DEEPWATER HORIZON – Steve Jablonsky
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon – an oil rig owned by the British Petroleum company (BP) and located in the gulf of Mexico – suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, resulting in an enormous explosion, the deaths of eleven engineers who worked on the rig, and an ecological disaster of astronomical proportions, with more than 210 million gallons of oil spilling into the ocean and eventually onto the southern coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Director Peter Berg’s film looks at the events surrounding the disaster, focusing mainly on the men and women whose lives were impacted most by the event; the film stars Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, and Kate Hudson, and has been the recipient of mainly positive reviews, who praised its realism, accuracy, and emotional portrayal of the disaster’s human cost.
It may be flippant, considering the real life events portrayed in the film, to call Steve Jablonsky’s score for Deepwater Horizon a disaster too, but unfortunately this is my appraisal of this largely terrible score. This is the third film Jablonsky has scored for Berg, after Battleship in 2012 and Lone Survivor in 2013, and up until now I thought Battleship was the low point of Jablonsky’s career as a composer. Sadly, I now know I was wrong. It appears to be that Berg and Jablonsky’s “thing” as a director-composer team is to take a sampled mechanical sound and use it as the cornerstone of the score. On Battleship it was the whining, clanging cacophony of a medical MRI machine; on Deepwater Horizon, it is the irritating and incessant ‘ping’ of active SONAR.
Jablonsky combined this sound with a palette of electronic tones, as well as a small handful of live instruments including an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, a dobro, and a bass, all performed by musician Tom Strahle, to create the score. And, let me be clear, using an electronic sound palette to score this film is a perfectly valid stylistic choice. It’s the sound Peter Berg wanted for his movie, and Jablonsky is there to give him what he wants. Unfortunately, the score is almost completely devoid of anything resembling melody, harmony, or even anything remotely musical; emotional content is limited to brief, paltry statements at the very beginning and very end of the score, resulting in a piece of music which is one of the most incessantly annoying albums I have had the misfortune of hearing this year.
In reviews like this I usually try to pick out highlight tracks, talk about thematic ideas, development, structure, and if I have seen the film how this all relates to what’s happening on-screen. On Deepwater Horizon, this is a futile task, because more than half of the album is made up of electronic drones, pulses, loops, and the sampled SONAR sound, and literally nothing else. That’s not an exaggeration, and not hyperbole. At least 40 minutes of this score sounds like someone stuck a microphone close to a machine and recorded its inner workings. Cues like “The Monster,” “Negative Pressure Test,” “Cut the Pipe,” “Mud,” and “Burn or Jump” clang and bang and whirr and buzz and hum, and have virtually no redeeming factors, yet somehow they become worse when Jablonsky shoehorns in a tedious attempt to replicate Hans Zimmer’s Inception horns on his keyboard. The nadir might very well be “Well from Hell,” which is beyond nightmarish in its dreadfulness.
Only a handful of cues leave any kind of impression in terms of actual musical content. The opening cue, “Taming the Dinosaurs,” is ambient and rhythmic but in a quite pleasant way, with a soft guitar texture, soothing shifting tones, and the first appearance of the little three-note SONAR motif that appears to carry through a few subsequent cues, including “The Rig,” “Hope Is Not a Tactic,” “Fire on the Rig,” and others. The 8-minute “Roll Call” returns to the dream-like ambiences of the opening cue, and adds a little bit of emotional impact through the inclusion of a more prominent percussion section and a faraway, faintly hopeful melodic sound building out of the three-note motif, although even here the cue’s middle section gets bogged down in far too much whining and groaning and white noise. The conclusive cue, “Home,” is quite nice too, with Tom Strahle’s Americana-flavored cache of guitars adding some much needed warmth and humanity to the proceedings, but it’s all much too little too late, and does nothing to erase the musical void that preceded it.
The album is rounded out by an original song, “Take Me Down,” written and performed by Gary Clark Jr., a popular young singer-songwriter from Texas with a modern rock/country/blues fusion style. The song is actually quite good, benefitting from Clark’s smooth vocal style, haunting harmonica solos, and poignant lyrics, although it’s possible that I may be over-praising it a little due to its juxtaposition with the rest of the album, where any hint of melody is like musical water in the otherwise barren desert of Jablonsky’s writing.
It could very well be that the score for Deepwater Horizon works perfectly in the context of the film, underpinning the action with the sense of dread and impending doom that Berg wanted to impart on his audience. As I said at the beginning of the review, this is clearly the exact type of score that the director wanted, and Steve Jablonsky was bound by professionalism to give him that exact score. However, as I have said before in other reviews, ‘working in the film’ is the absolute bare minimum standard any score should ever strive to achieve, and once that benchmark has been met, it is then up to the composer to use his or her skill to make the score interesting, emotionally relevant, intellectually stimulating, and have something to say. Unfortunately for us, Deepwater Horizon does precisely none of those things, and as such I very much doubt whether this collection of sounds masquerading as music will ever pass through my speakers again.
Buy the Deepwater Horizon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Taming the Dinosaurs (4:12)
- The Rig (4:49)
- The Monster (3:00)
- Hope Is Not a Tactic (3:53)
- Negative Pressure Test (4:57)
- Well from Hell (4:34)
- Cut the Pipe (5:34)
- Mud (5:19)
- Stop the Crane (2:03)
- Fire on the Rig (3:15)
- Burn or Jump (5:08)
- Roll Call (7:43)
- Home (3:11)
- Take Me Down (performed by Gary Clark Jr.) (4:48)
Running Time: 62 minutes 33 seconds
Warner Bros. Records (2016)
Music composed and arranged by Steve Jablonsky. Additional music by Jon Aschalew. Featured musical soloist Tom Strahle. Recorded and mixed by Steve Jablonsky. Edited by Katrina Schiller. Album produced by Steve Jablonsky.