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THOR RAGNAROK – Mark Mothersbaugh

November 3, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Thor Ragnarok is, quite astonishingly, the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fifth in Marvel’s Phase 3 series, and the third film focusing on the character Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. Chris Hemsworth returns to the title role, and in this installment finds himself having to escape from the clutches of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the ruler of the planet Sakaar, who has enslaved Thor, forcing him to compete in a series of gladiatorial games. Meanwhile, the city of Asgard has been taken over by Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), Thor’s long-exiled sister, whose merciless rule is threatening to bring about the prophesized ‘ragnarok’ – the destruction of Asgard and the death of the Gods. The film co-stars Tom Hiddlestone, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins, and is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi.

Waititi, for those who don’t know, is best known for his domestic films Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, none of which were especially successful in the United States, but which have enormously devoted cult fans. Waititi blends action and emotional pathos with a great deal of broad, off-the-wall humor, all of which he brought to Thor Ragnarok. As a result, the film is much different from the majority of the other Marvel films, with the exception of the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Ant-Man. While delivering a number of outstanding action sequences and a sense of scope and visual grandeur, the film is also very funny – intentionally so – making the whole thing a breath of fresh air. From the clever one-liners to the crowd-pleasing cameos to the subversion of character expectations, everything about Thor Ragnarok feels fun and charming, and this includes the score by composer Mark Mothersbaugh.

Mark Mothersbaugh is not a composer one would expect to score a film like this, but director Waititi specifically sought him out for this project. The whole thing has a strong 1980s vibe to it, right down to the font used in the credits, and Waititi said that, if their lead singer Freddie Mercury had still been alive, he would have wanted Queen to score the film. Waititi’s personal musical taste is very much rooted in 1980s synth rock, as is clear from the scores for his previous films, and considering that Mothersbaugh himself was a pioneer of that sound through his band Devo, it’s easy to see why Waititi turned to him.

Mothersbaugh’s first demo ideas for the film were originally very strongly electronic based – a frequent reference point was Jean-Michel Jarre – which impressed Waititi immediately; they were both aware of the critical Youtube video which, in Mothersbaugh’s own words, “took a shit all over the Marvel scores,” and wanted to do something bold and different. Marvel executive Kevin Feige was similarly impressed with the musical choices they were making, but stipulated that Mothersbaugh should also follow the ‘Marvel tradition’ by using a 100-piece orchestra and 30-voice choir alongside the electronics. So, that’s what Thor Ragnarok ended up as: a 1980s prog-rock synth score performed by a massive orchestra and choir. And it’s absolutely superb.

I don’t know why, but I don’t usually think of Mark Mothersbaugh as being a great orchestral composer, and this attitude needs to change off the back of this score. Although he started his film music career writing for cartoons and quirky Wes Anderson comedies, Mothersbaugh’s recent output has included some truly outstanding big orchestral scores, including the two Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs movies, The Lego Movie, and The Lego Ninjago Movie from earlier this year. However, as good as they were, Thor Ragnarok is, by far, his most impressive orchestral work to date; the thematic content, the richness of the orchestrations, the intelligence and the scope of the writing, the technical excellence, and the emotional impact, is all first rate. But the best thing of all, for me, is the way he blends this bold orchestral and choral writing with the electronics.

Across film music, too many composers are asked to write music for synths without them really knowing what they are doing. They use synths as a crutch for the orchestra, simply doubling down on acoustic sounds, using them as glorified reverb and in the process diluting them so that neither aspect is allowed to shine. But electronics are Mark Mothersbaugh’s bread and butter; he was playing around with modular synths, arpeggiators, emulators, and other assorted keyboards before Devo even released “Whip It” in 1980, and he was at the forefront of developing that sound in popular music for decades. The difference between people like Mothersbaugh and other composers is that he uses synths as synths, and uses them to their fullest range. The synths aren’t buried under the orchestra, but neither do they simply mimic the strings; the two elements work in tandem with each other, showcasing the acoustic range of both styles of writing to a superb degree.

