GODS OF EGYPT – Marco Beltrami
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
For quite a long time I considered Alex Proyas to be one of the best ‘serious sci-fi’ directors working in the film business. From the gothic darkness of The Crow, to the time-bending mind-fuck of Dark City, to the examination of Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics in I Robot, Proyas’s films have been challenging and thought provoking and enjoyable, not an easy triumvirate of achievements to successfully attain, especially across multiple projects. With this in mind, it was greatly disappointing to read the reviews of his latest film, Gods of Egypt, which called it everything from “a colossal wreck” “completely lacking in appeal,” and “noisy, chaotic, and meaningless” to – worst of all – “boring”. This is especially surprising because it’s basic plot sounds fascinating: using the ancient mythology of Egyptian Gods as its starting point, the film stars Gerard Butler and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as Set and Horus, two warring deities. Set, the God of Darkness, launches a coup during Horus’s coronation, and takes over the Egyptian empire, forcing Horus to join forces with a human named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) to defeat him.
The score for Gods of Egypt is by Marco Beltrami, who worked with Proyas on two of his previous films, I Robot in 2004 and Knowing in 2009. It’s interesting how, despite having no real evidence as to what ‘ancient Egyptian music’ actually sounded like, Hollywood composers have adopted a certain style of writing to depict that location and era. I don’t have the technical knowledge to describe it in musical terms, but you know it when you hear it; it was probably invented by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann for 1954’s The Egyptian, and has endured through dozens of other scores, notably Dimitri Tiomkin’s Land of the Pharoahs, Alex North’s Cleopatra, John Scott’s Antony and Cleopatra, David Arnold’s Stargate, Hans Zimmer’s Prince of Egypt, and Jerry Goldsmith’s The Mummy. It has that faintly exotic flair, a particular rhythmic sense, and a slithering, twisting sound, especially in the woodwinds. I have always been a fan of the Egyptian genre as it pertains to music, and thankfully Beltrami chose to follow in those esteemed footsteps and write a traditional ‘Egyptian-sounding’ score.
There are several themes that weave in and around each other throughout the score. The two main deities at the center of the plot have their own motifs; Horus’s theme is heroic and fanfarish, representing his position as the more sympathetic of the two Gods, while Set’s theme is darker, and has stylistic similarities to the ‘villain themes’ composers like Jerry Goldsmith often wrote, being built around low, intense descending brass lines. Horus’s theme gets a wonderful performance during “Coronation,” surrounded by all manner of pageantry and choral flourishes, before being overtaken by Set’s three note theme at the end of the cue. The subsequent “Set vs. Horus” has some wonderfully creative musical interplay between the two protagonists’ themes as they do battle for the first time, while Horus’s theme gets several particularly strong statements later in the score, notably during the emotionally-charged “Shot Through the Heart,” in “Wings and Prayer,” during the more lush and inviting “Osiris’ Garden,” and at the end of “Obelisk Fight, Part 1”.
Elsewhere, the two main human protagonists, Bek and Zaya, have a love theme, first appearing on light flutes in “Bek and Zaya,” and returning later in the more ominous “Underdog,” and the angelic “Channeling Zaya”. There is also a beautiful theme for Hathor, Horus’s wife, which is often conveyed via a mesmerizing duet between a duduk clarinet and Sussan Deyhim’s striking, dexterous vocal contortions, and which can be heard prominently in cues such as “Hathor’s Bedroom”. The extended, sweeping performances of all the main themes during the final three cues, “God of the Impossible,” “Bek and Zaya’s Theme,” and “Hathor’s Theme,” are superb, and allow the score to end on a real thematic high.
However, despite these thematic presences, the score is dominated by action music. Beltrami himself said “The magnitude of this score is beyond anything I have done before … this two and half hour score is the biggest film score project I have ever undertaken, and after all these years that is saying something.” And he’s right; the action music in Gods of Egypt is at times quite staggeringly complicated, comprising a full orchestra, choir, an enlarged percussion section that includes everything from enormous taiko drums to high pitched clapsticks and tapped snares, and even some electronic enhancements and sound design elements courtesy of Beltrami’s regular collaborator, Buck Sanders.
