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AQUAMAN – Rupert Gregson-Williams

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been some truly bonkers super-hero films over the years, but Aquaman may take the cake as being the nuttiest of all. It tells the origin story of the much-derided DC Comics character who first appeared on film in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then again in 2017’s Justice League; it stars Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, the long-estranged son of the Queen of Atlantis, who after many years living amongst regular humans must return home and reclaim his throne in order to stop the megalomaniacal plans of his brother. The film is directed by James Wan and co-stars Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, and Temuera Morrison and, to give it its due, it looks absolutely phenomenal. Other than some rather ropey de-aging which makes Morrison look like his own bad Madame Tussaud’s waxwork, the special effects in the film are simply mind-blowing; the concept design and seascapes of the underwater Atlantean kingdom are so beautiful and creative, and some of the shot composition – especially during the Trench sequence – is just spectacular. However, all this is undermined by the truly terrible screenplay, the non-existent chemistry between the leads, the bafflingly clichéd dialogue, the plot contrivances that make the deus ex machina of other films seem inspired, and the existence of several utterly weird individual moments. This film contains – and I’m not kidding here – an octopus playing the drums, Heard wearing a dress made of jellyfish, battle-hardened seahorses fighting sentient crab people, sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads, flying wine knives, Momoa eating roses as a snack, Kidman eating a goldfish like it’s an outtake from A Fish Called Wanda, a bad guy who calls himself Ocean Master with no hint of irony, a random tourist getting crushed by a building and then walking away like nothing happened, Willem Dafoe sporting a man-bun topknot, and an ancient racist underwater sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews, among many other truly mind-boggling things. You’ll just have to experience it for yourselves.

The score for Aquaman is by English composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, who appears to be shifting gears from being ‘the guy who scores all the Adam Sandler movies’ to being ‘the guy who scores the standalone DC movies,’ after his success working on Wonder Woman in 2017. I like Gregson-Williams a lot, and he’s written some really good scores for films you wouldn’t expect, like Click and Bedtime Stories and Hacksaw Ridge, but when it comes to his comic book movie work it often feels like he is being constrained into writing music that is less a representation of his personal style, and more the voice of a corporate monstrosity. With that being said, the score for Aquaman does make it feel a little more like the people at DC allowed Gregson-Williams to go out on a limb and try to adopt a different approach. The first and most obvious creative choice he made was to score the two settings of the film differently: the world above water has a familiar, massively heroic orchestral sound, while the world of Atlantis has a more ethereal sound featuring a more prominently electronic palette. There are also several recurring themes: one for Aquaman, one for his nemesis Orm, one for the recurring villain Black Manta, and an all-encompassing ‘family’ theme that addresses the relationships between Aquaman, the Atlantean princess Mera, his mother, and his father.

The score starts with a forgettable song, “Everything I Need” performed by Skylar Grey, before the first cue begins in “Arthur,” a suite of music which explores a couple of the score’s main identities, especially the ones for Atlantis and the theme for Aquaman himself. It shifts around quite a bit – sometimes it is electronic, and has an ethereal and wondrous sound, while at other times it becomes more orchestral, and feels powerful and expansive. Some of the Atlantean synth textures remind me very much of Daft Punk’s music from the Tron sequel crossed with Mark Mothersbaugh’s score for Thor Ragnarok, but some of the whizzes and fizzes sound almost too cheesy for their own good, especially when they start emulating Donna Summer disco dance rhythms – I got strong vibes of her 1977 classic “I Feel Love” and its prominent Moog Modular 3P synthesizer. On the other hand, when it is arranged for the full acoustic complement, Aquaman’s theme can be quite impressive, especially when it is accompanied by Tony Clark’s electric guitar and the London Voices choir.

The electronic textures come back regularly in sequences which are set in, or relate directly to, Atlantis, as evidenced by the second cue “Kingdom of Atlantis” which has a dream-like, almost otherworldly tone which is at times quite beautiful. I was trying to understand what it was about those particular electronics which drew Gregson-Williams in; 80s synth throwbacks are all the rage these days, even more so after the success of Thor Ragnarok last year, and so in the absence of any actual narrative element driving the choice, I can only conclude that director and composer simply thought they sounded ‘cool,’ which I suppose is as good a reason as any.