Thematically, the score is fairly light. Mothersbaugh’s main creation is his new theme for Thor, which is introduced in the opening “Ragnarok Suite” at 1:07, and is prominent in several cues thereafter. The Suite is actually quite superb: the power and scope of the orchestral writing in it is something that we haven’t seen from Mothersbaugh before, at least not to this extent, and some of the touches and flourishes in the orchestration and composition are outstanding. In addition to Thor’s theme the suite introduces the ideas for Hela and Sakaar that emerge later in the score, by way of solo female vocals, a haunting solo duduk, and many moments of bold and uncompromising electronic writing. The sequence for emotional cellos beginning at 2:28 is excellent, as is the percussive and energetic action sequence that begins with a resounding gong crash at 4:17 – listen especially for the unexpected timpani solo at 5:05!

Mothersbaugh’s Thor theme gets several powerful statements in the meat of the score proper: it appears with a blazing Brian May-esque rock guitar attitude that has flavors of Queen’s Flash Gordon music in “Thor Ragnarok,” runs through most of the enormous “Arena Fight” action sequence between Thor and Hulk, and gets a resounding statement on epic-sounding swaggering synths in the wonderful “What Heroes Do.” Later, in “The Revolution Has Begun,” Thor’s theme has drive and purpose, as it is rendered on synths underpinned by a relentless hero beat that is ridiculously catchy, kitschy, cheesy, and brilliant all at the same time. The conclusive performance in the powerful and stirring “Where To?” is the score’s emotional high point, a potent combination of tragedy, despair, nobility, and forthright resilience.

The second significant idea is the music related to Cate Blanchett’s character Hela, the Goddess of Death, who invades and conquers Asgard and attempts to subjugate the populace in revenge for her imprisonment. Hela doesn’t really have a strongly identifiable theme per se, but the orchestrations and compositional stylistics which follow her are clear. In the second half of “Twilight of the Gods,” as well as in subsequent cues such as “Hela vs. Asgard,” “The Vault,” “Where’s the Sword?,” and “Flashback,” Mothersbaugh musically endows Hela’s conquest with nervous tremolo strings, massive choral outbursts, a coolly sinister female vocal soloist, immense brass flourishes, and a dominant and aggressive attitude. These cues contains some of the most impressive orchestral action writing of Mothersbaugh’s entire career, as well as some astonishing individual moments: listen for the flutter tongued brass phrases at 5:17 of “Twilight of the Gods,” for the guest appearance from what sounds like a Norwegian version of an alpenhorn 2:17 into “Hela vs. Asgard,” and for the heroic thematic idea at the end of “Where’s the Sword?” that appears to relate to Idris Elba’s character Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifröst rainbow bridge.

Conversely, one of the score’s most moving dramatic moments comes in the first half of “Twilight of the Gods,” during which Mothersbaugh takes exceptional care to accurately convey the Norse musical heritage of Asgard by accentuating his soft, emotional orchestral writing with solo performances by a hardanger Norwegian fiddle (last heard in Howard Shore’s Rohan music in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), the drone of a Swedish nyckelharpa, and the breathy tones of the duduk Armenian oboe, the latter of which is geographically incorrect but works on an emotional level.

The third major idea is the music for Jeff Goldblum’s character, Grand Master, and the trash planet Sakaar where Thor is imprisoned and forced to take part in brutal gladiatorial games for Grand Master’s amusement. The music for Sakaar is much more electronic in nature than anything else in the score, and in cues like “Grand Master’s Chambers,” the exciting “No One Escapes,” and the raucous “Arena Fight,” Mothersbaugh goes wild with his classic analog modular synths. The bubbling, pulsing, effervescent rhythmic ideas are upbeat, eccentric, almost verging on the edge of irritating, but are pitched perfectly for the tone and look of the entire Sakaar sequence. Perhaps the best example of all this is “Parade,” which is essentially Sakaarian party music, and which is likely to be the one cue which alienates synth-haters more than any other.

A less significant, but still important, musical construct relates to the character of Surtur, the fire demon, who intends to be the one to bring about ragnarok and destroy Asgard. In “Running Short of Options” Mothersbaugh uses deep, imposing male voices and low, rumbling orchestral textures to depict the threat posed by Surtur. Heavy brass clusters and imposing percussion patterns introduce the threat he poses, while hints of Thor’s theme both in the orchestra and the electronics convey the conflict between Surtur and our hero.

Also in response to the critical Youtube video about a lack of thematic continuity across Marvel movies, Mothersbaugh also works in a few statements of musical ideas from other scores. There are snippets of Patrick Doyle’s theme from Thor (most notably a bold, sweeping statement at the end of “Where To?” beginning at 1:44), allusions to Brian Tyler’s themes from Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, a great re-working of Michael Giacchino’s Indian-inflected music from Doctor Strange in “Weird Things Happen,” and even a brief cameo by Joe Harnell’s famous ‘Lonely Man’ theme from the 1980s Incredible Hulk TV series which isn’t on the album but which gets a clear statement in the film.

The finale of the score begins with two enormous action cues , “Sakaar Chase” and the wonderfully-titled “Devil’s Anus,” which underscore the frantic sequence of Thor, Bruce Banner, and Valkyrie fleeing in a spaceship from Grand Master’s troops towards an inter-dimensional wormhole that will return them to Asgard. The electronic sound in “Sakaar Chase” revisits the prog-rock Queen stylistics heard earlier in the score, while the climax of “Devil’s Anus” is superb, featuring several thunderous statements of Thor’s theme and moments of tonal choral majesty. This leads into “Asgard Is a People,” which Mothersbaugh uses to underscore the climactic battle between Thor and Hela. This cue is full of epic dissonances – whining brass, horn triplets, thunderous drums, whizz-pop electronics – and several musical collisions between Thor’s theme and Hela’s motifs. Best of all is the deus ex machina re-appearance of the music for Surtur the Fire Demon, a gargantuan blast of orchestral carnage; the sense of loss and anguish as Asgard suffers the effects of Ragnarok is palpable.

“Planet Sakaar” is a wildly entertaining disco variation of the Thor theme for the end credits, while the bonus track “Grandmaster Jam Session” simply has to be heard to be believed: it’s heard in the film in a scene where Goldblum’s Grand Master first meets Thor, and I guess it’s technically a synthpop song, although the lyrics are completely unintelligible, filled with dooby-dobby-doodles and wow-wows. I think at one point Mothersbaugh actually says ‘taika waititi’ (the director’s name) at 0:57, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t work in his famous back-masking trademark “we smell sausage” somewhere, but beyond that… you got me. It’s completely wacky, but for some reason I love it.

In short, Thor Ragnarok is pretty much a success on every level. Contrary to prevailing opinion, and despite the odd dud here and there, I personally think that the majority of the scores for the recent batch of Marvel movies – Brian Tyler’s Thor and Iron Man scores, Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man, Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange and Spider-Man Homecoming – have all been quite outstanding: thematically strong, emotionally powerful, and musically interesting. Mark Mothersbaugh’s work here stands shoulder to shoulder with those previous efforts; it’s a perfect blend of orchestral power on a grand scale, interesting and creative synth elements, and a fun and lively attitude that mirrors the tone of the film. Anyone who doubted Mothersbaugh’s credentials to score a film of this magnitude can rest easy, because he succeeded admirably – and didn’t even need to get help.

Buy the Thor Ragnarok soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ragnarok Suite (8:53)
  • Running Short on Options (2:46)
  • Thor: Ragnarok (1:09)
  • Weird Things Happen (1:46)
  • Twilight of the Gods (6:14)
  • Hela vs. Asgard (4:30)
  • Where am I? (1:39)
  • Grandmaster’s Chambers (1:18)
  • The Vault (3:47)
  • No One Escapes (3:01)
  • Arena Fight (3:32)
  • Where’s the Sword? (4:33)
  • Go (1:43)
  • What Heroes Do (1:37)
  • Flashback (2:59)
  • Parade (2:20)
  • The Revolution Has Begun (1:47)
  • Sakaar Chase (2:12)
  • Devil’s Anus (4:52)
  • Asgard Is a People (4:20)
  • Where To? (2:22)
  • Planet Sakaar (2:14)
  • Grandmaster Jam Session (3:16)

Running Time: 73 minutes 02 seconds

Marvel Music (2017)

Music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. Conducted by John Ashton Thomas. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Tommy Laurence and Geoff Lawson. Additional music by Wataru Hokoyama and Tim Jones. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Steve Durkee. Album produced by Mark Mothersbaugh.

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