Home > Reviews > SHAZAM – Benjamin Wallfisch

SHAZAM – Benjamin Wallfisch

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the race to make a movie about every single comic book character in history, DC have lagged behind Marvel in terms of mining their back catalogue in the search for box office gold. Whereas Marvel have unearthed hitherto little-known gems like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Black Panther to sit alongside Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man, the folks over at DC have tended to build everything around their ‘big three’ – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. However, having suffered lackluster critical reviews for their most recent efforts at putting these luminary characters on the silver screen, the producers have now started to dip into their archives in search of characters to explore. The latest of these is Shazam, written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, and directed by horror movie veteran David F. Sandberg. The film stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphan kid with a ‘pure heart’ who is chosen by an ancient wizard to become a super hero. When he says the wizard’s name – Shazam! – Billy is magically transformed into an adult super hero (Zachary Levi), and together with his best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy sets about discovering his powers. However, this attracts the attention of the evil Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who has spent his entire life trying to discover the secret of Shazam’s power, and who has harnessed the physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins in order to do so.

Shazam is, by some significant margin, the best film to come from the ‘DC Extended Universe’ that began with Man of Steel in 2013. Its playful tone is a far cry from the grim seriousness of the previous Ben Affleck Batman and Henry Cavill Superman movies, it’s much more intelligent and nuanced than Aquaman, and the less said about Suicide Squad the better. What I love about it the most is how it captures the excitement and eagerness of how an actual kid would behave when given super powers, and much of that is down to Zachary Levi’s central performance, which appears to me to be a combination of Christopher Reeve and Tom Hanks from Big. The chemistry between Billy and Freddy is realistic, the family-centric emotional anchor is well-judged, and when they come the action scenes are exciting, even though some of the monster creature effects could be a little too scary for younger viewers. The final cherry on top of the whole thing is the score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which taps into all the best musical super hero tropes of the last 40 years.

I have been a huge fan of Benjamin Wallfisch’s work for years, ever since his debut score for the indie drama Dear Wendy in 2005. Through scores as rich and varied as The Escapist, Summer in February, Gamba, Desert Dancer, A Cure for Wellness, Bitter Harvest, It, and Mully, as well as his work as a conductor and orchestrator on some of Dario Marianelli’s most acclaimed works, I have come to know Wallfisch to be a truly remarkable, multi-faceted composer, who can turn his hand to any genre, and succeed. Shazam is the second of at least four major scores scheduled for release in 2019 (the others being Serenity, Hellboy, and the It sequel) and, for my money, its right up there as one of the best scores of his career to date. It’s a score which emanates classic super hero adventure, has a solid emotional base, contains some terrific and complicated action music, and is built around a superb recurring main theme.

It appears that, as part of his pre-production process for Shazam, Wallfisch studied many of the ‘all-time great super hero scores’ for inspiration, as he clearly wanted to recapture the fun and life and energy of that most musically rich genre. Having now heard this score, it’s clear that anyone putting together a list of such scores in future will need to include this one too. There’s a gloriously old-fashioned quality to Wallfisch’s music, which teems with expressive passages for full orchestra and choir, and never shies away from hitting every emotional point, fully allowing the audience to connect with these characters. As a way of comparison, I was reminded of the very best genre writing by people like David Newman (The Phantom), Lee Holdridge (The Beastmaster), Robert Folk (Beastmaster II), Bill Conti (Masters of the Universe), Craig Safan (The Last Starfighter), and Cliff Eidelman (Meteor Man) – even James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and of course John Williams. Yes, Shazam is up there in that exalted company, and anyone who loved the ebullience of those scores will adore what Wallfisch is doing here.

The opening cue, “Shazam,” is actually a concert arrangement of the main theme which appears during the film’s end credits. It’s an absolutely wonderful way to open the score, being filled with rousing patriotic brass phrases, swirling strings, resounding choral outbursts, thunderous percussion hits, and trilling woodwinds that embody the lightness and freedom of flight. It builds in intensity, carefully, precisely, right up to the second the main theme explodes for the first time at the 1:48 mark; at that moment a huge grin spread over my face, and I was hooked into the rest of the score. It’s completely over the top – of course it is! – but it’s a perfect musical representation of a child’s super hero fantasies.

