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SONIC THE HEDGEHOG – Tom Holkenborg

February 26, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

So, I have a confession to make. I was one of those weird kids who, growing up, didn’t really play computer games. I had an Atari 800 back in the early 80s and I played precisely three games on it: Orc Attack, Zaxxon, and Paperboy, all of which came on a series of cartridges. When my friends graduated on to Commodore 64s and Sinclair ZX Spectrums, I stayed inside watching movies. I then skipped the entire console era and went straight to a Dell PC in 1995. Today, the only games I have are various iterations of FIFA Soccer, but I haven’t played them in years. I never had a Sega, I never had a Nintendo, I never even had a Game Boy, so all those classic cultural touchstones – Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong and so on – completely passed me by. As such, when it was announced that there was going to be a Sonic the Hedgehog movie, I was indifferent. I was similarly uninterested when a furore about the design of the little spiky speedmeister hit the internet in May 2019, causing a major delay in the film’s release due to the need for new special effects. Even now, and despite the generally positive ratings, the film holds little interest. It’s directed by Jeff Fowler, there’s a little blue hedgehog who can run incredibly fast, Jim Carrey plays the evil Dr. Robotnik who wants to capture Sonic, and James Marsden plays a kind-hearted cop who helps Sonic escape from Robotnik. Sonic runs fast, there’s action, comedy, hi-jinks, heartwarming pathos, and a set-up for a sequel… you get the idea.

So, now I have another confession to make. Over the past 18 months or so, in my opinion, composer Tom Holkenborg has been getting better and better. Prior to this, and for the first few years of his career, I made no effort to hide the fact that I found his music to be generally quite terrible. Black Mass in 2015 showed some glimmers of promise, but beyond that his music struck me as a competence-free void. But then, something slowly started to happen. Parts of The Dark Tower in 2017 were quite good. Parts of Tomb Raider in 2018 were really very good. All of Mortal Engines was good, and then he followed that up with the equally impressive Alita: Battle Angel last year. Terminator: Dark Fate stuttered a little bit, but now with Sonic the Hedgehog he’s back on track, with his fourth good score in less than three years. Many people will credit his recurring collaboration with Conrad Pope, who has often served as his lead orchestrator and usually conducts the ensemble, as a determining factor in this improvement, and while I’m sure Pope has indeed brought a depth and richness to Holkenborg’s overall sound, the music still has to come from Holkenborg in the first place, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – especially here, as the official credits do not mention Pope’s involvement at all.

Sonic the Hedgehog is, by some large margin, the most fun score of Holkenborg’s career to date. It’s a score which teems with energy and good humor, is full of themes, has an upbeat and positive attitude, and is awash in nostalgia. This latter part seemed to be a very important aspect of the score, because it led Holkenborg to combine a large symphony orchestra with a Yamaha FM synthesizer similar to the one that was used in the original Sega Genesis console game. Not only that, but in several key moments Holkenborg apparently directly quotes from composer Masato Nakamura’s score from the original Sonic game, most notably the famous ‘Green Hills’ theme that represent’s Sonic’s home. My knowledge of Sonic’s in-game music is very limited, but I am reliably informed that the references are there, so take that as you will!

The score itself is built around two recurring main themes – one for Sonic, and one for Dr. Robotnik. Sonic’s theme, as one would expect, is bright and optimistic, energetic, and is regularly worked into the score’s numerous action sequences to accompany the fast-moving critter on his adventures. Robotnik’s theme, on the other hand, is a 7-note motif with a distinctly more menacing attitude, and which makes use of vaguely militaristic brass and drums, a staccato rhythmic element, and often a choir, to add yet another layer to the overall air of malevolence. It’s all very cartoony, black and white, this is the good guy, this is the villain, but these emotions need to be clear for the film’s core demographic, and Holkenborg has a ton of fun with them.

Sonic’s theme is first introduced in the opening cue, “Meet Sonic (Before We Start I Gotta Tell You This),” but it’s somewhat hidden and only hinted at; instead, Holkenborg has fun introducing a metallic tinkling effect that represents the golden rings that hold the key to Sonic’s power, and surrounding it with some impressively epic writing for brass, strings, choir, and synth pulses. The subsequent “Welcome to Green Hills” is a fun and lively rock instrumental for guitars, a modern drum kit, strings, and electronic textures which clearly reference the chord progressions from Nakamura’s original theme. The first full statement of Sonic’s theme comes at 1:49 of the third cue, “A Very Lonely Life,” which is initially somewhat slow and melancholy, but also wistful and hopeful, and becomes quite perky and bubbly as the cue wears on. Finally, “Dr. Robotnik” is an extended exploration of his musical identity.

