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THE DARK TOWER – Tom Holkenborg

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Dark Tower is an action/fantasy/sci-fi epic based on the massively popular series of novels by Stephen King. Directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, the film stars Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, a ‘gunslinger’ from a parallel universe who is trying to stop a sorcerer named Walter (Matthew McConaughey) from destroying the titular building, which stands at the center of the universe, and protects it from evil. Into this epic tale comes 12-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a typical New York kid who has untapped psychic powers, and who finds a way to travel between dimensions to help the Gunslinger stop The Man in Black once and for all. Having not read the books, I can’t comment on the fact that the film apparently discards much of the stuff that made the original novels so compelling – the intricate world-building, the deep back-stories of each character – in favor of a fairly simple good vs. evil tale with morally black-and-white characters. The film was in development hell for more than a decade, and went through at least three directors and numerous potential stars prior to finally hitting the silver screen with a resounding ‘thud’ in August 2017.

The score for The Dark Tower is by the Dutch composer and music producer Tom Holkenborg, using his ‘serious film composer’ real name here as opposed to his more famous DJ moniker, Junkie XL. I will be the first to admit that I’ve been very harsh on Holkenborg in the past. While I liked most of his score for the 2015 drama Black Mass, I thought most of his other works ranged from tolerable to terrible, with Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool sitting at the very bottom end of the list. For the most part, I have found that Holkenborg doesn’t seem to have that ‘storytelling gene’ that the best composers have, where they can really get to the meat of a story and bring to light its subtext and nuance through music. To paraphrase what I said in my review of Dunkirk, Holkenborg tends to score what we can already see, rather than what we can’t see but need to feel. It’s all obvious, with little to no depth. He has only really shown two broad emotional responses in his music: if it’s exciting, overpower it with drums (á la Mad Max or Divergent). If it’s dramatic, underplay it with droning strings (á la Black Mass or Brimstone).

Therefore it might come as a surprise to learn that, on balance, I think that The Dark Tower is probably his best score to date, because in my opinion it’s the first score he’s done where he’s had to go beyond his small comfort zone and reach for some new emotional heights. It’s also the first score he’s done which has a strong and identifiable main theme. There’s also some quite creative sound design elements that characterize the sonic aesthetic of Mid-World, the Gunslinger’s home dimension, which I can appreciate on a technical level but, for the most part, unfortunately still sounds like a whole bunch of droning and groaning.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter Holkenborg says “I had to fall back on a lot of different types of instruments that don’t really exist. One of the things we used extensively was a guitar and a bunch of really outlandish guitar pedals; I made these really weird ambient sounds and then we tuned them in samples and in hardware to play them a certain way. That created a really unique ambiance where you can’t really tell what it is. That, combined with a cast of colors, really made a nice atmosphere for the other world.” Regarding the thematic identity for McConaughey’s character, the Man in Black, Holkenborg says his theme sounds “more like a clash of distorted noises that painfully stab the ears. It’s not melodic-driven, but sound-driven, which I actually made with modular synthesizers and other sounds and programs which sound really eerie and make you extremely uncomfortable when you listen to them.”

All this sounds very interesting, from a conceptual point of view, but the truth of the matter is that, for a significant amount of time, The Dark Tower still comes across as little more than a bunch of groans and pulses and sound effects. All this manipulation of sound is all well and good, but I for one have never had an emotional connection with a groan or a distorted noise that painfully stabs my ears, and that’s what a considerable percentage of the score sounds like. Cues like “I Kill With My Heart, “Skin People,” “Arrival in Mid-World,” “His Shine Is Pure,” the entire sequence from “There’s Always Another Battle” through to “Portal Activity,” and many others, feel almost entirely musically redundant to me. There’s so little happening from a compositional point of view, and so little to connect with from an emotional point of view, that it’s actually difficult to say anything about them. There’s some distorted throbbing, some droning and groaning, some percussion loops, occasionally a string texture, occasionally a brass texture, occasionally a bit of piano… but you know there’s something wrong when even just describing what the music sounds like is an exercise in futility.

However, you’ll remember that I did say that The Dark Tower is probably Holkenborg’s best score to date, and so here comes the positive stuff. The final cue on the album, “Roland of Eld,” is simply terrific. As the basis of the recurring theme for Idris Elba’s character, it presents a powerful, heroic, rousing anthem for brass, underpinned by raging strings and bubbling synths, and it’s by far the most exciting and musically compelling thing Holkenborg has written in his film music career to date. Naturally, because that’s the way things are these days, the heroic version of Roland’s theme appears exactly one other time in the rest of the score, during the cue “Tall, Dark and Handsome,” which underscores the sequence where Roland single-handedly infiltrates Walter’s base on Earth. Unfortunately, in the film, the music for this scene is almost completely obscured by bullet and gunfire sound effects, which means that the end credits is the only place where you can actually hear the theme clearly.

