Home > Reviews > BLACK PANTHER – Ludwig Göransson

BLACK PANTHER – Ludwig Göransson

February 20, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The utter dominance of comic book action movies at the American box office continues with the success of Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the origin story of a character who appeared for the first time in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, and explores the history of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth thanks to its unlimited supplies of the metal vibranium, but pretends to be a poor third world country to hide its power. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, the new King of Wakanda, who takes up the mantle of the Black Panther after his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War; returning home to begin leading his country, T’Challa finds himself facing a threat in the shape of Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a mercenary with ties to Wakanda, whose actions send the entire country into a civil war of its own. The film co-stars Lupita Nyongo, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, and Andy Serkis, and is directed by Ryan Coogler.

Black Panther is a game changing movie for many reasons. Without wanting to get too much into the serious topic of black representation in mainstream American cinema, Black Panther is clearly a positive departure, presenting African and African-American characters as strong and fully realized, with highly developed cultures and histories independent of everyone else. In addition to being a fun and exciting action super hero movie, Black Panther touches on many important issues, ranging from arms dealing and slavery to isolationist vs. globalist political stances, and the plight of young black kids in contemporary America. From a purely technical standpoint the film is also generally excellent; although some of the CGI is occasionally a little ropey, especially in the final battle, the design elements are superb, blending historical African visual arts in architecture and clothing with sleek, ultra-modern technology. This final aspect is also very much apparent in the film’s score, by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson.

Although his personal cultural heritage may initially indicate otherwise, Ludwig Göransson is one of the few composers working in Hollywood today whose finger is also on the pulse of American popular music. In film, his association with composer Theodore Shapiro led him to write additional music for films such as Tropic Thunder, Marley & Me, and Central Intelligence, while his continuing collaboration with Coogler has resulted in scores for movies such as Fruitvale Station and the outstanding Creed. However, away from film, Göransson is also a massively successful recording artist and producer; his work with Donald Glover and his band Childish Gambino garnered five Grammy nominations in 2018, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best R&B Song, and he has also worked as a producer for Haim, Chance the Rapper, and many others. Having this sort of influence across multiple genres of music allowed Göransson to draw from multiple influences for his score for Black Panther; the resulting work is a combination of classic orchestral themes, modern rhythmic and textural influences from hip-hop and R&B, and a great deal of traditional African music.

In terms of the African music, it would have been very easy for Göransson to simply slap some indeterminate ethnic drumming into his score and call it a day, but to his credit he did his research much more deeply than that. Göransson travelled to Senegal and consulted with Senegalese recording artist Baaba Maal, and immersed himself in the world of Senegalese music, which eventually became the soul of Wakanda. Göransson uses Maal’s soaring vocals in several cues, and numerous specific instruments –including Senegalese talking drums, the fula flute, the kora harp, and even a vuvuzela horn – made it into the final mix with a 92-piece orchestra and a 40-voice choir which often sings in Xhosa, the South African ‘click’ language. In addition to simply blowing, the fula players use extended techniques, humming and sometimes even screaming into the mouthpiece, while another type of drum – the sabar – is used to give a specific rhythmic timbre to the challenge fights T’Challa endures in order to preserve his rule.

While all this respectful research and cultural depth is of course excellent, it’s all for nothing if the final score doesn’t act as a good and appropriate film score in its own right. Thankfully, Göransson’s composing chops are strong, and as a result the score for Black Panther soars. There are two identifiable recurring main themes – one which addresses the combined concept of T’Challa-Wakanda-Black Panther, and one for Killmonger – and these ideas weave in and out of the rest of the score constantly.

