BLACK MASS – Tom Holkenborg
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
James “Whitey” Bulger was a notorious and violent mobster who, basically, was the leading figure in organized crime on the south side of Boston, Massachusetts, throughout the 1970s and 80s, allegedly personally committing dozens of murders and being involved in everything from drug smuggling and racketeering to illegally exporting arms for the IRA. Throughout this time, however, Bulger was also an informant for the FBI, which turned a blind eye to Bulger’s own criminal activities, in exchange for the information he provided about other organized crime families in the area. This all changed in 1994, when a new district attorney decided to go after Bulger, who then fled the city. For the next 16 years Bulger remained in hiding, until he was finally captured in 2011 outside his apartment in Santa Monica, California, and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. The movie Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, tells Bulger’s life story; it stars Johnny Depp in a return-to-form performance as Bulger, Joel Edgerton as his FBI contact John Connelly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother William, the former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and has a superb supporting cast including Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad.
The score for Black Mass is by the Dutch composer and producer Tom Holkenborg, who finally seems to have abandoned his Junkie XL moniker, and is now composing under his real name. 2015 has been a breakout year for Holkenborg. Having already worked as an additional music composer on scores by Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt, Harry Gregson-Williams, and others, dating back to 2004, he replaced Federico Jusid on the 300 sequel Rise of an Empire in 2014, wrote the score for Divergent, and was part of Hans Zimmer’s team working on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but has recently really come into the forefront of the scoring world. Holkenborg has written three major scores this year so far: the Liam Neeson vehicle Run All Night, the massively successful Mad Max Fury Road, and now Black Mass, by far his most serious and dramatic work to date. I have, in the past, expressed a general dislike of most of Holkenborg’s music. I didn’t care that much for Divergent, flat-out disliked 300: Rise of an Empire, and was ambivalent about Run All Night. Mad Max Fury Road certainly had its moments of raw power and energy, but was an exhausting listening experience. So, with that in mind, it may surprise many of you that I liked Black Mass a great deal, both in the context of the film, and separately, and consider it to be the standout work of Holkenborg’s career thus far.
The score is rather low-key and introspective, and concentrates mainly on featured solo performances for violin and Steve Erdody’s sonorous cello, which generally provide an overarching mood of solemnity, and are compelling in their richness. Once in a while, Holkenborg allows his music to rise to darkly-hued crescendos, giving Bulger’s story an operatic feel, and a real sense of emotional gravitas, but which never come s across as being overwhelming or manipulative. Right from the first few moments of the “Black Mass Opening Title,” Holkenborg gives the story a seriousness that conveys just how important Bulger was to ‘Southie’, but never glamorizes him or his actions. Yes, Bulger was fiercely loyal to the city, and in many places was actually loved and respected, but he was also violent and ruthless, with a hair trigger temper: in many ways, Holkenborg’s music could be seen as a lament for the man Bulger could have become in other circumstances.
An understated, muted thematic idea for Bulger gradually emerges as the score develops, with cues like “Boston Crime Lord,” “Don’t Wake Him Up,” and the bleak “Did You Ever See Whitey Bulger Murder Anyone?” featuring it prominently. “My Boy” features a more hopeful variation on Whitey’s theme, using a synth-accented vocal idea and some subtle woodwind textures to capture the genuinely loving paternal relationship between Bulger and his son Douglas. Meanwhile, the searching, emotionally heightened “Aspirin” brings the religioso violin writing strongly to the fore, while the heart-rending cello performances in “I Will Pull the Plug Myself” and the subsequent “You’ll Be Sorry” and “Boston Globe” are searing, with that second cue especially having a sense of tragic finality to it.
