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THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB – Roque Baños

November 20, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Back in the early 2000s Steig Larsson’s Swedish-language novel Män Som Hatar Kvinnor – translated into English as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – was a bonafide phenomenon. It introduced the world to the character Lisbeth Salander, the socially awkward punk computer hacker who became an unlikely crusader for women’s justice, enacting revenge upon men who hate women, while getting involved in a labyrinthine plot of murder, sex, and death. Sadly, Larsson didn’t live to see his success – he died of a heart attack before the novels were even published – and so obviously he did not live to see his works transition to the big screen either. Adaptations of his three Salander novels (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden/The Girl Who Played With Fire, and Luftslottet Som Sprängdes/The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) were made in Sweden starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, and became instant international successes; an American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo then emerged in 2011, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, that film was not as successful as many hoped, and plans for English-language adaptations of Fire and Hornet’s Nest were shelved. However, the series has now been revived by Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez in the shape of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is an adaptation of the fourth Salander novel Det Som Inte Dödar Oss, which was written by David Lagercrantz.

Anyone who is unfamiliar with the three Swedish films may find the plot of The Girl in the Spider’s Web somewhat confusing, because essentially it is a sequel to those films rather than the 2011 Daniel Craig Dragon Tattoo movie, and contains plot threads and characters which appear in the Swedish films, but not the American one. It picks up the story several years after the conclusion of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and finds Lisbeth Salander newly emancipated, at-large in Sweden, acting as a vigilante who targets powerful men who abuse women with a combination of violence and blackmail. However, her activities are interrupted when a former NSA programmer contacts her and asks her to help him get rid of a program he designed – a piece of software that would allow anyone to access the world’s nuclear codes. Salander agrees, and quickly becomes involved in a dangerous plot that brings her back into contact with her former lover Mikael Blomqvist, and agents from both the US and Swedish governments, as well as a shadowy criminal group called The Spiders which has a hidden connection to Lisbeth’s past. The film stars Claire Foy and Sverrir Gudnason, replacing Mara and Craig as Lisbeth and Mikael, and has an original score by Spanish composer Roque Baños.

In 2013 Baños scored Álvarez’s debut film, a remake of the classic Evil Dead, and wrote one of the most brilliant horror scores of the decade. Now, with The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Baños has written one of the most brilliant action-thriller scores of recent years; clearly, Álvarez brings out the best in him. Scores for mainstream action-thriller movies have been in the doldrums for quite some time now. Many of them rely on the same boring cookie-cutter templates, featuring the same combinations of repetitive cello ostinati and electronic pulses, concentrating mostly on rhythms and beats rather than thematic content and emotional drama. Baños is the first composer in quite some time who has remembered that this type of action scoring doesn’t have to be generic – that you can have rhythmic ideas that drive the action along, but which also feature exciting, unusual tempi and have instrumental distinctiveness. That you can bring a level of emotional weight and pathos to the score without making it sound manipulative or overbearing. That you can use your orchestra in creative ways that make the score sound fresh and alive. What a concept!

It’s also worth pointing out the massive difference in quality between this score and the score for the American Dragon Tattoo movie, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Baños’s score contains everything that score lacked, the most fundamental of which is an actual understanding of the musical requirements of narrative drama, and how musical storytelling is a key component of a film’s effectiveness. Reznor and Ross have entirely failed to do this, throughout their film music career, and Baños’s work here throws that failure into sharp relief. What a difference it makes, having a composer who is fully at ease using both a large orchestra and an array of synthesizers and electronics, who can write memorable thematic content, and who appreciates the relationship between film and music, and how powerful that specificity is when it comes to engaging with your audience.

Baños’s score is built around two main themes – one for Lisbeth herself, and one for Camilla, her long lost sister whose reappearance forms a major part of the film’s plot. Lisbeth’s Theme is darkly tragic, but hesitantly romantic, almost classical in nature, and stands in stark contrast to the aggressive punk dance and trance music the character herself listens to, thereby hinting at her deeper pain. Camilla’s Theme is similar in tone and texture to Lisbeth’s Theme, and features an equal amount of tragedy and loss, but with a different melodic core. Interestingly, the theme reveals something of the character’s past and a motivation for her actions in the film, giving her a depth which makes her relatable, and her life almost understandable. There are vague hints of Camilla’s theme lurking in the background of a lot of the first half of the score, foreshadowing her presence and her eventual prominent appearance in the film’s second half – there’s that pesky musical storytelling again. One other minor element in the score is a recurring creaking synth texture that has an unusual metallic quality to it, which often combines with an unusually-bowed string idea, and is used as a motif for Lisbeth’s memories of her childhood.

