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EARLY MAN – Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

British film studio Aardman have been producing high quality, massively popular stop-motion animated films for more than 30 years, including the four Wallace and Gromit shorts, the Oscar-winning big screen W&G adventure The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and the brilliant Chicken Run, which remains the highest-grossing stop-motion film of all time. Their latest effort is Early Man, directed by Nick Park, and featuring a stellar voice cast including Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddlestone, Timothy Spall, and Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams. The story follows a tribe of Stone Age cavemen, led by the amiable Dug, whose valley is threatened by an invading army led by the greedy Bronze Age aristocrat Lord Nooth, who wants to mine the valley for its minerals. With the help of a Bronze Age girl named Goona, Dug convinces Nooth to take part in a winner-takes-all game of soccer, with the fate of the valley at stake.

Unlike previous Aardman movies, Early Man was not a significant success, especially in the United States, where its football-heavy plot was completely omitted from its marketing campaign (most likely because it was felt that American audiences wouldn’t connect with the film if they knew what it was actually about). Oddly, the music for Early Man also seems to have passed completely under the radar. On the whole, Aardman have had a great track record with their scores – all the Wallace and Gromit films had excellent and iconic music by Julian Nott, and Chicken Run was an early success for John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams, while other films have employed composers as varied as Theodore Shapiro and Ilan Eshkeri. On Early Man, Harry Gregson-Williams teams up with one of film music’s most promising newcomers, Tom Howe, who wrote the great score for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women last year, has worked as an additional composer for Harry’s brother Rupert Gregson-Williams, and – perhaps most iconically – wrote the music for the much loved BBC series The Great British Bake Off.

The reason I say it’s odd that the music for Early Man seems to have passed completely under the radar is because, on the whole, it’s really good. It’s a fully orchestral romp that contains its fair share of sentimentality and emotion, rousing and cheerful action, and moments of light comedy, all of which fits the tone of the film perfectly. There are several themes weaving through the score, the most prominent of which is “Dug’s Theme.” A soft and melodic piece for warm horns, woodwinds, and pleasant strings augmented by gently clattering percussion, it’s an ideal representation of the film’s cheerful and good-hearted protagonist, but it’s also capable of being re-worked into different variations to accompany Dug’s journey.

It appears in several guises as the score develops, showcasing Gregson-Williams and Howe’s intelligent thematic application. For example, although the opening moments of “Prehistoric Prologue” are moody and mysterious, the cue becomes grand and portentous as it develops, with choral accents, more dominant brass, and a few moments of bold aggression that sound like they could have come from a 1960s Ray Harryhausen classic. Dug’s theme emerges prominently in the second half of the cue as a series of celebratory brass fanfares, accompanied by gruff male voice chanting, a throbbing bass guitar, and – most cleverly – the sound of soccer referee whistles in the percussion section.

Further statements appear in cues like “In the Valley” and “Meet the Tribe,” both of which feature tender versions of Dug’s theme that move between elegant woodwinds and more sentimental brasses, again accentuated by magical chimes, pizzicato strings, metallic percussion, and gruff chants. Later, in “Challenge the Champions,” Dug’s theme appears in a slow, noble brass variation, thoughtful and encouraging, while in “Do It For The Valley” Dug’s theme is rousing and optimistic, and then warm and sentimental, as the melody is passed from brass to soft strings and choir, and finally to a lovely solo oboes. However, perhaps the most interesting version comes in “Revelations in the Mine,” the score’s longest cue, which underscores the scene where Dug discover the terrible truth about Nooth’s Bronze Age society; after an initial sequence of dramatic scoring featuring chimes, striking string crescendos, and emotional ethnic woodwinds, the cue becomes terribly dark and surprisingly aggressive – the tortured-sounding version of Dug’s theme at 3:39, accompanied anguished-sounding cries, is as surprising as it is dramatically appropriate.

A couple of other minor themes crop up from time to time. “City of Bronze,” attempts to give a musical identity to Nooth’s world through the use of an odd mishmash of European renaissance string instruments – harpsichord, cimbalom, dulcimer, balalaika – set against an oppressive brass march for the Bronze Age people. Both “Dug in Bronze Land” and “Giant Badlands Duck” present comedic variations on the Bronze Age theme complete with boinging sound effects, while “The Message Bird” features an unexpectedly elegant piece of classical pastiche, including a frivolous trumpet version of the Bronze Age theme. Elsewhere, both “Giant Badlands Duck” and “She Shoots, She Scores” appear to feature a theme for Goona, the Bronze Age girl who rebels against her society and helps Dug and his friends; the statement at the end of “Giant Badlands Duck” is an unexpectedly lovely flute/guitar duet. There is also a theme which first appears in “The Ancestral Call,” a wistful piece for woodwinds that is oddly reminiscent of the love theme from Bill Conti’s 1987 score Masters of the Universe.

