Home > Reviews > BLACK WIDOW – Lorne Balfe

BLACK WIDOW – Lorne Balfe

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After what feels like an eternity, the fourth phase of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally begun with Black Widow. Chronologically it’s actually somewhere around 20th in the series – it takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – and examines the backstory of the superhero Natasha Romanov, and looks at what she was up to in that intervening period. Scarlett Johansson returns to play the titular character for the ninth time, and sees her getting involved in a globe-trotting adventure as she reconnects with her adopted sister Yelena, and her “parents” Melina and Alexei – the latter of whom is a super soldier known as Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s equivalent of Captain America. The mission involves Natasha returning to the ‘Red Room,’ the shadowy organization which conducted the training that turned her into a KGB assassin, and confronting those responsible. The film co-stars Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, and Ray Winstone, and is directed by Cate Shortland.

The film is actually a ton of fun, with lots of action and inventive set-pieces, an unexpectedly rich vein of humor, and some important feminist points to make about men in positions of power exploiting women. David Harbour is a riot as the bitter and egotistical Red Guardian, who still remembers his days as the hero of the Soviet Union, and Florence Pugh is especially excellent, all but stealing the movie from Johansson with her comic timing and unexpectedly emotional performance. There is also some interesting linkage going on with other aspects of the MCU, especially the recent TV series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which similarly blended exciting super hero action with serious and prescient political and social themes.

When the project was first announced in 2019 composer Alexandre Desplat was originally scheduled to write the score. However, in April 2020, he was replaced by Lorne Balfe; the film was supposed to be released the following month, but then became one of the highest profile casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was delayed and delayed and delayed, before it finally reached cinemas in July 2021. This is Balfe’s first Marvel score – he is much more steeped in DC lore, having contributed additional music to Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight scores, and written the score for the Lego Batman Movie himself – but I have to say he has acquitted himself admirably here. Black Widow is one of the most serious MCU scores in terms of tone, but it’s also very distinctive, as it makes excellent use of a great deal of Russian classical choral music, alongside the usual bombastic action writing.

There has been talk for years about the lack of thematic consistency within the MCU, but ironically this is something that Balfe didn’t have to contend with because, despite her ubiquitousness throughout the franchise, Black Widow has never had a theme before. There is one blast of musical continuity – a statement of Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme in the film’s final scene, which is not on the soundtrack – which means that everything else is new. Balfe’s theme for Black Widow is excellent; it’s a slightly mournful, melancholy piece for orchestra and Russian choir which clearly draws inspiration from the character’s national roots, but is also malleable enough that it can be arranged to convey numerous complex emotions – at different times in the score it is heard as an action motif, a heroic fanfare, a tragic lament, and much more. Other motifs in the score take more of a back seat, but their presence still allows Balfe to give his score a leitmotif quality which is satisfying from an intellectual point of view.

The score opens with “Natasha’s Lullaby,” a gorgeous piece which arranges the Black Widow theme for a haunting female vocalist accompanied by balalaika, which eventually emerges into an emotional statement for the full orchestra and a hearty male voice choir. The subsequent “Latrodectus” – the Latin name for the Black Widow spider – introduces the score’s action style, a mass of swirling strings, tumultuous percussion, and imposing brass outbursts. Much of the action is based on this sound, albeit with some rich and impressive instrumental and rhythmic variations in later cues which allow different set-pieces to develop a personality of their own. The powerful three note motif, first heard at the 1:31 mark, appears to be a deconstructed variation on the first few notes of the main Black Widow theme, and is a recurring idea that runs through several later tracks.

The last element in the score’s thematic makeup is the theme for the Red Room and its mysterious overlord, Dreykov. The cue that bears his name is the cue that establishes the identity for him, the Red Room concept, and the imposing Taskmaster character who does his bidding and tries to track down Natasha and Yelena. The Red Room theme has a dark, forbidding feel, and blends ominous Russian male choral tones with more modern electronic percussion, which makes it come across as sort of a combination of Basil Poledouris’s The Hunt for Red October and Hans Zimmer’s The Peacemaker. Later in the score this theme for Dreykov/Red Room/Taskmaster is distilled down into a menacing three-note brass motif bolstered by grating electronics, which heralds the appearance of the character with malevolent intent.

Most of the rest of the score oscillates between action and emotion, one complementing the other, and building up an interesting musical portrait of Natasha that comments on both her tragic childhood and her broken relationships, as well as enhancing her heroic exploits saving the world. “Fireflies” is an especially lovely intimate piece that accompanies a pivotal scene from Natasha and Yelena’s childhood with tender string writing and emotional depth. The haunting choral writing and the statement of the lullaby theme at the end of “Last Glimmer” is notably excellent, as is the emotional violin writing throughout much of “You Don’t Know Me”. “Yelena Belova” is perhaps the emotional high point of the score’s first half; the solemn wordless vocals, Russian folk instrument textures, and dramatic string ostinatos speak to the great pain buried deep within Florence Pugh’s character, and are moving and heroic at the same time.

Action sequences of note in the first half of the score include “The Pursuit,” “The First Bite Is the Deepest,” “From the Shadows,” and especially “Whirlwind,” which start out with the familiar baseline of string ostinatos and banks of horns, but often veer off into fascinating new directions. Balfe’s use of Russian vocals throughout each of these cues is excellent, the trilling trumpet writing in “The First Bite Is the Deepest” is very impressive, and the interpolation of the imposing Red Room/Taskmaster motif in “From the Shadows” gives that cue a real sense of menace. It’s also worth pointing out the fact that the percussion rhythms that underpin these cues are intelligent and complicated; one of my criticisms of earlier Balfe scores like Mission: Impossible – Fallout was the fact that his percussion writing seemed very stagnant and repetitive and un-interesting. This is decidedly NOT the case here. It’s also interesting to note that the excellent “Whirlwind” is one of the few cues on the album where a possible hint of Alexandre Desplat bleeds through from the temp-track; the bubbling electronic ideas, and the way these tones combine with the lively movement of the strings, is very reminiscent of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and offers a tiny glimpse of what a Desplat Black Widow score might have sounded like.