Elsewhere, action/suspense cues like “Bulger Burial Ground,” “No Drugs No Murder,” and the dangerous-sounding “Martorano,” are more atmospheric, but also more rhythmic, with dark metallic sound design elements, percussion loops, and a gritty, urban feel, giving weight to the repetitive cello ostinatos that run through many of the cues. “You Got Two Minutes” offsets a piano motif and a strong, darkly romantic string figure with a throbbing percussion riff, making it one of the score’s standout moments, while “It’s Just the Beginning” and “Valhalla” showcase a nervous, insistent repeating piano motif that somehow manages to be pretty and sinister at the same time. “Jimmy and Marianne” underscores one of the film’s most disturbing scenes with fluttering heartbeat-like beats underneath a stark, desolate electronic whine, accompanied by nervous piano licks and heightened moments of cello-led alarm.
The final two cues, “Strictly Criminal” and “Take Care Kid,” allow the score to reach for real emotional highs: the former introduces a very subtle sampled church organ into the music as a reflection of Bulger’s Catholic religious beliefs, while the latter is a 7-minute elegy that builds around variations on Whitey’s theme as it progresses to its impressive climax.
Interestingly, one of the things Holkenborg does not do is provide any direct reflection of Bulger’s Irish heritage, or the Irish roots of Southie as a whole. While I have always personally always enjoyed those sounds, some feel that using fiddles or pennywhistles in these settings is now a cliché, and as such I understand why Cooper and Holkenborg would have intentionally eschewed ‘fiddle-de-dee Oirishness’. Nevertheless, there could have been some sort of melodic allusions to traditional Irish music somewhere – Bulger is so strongly Irish, and so connected to his roots – and the lack of a musical nod to the cultural heritage of the area could be considered something of a missed opportunity.
Looking at it dispassionately, one could consider the whole of Black Mass to be little more than an understated, less dynamic variation on the “Many Mothers” cue from Mad Max Fury Road, and in many ways that’s certainly true. There are many commonalities between these two scores, especially in the way the cellos convey the bulk of the score’s emotional content, but to consider Black Mass just an imitation of its predecessor would be a disservice. With this score, Holkenborg shows that he is more than capable of scoring straight drama, without any of the whizz-bang electronic pulses and manipulated effects that typified some of his earlier work.
The music in Black Mass isn’t especially challenging on a compositional level, nor is it especially groundbreaking intellectually – it’s a one theme score written for a limited orchestral palette, with some instrumental variations and a few subdued action moments – but it does show Holkenborg thinking like a film composer, writing music which has a logical progression from Point A to Point B in terms of thematic development, and which hits all the right emotional markers along the way. It’s also impressive that Holkenborg orchestrated and mixed the score himself, without any help from his colleagues at Remote Control, proving that this score represents his voice alone. Seeing how Holkenborg has successfully navigated this important step in his career makes me feel much more positive about what he may accomplish in the future. Someone should give him a romantic comedy, or a western, or something else outside his established comfort zone, and I’ll be waiting with anticipation to see what happens next.
Buy the Black Mass soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Black Mass Opening Title (1:10)
- Boston Crime Lord (3:15)
- John Connolly (1:56)
- Bulger Burial Ground (1:21)
- My Boy (4:05)
- Don’t Wake Him Up (3:06)
- You Got Two Minutes (1:24)
- Aspirin (1:13)
- No Drugs, No Murder (1:46)
- I Will Pull the Plug Myself (2:36)
- When You Wake Up In the Morning (2:33)
- It’s Just the Beginning (3:57)
- Martorano (3:46)
- Did You Ever See Whitey Bulger Murder Anyone? (2:44)
- Thanks to Whitey (2:17)
- Jimmy and Marianne (2:40)
- You’ll Be Sorry (2:06)
- Boston Globe (4:15)
- Valhalla (3:22)
- Strictly Criminal (4:55)
- Take Care Kid (6:59)
Running Time: 61 minutes 38 seconds
Watertower Music (2015)
Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Tom Holkenborg. Featured musical soloist Steve Erdody. Recorded and mixed by Tom Holkenborg and Tom Hardisty. Edited by Katrina Schiller. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.