Several of these elements appear in the first cue, “Prologue – Lisbeth’s Childhood,” a dark, moody orchestral piece for strings underpinned with abstract electronic tones, and faint choral textures. Both Lisbeth’s theme and Camilla’s theme weave in and out of the piece, moving smoothly between strings and piano – some of the string phrasing reminds me of Christopher Young – but as it develops the cue becomes quite dissonant and challenging. Clearly, the relationship between Lisbeth, Camilla, and their father, was a broken one. By the time it reaches its conclusion it has become grandiose, almost operatic, with huge swells of Camilla’s theme on soaring strings, underpinned by agitated violin ricochets.

The main title, “The Birth of a Dragon,” is superb, full of elegant, darkly romantic, swirling strings, a dramatic brass counterpoint, and a full statement of Lisbeth’s theme starting at 0:44. From this point on, a lot of the score is concerned with giving us a portrait of Lisbeth’s life: how this scrappy, anti-social, revenge-driven young woman deals with the injustices of the world around her. “Lisbeth’s Lair” is urgent, full of choppy cello ostinati, lots of propulsive forward motion, and a prominent statement of Lisbeth’s theme in the high strings. Deconstructed hints of Camilla’s theme emerge via the pianos in the background of “You Have a Sister,” while later in cues like “Elevators Meeting,” “Tattoo Looking Glass,” and “Firefall Answer” Lisbeth’s theme hovers around the periphery of the music, peeking out from behind beds of shifting strings, glassy electronic writing, and elegant but sinister cellos.

However, by far the most impressive elements of the early and middle parts of the score are the action cues. Baños has showed his action prowess on several occasions when writing for Spanish films, but for some reason his efforts writing action music for Hollywood films have mostly been underwhelming, as though his natural instinct to be bold and expressive was being suppressed. This is absolutely not the case here; in cue after cue, Baños lets loose with a battery of magnificent action ideas, ranging from choppy, tumultuous string writing to unusual babbling synth ideas, buzzing insect-like brass, and rambunctious percussion rhythms throbbing underneath it all. Sometimes the writing is dance-like and nimble, indicating movement and suspense; at other times, it is simply a battering ram, brutal and final.

Several cues stand out: “NSA Attack,” for the scene in which the American agent Needham rushes through his building to stop a hacker attack; “Nightmare/Home Invasion,” which underscores the scene where agents of the Spiders attack Lisbeth in her converted warehouse home; “Balder Shot,” for another terrifying home invasion sequence; “Chasing August,” for the subsequent outstanding car chase through the streets of Stockholm as Lisbeth tries to rescue a young boy from the Spiders; and many more besides. What’s equally impressive is how Baños always keeps Lisbeth’s Theme at the center of things, leaving the audience in no doubt as to where the focus of their attention should lie. There are bold statements of her theme at the end of the aforementioned “Nightmare/Home Invasion” and in tracks such as “Motorcycle Chase”. Listen to the interplay between different parts of the string section in “Chasing August” and the way the strings are punctuated call-and-response style with Lisbeth’s theme in the brass. Listen also to the fluid, pulsating, Jason Bourne-esque action of “Airport Needham Free” which is the most heavily electronic action sequence, and which builds to a massive statement of Lisbeth’s theme accompanied by pounding percussion at the end.

In addition – and here, yet again, is more musical storytelling – Baños makes room for repeated statements of Camilla’s theme and the Childhood motif, once again allowing for emotional depth and character motivation to inform the music. There are dark synth textures similar to the Childhood motif in “Nightmare/Home Invasion,” while towards the end of “Drawbridge Encounter” a clear statement of Camilla’s theme on a solo violin accompanied by chorus tells the audience the identity of the mysterious ‘woman in red,’ before even Lisbeth realizes who she is dealing with.

