THE LEGEND OF TARZAN – Rupert Gregson-Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There have been dozens of movies and TV shows based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic Tarzan story since he was first introduced in literature in 1912. This latest cinematic adaptation, directed by Harry Potter alumnus David Yates, could almost be seen as a sequel to the excellent 1984 film Greystoke, which told the chronological origins of Tarzan. In this new story, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård stars as John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke, who has abandoned his Tarzan name and settled fairly comfortably into the life of an English aristocrat. Clayton is convinced to return to Africa by American lawyer George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to help investigate possible acts of slavery against the native population by representatives of King Leopold II of Belgium; upon their return Clayton and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) encounter the ruthless Leon Rom (Christophe Waltz), King Leopold’s emissary in the Congo, who is soon revealed to be using slaves to extract diamonds and build railroads on behalf of the Belgians. However, unknown to Clayton, Rom has an additional ulterior motive with links to his past, and before long Clayton is forced to adopt his Tarzan persona once more, interacting with the animals of the jungle to save his wife and free the slaves.
Aside from some unexpectedly hokey CGI special effects, The Legend of Tarzan is an engaging and enjoyable adventure romp, with a handsome leading cast, a traditionally despicable villain, well-conceived character motivations and emotional revelations, and an unexpectedly strong socio-political aspect involving the colonial Belgians and their terrible treatment of the Congolese population. For the music, despite having worked extensively with Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat on previous films, director Yates originally hired Bulgarian composer Mario Grigorov to write the score for The Legend of Tarzan, but unspecified ‘post production problems’ ultimately led to his score being rejected, and English composer Rupert Gregson-Williams came into replace him fairly late in the game.
I like Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music a lot. He’s clearly too talented to be stuck scoring awful Adam Sandler and Kevin James movies, despite his accomplished work on scores like Click, Grown Ups, Just Go With It, and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and when he gets the chance to tackle something a little more serious and important – Hotel Rwanda, or Winter’s Tale, for example – the results are invariably impressive. It’s this track record that makes the score for The Legend of Tarzan so disappointing, because you would think that a canvas as broad and lush as this film would inspire greatness. Unfortunately, and with just a couple of brief exceptions, the score for The Legend of Tarzan is surprisingly uninvolving. It takes all the clichéd African musical tropes and blends them together with a bland-sounding contemporary orchestra, and then goes about pushing all the expected buttons without ever once sounding like anything more than a score on auto-pilot.
I don’t like using words like ‘bland’ or ‘generic’ or ‘auto-pilot’, because it unfairly denigrates the composer and casts negative aspersions on their work ethic, which is not what I intend to do at all. I absolutely understand that Rupert Gregson-Williams worked very hard, and gave the director exactly what he felt was needed, but from my point of view as an audience member and consumer, it could have been much, much more. The whole thing just feels so tired, so safe, an uninspiring concoction of all the African tribal music tropes that have been heard in a dozen other films in this genre, blended with desperately generic orchestral lines that sound like they were lifted wholesale from the Hans Zimmer ‘Film Scoring 101’ Library (Hans was originally a credited co-composer on the film; although he no longer receives on-screen credit, his musical fingerprints are all over the score).
Talking about his approach to the score, Gregson-Williams said “I needed the score to have a haunting quality, so I experimented with stretching vocals and flutes to use as slowly moving backdrops to some of the cues. I used percussion and flutes throughout the score, giving it a sense of place. There always needs to be a sense of tragedy, longing, and tension, as well as the African primeval feel I played with.” This is all well and good, and as a starting point that’s a fairly decent one, but what Gregson-Williams failed to do was give it much of an actual personality.
The score album is bookended by two songs. The first, “Opar,” was co-written by the legendary Lebo M in the same vein as other pieces from The Lion King, The Power of One, and Congo, and is performed with passion by Zoe Mthiyane, who has a broad, expansive vocal range. The conclusive “Better Love” is written and performed by Irish singer-songwriter Hozier (of “Take Me to Church” fame), and is an inoffensive enough song if you like that sort of thing, but it seems rather out-of-place and out-of-style with a film like this, and Hozier’s vocal performance is on the whiny side.
