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WONDER WOMAN – Rupert Gregson-Williams

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s taken more than 70 years for Wonder Woman to appear in her own major live-action movie. The character first appeared in print in 1941, the creation of American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston, and has been seen as a feminist icon for more than half a century. Prior to her extended cameo in the 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the most prominent depiction of her character on screen, prior to this film, was the popular 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter; now she is front and center of her own origin story, with Israeli actress Gal Gadot playing the title role.

Diana is a young princess on Themyscira, an island isolated from the outside world. The island’s all-female inhabitants are Amazons, warrior women descended from Greek gods who train themselves to be skilled fighters in order to protect the earth from the impending return of Ares, the Greek god of war. Things change forever on Themyscira when a fighter aircraft crashes in the ocean off its coast; Diana rescues the plane’s pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who reveals that it is 1917 and World War I is raging on. Steve is an American attached to the British High Command, and has vital information concerning a potential new weapon being developed by the Germans which he needs to return to London. Believing that Ares is responsible for the proliferation of the war, Diana accompanies Steve to London, and before long the two of them are embroiled in conflict. The film co-stars Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, and Connie Nielsen, and has become an enormous worldwide hit, grossing over $250 million during its opening weeks at the box office.

During the run up to the film’s release much was made of the fact that the film was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, making her one of the few female directors ever to helm a major studio tent pole action film. Less prominent in the mainstream entertainment news, but of equal importance to film music fans, was the push to have a female composer score it. As of the time of writing, the highest grossing film scored by a woman remains The Vow, which was scored by Rachel Portman and currently sits at 463rd on the all time list. Other composers have contributed ‘additional music’ to more successful films – Lisa Gerrard to Gladiator, Deborah Lurie to Spider-Man II, for example – but it’s still an undeniable fact that female composers are grossly underrepresented in Hollywood.

Considering Wonder Woman’s historical status as an iconic emblem of female empowerment, many people felt that this film would be a perfect opportunity to make a statement and break a glass ceiling by hiring a female composer to score it. No lesser a name than Hans Zimmer publicly supported this, while the Alliance of Women Film Composers led by Laura Karpman, Miriam Cutler, and Lolita Ritmanis, who have been campaigning for equal treatment for women in film music for some time now, pushed for something similar. I personally felt that a number of female composers were more than equipped to succeed in writing music for this film, and said so on Facebook: in addition to the composers already mentioned, I suggested Sarah Class, Jane Antonia Cornish, Penka Kouneva, Pinar Toprak, and Debbie Wiseman, using the hashtag ‘womancomposer4wonderwoman’. For a while the name of virtuoso cellist Tina Guo was floated as a possibility, too.

Unfortunately, the gig eventually went to English male composer Rupert Gregson-Williams; I say unfortunately, not because Gregson-Williams is a bad composer, but because I personally feel this was an enormous missed opportunity. Optics are very important in Hollywood and – with the caveat to note that it shouldn’t be a thing that women have to prove in the first place – if a female composer had been given the opportunity to prove to the “Hollywood suits” that they could handle the budget, pressure, staff, post-production schedules, and everything else, on a major studio tent pole feature like this, then some of those invisible barriers could have started coming down, and the outdated perception of female composers could have begun to change.

Nevertheless, we have the score we have, and Rupert Gregson-Williams is the man behind it. The first thing one will notice is the fact that, by and large, this is a more old fashioned, traditional orchestral super hero score. It’s not old fashioned in the sense of John Williams and Superman, but it is certainly a departure from Hans Zimmer’s more minimalist efforts in the rest of the DC Universe on scores like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Stylistically, Wonder Woman actually has much more in common with scores in the Marvel universe, specifically Alan Silvestri’s original Captain America and Brian Tyler’s efforts on Iron Man and Thor, blended with a strong and unashamed dash of classic 1990s Media Ventures power anthems.

A theme for Wonder Woman was introduced by Hans Zimmer in the score for Batman v Superman, an aggressive and in-your-face war cry that explodes from Tina Guo’s electric cello with a kick-ass forthrightness and no small measure of panache, and it was anticipated that whoever scored this film would be expected to use it. Thankfully Gregson-Williams does, several times, creating the first semblance of thematic consistency in the DC Universe, but more on that later. One of the best things about Wonder Woman is how rich the thematic palette is; not only does Gregson-Williams use the Wonder Woman War Cry and its underlying ostinato, there is a completely separate theme for Diana herself, a theme for Chris Pine’s character Trevor, and a smaller set of motifs and instrumental ideas associated with the movie’s antagonists, German General Ludendorff and his psychotically brilliant chemical weapons expert, Dr Poison.

Several of these themes are introduced in the opening cue, “Amazons of Themyscira,” with the Wonder Woman ostinato opening the cue at 0:25, Trevor’s theme at 1:53, and Diana’s theme at 2:25; there’s even a sneaky callback to the Wayne Enterprises theme from Batman v Superman at 1:10. Once the action firmly establishes itself in Themyscira the music becomes pretty and warm, with idyllic sounding strings and choir, an enchanting feminine lilt from the woodwinds, and a vaguely Middle Eastern/Greek flavor to some of the orchestrations, all painting Diana’s home as a land of plenty and wonder. The music adheres to a familiar MV/RC template, right down to the chugging cello ostinatos low in the mix, which some may find frustratingly generic, but I am personally finding the music growing on me with each listen, revealing a number of unexpectedly pleasing layers.

Diana’s theme, as one might expect, forms the cornerstone of most of the score. It’s more conventionally attractive than the Wonder Woman music from Batman v Superman, alluding to her good heart, and her sense of honor and righteousness, but also her determination and passion, without the hard-edged assault of the War Cry. It appears in several guises throughout the score; in “Angel on the Wing,” for example, it is often accompanied by soft choral cooing, chimes, and a breathy duduk, giving her rescue of Steve from his sinking fighter plane a magical feeling, almost like divine intervention. Later, in “Pain, Loss & Love,” the theme is at times rendered with almost overpowering emotion, again with the duduk taking center stage; as the cue develops the theme becomes determined and passionate, with especially strong horns providing a heraldic sendoff as Diana leaves her paradise home to save the world.

The goodness that Diana represents is juxtaposed with the music for General Ludendorff and Dr. Poison, which takes center stage in cues such as “Ludendorff, Enough!” and “Fausta.” Their nefarious activities are underscored through chilling chords on low strings, moments of unnerving dissonance, and dark crescendos. Thankfully, Gregson-Williams allows for some interesting touches in the orchestration, with bassoons, dulcimers, and a bass male voice choir standing out. The former cue has a more action packed second half, filled with surging strings and energetic brass flourishes that capture the heroic antics of Trevor at Ludendorff’s camp, while in the latter cue there is an unexpected statement of the Wonder Woman ostinato on dulcimer which is very creative. The music for Ludendorff and Dr Poison isn’t something you’re going to remember for long, but you can feel the music’s sinister intent as you listen to it.

“No Man’s Land” is one of the score’s turning point set pieces; the moment when Princess Diana of Themyscira truly throws off the shackles of her royal birthright and becomes a super hero. The first half of the cue actually reminds me of the music Gregson-Williams wrote for Hacksaw Ridge, when Andrew Garfield’s character similarly emerges unscathed from deep behind enemy lines; the slow, dignified, noble statements of Diana’s theme eventually give way to the Wonder Woman ostinato at 3:09, heralding the first proper performance of the War Cry at 3:23, as she takes fire from a battery of German machine guns. Thankfully, Gregson-Williams isn’t content simply to present the War Cry as is, and has a lot of fun shifting it around the brass section. Later, in “Wonder Woman’s Wrath,” he re-orchestrates Diana’s theme like the War Cry, combining the main melody with an urgent, dominant performance of the ostinato alongside grinding synths, guttural manipulated brass, the howling electric cello, and even a choir.

“The God of War” ushers in the score’s main action finale with lots of dark, menacing underscore, surrounding the Ludendorff and Dr Poison motifs with dark string chords, electronic pulses, brass rasps, and a whispery-demonic choir. This music is effective, but very difficult to listen to on its own, and represents the most musically challenging portion of the score, although some may get a kick out of the unexpected (and probably unintentional) allusions to Zimmer’s Dark Knight scores in the string ostinatos around the 7:00 mark.

In the subsequent three cues – “We Are All to Blame,” “Hell Hath No Fury,” and “Lightning Strikes” – Diana’s theme and the War Cry are joined by much more prominent performances of Trevor’s theme, as the gallantry of the American serviceman helps turn the tide of the battle. Both “We Are All to Blame” and “Hell Hath No Fury” feature major performances of Trevor’s theme on bold, resounding horns, and the explosion of sound at 1:31 in that second cue triggers a cascade of emotion (and, oddly, contains similarities to the finale of Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Alien 3 in the clusters of sound). “Lightning Strikes” is the film’s monumental finale, beginning with a performance of Trevor’s theme on a mournful duduk accompanied by choir and strings, and gradually developing a sense of steely determination, before the final statement of Diana’s theme marks the triumph of good over evil, complete with heraldic brass fanfares.

The score’s coda, “Trafalgar Celebration,” is lighter, warmer, and more intimate, with a resolute sense of Englishness, coupled with a nostalgic sentiment. A faint echo of Trevor’s theme is followed by a lovely, sweeping, almost romantic statement of Diana’s theme for strings. The huge final performance of the War Cry leads into the end credits, “Action Reaction,” which is more aggressive, urgent, and electronically enhanced. In this final cue the initial rhythmic pulses finally give way to the orchestra after more than a minute, with rapid fire string figures and bubbling electronic percussion driving it along. This music is probably the most heavily Zimmer-inspired music in the score, often recalling some of the more aggressive parts of Batman v Superman and even Angels and Demons – although, at one point, it appears to unintentionally reference the score for The Terminator! The final track on the album is an original song, “To Be Human,” written by Florence Welch and Rick Nowels, and performed by that ubiquitous queen of the stirring soundtrack song, Sia.

At first glance, Wonder Woman appears to be a typical summer super hero score, predictable and generic, but there is actually much more going on under the surface than is implied by first impressions. The thematic interplay and development is quite sophisticated, the inclusion of the Wonder Woman ostinato and the War Cry from Batman v Superman is handled cleverly, some of the instrumental choices are interesting, and the emotional directness of the writing is pleasing, especially when many film music fans complain about the lack of emotional content in mainstream super hero scores. The whole thing is a fun, energetic, lively piece of writing that suits the character well. I still would have preferred a female composer to have been given the opportunity to score this box office behemoth, and I remain disappointed that the studio executives didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to shatter some preconceptions and strike a blow for gender equality. Nevertheless, Rupert Gregson-Williams has done an admirable job at capturing the spirit and essence of this most iconic of female characters, proving that the momentum he has developed through The Legend of Tarzan and Hacksaw Ridge is not slowing down.

Buy the Wonder Woman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Amazons of Themyscira (6:47)
  • History Lesson (5:16)
  • Angel on the Wing (3:45)
  • Ludendorff, Enough! (7:37)
  • Pain, Loss & Love (5:27)
  • No Man’s Land (8:52)
  • Fausta (3:20)
  • Wonder Woman’s Wrath (4:06)
  • The God of War (8:02)
  • We Are All to Blame (3:11)
  • Hell Hath No Fury (3:58)
  • Lightning Strikes (3:35)
  • Trafalgar Celebration (4:50)
  • Action Reaction (5:54)
  • To Be Human (written by Florence Welch and Rick Nowels, performed by Sia feat. Labrinth) (4:00)

Running Time: 78 minutes 38 seconds

Watertower Music (2017)

Music composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Conducted by Alastair King. Orchestrations by Rupert Gregson-Williams and Alastair King. Additional music by Andrew Kawczynski, Tom Howe and Evan Jolly. Wonder Woman theme by Hans Zimmer. Featured musical soloist Tina Guo. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage, Alan Meyerson and Forest Christensen. Edited by Simon Changer, Chris Benstead, J. J. George, Gerard McCann, Dominick Certo and Melissa Muik. Album produced by Rupert Gregson-Williams.

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