Many of the action sequences contain some marvelously striking moments of instrumental ingenuity and creativity. The rampaging percussion ideas and clattering, dissonant pianos towards the end of “Set vs. Horus” are superb, as are the Elliot Goldenthal-esque wailing trombones towards the end of “Bek Steals the Eye”. The combination of guttural voices set against high, shrill Middle Eastern woodwind phrases in “Red Army” gives it a highly unusual feel, while the high-tempo urgency of “Snakes on a Plain” gives it a fleet-footed, almost caper-like tone, especially with most of the instruments being performed towards the top of their ranges. The final three action cues – “Elevator Music,” “Obelisk Fight, Part 1,” and “Obelisk Fight, Part 2” – just never let up, with almost John Williams-style trumpet flurries competing with chanting choirs, endlessly thunderous percussion, action settings of Horus’s theme and Set’s theme, and moments of extreme, chaotic dissonance.
Having said all that, and while one cannot help but marvel at the intricacy and creativity on display, sometimes it comes across as being just too dense for its own good. I have the same issue with this score as I did with John Powell’s score for X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006; in my review of it, I said “every action cue is a dense, multi-layered epic of its own, with an immensely complicated musical structure, different rhythmic elements, and sections of the orchestra all playing their own little individual opuses. Taken apart, each element is deep and intelligent; however, when you listen to them all at the same time, it’s so thick it’s like trying to listen to mud. You have violins competing with violas competing with cellos and trumpets and horns and trombones, all playing different things simultaneously, and so loudly that that you can’t hear any of them. Add to this a cache of twittering woodwinds and the various percussion elements – bass drums and pounding timpanis and rolling gongs and hammering anvils and clashing cymbals – and THEN add a shrieking choir, and eventually it all becomes too much.” These words sum up exactly my feelings about the action music in Gods of Egypt.
What’s also very interesting about Gods of Egypt is that, for most of its running time, the score bears almost none of Beltrami’s personal stylistic hallmarks. As his career has progressed Beltrami has developed several little personal touches, compositional fingerprints that earmark his work as being clearly his, whether it be a certain way of phrasing the strings, certain chord progressions, certain rhythmic ideas he likes, and so on. As well-composed as Gods of Egypt is, it never struck me as being something that only Marco Beltrami could have written – there’s a curious anonymity to it. It’s a big score with the right Egyptian inflections and the right Hollywood sheen, but if you had played this for me blind and told me that it had been written by John Debney or Harry Gregson-Williams, or even someone like James Newton Howard or David Newman, I wouldn’t have argued. I’m not saying it has no personality, but I’m certainly saying it’s not distinct enough to be truly representative of Beltrami’s usually strong compositional characteristics.
Anyone who likes their film music turned up to eleven for an hour, or who has a special affinity for the Egyptian or Middle Eastern-tinged scores I mentioned in the second paragraph, will certainly find Gods of Egypt to their liking. Similarly, anyone who has listened to a Marco Beltrami action score in the past, and wished for him to have a project where he could really let loose with every orchestral force at his disposal, will find this score to be the culmination of those desires. And, just to be clear, I do enjoy it great deal of this score myself, especially the more sweeping statements of the main themes, and the most unusual and creative moments of instrumental pandemonium Beltrami fashions. I just wish it had been able to showcase Beltrami’s unique identity a little more strongly, and that a little of it had been dialed back a couple of notches to make it less overwhelming.
Buy the Gods of Egypt soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Gods of Egypt Prologue (2:41)
- Bek and Zaya (0:44)
- Market Chase (0:30)
- Coronation (2:26)
- All Quiet on Set (0:41)
- Set vs. Horus (3:40)
- Hathor’s Bedroom (3:42)
- Bek Steals the Eye (4:08)
- Shot Through the Heart (3:01)
- Underdog (1:25)
- Red Army (1:40)
- Wings and a Prayer (3:01)
- Osiris’ Garden (1:29)
- Snakes on a Plain (3:12)
- Toth’s Library (3:27)
- Straight out of Egypt (2:28)
- Channeling Zaya (2:29)
- Return of the Mistress of the West (2:28)
- Chaos (3:42)
- Set Confronts Ra (3:29)
- Elevator Music (3:06)
- Obelisk Fight, Part 1 (4:12)
- Obelisk Fight, Part 2 (3:32)
- God of the Impossible (5:39)
- Bek and Zaya’s Theme (4:37)
- Hathor’s Theme (3:35)
Running Time: 75 minutes 04 seconds
Varese Sarabande 302-067-401-8 (2016)
Music composed by Marco Beltrami. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Performed by The Sydney Scoring Orchestra and the Cantillation Choir. Additional music by Brandon Roberts and Marcus Trumpp. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Rossano Galante, Mark Graham, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull, Dana Niu and Edward Trybek. Special vocal performances by Asdru Sierra, Angela Little and Sussan Deyhim. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Tim Ryan, Jason Fernandez and Jim Schultz. Album produced by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.