The action music varies in tone from lightly energetic to surprisingly strong. Some of the lighter action writing feels like a stylistic callback to the animated film Antz, which Gregson-Williams worked on back in 1998, especially in cues such as “Meet Dug,” “Rabbit Ambush,” and “Stealing Footballs.” In each of these cues Gregson-Williams and Howe have a great deal of fun with the orchestrations, working with amusing percussion ideas and solo fiddles, experimenting with having male voices singing the melodic line, and again featuring the football referee whistles. On the other hand, cues like “Bronze Attack,” “Stadium Chase,” “Harp Escape,” and “Foul Play” are much more serious, each featuring the full orchestra playing rambunctious and energetic rhythms. “Bronze Attack” contains some especially sparkling brass triplets and thrilling string runs, as well as a dark version of Dug’s theme, while “Harp Escape” features what appears to be the only action setting of Goona’s theme, as well as some subtle callbacks to one of Gregson-Williams’s best-ever pieces – “Building the Crate” from Chicken Run.

A few moments of pure comedy come via the Bronze Age Queen Oofeefa character (ooh, Feefa, because FIFA controls soccer – get it?) “Message from the Queen” features a stodgy, slurred trumpet melody, while “Royal Game Day” presents a pompous English-sounding regal brass march.

The score’s big finale sequence underscores the soccer game between Dug’s Stone Age team and Nooth’s Bronze Age team, and begins with the exciting action of “The Final Game.” This cue is a showcase of thematic interplay – there are frequent heroic statements of Dug’s theme, brief shots of the Ancestral Call theme, the Bronze age theme, Goona’s theme, the referee whistles, and the gruff male voice chants, all of which follow the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of the game. “Chief is Down” uses a mournful violin to illustrate the potentially game-changing injury suffered by the Stone Age goalkeeper; the subsequent “Hognob in Goal” is dramatic and tense, featuring Dug’s theme on sober brass, as the team is forced to play Dug’s pet pig as a substitute. An angelic choral outburst erupts as – miracle of miracles – the pig saves a penalty kick, and then Dug’s team goes down the other end and scores to beat the Bronze Age team and win not only the game, but the safety of their valley. The conclusive “Trophy Presentation” offers a warmly sentimental denouement, with a final statement of Dug’s theme for wholesome horns, a softly cooing choir, and sweeping romantic strings.

One of the main drawbacks of Early Man is the fact that, if you’re not listening closely, some of this clever thematic writing and intelligent dramatic application may slip past you. Although Dug’s theme is literally all over the score, it never quite grabs you by the ears and makes itself really memorable, which may result in some listeners finding the score a little generic, especially when compared to the outstanding thematic content in previous Aardman scores. For me, however, once the theme finally clicked, the rest of the score fell into place, all its depths and complexities were unlocked, and I found myself being more impressed with the whole thing. Fans of Harry Gregson-Williams’s more robust orchestral writing will find plenty to enjoy here, and I’m especially pleased that Tom Howe’s career seems to be continuing on its upward trajectory – with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women last year, and now this score this year, he’s clearly a composer to watch.

Buy the Early Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Good Day (written by Reece Bibby, Blake Richardson, and George Smith, performed by New Hope Club) (1:46)
  • Hope (written by Connor Ball, Tristan Evans, James McVey, and Brad Simpson, performed by The Vamps) (3:15)
  • Tiger Feet (written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, performed by New Hope Club) (3:41)
  • I Predict A Riot (written by Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Simon Rix, Nick Baines, and Nick Hodgson, performed by Kaiser Chiefs) (3:51)
  • Dug’s Theme (2:40)
  • Prehistoric Prologue (3:42)
  • In the Valley (1:27)
  • Meet Dug (0:41)
  • Meet the Tribe (2:12)
  • Rabbit Ambush (1:02)
  • Bronze Attack (2:17)
  • City of Bronze (1:04)
  • Dug in Bronze Land (0:51)
  • Stadium Chase (0:39)
  • The Ancestral Call (1:04)
  • The Message Bird (1:57)
  • Giant Badlands Duck (3:10)
  • Stealing Footballs (1:04)
  • She Shoots, She Scores (0:45)
  • Challenge the Champions (1:45)
  • Harp Escape (1:59)
  • They’re Not a Team (0:46)
  • Message from the Queen (1:05)
  • Foul Play (1:18)
  • Revelations in the Mine (5:04)
  • Royal Game Day (1:40)
  • Forfeiture and Humiliation (2:10)
  • Do It For The Valley (2:08)
  • The Final Game (4:40)
  • Chief is Down (0:54)
  • Hognob in Goal (3:34)
  • Mousing Around (1:07)
  • Trophy Presentation (1:34)

Running Time: 67 minutes 27 seconds

Mercury/Lionsgate Records (2018)

Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe. Conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Orchestrations by David Butterworth and David Krystal. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Jack Dolman. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe.

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