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PAN – John Powell

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

panOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Pan is, by my count, the 1,875th cinematic take on the classic J. M. Barrie story of Peter Pan, which by this stage is starting to look a little well-worn and ragged around the edges. This film is a prequel of sorts, telling the story of how Peter Pan and Captain James Hook first met, with the young orphan boy Peter (Levi Miller) and the twenty-something Hook (Garrett Hedlund) teaming up to fight against the dastardly pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) for the fate of Neverland, and its inhabitants of lost boys, natives, and fairies. The film was directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright from a screenplay by Jason Fuchs, and had all the pedigree to be a success – but, unfortunately, the film has been a critical and commercial flop, with many commentators criticizing its poor narrative coherence, unfortunate anachronisms, and overall lack of the magic necessary in any good Peter Pan story.

The musical element of Pan was not immune to problems either. The film was originally scheduled to be scored by Wright’s regular musical collaborator Dario Marianelli, but after reports of poor test screening responses, coupled with the film’s generally troubled post-production, Marianelli was suddenly out, and was having his score replaced by John Powell. Powell, of course, has plenty of pedigree with magical-action-swashbucklers, having received an Oscar nomination for How to Train Your Dragon, among his many other successes. Interestingly, Powell’s score – his first for a non-animated film in five years, since Knight and Day in 2010 – is one of the few aspects of the film to receive any sort of critical praise from the mainstream media, and it’s not difficult to see why. A huge, theme-filled, orchestral romp, it has all the whimsy and magic and sense of adventurous derring-do that the film apparently lacks.

The score is anchored around two central themes, both of which receive their first performance on solo piano, before heading off into a multitude of instrumental variations. The first, which is the first thing you hear in the very first cue, “Opening Overture,” is overwhelmingly English in nature, and has more than a hint of the old hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness,” a song which was itself based on an even older folk tune called ‘Slane’. It appears to act as a recurring leitmotif for Peter himself, but every now and again Powell takes the four opening notes of the theme and arranges them into a brief fanfare – as in “Neverland Ahoy!” for example – although I always expect the melody to continue into a refrain of “God Save the Queen”. Perhaps that’s another sign of the theme’s inherent Britishness.

However, I personally feel it is at its best when used as a mischievous twinkle to accentuate a moment, or as a bold and flamboyant action motif during the score’s many battle sequences. Its performances during the wonderful “Galleon Dog Fight,” accompanied by swaggering brass calls and an almost Arabian/Persian exotic percussion beat, are a toe-tapping hoot. Later, “Mine Escape” quickens the pace of the theme, arranges it for flutes and Aaron Copland-style Western guitar licks, and allows it to expand and thrive with orchestral aplomb during the cue’s second half. The action stylistics in these aforementioned cues, and others like “Inverted Galleon,” “Tramp Stamp,” and “Pirates vs. Natives vs. Heroes vs. Chickens,” will be familiar to listeners who have been following Powell’s career since the days of Antz, Chicken Run and Shrek, and certainly recall his two How to Train Your Dragon scores. The way the melodic ideas move around the orchestra, the ebullient rhythmic ideas and use of ticking metallic percussion, and the way the themes are arranged with broad heroic flourishes, are all quintessential of the composer’s style. It’s wonderful to see how Powell has developed such an identifiable personal identity over the years – a sure sign that the composer is comfortable in his own musical skin, and confident enough to trust his instincts.

The second theme appears to relate to Peter’s long-missing mother, and as such has the same tender, wistful sound that Powell also adopted as a ‘mother’ motif in scores like How to Train Your Dragon 2. First heard warmly in “Kidnapped,” it receives an especially beautiful rendition in “Floating,” accompanied by ethereal synths and delightful chimes. There is a slightly twisted variation in “Origin Story,” where the prettiness of the piano is overwhelmed and intentionally overshadowed by dark brass clusters, and the moving choral sequence that follows it, but it reaches its zenith in “Transfiguration,” a searching, almost angelic arrangement of the theme that allows Peter to move on from his profound childhood loss.

As always, Powell’s orchestrations, arrangements, and performance mannerisms are wonderful, and too multitudinous to mention, but many cues contain quirky, memorable little combos and touches that are especially outstanding. Listen to the playful pizzicato strings and trilling, effervescent woodwinds in “Air Raid,” the stodgy-sounding horn solo in “Office Raid,” the rambunctious “Neverbirds” (which shifts from unexpected Scottish inflections to Polynesian), and the percussion circle in the aforementioned “Tramp Stamp” – a throwback to his score for Drumline. Marvel at the staggering flutter-tongued horns and bright, intricate harpsichord elements in “Pirates vs. Natives vs. Heroes vs. Chickens., and the beckoning siren song of the sea in the gorgeous “Crocodiles and Mermaids.” Once in a while Powell adds in some more contemporary ideas through the use of guitars and subtle electronic enhancements, and he even engages in some slightly abstract writing for offset violins and broken-sounding woodwind textures in cues like “Murmurs of Love and Death,” which is unexpectedly modernistic for a score of this type. It’s all quite superb.

