DOCTOR STRANGE – Michael Giacchino
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Doctor Strange is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of super-hero films that includes the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers franchises, and is the first to depict the origin story of a completely new character since Ant-Man last year. Directed by Scott Derrickson, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon, whose life is shattered when he severely damages both his hands in a car accident. Seeking new and experimental procedures so that he can fix his hands and resume his career, Strange eventually finds his way to Nepal where he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a student of the so-called Ancient One (Tilda Swinton); however, rather than simply fix his physical injuries, the Ancient One sees further potential in Strange, and begins to train him in various mystical arts which allow him to enter the astral plane, conjure objects out of pure energy, manipulate reality, and even bend time. Eventually, Strange’s proficiency in these new abilities bring him into conflict with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One, who now seeks to use his powers in the service of evil.
Doctor Strange is a visually astonishing film – one part Matrix, one part Inception, one part entirely its own thing – which takes what could have been completely corny footage of actors simply waving their hands in the air into something quite powerful and meaningful. Best of all, the film is simply fun, plain and simple, standing in stark contrast to the terribly serious and overly-pretentious DC comics creations of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. Cumberbatch is wonderful in the leading role, acting with the same sort of incredulity that anyone who had dedicated their life to science would have when presented with concepts as bizarre as magic, astral projection, and alternate dimensions, but then throwing himself into it all with sincere gusto once it has been proven to be real. There is a deep and complex villain in the shape of Kaecilius, a rich vein of humor, and some wonderfully realized and truly spectacular action set pieces which have to be seen to be believed.
To top it all off the film also has a rich, old-fashioned, thematic orchestral score from Michael Giacchino, who at this point appears to be trying to take over as the musical master of all franchises, having already dipped his baton into Star Trek, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Planet of the Apes, as well as having been the go-to guy for Pixar movies since The Incredibles in 2004. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Michael Giacchino stands head and shoulders above many of his peers for his skill in writing memorable thematic content for larger-than-life characters, and then surrounding those themes with interesting, engaging action music underscore that rarely fails to entertain. Doctor Strange continues this trend; it’s a score which reverberates to some excellent and occasionally quite challenging action music, is enlivened by some excellent Indian musical inflections, and is anchored by a strong and catchy main theme. Tonally, the score is built around a large symphonic orchestra and a large mixed-voice choir, augmented by some unexpected ‘magical’ sounds such as celeste and harpsichord, and a number of instruments from the Indian subcontinent, including sitar and tabla drums.
The main Doctor Strange theme is bold and powerful, although some will clearly recognize its similarities to both his own Star Trek theme, as well as to John Williams’s main theme from Harry Potter, “Hedwig’s Theme.” This latter reference may actually be an intentional wink to the audience, due to the references to magic in both stories, and the fact that it strikes me as something that Giacchino would find funny! The theme first appears towards the end of the first cue, “Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret,” but then disappears for a significant chunk of time, replaced instead by a series of action and suspense cues that follow Stephen Strange on his mind-bending journey of self discovery.
That first cue, which underscore’s the film’s opening scene of Kaecilius attacking the Kamar-Taj shrine and then escaping to London through a magical portal, introduces the film’s action style. Giacchino’s action writing in Doctor Strange is not quite as classical or fluid as his writing on scores like John Carter or Jupiter Ascending; this feels darker, dirtier, more gritty, more prone to moments of anger and dissonance. The rampaging orchestra is often accompanied by guitars and Indian colors, as well as a chanting choir, the latter of which tends to act as a recurring idea for Kaecilius and his followers. This cue also introduces the score’s most prominent secondary identity, for the Ancient One, which first appears subtly on low brass in the opening 30 seconds of the cue, before emerging as a huge fanfare at the 1:26 mark.
The subsequent cue, “The Hands Dealt,” is a clever piece for solo piano which presents a deconstructed version of Strange’s theme which moves through the theme’s chord progressions without filling in the gaps between them with notes, like the theme itself is broken. It’s cool, detached, and clinical, much like Strange himself prior to his accident, but there are also hints of reflection and sadness in the lovely cello counterpoint and woodwind colors, representing Strange’s sense of loss and helplessness. The choice to use the piano as the cornerstone of this theme is also interesting because – as Holly McQuillan pointed out to me afterwards – Giacchino might have been subtly referencing the old cliché that surgeons and pianists are the professions that value their hands the most.
Once Strange moves from the United States to Nepal, the music changes again, embracing its most experimental and unusual period. “A Long Strange Trip” underscores the scene in which Strange, with the help of the Ancient One, leaves his body for the first time and visits the astral plain. The music here is abstract, hallucinatory, and has a real sense of disassociation and confusion. There are brass dissonances, guitars, chanting voices, Gamelan orchestrations, Indian ragas, and modern drum kits, and some of these sounds are electronically manipulated to play backwards and forwards and then backwards again, heightening the sense of weirdness and surreality. This style feeds directly into “Mystery Training,” a montage sequence built around repeated statements of the Ancient One theme, which moves from instrumental combination to instrumental combination as it progresses.
Both “Inside the Mirror Dimension” and “The True Purpose of the Sorcerer” are cues which accompany Strange’s gradual discovery of the world beyond Earth, and uses the now-familiar combination of harps, celeste, harpsichord, tablas, sitars, and guitars to create a sense of wonderment and majesty while remaining cognizant of the local setting. The explosions of noise and bursts of rhythmic intensity in the former underline the importance of the Mirror Dimension concept, while the angelic choral writing in the latter occasionally rises to Lord of the Rings-esque heights of vocal majesty.