Everything thereafter is basically an elongated riff on the two main themes, arranged a multitude of ways, with increasingly engaging orchestral writing at its core. The action music is especially impressive; it’s all quite bold and bombastic, but what I noticed the most are the intricacies and details that Holkenborg works into the different cues, simply for the sake of it sounding interesting. This is the part of Holkenborg’s music that has improved exponentially of late; whereas action scores like Mad Max, Deadpool, and several others felt bland and by-the-numbers, his recent works (including this one) are full of fascinating musical minutiae, fine points that add depth to the whole work, and keep it interesting. For example, “Is That A Drone” erupts into a fun, beefy action sequence beginning at 0:55 that features fat brass chords, trilling string runs, has a rapid sense of movement, and makes constant references to the Robotnik theme throughout. Similarly, “But I Will Always Be Faster” features increasingly energetic and fulsome statements of Sonic’s theme, makes further references to the ‘gold rings’ motif, and has some superb string and woodwind interplay. The dynamite brass version of Sonic theme in finale, where it is underpinned with chiptunes-style electronics, is so much fun.

Later, “SF-Paris-Egypt-SF” is helter-skelter, and more than a little chaotic, perfect music to accompany Sonic’s high-speed trip around the world. Sonic’s theme is boiled down to its core elements as the center of the piece, which Holkenborg then surrounds with swirling strings, roaring brass triplets, and rampant percussion, as well as similarly deconstructed references to Robotnik’s theme. There is a brief moment of French pastiche for Sonic’s short-lived foray in gay Paris, as well as what sounds like it could be a brass-and-choir hat-tip to Jerry Goldsmith’s The Mummy for the whizz through Egypt. The collapsing, descending brass writing in “Skyscraper” is a clever bit of instrumental phrasing, as are the big crescendos, ascending scales, and moments of explosive orchestral power in the cue’s finale. There’s an unusual version of Robotnik’s theme in “Not a Baby Bigfoot,” shrouded in dissonance and arranged for oddly off-kilter chimes.

Probably the best action cue is “He Is My Friend,” wherein both main themes do battle, including several moments of contrapuntal call-and-response writing to fully illustrate the conflict between the two main characters. The cue becomes massive as it develops, and there are some terrific touches in the orchestra – string flourishes, brass fanfares, complicated percussion patterns – to go with the relentless electronic undercurrent. Thankfully, Holkenborg also counterbalances the bombast with numerous cues of lightness and sentiment, which feature especially lovely writing for strings, woodwinds, and harp. Cues like “Things To Do Before I Die” and “A New Home” are especially notable in this regard, and showcase a warmer and more inviting side to Holkenborg’s writing style.

The finale cue, “Sonic the Hedgehog,” is a massive, full throated version of Sonic’s theme arranged for the full orchestra, electronics, and choir. Listening to this blind one could easily mistake it for something by Alan Silvestri, or Bruce Broughton, or David Newman, when they were in their 1990s prime. It’s energetic, playful, and at times quite magical, with prominent xylophones in the percussion, a plethora of dancing woodwinds, and chimes that are effortlessly charming. The brass fanfare version of Sonic’s theme at 1:19 is marvelous, the subsequent sweeping string version is lush and emotional, and the whole thing has hints of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley’s classic cartoon music in some of the arrangements, which is nothing to be sneezed at.

It wouldn’t all be a stretch to say that Sonic the Hedgehog is the best score of Tom Holkenborg’s career to date – and that’s absolutely not a sentence I ever anticipated typing when he was announced as the composer of this project. I must also reiterate that this is in no way a backhanded compliment; this is a good score, period. The themes are memorable and well-integrated into the fabric of the score, the action music is strong and exciting and interesting from a compositional point of view, and the orchestral arrangements allow the ensemble to shine in numerous unexpected ways. The incorporation of 1980s chip-tunes electronica shows an understanding of the heritage of the project, and the references to Masato Nakamura’s original music for the game is tasteful and appropriate. Overall, this is impressive stuff indeed, and long may Holkenborg’s development continue.

Buy the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Meet Sonic (Before We Start I Gotta Tell You This) (1:32)
  • Welcome to Green Hills (2:01)
  • A Very Lonely Life (2:50)
  • Dr. Robotnik (2:56)
  • That Would Work (1:48)
  • Is That A Drone (3:22)
  • Things To Do Before I Die (1:19)
  • A Visit from the Doctor (4:01)
  • But I Will Always Be Faster (4:19)
  • SF-Paris-Egypt-SF (3:18)
  • Skyscraper (3:24)
  • Not a Baby Bigfoot (2:37)
  • He Is My Friend (4:51)
  • A New Home (1:14)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (3:15)

Running Time: 42 minutes 48 seconds

Paramount Music (2020)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Edward Trybek. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Henri Wilkinson and Edward Trybek. Additional music by Antonio di Iorio and Maxwell Karmazyn. Original ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ themes by Masato Nakamura. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Johnny Caruso, Katie Greathouse and Del Spiva. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

  1. Marco Ludema
    February 26, 2020 at 9:18 am

    I agree that this is Holkenborg’s best work yet. I’ve already ordered the CD of it. It might also be interesting to look through some other Sonic work, Mr Broxton. The quality in Sonic music has managed to remain high, even when the games they accompany tend to stumble.

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