The finale of the score – comprising “A Warrior’s Fate” through to “Fetching the Boys” – contains some of the most rip-snorting adventure music Powell has composed in some time, and I include both How to Train Your Dragons in that. He builds in performances of both main themes – the long lined version, and the short fanfare – and brings all his orchestral and choral forces to bear with great power and portent. The choral writing and the emotional string parts in “A Warrior’s Fate” convey both strength and tragedy. The “Flying Ship Fight” is the action centerpiece, with gorgeous cascading strings and dominant chanting voices, offset by dashing statements of Peter’s theme and the most rollicking pirate music since John Debney and Cutthroat Island twenty years ago. “A Boy Who Could Fly” contains the most emotional piano performance of Peter’s theme, before exploding into a thunderous choral action sequence of enormous magnitude. “Fetching the Boys” revisits the mischievous rhythmic brass ideas heard earlier in the score, before concluding with a magical, wistful final contrapuntal performance of both main themes, which close on a hopeful note.

If I was to make any criticism of the score it’s that the two main themes are not as fully realized as the themes in other similar scores were, and as such don’t linger as long in the memory as they otherwise might have. In terms of intellectual development, there’s nothing to criticize – Peter’s theme is all over the score, with literally dozens of different interpretations – but the common cinemagoer won’t remember it on the way out of the theater. I also question the decision to include the two ‘pop culture’ references to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” which are performed on screen by members of Blackbeard’s gang like they were at a bad 80s/90s-themed karaoke party. I’m not sure who made the creative decision to allow pirates from a magical world via London circa 1910 to have heard of Kurt Cobain, but it was a terrible one. Musically, they’re actually pretty cool, but they took me right out of the listening experience.

I’m also not a fan of either of the two Lily Allen songs, “Something’s Not Right” and “Little Soldier,” which she-co wrote with Tim Rice-Oxley, the keyboardist, singer and songwriter from the British alternative rock band Keane. While I’m sure they are appropriate in context, and they’re pretty enough, Allen’s voice seems very thin and reedy, almost as though it was about to break under nothing more than the stress of her breath, and the Brit-Pop chord progressions seem a little out of place. I also found myself constantly being reminded of the part in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” in which a gaggle of precocious London school kids sing in broad Cockney accents.

These small matters aside, John Powell’s contribution to Pan is wholly superb, and anyone who enjoys his sweeping action-fantasy scores like the two How To Train Your Dragons, the Ice Age series, or things like Bolt and Hancock, will find themselves lapping this up. I’m sure Powell himself would be the first to express his disappointment at the circumstances which led to Dario Marianelli being let go from the project, but there are times when you just have to be professional and do what you can with the job you are given. Powell did that, and more, writing a score which vastly outshines its lackluster visual accompaniment, and will easily be considered one of the best scores of its type in 2015.

Buy the Pan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Overture (2:41)
  • Air Raid/Office Raid (1:40)
  • Kidnapped/Galleon Dog Fight (5:09)
  • Floating/Neverland Ahoy! (2:29)
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit (written by Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, performed by the Cast of Pan) (2:11)
  • Blitzkrieg Bop (written by John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, Thomas Erdelyi and Jeffrey Hyman, performed by the Cast of Pan) (0:58)
  • Murmurs of Love and Death (3:27)
  • Mine Escape (5:01)
  • Inverted Galleon (1:56)
  • Neverbirds (1:54)
  • Something’s Not Right (written by Lily Allen and Tim Rice-Oxley, performed by Lily Allen) (3:20)
  • Tramp Stamp (2:33)
  • Origin Story (3:57)
  • Pirates vs. Natives vs. Heroes vs. Chickens (4:21)
  • Crocodiles and Mermaids (3:23)
  • A Warrior’s Fate (4:10)
  • Flying Ship Fight (7:23)
  • A Boy Who Could Fly (5:10)
  • Transfiguration (2:18)
  • Fetching the Boys (3:10)
  • Little Soldier (written by Lily Allen and Tim Rice-Oxley, performed by Lily Allen) (2:37)

Running Time: 69 minutes 59 seconds

Watertower Music (2015)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull, Mark Graham, Rick Giovinazzo and Tommy Laurence. Additional music by Anthony Willis, Batu Sener and Paul Mounsey. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Shawn Murphy. Edited by Tom Carlson. Album produced by John Powell.

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