that list too, but with the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, I might finally be able to cross him off. The film is the latest action extravaganza starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and others, as agents with the top-secret IMF espionage and counter-terrorism force, seeking to take down ‘the Syndicate’, a network of highly skilled operatives who are dedicated to establishing a new world order via an escalating series of terrorist attacks and disasters. The movie globe-trots from Belarus to Cuba, to Vienna, to Morocco, and finally the UK, with the usual array of breathtaking stunts; it is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects.
New York-born Kraemer first came onto the film music scene in 2000 as a 29-year old, scoring McQuarrie’s directorial debut, The Way of the Gun. Kraemer’s score for that film was so good, that he was immediately tipped to be the next ‘hot young composer’ in Hollywood, but instead Kraemer essentially disappeared for a decade, and by 2010 was getting by scoring low-budget straight-to-DVD action movies and the soft-core anthology series Femme Fatales for Cinemax. Then, in 2012, McQuarrie directed a second film, Jack Reacher, which also starred Tom Cruise, and to everyone’s surprise and delight Kraemer scored that film. The score for Jack Reacher was so good that everyone thought “finally, Kraemer’s career is back on track” … except, of course, Kraemer promptly disappeared again for another three years. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is Kraemer’s third go-around at establishing himself as a major composer, and I hope beyond hope that it works this time, and that directors other than Christopher McQuarrie realize what a gem we have in him. Kraemer is too talented to be languishing on the sidelines, and I don’t want to have to type another version of this paragraph again in 2019.
In writing the score, Kraemer said that he wanted to “pay homage to the original show, while still sounding relevant to today’s audiences,” and so he decided to “only use instruments that were available in 1966, when the TV show began. That meant no synthesizers, no techno loops, essentially no electronic instruments at all. As a result, the score has been performed entirely with acoustic instruments in a symphonic orchestral setting.” Not only that, Kraemer really made an effort to integrate Lalo Schifrin’s classic themes from the TV show into his score, and he has succeeded in doing that much more than Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, or Michael Giacchino ever did. Whereas the earlier Mission: Impossible scores simply paid lip service to Schifrin, Kraemer actually works both Schifrin’s main theme and a secondary theme, “The Plot,” into the fabric of the entire score, deconstructing them, using them as action ostinatos, and much more besides. The main Mission: Impossible motif appears regularly, usually to accentuate some moment of heroism, while “The Plot” is used as a recurring leitmotif for Simon Pegg’s character, Benji. Elsewhere, Kraemer often uses Schifrin’s famous opening anticipatory sustain as a placeholder between bars, a simple but effective technique that keeps a musical touchstone at the forefront of your mind.
In addition to the two classic Schifrin themes, Kraemer also has a trio of original themes that weave their way throughout the score. Kraemer’s own main theme for Ethan Hunt and the IMF is sort of an inverted variation on Schifrin’s theme, clearly alluding to its rhythm and structure, but which goes off in its own direction. The theme for the Syndicate is an elegant, but shadowy piece for elongated woodwinds, omnipresent and mysterious. The final theme is actually an adaptation of the melody from ‘Nessun Dorma’, Giacomo Puccini’s legendary aria from his 1926 opera Turandot, and which appears to act as a recurring leitmotif for Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Ilsa Faust. The end result is a modern score with a distinctly retro vibe that follows many of the contemporary action music tropes modern cinema audiences expect, but bathes them in the effortless cool of 1960s orchestrations.
The score begins with a thunderous opening salvo in “The A400,” which accompanies Tom Cruise’s death-defying stunt as he holds on to the side of a massive cargo plane – for real – as it takes off from an isolated airfield. Impressive performances of both Schifrin themes weave in and around the initial statements of Kraemer’s IMF theme, bolstered by a series of wonderful action music rhythms that really let you know what sort of score you’re in for. The ragged and raspy brass notes, the relentless tom-tom beats, and the high energy pacing, are all superb.
Subsequent action sequences like “Escape to Danger,” “The Torus,” the fabulous “Moroccan Pursuit,” and the powerful “A Foggy Night in London,” allow the relentlessly propulsive energy of the score to continue, and intelligently maintain the thematic integrity of the score with further performances of the three main themes – the heroic flashes of the IMF fanfare in “Moroccan Pursuit” are especially excellent. These combine with more suspenseful sequences like “Good Evening, Mr. Hunt,” “The Plan,” and “The Blenheim Sequence,” and some exotic regional color, like the flourishing guitars in “Havana to Vienna,” or the Middle Eastern arrangement of the Plot theme at the end of “The Syndicate,” which is a real standout.
