THE BOSS BABY – Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Boss Baby is a raucous new animated comedy film from Dreamworks directed by Tom McGrath, based on the popular 2010 picture book by Marla Frazee, about the wildly imaginative adventures of a 7-year-old boy named Tim. One day a taxi arrives at Tim’s home, inside of which is a baby wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Tim’s parents introduce the infant as a new brother, and there is an instant sibling rivalry between Tim and the pint-sized interloper. However, much to his surprise, Tim discovers that the baby can talk like an adult, and is actually a spy on a secret mission to thwart a dastardly plot that involves puppies taking over from babies as the cutest things in the world. The film, which features the voice talent of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, and Tobey Maguire, was a popular success at the box office over the spring of 2017, despite reviews criticizing it for its flimsy plotting and over-reliance on potty humor (although – it’s a film about a talking baby; potty humor is almost mandatory).
The score for The Boss Baby is by Hans Zimmer, who has been involved in the scores for numerous Dreamworks animated films since the first ones in 1998, either as a lead composer himself, or as a producer working alongside current and former members of the Media Ventures/Remote Control stable of composers. Here, Zimmer shares top billing with Ohio-born composer Steve Mazzaro; Mazzaro has worked with Zimmer at Remote Control since 2012, and has written additional music for numerous blockbuster films including Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Chappie, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this is only the second time in his career that he has received above-the-line credit on a theatrical feature (the first being the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head in 2012). As is usually the case on Zimmer scores, the division of labor is unclear: some cues are likely to be by Zimmer alone, some by Mazzaro alone, some by both of them, and at least one of them is by Conrad Pope, but whoever is ultimately responsible for the music, you’re in for a hoot of a time listening to it.
The most notable thing about The Boss Baby is just how schizophrenic it is. This can be both a positive and a negative, depending on your point of view. Some will find that the relentless changing of style, tempo, instrumentation, rhythm, and emotion – sometimes multiple times within the same cue – quickly becomes tiresome and lacking a point of view. Others, however, will find the sense of fun, energy, and bravado shown by Zimmer and Mazzaro to be a refreshing breath of fresh air, a good-humored romp through different pastiches and homages, anchored by a memorable recurring central theme. After giving it careful consideration, I’m finding myself coming down firmly in the latter camp; after criticizing Zimmer for the relentless über-seriousness and lack of fun in his DC super hero scores, I can hardly turn around and then criticize him again when he writes an entire score full of as much good-natured liveliness as this has.
The main theme that runs throughout the entirety of the score is almost indefinable, simply because it goes through so many variations and permutations as the score unfolds. We first hear it 8 seconds into the first cue, “Survival of the Fittest,” on rousing, heraldic brass. It’s a two-part theme with a 2-note opening A-phrase and a 6-or-8 note secondary B-phrase (depending on how you count them), and the two parts are used together and apart, depending on the circumstances. What’s most impressive about the theme is its adaptability; in the first cue alone, after the opening salvo, it appears in a doo-wop lounge arrangement led by a clarinet, and as a thunderous action motif. Later, in “Baby Brother,” it appears as a pleasant piano solo, jazzy, upbeat, and friendly, while in “We Can Buy a Bouncy House” it is surrounded by light rock pop beats, featuring a Hammond organ, guitars, and a drum kit. Aas the cue evolves it enjoys a sentimental performance on soft pianos, before finishing with harmonicas, handclaps, and even a flash of Zorro. “I Wish You Were Never Born” presents the main theme at its most dramatic, with solemn, emotional cello lines, a hesitant statement of the full main theme on piano, and a deconstruction of the 2-note A-phrase for pathos-filled strings and an angelic choir.
A secondary theme emerges much later in the score, for the villain of the piece, Francis Francis, the head of the evil Puppy Co. It first appears in the eponymous “Puppy Co.” and is initially upbeat and catchy, a 4-note motif with toe-tapping guitars and dancing woodwinds, but there are subtle hints of something sinister going on behind the façade; the jazzy caper music, with its wacka-wacka guitars, iconic bass flute, wooden percussion, and flamboyant harpsichord, is great. Later, “Francis Francis” runs the secondary theme through numerous variations, ranging from jazz and choral to circus-like oompah music, but becomes ragged and chaotic towards the end. Finally, in “You’re Fired,” the 4-note Francis motif dances around homages to both Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’s Superman Krypton fanfare, before climaxing with modern-sounding action ideas, which extrapolate Francis’s motif with organ chords and domineering percussion.