Instead, the thematic weight of the score is carried by the emotional, searching, string-based theme that appears in the second half of “Roland of Eld,” and which relates to the relationship between Roland and his fellow gunslinger father, Stephen (Dennis Haysbert). Cues like “The Face of My Father” and especially “The Creed” show a tender, more intimate side to Holkenborg’s writing which gives me hope that there are hidden depths underneath all the relentless hammering and themeless droning.

Some of the action cues are quite entertaining too. “Getting a Toothbrush” is a battering ram of percussion loops and metallic rhythms, underscoring the sequence where Jake makes a mad dash for freedom down his fire escape and away from the Man in Black’s minions. “Guardian” is a short but cacophonous sequence of rampant action featuring huge overlapping brass phrases and swirling strings; later, both “Thinny” and “Something Got Out” feature screeching, dissonant orchestral chords with huge brass hits and an energetic tempo, all of which bodes well for any future horror movie Holkenborg may find himself scoring. Elsewhere, “Dixie Pig” briefly shows that Holkenborg is beginning to understand the concept of musical conflict, as he pits the sound effects ideas relating to the Man in Black against a very understated and almost subliminal statement of Roland’s theme, underpinned by some vivid orchestral action.

Holkenborg also has fun writing some more wondrous textures for synths, strings, harp, and the vaguest hint of a choir, most of which relate to the sequences of Jake finding the portals between Earth and Mid-World, and his subsequent discovery of all the magical mysteries that lie within the alternate universes. Cues like the opening “The Dark Tower,” “The Map,” ““Dutch Hill,” “We Don’t Have Chicken,” and “See Across Worlds” leave a positive impression. Similarly, “Manny Village” offers a brief sequence of warm, tonal, wholesome string and woodwind writing, allowing both Ronald and Jake to enjoy the briefest moment of rest and respite before the Man in Black attacks again.

The final trio of cues end the score with a sense of drama and importance. “It Will Fall” begins with more droning, banging, and clanging, but eventually builds up to a rather grandiose finale with emphasis on soaring brass, although the finale it accompanies felt very rushed and somewhat contrived in the context of the film. The aftermath, in “Collateral Damage,” features slow, emotional string writing, a cache of warm horns, and a sense of catharsis and relief. The brief “Hot Dogs” then allows for an exciting buildup into the excellent end title cue.

How much of this enhanced orchestral palette is down to the contribution of orchestrators Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek, and Henri Wilkinson, is up for debate, but I’m willing to give Holkenborg the benefit of the doubt. I’m very pleased he found out where his brass section was located, I’m very pleased he realized he can score action sequences with something other than a drum circle, and I’m delighted with the full-throttle version of Roland’s theme in the end credits.

But… despite this being Holkenborg’s career best score, it still has to be judged in relation to everything else that’s being written for sci-fi and fantasy films these days, and under those criteria it’s still a poor-to-middling work that relies far too heavily on endless drones and sampled sound effects. Holkenborg has stepped up his game to the extent that he’s now proved he’s capable of producing a basic, workmanlike orchestral fantasy score, but there are still literally dozens of composers out there who can write circles around him, and who have so much more musical technique, emotional resonance, and storytelling ability that they aren’t so much in a different league as they are in a different sport entirely. I’ll leave it up to those reading this to decide how and why Holkenborg is getting these jobs, and those other composers are not.

Buy the Dark Tower soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Dark Tower (1:42)
  • The Face of My Father (1:29)
  • I Kill With My Heart (3:03)
  • Skin People (2:33)
  • Getting a Toothbrush (1:14)
  • Dutch Hill (2:57)
  • Guardian (0:47)
  • Arrival in Mid-World (1:52)
  • His Shine Is Pure (2:21)
  • The Map (2:25)
  • Thinny (2:36)
  • Something Got Out (1:31)
  • We Don’t Have Chicken (3:01)
  • Manny Village (1:06)
  • See Across Worlds (2:18)
  • There’s Always Another Battle (2:12)
  • A Chicken, a Goat and One Bullet (3:44)
  • Keystone Earth (0:47)
  • Portal Activity (1:31)
  • Smiley Face (1:46)
  • The Creed (3:14)
  • Death Always Wins (2:53)
  • Dixie Pig (2:20)
  • Tall, Dark and Handsome (1:54)
  • Full Package as Advertised (2:05)
  • It Will Fall (4:50)
  • Collateral Damage (4:44)
  • Hot Dogs (1:14)
  • Roland of Eld (Main Titles) (2:34)

Running Time: 66 minutes 56 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Edward Trybek. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Tom Holkenborg. Additional music by Aloscha Christenhuss and Antonio Di Iorio. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Lisa Jaime and Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

  1. August 11, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Yes, good question.

    Holkenborg is a guy who proves to be quite nice and talented.
    At least that’s the impression I have of your videos on YT.
    But these are not jobs for him. As someone who is starting his career now, it would be healthier for him to work on small movies, of varied genres.

  2. August 22, 2017 at 2:53 am

    Amazing! Its in fact amazing post, I have got much clear idea on the topic of
    from this post.

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