The T’Challa-Wakanda-Black Panther theme – which, from now on, I’m going to refer to simply as T’Challa’s Theme – is clever in that it is made up of several building blocks which can be disassembled and re-assembled to convey different ideas. The core of it is made of two parts: the first is a regal, heroic fanfare, while the second is a nine-note rhythmic idea that often underpins the fanfare. This nine-note rhythmic idea is most often performed by the talking drum, representing the three syllables in T’Challa’s name, but I initially found the rhythm odd: the first two sets of three notes play staccato, but the final three notes are faster and closer together. It creates an unusual and slightly off-kilter feeling, like the rhythmic core is somehow wrong, but it clearly isn’t. I’m not sure how to convey my feelings about it – when I first heard it I was a little irritated – but having now explored what Göransson actually does with the theme, I think it’s brilliant.

Sometimes Göransson strips away the majesty and just plays the pulses: this is when the theme is at its most forceful, representing the primal aggression of the Black Panther. At other times he dresses it up with all the glory and regalia his orchestra can muster, showcasing the might of the Wakandan nation. He uses them in different combinations too: sometimes it’s just the first six notes of the rhythm, sometimes it’s all nine, sometimes it’s the fanfare underpinned by the rhythm, and so on. It illustrates the way the character T’Challa, the country Wakanda, and the super hero Black Panther are all inter-twined and inseparable at their core, but how one of the three is also capable of standing at the forefront, as circumstances dictate. It’s very, very creative.

There are numerous outstanding examples of T’Challa’s Theme throughout the score. It’s first appearance comes at 0:36 in “Royal Talon Fighter,” as the old king T’Chaka reveals himself to his operatives in Oakland. The version in “Wakanda” emerges out of Baaba Maal’s soaring African vocals, an explosion of brass-and-choral majesty at 1:24, underpinned by the full nine-note ostinato. Later, in “Warrior Falls,” T’Challa’s brass fanfare emerges out of a percussion extravaganza, a celebration of African rhythms complete with a female choir chanting T’Challa’s name, while later in “Phambili” the main fanfare theme is performed with all the power the orchestra can muster.

Despite him being the antagonist of the piece, Killmonger’s theme is actually the most emotional one; his pain is the thing that comes through most prominently, and how that dark history informs his actions. It first appears at 3:12 into the second cue, “Royal Talon Fighter,” six notes of solemn strings which rise to a crescendo, and thereafter it accompanies all of Killmonger’s nefarious activity. However, again, Göransson plays around with the core elements of the theme. Often, he reduces the more anguished six-note statement into a more aggressive four-note idea, which is coincidentally similar to James Horner’s famous four-note ‘danger motif’ and tends to accompany Killmonger during his action sequences. Sometimes he arranges the theme for the fula flute, and as the score progresses that specific sound also becomes associated with Killmonger even when the melody is not present. At other times, he augments the theme with an array of contemporary electronic ideas drawn from hip-hop and R&B, illustrating his origins in urban California. It’s a clever way of conveying the dichotomy of his character: clearly this kid has been treated badly in his life, and the emotional string writing speaks to that, but the way he manipulates the theme to also show his anger and frustration is palpable. He’s also torn between his cultures: his personality was molded by his life on the mean streets of Oakland, but the pull of his African homeland is just as strong.

It’s worth noting that, for the R&B and hip-hop aspects of the score, Göransson collaborated with the multi-award winning and enormously successful California rapper Kendrick Lamar, who brought his tremendous experience in the genre to bear on the score, resulting in a very authentic sound. Lamar himself was also responsible for the specially-curated song soundtrack album, which includes a number of original songs that feature Lamar in collaboration with artists including 2 Chainz and The Weeknd. The lead song from the end credits, “All the Stars,” was written by Lamar with Mark ‘Sounwave’ Spears, Al ‘Shux’ Shuckburgh, Solána ‘SZA’ Rowe, and Anthony Tiffith, and is performed by Lamar and SZA.