The next cue, “It Wasn’t Meant to Be,” introduces the ‘family theme,’ which comes across as an emotional variant on Arthur’s theme and has a big and sweeping 1990s Media Venture vibe which, at this point, could almost be considered as retro as the synths. The doomed relationship between Arthur’s human father and his Atlantean mother is conveyed by some warmly emotional chord progressions that are quite lovely, and by the introduction of a softly hooting duduk; the unmistakable sound of this Armenian oboe almost became a Hollywood cliché after it was first popularized by composer Elia Cmiral and his score for Ronin in 1998, but it’s been a while since it was used so prominently in a mainstream film like this, and it’s haunting, lamenting sound is still effective . The cue builds up to a massive, sweeping finale with choir, cymbal rings, and a soaring brass countermelody that is quite impressive.

The final elements to be introduced are the themes for Orm and Black Manta, both of which appear in the fourth cue, “Atlantean Soldiers”. Orm’s theme and the Black Manta theme are tonally and compositionally linked considering that the two are working together, but there does appear to be a distinct difference between the music for one and the music for the other despite their themes often appearing sequentially, and sometimes it appears that both themes represent both characters depending on the scene and the context. From what I can tell, Orm’s theme is prototypical of a ‘big bad villain,’ featuring growling brasses and a harsh electronic tone which makes the score sound distorted and gives the music an unusual ‘sizzle’ effect at the higher registers. The percussive drive and rasping horns does seem a little over the top in conveying the evilness of the character, but its fun to hear Gregson-Williams pulling no punches in clearly stating who this person is. Meanwhile, the Black Manta motif is a three-note declarative statement – bom bom bommmmm! – that heralds his presence; in subsequent cues, notably “The Black Manta,” the motif is accompanied by crushing electronics, bubbling synths, and string ostinatos, all of which Gregson-Williams intended to be representative of the character’s contemporary vibe and modern outlook.

And that, in a nutshell, is the score. Almost everything else in the score from the fifth cue onwards is a statement of one or more of these thematic ideas, incorporated into the body of an endless stream of massive action cues. Gregson-Williams’s action music is certainly impressive from a compositional standpoint: it’s loud, brash, energetic, and makes full and prominent use of the entire orchestra, a large choir, electronics, and some specialty instruments including the duduk, an occasional electric guitar, and an enhanced percussion section.

Several cues stand out as being especially impressive. “Swimming Lessons” – which underscores one of the flashback scenes where Willem Dafoe’s character teaches young Arthur about his history and heritage – augments the electronics with gentle piano chords that eventually open up into bold statements of both the Aquaman theme and the Family theme, featuring an especially strong duduk solo. “What Could Be Greater Than a King?” is similar, featuring a great deal of action, a gorgeous statement of the Family theme in the middle of the cue, and a big statement of Aquaman’s theme at the end. “Permission to Come Aboard” showcases a big, bad, rock-inflected rendition of Arthur’s theme which gets pitted against an equally strong performance of Black Manta’s theme when the two begin to fight on board a hijacked Russian submarine, and which also features a short but unexpected sequence of Thomas Newman-style guitars half way through.

Several of the action cues – notably “Suited and Booted,” “He Commands the Sea,” and “Ring of Fire” – see Gregson-Williams engaging in some obvious musical conflict, where Aquaman’s theme and Orm’s theme battle it out in our ears as the characters do the same on-screen. “He Commands the Sea” has some raging string runs, menacing choral chanting, and electronic pulses, and reaches some truly monumental heights of rousing power featuring especially strong brass writing. Meanwhile, “The Ring of Fire” opens with an ancient-sounding call-to-arms on a heraldic horn augmented by an eight-tentacled drumbeat, and promotes either Orm’s menacing darkness or Aquaman’s uplifting heroism, depending on which character has the upper hand. The problem with this cue, however, is something that plagues much of the action music as a whole, and that is that it often feels very generic. I really don’t like using that word, but I can’t think of another way to describe it.