Some people may be a little disappointed with the fact that, in the score proper, the main Shazam theme is not especially prominent. It doesn’t really come in until the final third of the score, after Billy has finally mastered his powers, overcome his limitations, and become the super hero he was destined to be. This is something that is more and more prevalent in film music – holding back on a full statement of a theme until a character ‘deserves it’ – and while I fully understand and appreciate the dramatic intent of doing so, I can’t help but wish that the theme’s buoyant heroism and grandeur was more outstanding, just for my own personal gratification. Nevertheless, once you get past this tiny pang of disappointment, there is still a great deal of excellent music to be heard in the meat of the score

There are basically three modes of scoring in Shazam: fantasy-magic textures for the scenes in which Billy discovers the existence of the wizards, and begins to unlock his powers; more intimate scoring for the film’s interpersonal relationships, specifically those dealing with Billy’s long-lost mother; and balls-to-the-wall action. There are also a couple of recurring minor themes, including a dark and menacing motif for Sivana, an imposing choral idea that appears to represent the Sin Demons, and a theme that seems to be an adaptation or variation on a B-phrase from the Shazam theme that connects Billy to his foster family. All of this is wrapped up in a series of richly-textured passages for the full orchestra, which contain instrumental combinations and vocal timbres that I found to be very rewarding from a musical and compositional point of view.

Cues like “The Consul of Wizards,” “Seeking Spell,” “The Rock of Eternity,” and “It’s You Or No One” are saturated in the fantasy-magic sound. Wallfisch uses moody string and woodwind passages to create an eerie, slightly threatening tone as Billy takes his first steps into the unknown, but augments the music with harp waves, tolling bells, and children’s voices to add a sense of wonderment. I especially like the expressive interplay between woodwinds and harps in “The Consul of Wizards” as it builds to its dramatic finish, while in “It’s You Or No One” the first hints of the Shazam theme can be heard as Billy accepts the wizard’s power and transforms into his super hero alter ego for the first time. Touches of horror also invade these cues on a regular basis; the Sin Demons have a motif for low, bass-heavy, chanted male voices that reminds me of something from The Lord of the Rings, while in “Seeking Spell” the dramatic five-note brass motif for Sivana begins to emerge, underscoring the events which turn a bullied young boy into an adult super-villain.

There is more horror to be heard in other cues. “This Is Power” accompanies the boardroom scene in which Sivana confronts his long-estranged father and unleashes the wrath of the Sin Demons on him, in a sort of nightmarish version of the finale of Robocop; in it, Wallfisch uses great explosions of dissonance including scraping string harmonics, the deep choir of the Sin Demon motif, and a fantastic version of Sivana’s theme on screaming brass. Later, “Give Me Your Power” underscores one of the dramatic encounters between Billy and Sivana, and really emphasizes Sivana’s sinister threat, with the dark orchestral tones again being underpinned by tolling bells and low voices.

Counterbalancing this is Billy’s Family theme, which speaks to the character’s longing to find love and acceptance, him having been separated from his mother as a child and subsequently growing up in the foster system. The cues which deal with this aspect of the story tend to be scored with more intimate writing for piano and strings. You can hear it prominently in “Compass,” which adds depth and emotion to the flashback sequence where we find out how he and his mom were separated. Later, “You Might Need It More Than Me” puts the Family theme through a gamut of emotions to mirror Billy’s emotional state – excitement, trepidation, and then crushing disappointment as the relationship he longed for turns out to be a pipe dream. It’s clever how Wallfisch manipulates all these concepts, and musically travels along with them, bringing out the depth without overwhelming it.

Action music makes up the bulk of the rest of the score, and it’s generally excellent. As I mentioned earlier, the action is built around a series of richly-textured passages for the full orchestra, which contain instrumental combinations and vocal timbres that I found to be very rewarding. I especially love “Subway Chase,” which takes a bed of thrilling, energetic string passages and combines them with contemporary percussion licks and hints of jazz in the brass, to give a sense of playful excitement to the scene where Billy runs away from the bullies – and unknowingly seals his destiny. Cues like “Bus Rescue,” “Them’s Street Rules,” and “Superman It” all contain explosions of major-key heroism, effervescent woodwind trills that capture the adventure of flight, and numerous deconstructed fragments of the Shazam theme; remember, it doesn’t appear until Billy gains full control of his powers. Meanwhile, “Super Villain” augments the action with a brand new (and apparently standalone) march idea that is wonderfully flavorful and expressive, with string runs offset with dark, bleating brass.

