SUICIDE SQUAD – Steven Price
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
It’s looking increasingly likely that, in future years, we will be able to pinpoint the summer of 2016 as the moment the super hero genre reached its tipping point. After years of success and box office gold, especially from Marvel’s stable of characters, this year’s entries have been almost unanimously slammed from a critical point of view. Although they continued to resonate financially, and although Deadpool was fun, films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men Apocalypse bore the brunt of the jabs and barbs from professionals, who criticized each film’s poor writing, over-reliance on CGI fight sequences, and over-stuffed casts. Suicide Squad, the latest in the Warner Brothers/DC series of movies is, from my point of view, the nadir: a boring, badly-written, clichéd mess of a film that suffered from so much post-production tinkering that it rendered the final cut virtually incomprehensible. Written and directed by David Ayer, and set in the same universe as Zack Snyder’s new Batman and Superman films, it follows the fortunes of a group of incarcerated super-villains who are brought out of imprisonment by a shadowy government agency and forced to work together to battle an existential threat to humanity. The film stars Will Smith as crack assassin Deadshot, Jared Leto as the psychotic Joker, and Margot Robbie as his equally deranged paramour Harley Quinn, plus Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courteney, Jay Rodriguez, Cara Delevingne, and Viola Davis in supporting roles.
To list everything wrong with Suicide Squad here would be an exercise in futility and, frankly, would make this review much too long. Instead, I will simply mention the performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie, the surprisingly sympathetic back-story afforded to the Diablo character, the previously unheralded comic talents of Jai Courteney, and some of the special effects, as the film’s only saving graces. Astute readers will note that I did not mention Steven Price’s score as one of the film’s strong points; this is because, by and large, the music is just as lackluster as the rest of the movie. This is Steven Price’s third major score since he came out of nowhere to win the Oscar for Gravity in 2013, following on from the WWII tank movie Fury in 2014, and the acclaimed BBC documentary series The Hunt last year. I have been inclined to be kind to Price in the past, considering his relative youth and inexperience; Gravity was good but not Best Score material, and Fury was basically Gravity again, while The Hunt showed quite a bit of genuine excellence, but his score for Suicide Squad deserves some harsher treatment.
There’s a common saying about swans, and how they are serene on top, but paddling furiously underneath. Suicide Squad is the exact opposite of this – it’s one of those scores which seems busy and energetic, with lots of stuff happening all over the place, but when you examine it closely it’s all surface, and there’s absolutely nothing happening underneath. It has a huge orchestra, a choir, and a massive bank of electronic toys for Price to play with, and they all play very loudly for long periods of time, but it has no substance, no depth, and no heart. This could very well be a by-product of the film’s chaotic post-production schedule (and which may also explain why great swathes of Price’s score appear to have been excised from the final cut, replaced by ironic classic pop and rock songs), but great scores have been written for more troubled productions than this, so I’m not going to give Price the easy get-out on that front here.
Thematically, Suicide Squad is built around a single recurring identity representing Task Force X and its various members. A fairly simple 7-note brass fanfare with a heroic chord progression and a clear similarity to the Heroic Rambo theme from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for First Blood Part II, the Suicide Squad theme features prominently in the opening cue, “Task Force X,” and re-appears thereafter in several significant cues, most notably during “The Squad,” the second half of “Are We Friends or Are We Foes?,” and the conclusive “The Worst of the Worst,” where it receives a particularly rousing statement. Price does allow the theme to undergo a certain level of development, altering the mood slightly to give it a little emotional flexibility; the rhythmic ostinato of the theme forms the basis of “I Want to Assemble a Task Force,” and the statement in “You Die We Die” is slower and more thoughtful, while the solemn statement towards the end of “I Thought I’d Killed You” marks one of the few times the score attempts to reach a genuine emotional high.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it, as far as significant thematic ideas go. A love theme for Harley and Joker is hinted at during “Arkham Asylum” before being introduced properly in the cue of the same name as a mass of tortured-sounding cellos, but it’s so understated as to be almost invisible, and it never really gains much traction, either as emotional connective tissue within the film, or as something musically memorable to take away from the album. Theirs is such an iconic relationship in this world, a beloved if somewhat twisted comic book romance, and the fact that Price’s score never really addresses it’s complexities in a meaningful way is a massive missed opportunity for something special.
Another ‘relationship theme’ for Rick Flag and June Moone is introduced during “I’m Going to Figure This Out ,” a softer piece for higher strings and a cooing choir, but it is also very simplistic and fails to leave any kind of lasting impression, despite it re-appearing during “I Want to Assemble a Task Force,” and despite it forming a major part of the finale in “I Thought I’d Killed You”. Meanwhile the film’s primary antagonists, The Enchantress and Incubus, don’t really have a theme either, but do have some instrumental textural ideas associated with them, most notably a sort of glassy whispering/throbbing/pulsing sound which appears in “Brother Our Time Has Come,” and which develops to include a brief choral chant in “She’s Behind You.”