There are numerous outstanding examples of Killmonger’s Theme throughout the score too. “Killmonger” presents the first appearance of the fula flute, an exotic, haunting sound which becomes aggressive, almost demented, when the flautist begins shouting and screaming into it. The second half of the cue brings in the R&B pulses and loops, as well as the first performance of the 4-note truncated version of the theme, notably on dominant brass. This style continues in subsequent pieces like “Questioning Klaue” and “Outsider,” which again combine the flute with aggressive electronic pulses; later, “Killmonger’s Challenge” gives the theme a new feeling of calm detachment and steely determination, as the flute is accompanied by scales that shift between strings, piano, and harp, but this is undone in “Burn It All” as the numerous statements of Killmonger’s flute theme become more anguished and apocalyptic as he wields his new regnal powers and orders the field of heart-shaped herbs destroyed.

In addition to T’Challa’s Theme and Killmonger’s Theme, a couple of other minor thematic ideas also exist. There is an idea relating to the ancestral origins of Wakandan culture which first appears in the opening cue, “Wakanda Origins,” and makes use of magical, mystical-sounding electronics and guitars, as well as rhythmic chanting and overlapping layers of percussion. These ideas return later in both “Ancestral Plane” and “Killmonger’s Dream,” when the two lead characters visit the Wakandan netherworld while under the influence of the Heart-Shaped Herb that turns the King of Wakanda into the Black Panther; interestingly, both these cues feature prominent statements of Killmonger’s emotional theme arranged for cello, which relate to the revelations about his childhood.

There is also an idea related to the Jabari, a clan of gorilla-worshipping Wakandan tribesmen who live high in the mountains, and who are led by the ferocious warlord Mbaku. Their music is even more aggressive and primal than the normal Wakandan music, with ape-like grunts accompanied by the unique sound of the vuvuzela horn, and which can be heard prominently in “The Jabari” and later in “Entering Jabariland”.

All these elements combine in the score’s excellent action music. One of the things I love most in action music, especially in highly thematic scores, is musical conflict, wherein the composer plays thematic identities contrapuntally to illustrate what’s happening on screen. Göransson does exactly that throughout Black Panther’s numerous action sequences, pitting character themes against each other, offering different variations on those themes across different cues to illustrate the ebb and flow of the combat, and resolving the battles with triumphant statements of the victor’s musical identity. For example, in “Waterfall Fight,” Göransson pits the Jabari theme – vuvuzelas and gorilla grunts – against statements of both T’Challa’s fanfare and T’Challa’s ostinato, before climaxing with an enormous moment of brass heroism and a choir chanting T’Challa’s name.

Later, in “Casino Brawl,” Göransson brings the action firmly into the contemporary arena with an array of electronic pulses and loops, but offsets them with performances of T’Challa’s theme in the brass, and several explosions of the tribal drum chaos and vibrant ‘chuk chuk’ chanting which usually accompanies Danai Gurira’s badass moments as Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female troupe of elite royal guards. These stylistics continue into “Busan Car Chase,” which blends everything from the previous cue with more prominent brass statements of both the nine-note T’Challa rhythm and the T’Challa fanfare. Similarly, in “Killmonger vs. T’Challa” Göransson again showcases thematic conflict, although this time Tchalla’s brass fanfare plays against Killmonger’s flute theme. The conclusion of the piece is an explosion of tragic choral majesty, which reaches almost Shakespearean levels of scope and intensity

The most interesting cue in the score might be “Wake Up T’Challa,” which underscores the scene where the comatose king is reawakened by the power of the Heart-Shaped Herb and becomes the Black Panther once more. Göransson’s ideas here combine the spiritual with the majestic: dream-like Africanized female vocals, hints of the Wakanda Origins theme, and hints of the Jabari theme, which eventually rise through what sounds like an interesting variation on Killmonger’s theme on strings, soft choral accents, tribal percussion, and a number of growling performances of Killmonger’s 4-note motif. This leads directly into the enormous 12-minute action finale comprising “The Great Mound Battle,” “Glory to Bast,” and “The Jabari, Pt II,” and it is in this sequence that Göransson pulls out all the stops.