The film’s action finale – comprising the cues between “Lisbeth Goes In” and “Remote Fire” – underscores the scene where Lisbeth, aided by Needham and her hacker friend Plague, infiltrates the remote headquarters of the Spiders, and comes face-to-face with demons from her past. Both Lisbeth’s theme and Camilla’s theme feature prominently again, as does the Childhood motif, but it is action that dominates – throbbing, determined, strident. Guttural brass combined with screaming string runs, bombastic percussion, and creaking synth ideas. The contrapuntal writing which pits both women’s themes against each other in “Invading Family Home” is impressive. The ballsy statement of Lisbeth’s theme in the intense “Remote Fire” casts her as an avenging crusader.

Once the action is over, the emotional finale of the score begins, firstly with the creepy “Vacuum Bag,” which underscores the scene where Camilla tries to murder her sister with a piece of apparatus that is an S&M sex toy with disturbing childhood connotations. The sinister overlapping string textures and twisted variations on Camilla’s theme eventually lead into “You Can’t Blame Me,” which underscores the final confrontation on a wind-swept Swedish cliff top. Again, Camilla’s Theme takes center stage, but while it begins with a stark, isolated sound, it becomes more emotional as it develops, building to a heartbreaking finale as the sisters finally come to terms with their relationship in the most tragic of ways. The solo cello statement of Camilla’s theme is haunting, and the chorus feels cathartic, almost angelic. Cleverly, the music here intentionally revisits the same ideas we heard earlier in the conclusion of the prologue – but this time it is Lisbeth, rather than Camilla, who is left standing on the edge of a precipice watching her sister disappear into the snow and mist below her feet. The conclusive “Burning the Past” features a choral version of Lisbeth’s theme underpinned with the moody string ostinato, finishing the score on a redemptive note.

The soundtrack album finishes with two solo piano performances of “Lisbeth’s Theme” and “Camilla’s Theme,” the first performed by director Álvarez, and the second performed by Baños himself. There are also four Amazon Exclusive bonus tracks, one of which – “Wounded Tattoo” – is an excellent additional action cue.

I don’t think I’d be over-stretching things if I said that The Girl in the Spider’s Web is one of the best contemporary action-thriller scores in a few years, and is on a par with outstanding works like Joe Kraemer’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It’s also interesting how Roque Baños has found himself musically revitalizing two genres – action/thriller and horror – for the same director. Looking at the bigger picture in terms of the entirety of 2018, The Girl in the Spider’s Web caps off a spectacular year for Baños where he has distinguished himself writing excellent music across a variety of genres – sporting drama in The Miracle Season, comedy in Yucatán, fantasy drama in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and another action thriller in The Commuter, which was his first score of the year. With this array of music, I have been strongly reminded why I fell in love with Roque Baños’s scores in the first place, and why I’m so happy that the outstanding talent he showed back home in Spain is finally being used to its fullest potential by Hollywood.

Buy the Girl in the Spider’s Web soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue – Lisbeth’s Childhood (5:08)
  • Main Title – The Birth of a Dragon (1:36)
  • Lisbeth’s Lair (1:52)
  • You Have a Sister (3:12)
  • NSA Attack (3:16)
  • Lisbeth Tries Firefall (1:22)
  • Nightmare / Home Invasion (3:08)
  • Motorcycle Chase (3:09)
  • Elevators Meeting (2:56
  • Balder’s Apartment (3:10)
  • Tattoo Looking Glass (3:35)
  • Balder Shot (3:34)
  • Chasing August (2:17)
  • Drawbridge Encounter (4:04)
  • Firefall Answer (2:23)
  • Airport Needham Free (5:55)
  • Lisbeth Goes In (2:07)
  • Invading Family Home (2:59)
  • Masks Fight (3:23)
  • Vacuum Bag (3:03)
  • Remote Fire (5:09)
  • You Can’t Blame Me (4:33)
  • Burning the Past (2:06)
  • Lisbeth’s Theme (Fede Álvarez Plays) (1:49)
  • Camilla’s Theme (Roque Baños Plays) (1:59)
  • Wounded Tattoo (Amazon Exclusive Bonus Track) (3:01)
  • Lisbeth Drugged (Amazon Exclusive Bonus Track) (2:05)
  • August & Lisbeth Plays Chess (Amazon Exclusive Bonus Track) (2:34)
  • Family Home (Amazon Exclusive Bonus Track) (1:58)

Running Time: 87 minutes 33 seconds

Sony Classical (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Roque Baños. Orchestrations by Ginés Carrión. Additional music by Vanessa Garde. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Lipson. Edited by Maarten Hofmeijer and Del Spiva. Album produced by Roque Baños.

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