The final sequence of the film takes place at the Philadelphia Winter Christmas Carnival, in which Billy and his family face off against Sivana and the Sin Demons for the final time. This 15-minute passage, from “Run!” through to the end of “Finale,” is breathlessly exciting, a massive culmination of all the score’s main thematic and instrumental ideas. Throughout the sequence the music is big, bold, and bombastic, with notably excellent and exciting string passages dominating much of the writing. “Run!” contains one of the few moments of out-and-out comedy in the score, where Wallfisch uses a broken version of the Shazam theme to show Billy trying, and failing, to fly for the first time. “Play Time’s Over” has a statement of Sivana’s theme on earsplitting brass that is quite unsettling. “I Can Fly!” is the cue where, after some dramatic build up for orchestra and chorus, we are treated to our first complete statement of the Shazam theme as Billy finally unlocks his destiny. “Fight Flight” and “Finale” are quite epic; here, Wallfisch pits the now fully-realized Shazam theme against Sivana’s theme in musical conflict, while the Latin chanting for the Sin Demons continues to add a sense of ominous darkness. Some of the orchestral passages are really quite challenging, with the clattering percussion rhythms and dissonant brass textures being especially notable. The sense of relief in the final minute or so of the finale is palpable, as warm strings and a more angelic chorus celebrate the defeat of Sivana and his minions.

The score ends on a quieter note with “We’ve Got a Lair” and “I’m Home,” which move between grandly heroic statements of the Shazam theme on noble horns, and more sentimental piano and string writing as Billy finally accepts – and embraces – his new family. However, the very last cue, “I Name the Gods,” leaves the story hanging: a solo choral vocalist and oddly sinister woodwind lines set the scene for a possible Shazam sequel as the newly-incarcerated (and possibly insane) Sivana has an encounter with what appears to be an over-sized caterpillar, but in reality is much, much more…

While the main Shazam theme has received a great deal of acclaim, there are some who have criticized the score for containing too much ‘filler music,’ and while this might appear to be a valid comment at first glance, you’ll find it really isn’t true once you actually listen closely. Wallfisch’s decision to hold back the full Shazam theme until well into the second half of the score is a wise one, as it is more impactful when it finally does make it’s appearance. The mileage he gets from Sivana’s theme and the motif for the Sin Demons is really quite impressive, and the orchestral music that surrounds them is striking in its complexity. The action music is punchy and exciting, the emotional moments are well-judged, and the horror elements are bold, especially in the use of choir. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and when you look at it in the context of Wallfisch’s career as a whole – especially considering what else he has coming out in 2019 – this score could very well be the catalyst that cements his place among the legion of film music’s super-hero composers for years to come.

Buy the Shazam soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Shazam! (3:59)
  • The Consul of Wizards (3:01)
  • Seeking Spell (2:33)
  • Compass (3:26)
  • Seven Symbols (4:17)
  • The Rock of Eternity (4:17)
  • Subway Chase (0:45)
  • It’s You Or No One (4:59)
  • Dude, You’re Stacked (1:18)
  • This Is Power (2:32)
  • Bus Rescue (2:29)
  • You’re Like a Bad Guy, Right? (1:16)
  • Them’s Street Rules (0:48)
  • Superman It (0:55)
  • Super Villain (1:39)
  • You Might Need It More Than Me (5:38)
  • Come Home Billy (3:02)
  • Give Me Your Power (1:41)
  • His Name Is (2:46)
  • Sentimental Nonsense (1:54)
  • Run! (2:13)
  • Play Time’s Over (1:48)
  • All Hands On Deck (2:05)
  • I Can Fly! (2:14)
  • Fight Flight (3:31)
  • Finale (4:11)
  • We’ve Got a Lair (1:31)
  • I’m Home (0:53)
  • I Name the Gods (1:32)

Running Time: 73 minutes 13 seconds

Watertower Music (2019)

Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Chris Egan. Orchestrations by David J. Krystal, Peter Bateman and Chris Ryan. Recorded and mixed by Scott Michael Smith. Edited by Darrell Hall. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

  1. Tom de Ruiter
    April 7, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Great review! Exactley what I thought about the score!

  2. April 9, 2019 at 11:47 pm

    Could I translate it into Chinese in my music blog? I like Benjamin but I am a rookie to discribe with professional words. It might help people understand functional music. In my point, Benjamin has great classical technique to become a superstar in the future, if he would write beautiful popular melodies just like Zimmer or Powell which the audiences love so much .

  1. January 19, 2020 at 5:10 pm

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