Every thematic and instrumental idea is present here – T’Challa’s fanfare theme, both versions of T’Challa’s ostinato, Killmonger’s theme and its shortened four-note variation, the Dora Milaje motif, the Jabari motif, all the different percussion items, the fula flute, the vuvuzela, the electronic hip-hop beats – and Göransson layers them against each other as the conflict rages. There are so many touches of creative brilliance that appear briefly and then vanish: the moment at 1:11 of “The Great Mound Battle” when Killmonger’s theme suddenly has lyrics, the massively intense version of the Dora Milaje motif at 2:54 of the same cue, the thunderous brass outburst at 0:06 of “Glory to Bast” heralding the appearance of the armored rhinos, the repeated statements of the T’Challa hero fanfare, the use of the 4-note Killmonger motif which makes it seem like Göransson thought he was James Horner writing a sequel to Willow, the heroic intervention of the Jabari – it’s breathless, complex, wonderfully exciting stuff, and is by far the best material of Göransson’s career to date.

The conclusion of both score and film begins with “A Kings Sunset,” which opens with a plaintive, spine-chilling call from Baaba Maal and builds up to an emotional and poignant version of Killmonger’s theme for a beautiful solo cello as the sun sets over Wakanda. “A New Day” is romantic, illustrating the spark of love between T’Challa and Lupita Nyongo’s Nakia with sensitive guitars and lush strings. “Spaceship Bugatti” is a playful version of T’Challa’s theme for woodwinds and marimba, and the conclusive “United Nations/End Titles” runs the gamut, opening with a stunningly rendered statement of the full T’Challa theme, continuing through several celebratory tribal dances with chants and extravagant percussion, fulsome statements of the T’Challa theme including the 9-note ostinato, and an emotional statement of Kilmonger’s theme for both strings and flute augmented by choir, before ending with a huge final rendition of the main theme.

In the world of super heroes, the film music executives at Marvel are breaking new ground in terms of the quality and variety of their scores, and showing the rest of the world how to do it right. Marvel have been on such a roll recently, beginning with Christophe Beck on Ant-Man and continuing through Michael Giacchino’s pair Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well as Mark Mothersbaugh’s Thor: Ragnarok. With their new ideas, interesting composers, and unconventional approaches that range from surf rock heist music and Indian ragas to 1980s throwback electronica, there is so much musical life and energy in this series right now, and Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther just continues the trend. I have to admit that, when he was first announced as the composer, I had reservations as to whether Göransson could tackle a score of this magnitude, but all those doubts have been swept aside by this excellent music. It’s culturally appropriate, instrumentally fascinating, exciting when it needs to be, emotional when it needs to be, and has an intelligent thematic architecture that is worthy of overt praise.

Buy the Black Panther soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wakanda Origins (1:44)
  • Royal Talon Fighter (4:00)
  • Wakanda (2:20)
  • Warrior Falls (4:06)
  • The Jabari (1:08)
  • Waterfall Fight (4:03)
  • Ancestral Plane (4:27)
  • Killmonger (2:55)
  • Phambili (2:31)
  • Casino Brawl (3:32)
  • Busan Car Chase (2:49)
  • Questioning Klaue (3:32)
  • Outsider (2:07)
  • Is This Wakanda? (2:46)
  • Killmonger’s Challenge (5:07)
  • Killmonger vs T’Challa (3:30)
  • Loyal to the Throne (1:35)
  • Killmonger’s Dream (3:15)
  • Burn It All (3:24)
  • Entering Jabariland (2:42)
  • Wake Up T’Challa (6:08)
  • The Great Mound Battle (3:48)
  • Glory to Bast (6:06)
  • The Jabari Pt II (2:22)
  • A Kings Sunset (4:28)
  • A New Day (1:47)
  • Spaceship Bugatti 1:23)
  • United Nations/End Titles (7:32)

Running Time: 95 minutes 18 seconds

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music (2018)

Music composed by Ludwig Göransson. Conducted by John Ashton Thomas. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Tommy Laurence, Geoff Lawson, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull and Henri Wilkinson. Featured Senegalese drummers Massamba Diop and Magatte Saw. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Steve Durkee. Album produced by Ludwig Göransson.

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  1. M P Wright
    February 22, 2018 at 11:09 am

    The Black Panther is the kind of over-familiar film soundtrack that frighteningly sounds like its been performed by Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello and Max Roach, and each of ’em on crack whilst they were writing and performing it… Yes there’s that much drumming running through its shabby 95 minutes.

    Worse still, there are lots of irritating Senegalese drumming running through its 30 plus tracks. Imagine Peter Gabriel on a bad day and double it. On top of the World Music ‘wall of sound’ add six orchestrators (yes, you heard it right) six orchestrators to the mix, each of which appear to have done little to improve the work other than get on the phone and call out for more drummers.

    Oh, I have tried with Göransson’s latest score, I really have. But it has left me cold and miserable, aching for a musical work to a new film that doesn’t have the terms ‘Game Changing’ or ‘Inclusive’ stamped all over it. Black Panther is yet more painful Marvel hype and bluster. Noisy, irritating, childish, at times tuneless. These are just some of the polite words I can find to describe my feelings for this audio tripe. The scores only saving grace is that most of the tracks a mercifully short.

    For me, The Black Panther is more muzak, than music. It reminded me of a very PC, witless version of the Lion King. At a time when Hollywood is desperately trying to claw its way out of the seedy mire its finally and thankfully been uncovered as, this turgid example of base-touching, diplomatic, right-on modern film scoring typifies everything that is fundamentally wrong about the U.S film industry, and feels equally as sickening.

    For me, Ludwig Göransson’s, the Black Panther is, like the film it underscores, over-hyped and directionless and the music feels and sounds just like any one of a multitude of the countless Marvel superhero scores which have been hammered out in their droves over the past six or seven years.

    Enough surely is enough?

    This latest score ultimately mirrors both the desperate, unimaginative state of the U.S film industry and the tasteless, CEO’s, executives and shady producers who are knocking out this aimless, kiddie friendly, everyone’s all American, Billy Graham tat.
    After over 45 years of collecting and listening to film music, I have never known such a low period in film music scoring (And I lived through those toothy pillock Gibb brothers almost destroying the art back in the early 1970’s)

    Ultimately the Black Panther feels like everyone concerned is scraping the bottom of a very muddy barrel. The final death knell to a worn out series that desperately needs the plug pulling on it.

    And you are right Jonathan, the CGI is ropey.

  2. Michael G
    February 24, 2018 at 8:56 am

    All I’m going to say is this:
    If you review Goransson’s Death Wish score, good luck cause that’s a tough one to listen to.
    It’ll make this album look like a masterpiece
    However, I do like Goransson’s BP score.

    • M P Wright
      February 27, 2018 at 1:50 am

      Here, here, Michael G. What an absolute travesty of sound the new Death Wish score is. So pleased I am not alone on that one. Now there’s a film that never, ever should have been remade. Michael Winner’s 1974 original was a disgrace, why in the name of sanity remake such trash. Bruce Willis must be on his uppers. it also goes further to prove just how shabby many of these Hollywood producers really are. Can you image the board meeting in some Hollywood movie moguls office for the treatment of the Death Wish remake?
      Producer: “Right, we wanna remake a picture that originally helped usher in an era of hostility to liberalism, minorities, and apologists for crime and violence here in the U.S. There’s gang rape, vigilantism, scenes of brutal violence, drug abuse, prostitution and a shit load of guns … Oh, and Bruce Willis wants to be in it, and he’s going cheap at the minute!”

      Movie Mogul: “Sounds a blast … Where, me cheque book!”

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