The action music, in cues like “Survival of the Fittest,” “You Can’t Get Away from Johnny Law,” the finale of “Toodaloo Toilet-Head,” the wonderfully-titled “Arrrggh,” and “Upsies! I Need Upsies!” is quite superb, and often recalls the expansive action music heard in the very earliest Dreamworks Animation scores like Shrek, Chicken Run, and especially Antz – several cues remind me of “The Big Shoe” from that score. This throwback to the John Powell-Harry Gregson Williams action style of the late 1990s is a wonderfully nostalgic treat, and the brass writing here is especially notable for its broad, rich, open sound. Zimmer and Mazzaro often allow the jazz influences to crossover into the action music too, with finger-snapping, big bad electric guitar grooves and phat brasses.
However, the most fun to be had in the score is letting the multitude of different references and stylistic beats wash over you. Some of the moments are great; “Baby Brother” luxuriates in 1970s funk, before launching into a stupendous pastiche of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet augmented by a theremin. “Welcome to Baby Corp.” begins with a didgeridoo and tribal percussion, goes through a middle section that seems to reference Don Davis’s fading brasses from his score for The Matrix, and ends with an array of sunny Latin bossa nova rhythms performing the melody from Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’. “You Can’t Get Away from Johnny Law” ends with a bed of rock guitars offset by Tina Guo’s thrumming electric cello, and bubbling throwback synths.
The sequence that comprises “Barfmitzvah” and the aforementioned “Toodaloo Toilet-Head” is a gem. It begins with sneaky saxophone music, continues through a sequence that has clear allusions to Danny Elfman’s score for Batman Returns (listen to the shifting woodwind textures at 0:42 and compare them to the Catwoman theme), provides an action setting of the main theme with a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque chugging string undercurrent, briefly heads to France with some classic helter-skelter chase music, wallows in more 1970s funk action music with wakka-wakka guitars and outstanding brass writing, and concludes with a big action finale underpinned by computer game chiptune samples, and a brief hat tip to the proto-Zimmer AEIOU vowel choir from Crimson Tide – all in the space of just over six minutes!
The score’s big finale is “Love,” which presents a series of gorgeous, fully orchestral variations on the main theme by composer Conrad Pope, orchestrator extraordinaire. Pope, who has always had a knack for writing exceptionally beautiful music, doesn’t disappoint here, allowing the theme to attain some truly majestic heights of emotional weight. The sweeping explosion of music at 3:40 is simply breathtaking, spine-tingling stuff, and reminds us all once again that he is a composer of tremendous skill and elegance who should be writing this sort of music for his own movies on a regular basis. The conclusive cue, “Go Get Yourself a Horse,” is yet another fun and energetic statement of the main theme for harmonicas, jazzy ba-ba-ba vocals, finger-snapping rhythms, and lush strings, which bring the album to a fine close.
As I mentioned earlier in this review, the division of labor on The Boss Baby is unclear. It could very well be that the vast majority of this is by Steve Mazzaro, in which case all the plaudits should go to him for his inventiveness and sense of mischief. However, I’m going to assume that Hans Zimmer was also significantly involved in this score’s creation too, and say that, as such, this is the sort of Hans Zimmer music I find myself enjoying the most these days. Right from the beginning of his career, Zimmer has always had a knack for writing music full of intelligent whimsy, and this score combines the best of that with the best of his action music from his Golden period. It’s stylistic inconsistency and tendency to jump all over the place may drive some listeners bonkers, but as an accompaniment to a movie of this type, it fits the bill perfectly.
Buy the Boss Baby soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Survival of the Fittest (2:24)
- Baby Brother (3:58)
- Welcome to Baby Corp (3:12)
- You Can’t Get Away from Johnny Law (2:11)
- We Can Buy a Bouncy House (3:18)
- Super Colossal Big Fat Boss Baby (1:11)
- Barfmitzvah (2:11)
- Toodaloo Toilet-Head! (4:02)
- I Wish You Were Never Born (2:53)
- Puppy Co. (3:27)
- You Want to Hug Me, Don’t You? (3:20)
- Arrrggh (2:01)
- Francis Francis (4:19)
- You’re Fired (4:28)
- Upsies! I Need Upsies! (1:44)
- Love (written by Conrad Pope) (5:17)
- Go Get Yourself a Horse (2:19)
- What the World Needs Now Is Love (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Missi Hale) (4:15)
- Cheek to Cheek (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Fred Astaire) (4:15)
- Every Time I Turn Around – Back In Love Again (written by Len Ron Hanks and Zane Grey, performed by LTD) (4:15)
Running Time: 66 minutes 19 seconds
Backlot Music (2017)
Music composed by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Òscar Senén and Joan Martorell. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro.