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SPARK – Robert Duncan

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most rewarding things about being a film music critic is the fact that, from time to time, I am sent promos of unreleased scores. A lot of them aren’t very good – there’s usually a reason they aren’t released – but once in a while it also means I get to write a ‘scoop’ review of a score which most people won’t know, and praise it for being an undiscovered gem. Spark is one of those scores. I’ve had this promo album for a little while now, and have been sitting on this review in the hope that a proper commercial release of the music would be forthcoming, but the film was a massive flop at the box office and has been out of cinemas for months, which means that at this point it’s very unlikely to happen, at least from the studio-owned in-house record labels. As such it means that, unfortunately, no-one can actually buy this score at the moment, which begs the question: why review it? Well, one thing I can do with a review like this is raise awareness, and as such this is as much of a plea as it is a review: a plea to the owners of the independent record labels out there – Varese Sarabande, Intrada, La La Land, Music Box, Caldera, Quartet, Moviescore Media – to not let this genuinely great music be forgotten.

Spark, also known as Spark: A Space Tail, is an animated feature film directed by Aaron Woodley. The plot is described online thusly: Spark (voiced by Jace Norman) is a wisecracking teenage monkey who lives on an abandoned planet with his friends Chunk (voiced by Rob deLeeuw) and Vix (voiced by Jessica Biel). Thirteen years ago, the power-hungry General Zhong (voiced by Alan C. Peterson) seized control of their planet, wiping out Spark’s family and sending him into hiding. Now, Zhong plans to use the deadly space Kraken to destroy the entire universe, and no one but Spark can stop him. I haven’t seen the film, but the reviews were not at all kind: Rotten Tomatoes calls it “a thoroughly generic, unremittingly charmless computer-animated adventure,” and “an utterly lifeless and profoundly unoriginal animated effort that is desperately lacking the very thing in its title,” which not even supporting cast voices Hilary Swank, Patrick Stewart, and Susan Sarandon could save. It appeared briefly in theaters back in April and disappeared almost immediately, having grossed just $196,000 at the US box office.

Fortunately for us, the film has an outstanding score, written by the 44-year-old Canadian composer Robert Duncan. Most people reading this won’t know Duncan’s name; Spark is, for all intents and purposes, his ‘big screen’ debut, but he has written music for numerous extremely popular TV shows over the past decade, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Castle, picking up four Emmy nominations on the way. There is a standing joke in my house that any TV show I really like, and which Duncan composes the music for, invariably gets cancelled after the first season: that has now happened four times, with Terriers in 2010, The Whispers in 2015, The Family in 2016, and (for a short time) Timeless in 2017, although that one did get a reprieve after fans complained. But I’m getting sidetracked; the point is that, as good as the scores for those TV projects are, nothing I had heard from Duncan prior to this prepared me for just how great Spark would be.

Duncan’s music vastly outshines the quality of the film itself. It’s a fully orchestral, richly textured animation score of the highest order, recorded in London with a large ensemble of live musicians and the London Voices choir. The pedigree of people involved in this score is outstanding – when names like Tim Williams, Matt Dunkley, Gavin Greenaway, choral director Terry Edwards, and violinist Perry Montague-Mason are involved, you know the caliber is high. It’s filled with excellent heroic themes, resounding action music, and a real sense of energy and heart that belies its childish roots. In fact, as a comparison, it has the hallmarks of something John Powell might have written for a film like this, which gives you something of an idea of the overall quality.

Having not seen the film, I’m hesitant to try to get into the job of identifying the numerous themes and motifs – which are lavishly abundant – and will instead simply speak to what I feel are the main pair. The opening cue, “Prince Spark,” sets the mood with a pretty, light, pastoral piece for orchestra and choir, anchored by a dancing, feather-light string line which gradually emerges into the first performance of what I assume is Spark’s theme, an upbeat and rousing horn piece accompanied by flashy celebratory string, choral accents, tribal drums, and an effervescent pop beat.

The film’s villain, “Zhong,” has his own theme, a slightly more sinister and insidious little march for sly woodwinds, but which still retains a sense of fun. These two themes appear regularly as the score progresses, with notable airings in cues like “Hiding Here Ever Since,” “Kraken Slicks,” and especially the two “Universe Be Mine” cues, where the two themes weave in and around each other, conveying the conflict between Spark and Zhong contrapuntally.

The score’s action music really stands out. Cues like “Citizens of Bana, Part 1,” the soaringly beautiful “Honking,” “Here We Go,” “Milk and Cookies,” the two “Universe Be Mine” cues, and the inspiring “Be the Spark” reverberate to great tumultuous rhythms, rousing horn calls, and plentiful moments of splendor and grandeur. I feel that I also need to mention the score’s orchestrations at this point, which are wholly superb. Duncan and his team gets a lot of mileage out of the ensemble, and often engage in moments of rich instrumental interplay for no other reason than it sounds cool: the brass triplets in “Honking,” the Don Davis-style fading horns in “Milk and Cookies” and “Kraken Here I Come,” the whimsical combination of pizzicato and lithe woodwinds in “How Is Your Aim So Good,” and the tremendous sequences of flutter-tongued trombones in “Stand Your Ground” and “Get Him!” all show that Duncan is a composer with the orchestra at his fingertips, and who is more than capable of writing hugely impressive, richly detailed music.

These more energetic moments are tempered with an appropriate amount of emotion and pathos, ranging from the beautifully melancholy choral textures in “Royal Lineage” and “Mop Duty,” to the sweetly romantic “Almost Didn’t See You,” and the tender cello-and-harp writing of the lovely “We’re Alive,” one of the score’s most touching moments. The opening moments of “Fate of the Universe,” one of the score’s conclusive cues, have a wonderful sense of scope and majesty, with harp glissandi and choral textures allowing the orchestra to convey the beauty of the cosmos.

I honestly believe that, had Spark been more of a success at the box office, or been more of a critical hit, we would be talking about the score in terms of it being in the running for Score of the Year, and we would be talking about Robert Duncan being one of the most exciting ‘new names’ to emerge in film music in 2017. Unfortunately, as it stands, there is no soundtrack album, the film has vanished from view, and there aren’t even any audio clips on Duncan’s website (http://duncanmusic.com/) at the time of writing. This cannot be allowed to stand; the music’s simply too good to be forgotten. So, again, I implore the world’s independent soundtrack producers to take a chance on Spark, so that the film music fans of the world can experience this tremendous score. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Track Listing:

  • Prince Spark (2:11)
  • Citizens of Bana, Part 1 (0:59)
  • Zhong (2:09)
  • Citizens of Bana, Part 2 (0:39)
  • Royal Lineage (2:28)
  • Hiding Here Ever Since (1:57)
  • Waiting a Long Time For This (0:44)
  • Honking (3:24)
  • Here We Go! (1:05)
  • Milk and Cookies (2:16)
  • Reunited (1:08)
  • Kraken Slicks (1:33)
  • How Is Your Aim So Good? (0:40)
  • Stand Your Ground (1:12)
  • Universe Be Mine, Part 1 (2:49)
  • Universe Be Mine, Part 2 (3:17)
  • Almost Didn’t See You 0:29)
  • Opening Credits (1:40)
  • Mop Duty (1:00)
  • We’re Alive! (3:05)
  • Be the Spark (1:45)
  • Making the Plan (1:28)
  • Get Him! (0:55)
  • Teenager (0:38)
  • Fate of the Universe (2:10)
  • Kraken, Here I Come (2:25)
  • Zhong Threats (1:23)
  • Need You Father (1:02)

Running Time: 45 minutes 50 seconds

Promo (2017)

Music composed by Robert Duncan. Conducted by Tim Willians, Matt Dunkley and Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Tim Willians, Erik Aho, Susie Benchasil Seiter, Sacha Chaban, Drew Krassowski and Keith Murray. Recorded and mixed by Nick Baxter. Edited by Kevin Banks. Score produced by Robert Duncan.

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