The tone of the score changes once again in “Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking,” the first of several truly massive action sequences that underscore the escalating conflict between Strange and Kaecilius. Dissonances and angry chords gradually give way to rampaging action music filled with ominous brass clusters, choral chanting, and electronic pulses, all underpinned by thunderous string ostinatos. A few brief moments of harpsichord-led comedy reference Strange’s occasionally difficult relationship with his new Cloak of Levitation, while the hugely satisfying performance of the Strange’s theme at 6:33 heralds the character’s emergence as a truly heroic figure.
The action writing continues on through several subsequent cues, notably “Astral Doom,” “Smote and Mirrors,” and “Hong Kong Kablooey,” but despite their generally similar attitudes, Giacchino finds ways to make each of them interesting from an orchestration or thematic point of view. For example, “Astral Doom” features some very unusual extended techniques for woodwinds, as well as some clever layering of the sitar and tabla against processed electronics and skittery string figures. Later, “Smote and Mirrors” uses the Strange’s theme more prominently as part of the fabric of the music, and offers a wonderful clash between ancient and modern as the harpsichord, celesta and electric guitars combine to drive the action rhythms forward. Meanwhile, in “Hong Kong Kablooey,” Giacchino presents the Kaecilius choral music at its biggest and most threatening, and also revisits the ear-bending electronic musical manipulation that signifies Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto to distort time itself.
Thankfully, these unstoppable forces are counterbalanced by a few moments of comparative calm. Both “Post Op Paracosm” and “Hippocratic Hypocrite” briefly revisit the deconstructed Strange theme from earlier in the score. The former transposes the melody to a harpsichord, and gives it a gently romantic flavor that seeks to capture the relationship between Strange and Rachel McAdams’s character, Dr Christine Palmer; the latter showcases a gorgeous duet between harpsichord and cello, albeit one with a brooding darkness lurking in the background. There seems to be some very clever subtext writing in “Ancient History” in the way Giacchino blends a deconstructed version of the Ancient One theme contrapuntally with the main Strange theme, allowing the rhythmic cores and note progressions of each theme to mirror the other. This speaks directly to the film’s plot point that Strange and the Ancient One share a connection, a destiny, and a similarity in terms of how they obtain their power to create and use magic.
The score begins its grand finale with “Astral Worlds Worst Killer,” which underscores Strange’s encounter with the pan-dimensional entity Dormammu, and is filled with impressionistic, apocalyptic textures, and explosions of brass and choral noise. Unexpectedly, Giacchino’s way of using the harpsichord here reminds me very much of Danny Elfman’s 1996 score for The Frighteners, but it all builds up to a wonderful crescendo, climaxing with a dramatic statement of the Strange’s theme on slow, noble horns. “Strange Days Ahead” acts as the score’s coda, wrapping up the action of this film, and priming audiences for the next one. Beautiful, religioso choral textures acknowledge Kaecilius’s defeat, but the warm chords, Indian orchestrations, and hints of the Ancient One’s theme on low basses and cellos contain a touch of bitterness and regret. The un-fragmented reprise of the Hands Dealt variation on Strange’s theme adds a level of overt classicism, and subliminally underlines the notion that the good doctor no longer needs his hands to perform miracles. The enormous, stunningly realized performance of Strange’s theme for full orchestra and chorus towards the end is utterly spectacular.
The album concludes with two concert arrangements; the first, “Go for Baroque,” is a neo-classical harpsichord performance of Strange’s theme that Johann Sebastian Bach would have been proud of. Technically it’s not strictly baroque, but who cares? The conclusive “The Master of the Mystic End Credits” is a full on Indian psychedelia arrangement of Strange’s theme by composer Charles Scott IV which plays over the end credits. The piece sounds like something George Harrison and Ravi Shankar might have come up with during a late night jam session – drug-fuelled, hallucinatory sounds drifting in and out of drones and ragas – combined with a theme from one of those great British espionage TV shows from the 1960s by someone like Edwin Astley, who certainly liked his harpsichords and Hammond organs. It’s just brilliant.
Doctor Strange ticks all the boxes on my list of things I want out of a super-hero score. It has a strong thematic identity, applies those themes intelligently throughout the score, has depth and complexity in the action music, uses interesting orchestrations that reveal as much of the film’s subtext as the themes do, and has a unique point of view that allows the score to stand on its own, which in this case relates to the continued use of Indian and faux-baroque stylistics. The music in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been something of a mixed bag, a mish-mash of identities and themes with little to no continuity between them, enlivened by a couple of genuine gems, notably Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America, and Brian Tyler’s scores for Thor and Iron Man. For me, Doctor Strange is one of these gems, and easily ranks as one of the best scores in the entire MCU to date.
Buy the Doctor Strange soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret (2:37)
- The Hands Dealt (2:56)
- A Long Strange Trip (2:28)
- The Eyes Have It (1:23)
- Mystery Training (1:53)
- Reading is Fundamental (1:39)
- Inside the Mirror Dimension (4:04)
- The True Purpose of the Sorcerer (2:09)
- Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking (7:27)
- Astral Doom (3:41)
- Post Op Paracosm (1:15)
- Hippocratic Hypocrite (1:34)
- Smote and Mirrors (6:29)
- Ancient History (4:08)
- Hong Kong Kablooey (3:35)
- Astral Worlds Worst Killer (6:17)
- Strange Days Ahead (5:59)
- Go for Baroque (2:55)
- The Master of the Mystic – End Credits (remix by Charles Scott IV) (3:50)
Running Time: 66 minutes 27 seconds
Hollywood Records (2016)
Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec and Jeff Kryka. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Stephen M. Davis. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.