While listening to these cues in the film, it was all I could do not to roll my eyes as the music in these scenes unfolded; the vowel chorus sounds like a poor man’s variation on the classic 1990s Zimmer style from scores like The Peacemaker, the relentless percussion and swirling strings sounds like a beefed up version of Junkie XL’s Mad Max, and some of the orchestral sounds come across like soulless trailer music. It’s like Gregson-Williams found all the most obvious action super hero clichés from the past decade or so, and just decided to use them all. I suppose your reaction to them might depend on whether you buy into the overall cheese factor of the movie itself; if you’ve reconciled yourself to the idea that this is all pulpy, campy fun, then the music will probably feel the same way. If you felt that the whole thing was irredeemably stupid, as I did by the end, then your feelings about the music may end up being much more negative.

A couple of final cues are worth mentioning. “Between Land and Sea” is clever in the way it takes the melody from the ‘Everything I Need’ song and turns it into a lush orchestral romantic theme that builds to a huge emotional climax. “Reunited” provides a fitting sendoff to the score with a strong string performance of the Family theme, whizzing electronica textures, and electric guitar and duduk giving color to the orchestra. Finally, “Trench Engaged” is a dark, angry, dissonant orchestral passage for strings written by director Wan’s long-time collaborator on the Insidious and Conjuring movies, Joseph Bishara, whose experience at providing horrific orchestral carnage allows the Kingdom of the Trench sequence to feel rather disturbing.

The album is rounded out by a remixed version of “Everything I Need,” and a completely weird song called “Ocean to Ocean” which is hip-hop superstar Pitbull’s bizarre reworking of Toto’s classic 1980s song “Africa” for the scene where Arthur and Mera track across the Sahara Desert in search of a certain artifact. I love that original song, but Pitbull utterly ruins it and makes that scene a complete laughing stock.

In the end, Aquaman is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I appreciate the effort Gregson-Williams took to create individual thematic identities for all the main characters and concepts. Aquaman’s theme is never going to be as well known as Superman’s or Batman’s, but the attempt was made and the musical tapestry of themes gives the score a good internal architecture. Similarly, I found the use of intentionally retro synth ideas to be a fun and interesting diversion which seeks to fit in with the current super hero vogue. However, as I mentioned, a whole lot of the score’s epic moments and its more large-scale action sequences do feel a little like musical wallpaper, blaring away loudly and never saying anything more nuanced than “this is the good guy” and “this is the bad guy” and “be excited now.” Jason Momoa, with the help of his impressive follicles and his bulging pectorals, may have washed away the bad taste of the original comic book Aquaman, but it will still never match the musical brilliance of the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight.

Buy the Aquaman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Everything I Need (Film Version) (written by Holly Brook Hafermann and Elliott Taylor, performed by Skylar Grey) (3:16)
  • Arthur (4:40)
  • Kingdom of Atlantis (3:26)
  • It Wasn’t Meant to Be (3:22)
  • Atlantean Soldiers (3:35)
  • What Does That Even Mean? (3:23)
  • The Legend of Atlan (1:57)
  • Swimming Lessons (3:03)
  • The Black Manta (2:49)
  • What Could Be Greater Than a King? (5:23)
  • Permission to Come Aboard (2:16)
  • Suited and Booted (4:25)
  • Between Land and Sea (2:55)
  • He Commands the Sea (3:34)
  • Map in a Bottle (2:15)
  • The Ring of Fire (4:58)
  • Reunited (1:31)
  • Everything I Need (written by Holly Brook Hafermann and Elliott Taylor, performed by Skylar Grey) (3:20)
  • Ocean to Ocean (written by David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, and Armando Christian Pérez, performed by Pitbull feat. Rhea Robertson) (2:25)
  • Trench Engaged (from Kingdom of the Trench) (written by Joseph Bishara) (2:29)

Running Time: 65 minutes 09 seconds

Watertower Music (2018)

Music composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Conducted by Alastair King. Orchestrations by Alastair King. Additional music by Evan Jolly and Sven Falconer. Featured musical soloist Tony Clark. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson and Jason Larocca. Edited by Paul Rabjohns and J. J. George. Album produced by Rupert Gregson-Williams.

  1. Nazario De Freitas Jose
    June 6, 2019 at 5:42 am

    essa orquestra é a excençia de uma canção quando alguem liga pra mim é que toca

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