None of the other members of the Suicide Squad are afforded any sort of thematic identity, however brief, and this is yet another frustration. How cool would it have been for Price to have included an occasional burst of a didgeridoo for Captain Boomerang, or hints of traditional Mexican music for Diablo, even for a bar or two while they are in the spotlight? Anything for a bit of instrumental distinctiveness, to make these characters actually feel like the larger than life comic book personas they are. One cue, “Diablo’s Story,” does attempt to generate a little bit of operatic pathos to reference the character’s tragic backstory, and is tonally appealing, but there is nothing especially distinct about it in terms of how it differs from the rest of the music.
As for the rest of the score, it’s just one run-of-the-mill action cue after another, an endless repetitive stream of modern by-the-numbers super-hero scoring. In many ways, Price’s action music is more like rock music with an orchestra; the traditional complement of instruments is regularly accompanied by electric guitars, a drum kit, and a large number of synthetic electronic embellishments, giving it an aggressive and hard-edged attitude. Although this methodology is clearly intended to mirror the ‘bad asses’ at the center of the film, and is probably the right approach, it’s just not especially interesting as actual music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, in purely musical terms, but it’s just desperately unimaginative. It’s all about rhythms and chords, giving the film an internal energy without ever drawing attention to itself, and remaining defiantly, and disappointingly, anonymous.
Cues like “Arkham Asylum, “A Serial Killer Who Takes Credit Cards,” “A Killer App,” “That’s How I Cut and Run,” and “This Bird is Baked,” chug along, driven by cello ostinatos, string sustains, drum kits, electronic pulses, and the like, and occasionally peppered with brief statements of the Suicide Squad theme almost as an afterthought. Once or twice an interesting texture will make a fleeting appearance (the bubbling piano in “You Make My Teeth Hurt” reminds me of Elliot Goldenthal’s Batman scores), but these moments are few and far between, and are not enough to really allow any of these cues to leave any sort of significant positive impression. Worse still, some of the electronic zings that crop up from time to time are actually quite obnoxious and grating, coming across like a sample Price had left over from his time writing similarly obnoxious and grating electronic harshness for the disaster sequences in Gravity.
For me, much of the score mirrors the problem the film has. It feels rushed, slapped together at the last minute with time running out, with a glossy exterior that distracts you from the lack of anything substantial at its core. Relationships are not properly explored, histories and individual identities are not developed satisfactorily, and character motivations are unclear. To mask these problems the whole thing develops an overarching tone of ‘hey, look, isn’t this cool and heroic, look at how much stuff we’ve got going on,’ but it doesn’t work. The exterior is cool and heroic and colorful, but the center is hollow and unsatisfying.
As much as I have criticized several of the scores written for the super heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there have at least been some diamonds among the duds: Patrick Doyle’s Thor, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America, Brian Tyler’s Iron Man and Thor sequels, and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man were all exceptionally high quality super hero scores which brought energy and life to the genre. By contrast, the scores that Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg have written for the DC Extended Universe to date have been dark, dreary, and oh so serious, chores to sit through which are just no damn fun. Unfortunately, and despite being the best score in the DC series so far, Suicide Squad is more of the same, and whether that is the fault of Steven Price, David Ayer, Zack Snyder, the producers at Warner Brothers, or a combination of all of them, is open for debate.
Buy the Suicide Squad soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Task Force X (4:53)
- Arkham Asylum (3:23)
- I’m Going to Figure This Out (1:41)
- You Make My Teeth Hurt (2:30)
- I Want to Assemble a Task Force (2:52)
- Brother Our Time Has Come (4:42)
- A Serial Killer Who Takes Credit Cards (2:09)
- A Killer App (2:53)
- That’s How I Cut and Run (3:09)
- We Got a Job to Do (1:41)
- You Die We Die (4:01)
- Harley and Joker (2:49)
- This Bird Is Baked (4:42)
- Hey Craziness (4:01)
- You Need a Miracle (2:36)
- Diablo’s Story (1:42)
- The Squad (3:58)
- Are We Friends or Are We Foes? (4:16)
- She’s Behind You (3:02)
- One Bullet Is All I Need (3:32)
- I Thought I’d Killed You (3:49)
- The Worst of the Worst (4:11)
Running Time: 72 minutes 44 seconds
Watertower Music (2016)
Music composed by Steven Price. Orchestrations by David Butterworth and Jennifer Hammond. Recorded and mixed by Noah Scot Snyder. Edited by Bryan Lawson. Album produced by Steven Price.