“Solomon Lane” introduces the slithery theme for the Syndicate and the eponymous character himself, and builds up to a grand, gothic conclusion for the full string section and a stately, almost Christopher Young-esque brass line that conveys an imposing importance and genuine malevolence. The enormously sinister performances of the theme at the end of “Good Evening, Mr. Hunt” and all the way through “The Syndicate” are quite wonderful, and the way it makes more subtle appearances in cues like “Havana to Vienna,” “It’s Impossible,” “Grave Consequences,” and “Audience with the Prime Minister,” continuously but subliminally reminds the listener who is pulling the strings of the plot. The theme’s culmination, playing in counterpoint to the IMF fanfare in “Meet the IMF” is a superb and dramatic payoff.
Ilsa’s theme – Nessun Dorma – makes a cameo appearance on quiet woodwinds at the 2:13 mark of “Escape to Danger,” but really comes into its own in “A Matter of Going,” where it receives a proud and prominent statement, and in the conclusive “Finale and Curtain,” where it combines with a more lyrical version of the IMF fanfare. In the film, the extended action sequence that takes place at the Wiener Staatsoper is scored entirely with music from Turandot, a performance of which is taking place while Ethan fights bad guys on the catwalks and gantries high above the stage. The climax of the aria is an integral moment in the film’s plot, when tenor Jesús Álvarez hits Caláf’s famous last note, and a key revelation about Ilsa’s character is revealed. However, I’m not entirely sure why Kraemer made the decision to take such a massively famous piece of classical music and use it as a character leitmotif.
The music in Nessun Dorma will undoubtedly mean different things to different people – to my generation of Brits, for example, it will forever be the theme music for the BBC’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup. As such, for many it will be a puzzling distraction, especially as her music first appears before the film’s opera house sequence takes place, and therefore it won’t make sense why it is there at that point in the film. Not only that, although her part in it is significant, the Wiener Staatsoper sequence is not entirely centered around Ilsa, so for that music to become specifically linked to her later in the film is a curious decision on Kraemer’s part. If I was to get really analytical, I might suggest that Kraemer was somehow drawing parallels between Ilsa and the emotionally cold Princess Turandot, about whom the Caláf is singing – but, at this point, it’s all conjecture on my part, and I really don’t know the actual reasons.
Despite this one minor issue, the bottom line is that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a truly outstanding score. The care and attention Joe Kraemer put into crafting a score which is intentionally, almost boastfully, old-fashioned in terms of its orchestral sound and thematic approach is commendable. The way he blends Lalo Schifrin’s motifs with his own outstanding thematic writing, and his breathless action ideas, is superb, and the way he weaves the snippets of Puccini into the mix is very clever – in less skilled hands it could have been a nightmare. I know I said this at the beginning of the review, but I genuinely hope that the success of this film, both critically and commercially, allows Joe Kraemer to finally embark on the film music career he should have been having a decade ago. As such, I put this challenge forward to the producers of Hollywood: their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to give Joe Kraemer two or three major movies, across an array of genres, every year, for the foreseeable future. No more straight-to-DVD horror sequels. No more episodes of ‘Mystery Woman’ or ‘Femme Fatale’. Kraemer is too talented for that – as the score for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation proves beyond question. This review will self-destruct in thirty seconds.
Buy the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The A400 (6:38)
- Solomon Lane (4:08)
- Good Evening, Mr. Hunt (2:35)
- Escape to Danger (2:46)
- Havana to Vienna (5:13)
- A Flight at the Opera (2:23)
- The Syndicate (3:44)
- The Plan (3:21)
- It’s Impossible (1:23)
- The Torus (7:02)
- Morocco Pursuit (2:29)
- Grave Consequences (4:12)
- A Matter of Going (5:05)
- The Blenheim Sequence (4:00)
- Audience with the Prime Minister (4:23)
- This is the End, Mr. Hunt (3:48)
- A Foggy Night in London (2:10)
- Meet the IMF (1:47)
- Finale and Curtain Call (6:14)
Running Time: 65 minutes 20 seconds
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1361 (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Joe Kraemer. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley. Mission Impossible themes by Lalo Schifrin. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Joe Kraemer and John Finklea.