October 13, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It seems appropriate that, in a year where the comic book super hero Wonder Woman made such an important and groundbreaking splash at the US box office, there should also be a small independent film about the creation of the character. While many are aware of Wonder Woman’s status as an iconic figure of female empowerment through the big and small screen portrayals of her by actresses Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot, it’s important to remember that she has been around since the 1940s, and that her origins are… shall we say, slightly unconventional. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston using the pen name Charles Moulton. In public, Moulton was an acclaimed psychologist and writer who, notably, invented the polygraph lie detector. In private, however, Moulton was in a long term consensual relationship with two women – Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne – who were also in a lesbian relationship with each other. Not only that, both Holloway and Byrne were early pioneers of the feminism movement that began under Margaret Sanger, while Marston was an enthusiastic practitioner of sexual bondage, dominance and submission, the themes of which often crossed over into his writing. Director Angela Robinson’s film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which stars Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote, explores the relationship between Marston, Holloway and Byrne, and how their alternative dynamic resulted in the creation of a super-hero who endures to this day.

The score for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is by a young English composer named Tom Howe, about whom I am ashamed to admit I know virtually nothing. I’m not entirely sure how old he is, I’m not sure where he’s from, and his IMDB credits appear to indicate that his most notable work prior to this score has been on British television, writing music for reality shows such as The Great British Bake-Off, Paranormal Witness, and Locked Up Abroad. He has also worked as an instrumentalist and additional music composer, playing guitars and banjos on scores by Christian Henson, working for George Fenton on Life in 2009, and for Rupert Gregson-Williams on films such as Open Season: Scared Silly, The Legend of Tarzan, and – ironically – Wonder Woman. However, what I do know is that, based on the music heard in this score, Howe is a tremendously talented young composer with a bright future ahead of him, because this is one of the most accomplished ‘debut’ scores I have heard in quite some time.

Howe’s score is fully orchestral, thematic, but quiet and intimate, written in that European neo-classical style that favors small ensembles, delicate orchestrations, and a pseudo-minimalist approach. The first phrase that sprang to mind upon first hearing it was that it sounded like ‘really good Desplat,’ and that descriptor still holds firm upon repeated listens. The score is built around a core group of instruments, led by piano, strings, and woodwinds, and the music that emerges from the ensemble is generally warm and tonal, casting a positive and non-judgmental light on Marston’s unusual romantic circumstances.

The score isn’t especially thematically strong in terms of identifiable melodies for particular characters or concepts, but there does seem to be at least a couple of recurring ideas weaving through the score. The first is the motif that appears in the opening cue, “Professor Marston,” which features piano, unusual ticking percussion ideas, prancing woodwind textures, and warmly appealing strings. A three note motif emerges out of this base, little by little, and from then on quite a bit of the score seems to be built in clusters of three, possibly subliminally providing one note for each of the three protagonists.

A second motif is an idea I’m calling ‘the Normality theme,’ as it appears to relate directly to the sexual relationship between Marston and his Women, and their taboo-breaking shenanigans, which most definitely were not ‘normal’ for the time period. “What Is Normal?” introduces this idea with a whole load of prancing, plucked pizzicato, coupled with unusual percussion ideas – rattles, chimes, claps, woodblocks – that dart around, lithe and nimble. Subsequent performances of this motif in cues like “The Sorority Spanking” adds a touch of playful mischief to Marston’s sex life.

A third motif appears to represent specifically the character of Olive, the woman who was, if any one person was, the inspiration for Wonder Woman. A 6-note theme for her emerges in “Observing Olive,” and comes across as a little more forthright and dominant, and perhaps a little curious. Later, in the passionate-sounding “Olive Kisses Elizabeth,” ideas from the Normality theme blend with Olive’s theme, underpinned by insistent dancing woodwinds and a breathless tempo. The serious-sounding “Olive Becoming Wonder Woman” adds a level of depth and profundity to her theme, illustrating the importance of how Marston saw her and how she inspired him, and it becomes quite emotionally stirring towards the end.

Several other cues stand out for their beauty. “They All Kiss” begins in intimate, moody fashion, with synth textures adding a new dimension to the orchestra, until it emerges into a rolling, sensitive piano line with a palpable undercurrent of eroticism. Later, “Hiding Her True Self” is pretty, light, florid, and summery, a warm cascade of piano and strings, while ”Elizabeth is Pregnant” is more urgent, with piano and strings dexterously moving around each other at a faster tempo.

The two outliers are “The Speakeasy,” a piece of authentic-sounding 1940s jazz featuring a mambo-salsa beat with trumpets and a vocalist singing in French, and “Looking for Mr. Gaines,” a more toe-tapping finger-snapping jazz with bold trumpets and brushed snares. It’s unclear whether “The Speakeasy” is an original song or an old recording; if it’s the former, then Howe apparently manipulated the sonics in post-production to make them sound aged.

As the score reaches its finale the music becomes lush and deeply emotional; the entire sequence from “Olive Leaves” through to “Love Me for All My Days” is just gorgeous, while in the conclusive pieces “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” and “Marston End Credits” performances of Marston’s theme, Olive’s theme, and the Normality motif abound. Howe intelligently raises the emotional stakes throughout the sequence; from the dramatic piano rendering of Olive’s theme in “Olive Leaves,” to the urgent and bold “Marston Falls Ill” with its rich classical string figures, to the stunningly beautiful “Love Me for All My Days.” However, throughout all this, Howe never strays from his core instrumental base, and never overplays things too much. The emotions are there, and they are clear, but they never become maudlin or overly-manipulative. It’s pitched perfectly.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an outstanding ‘debut score’ from Tom Howe, clearly earmarking him as a composer to watch for the future. Anyone who yearns for strong, thematic, melodic, emotion-filled dramatic orchestral scores, and who also finds themselves drawn to the intimate Euro-drama scores penned by composers like Alexandre Desplat, will absolutely find this score to their liking. Personally, I can’t wait to see where this talented young man goes next in his career.

Buy the Professor Marston and the Wonder Women soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Professor Marston (1:28)
  • What Is Normal? (1:16)
  • Observing Olive (1:16)
  • The Sorority Spanking (1:38)
  • The Speakeasy (2:15)
  • Lie Detector (1:21)
  • I See You in Everything (0:44)
  • Olive Kisses Elizabeth (2:18)
  • Inducement (0:36)
  • Let’s All Be Friends (0:37)
  • Olive Makes Her Decision (1:25)
  • They All Kiss (3:02)
  • Hiding Her True Self (2:22)
  • Elizabeth is Pregnant (1:21)
  • This is Pornography (1:10)
  • Olive Becoming Wonder Woman (2:44)
  • Looking for Mr. Gaines (0:50)
  • Donn Got Into a Fight (1:47)
  • Olive Leaves (2:33)
  • Marston Falls Ill (1:14)
  • Elizabeth Begs for Forgiveness (1:38)
  • Love Me for All My Days (2:54)
  • Professor Marston & The Wonder Women (1:58)
  • Marston End Credits (3:05)

Running Time: 41 minutes 30 seconds

Sony Music 5484112 (2017)

Music composed by Tom Howe. Conducted by Lyubomir Denev. Orchestrations by David Butterworth and Laurence Chapman. Recorded and mixed by Al Clay. Edited by Joanie Diener. Album produced by Tom Howe.

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