The main Tarzan theme, first heard at the end of the opening “Diamonds,” and later in more expansive settings in “Returning Home,” “Campfire,” and others, is little more than a rising 2-note motif, pleasant but instantly forgettable. The love theme for Tarzan and Jane, heard in cues like “Togetherness” and “Tarzan and Jane,” has more weight to it; it’s slow and undeniably pretty, often combining a luscious violin with a tender piano, but it has obvious similarities to The Thin Red Line and Pearl Harbor, and is often marred by an electronic filter and anachronistic-sounding processed strings.
Far too much of the action music sounds like it was lifted wholesale from scores like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel; cues like “Diamonds,” “Steamer and Butterfly,” parts of “Orphaned,” “Village Ambush,” “Catching the Train,” “Jane Escapes,” and “Stampede” feature the all-too-familiar pounding rhythms, dark groaning textures, and chugga chugga cellos, peppered with some ethnic flute lines to give it a little regional flavor. Even the score’s big moment of tragedy – “Kala’s Death” – sounds like a refugee from a Christopher Nolan film, with lamenting cellos and desperate strings that segue into an action cue more suited to watching a super hero drive round Gotham than swinging through the trees.
These action sequences are probably the most disappointing aspects of all; with something as majestic and potentially awesome as the Congolese jungle as your inspiration, why would you choose to write such murky, introverted action music? There are far too few moments where the percussion really explodes with any rip-snorting rhythms, and far too few moments where the brass section really makes its presence felt. Instead we get see-sawing ambient textures, pulsating strings which have been processed so much they sound like keyboards, and a few vocal grunts, huffing and puffing to gain traction, much like the majority of the score. We get a couple of fleeting moments where Tarzan’s theme powerfully emerges as a vibrant action motif, like at the end of “Catching the Train,” and in “Jungle Shooting” and “Where Was Your Honor?”, but beyond these there are limited moments of pure heroism.
I should acknowledge a couple of individual cues which do conspire to leave a lasting impression. “Elephants in the Night” brings back the haunting, ethereal vocal performance of Zoe Mthiyane into the score proper, accompanying a lovely scene where Tarzan and Williams encounter, and bond with, a family of migrating pachyderms in a clearing under a cloudless sky. Finally, the conclusive “The Legend of Tarzan” offers the most rousing performance of the main theme, a too-little-too-late reminder of what heights the score could have attained.
It’s a real shame for Rupert Gregson-Williams that this score ended up being as flaccid as it is, because it can only really be judged as a massive missed opportunity for him to finally move out of Adam Sandler world. Gregson-Williams can be a great composer, and he has written some really excellent music for films which, quite frankly, didn’t deserve it. There’s nothing greatly wrong with The Legend of Tarzan in the bigger scheme of things; it’s functional, inoffensive, culturally respectful, and goes out of its way to mirror the current board-approved action music sound, which won’t upset any of the film’s key target demographics. It’s just so un-ambitious, derivative, and predictable, that it makes listening to it something of a chore. This is Tarzan, for heaven’s sake, the larger than life ape-man of classic literature, and his music should at least match that sense of epic adventure.
Buy the Legend of Tarzan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Opar (written by Rupert Gregson-Williams and Lebo Morake, performed by Zoe Mthiyane) (3:28)
- Diamonds (4:50)
- Togetherness (1:44)
- Steamer and Butterfly (2:40)
- Orphaned (2:46)
- Returning Home (4:01)
- Campfire (2:40)
- Tarzan and Jane (3:39)
- Village Ambush (4:41)
- Catching the Train (2:16)
- Rom’s Plan (2:11)
- Akut Fight (2:16)
- Elephants in the Night (3:12)
- Jane Escapes (2:44)
- Jungle Shooting (2:41)
- Kala’s Death (5:15)
- Where Was Your Honor? (2:29)
- Boma Port (4:04)
- Stampede (4:33)
- On the Boat (3:10)
- The Legend of Tarzan (2:36)
- Better Love (written by Andrew Hozier-Byrne, performed by Hozier) (3:23)
Running Time: 71 minutes 31 seconds
Watertower Music (2016)
Music composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Conducted by Alastair King. Orchestrations by Alastair King. Additional music by Thomas Farnon, Tony Clarke and Tom Howe. Featured musical soloists Peter Gregson. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Alan Jenkins and J. J. George. Album produced by Rupert Gregson-Williams.