There’s more sentiment and emotion in the lovely “Blood Ties,” which revisits some of the ideas explored earlier in “Last Glimmer,” and allows them to emerge into a beautiful theme representing the complicated sororal relationship between Natasha and Yelena. “Natasha’s Fragments” is a haunting variation on the lullaby theme featuring a number of identifiably Russian instrumental arrangements, ranging from an acoustic guitar to a balalaika, bolstered by soft choral textures. “A Sister Says Goodbye” may well be the emotional pinnacle of the entire score; it’s an extrapolation of the Sisters theme heard in “Blood Ties” and “Last Glimmer” blended with Natasha’s Lullaby, which slowly builds over the course of four minutes from soft choral tones to the entire orchestra, before finishing with quiet intimacy; it would not be overstating things to say that this is some of the most traditionally beautiful music Balfe has ever written.

Counterbalancing all this is yet more thunderous action. Standout action moments in the score’s second half include “Arise,” “Red Rising,” the thrilling “The Betrayed,” and the wonderfully heroic and enthusiastic “The Descent,” almost all of which feature one or more bold and prominent statements of the Black Widow action theme or the Red Room/Taskmaster motif, embedded within a series of powerful and energetic action rhythms. “Arise” also features some arresting choral writing, especially towards the end of the cue where the melodic line is carried by a group of raspy, throaty female vocalists, who sound as though they are casting some sort of witch’s spell on the listener. Meanwhile, “Red Rising” is one of the only cues where Balfe emphasizes electronica over orchestra, although these are enlivened by several smashing brassy statements of the Black Widow action motif emanating from within the warbling synth pulses and string ostinati.

My personal favorite action cue is “Natasha Soars,” which appears to have been written for the ‘freefall’ action sequence seen in the film’s trailers, where Natasha, Yelena, and Taskmaster fight while falling and gliding through an immense field of collapsing debris (although, in film context, it seems like a different take may have been used). The sense of life and buoyant freedom in this cue is intoxicating, and the way Balfe layers a wonderfully heroic version of the Black Widow action motif against flighty woodwind textures, brightly upbeat string figures, trilling brass triplets, and the Russian choir, is just superb. This is what I meant when I said before how Balfe’s writing has become so much richer and denser and musically satisfying of late; comparing the Lorne Balfe of 2021 with the Lorne Balfe of 2017 and 2018 is like night and day.

The rest of the score’s finale is built mostly around big emotions, from the deeply passionate Russian vocals and searing cello writing in “Last Love,” to the brooding textures and dramatic references to the Red Room motif in “Into the Past,” and the reflective and slightly sorrowful “Broken Free”. The final cue, “A Calling,” revisits the Russian vocals from “Last Love” with a similar amount of nostalgic longing for the old country; the vocals, performed by Diana Artashesyan, are quite mesmerizing. Knowing what we know about Natasha’s fate in Avengers: Endgame, Balfe’s music here feels like a lament, recognizing the ultimate sacrifice she will eventually make to save the world.

In my review of The Tomorrow War last week I made reference to a new concept I invented called ‘the Lornaissance,’ which represents an extended sequence of outstanding new scores dating back to the middle of 2019, comprising things like Jungleland, Bad Boys for Life, and two seasons of the fantasy TV series His Dark Materials. To me, these scores are all indicative of a newly emboldened Lorne Balfe, whose work during this period has been increasingly characterized by stronger thematic ideas, greater depth to his orchestrations, more intense emotional content, and an overall sense of him ‘pushing the envelope,’ going that extra mile to make every aspect of his writing more impressive. Black Widow extends the Lornaissance even further, and might very well have inserted itself into the top two or three scores of Balfe’s career to date. The combination of flamboyant action writing, soulful Russian classical and choral music, and strong thematic density, is impressive indeed.

Buy the Black Widow soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Natasha’s Lullaby (3:25)
  • Latrodectus (2:41)
  • Fireflies (3:14)
  • The Pursuit (2:53)
  • The First Bite Is the Deepest (3:06)
  • Last Glimmer (4:20)
  • Dreykov (3:35)
  • You Don’t Know Me (2:02)
  • Yelena Belova (3:37)
  • From the Shadows (3:45)
  • Hand in Hand (2:47)
  • Blood Ties (2:55)
  • Whirlwind (3:29)
  • Arise (2:14)
  • Natasha’s Fragments (1:55)
  • A Sister Says Goodbye (4:15)
  • I Can’t Save Us (1:52)
  • Red Rising (3:58)
  • The Betrayed (5:38)
  • The Descent (2:05)
  • Faces to the Sun (1:51)
  • Natasha Soars (2:20)
  • Last Love (2:00)
  • Into the Past (4:56)
  • Broken Free (3:10)
  • A Calling (2:11)

Running Time: 80minutes 01 seconds

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music (2021)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Shane Rutherford-Jones and Mike Ladouceur. Additional music by Max Aruj, Steffen Thum, Steven Davies, Sven Faulconer and Dieter Hartmann. Featured musical soloists Peter Gregson, Kimmy Lawrence, Laura Snowden, Jasmine Flicker and Cherisse Ofosu-Osei. Special vocal performances by Diana Artashesyan. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirstie Whalley. Edited by Bill Abbott, Rob Boyd and Gerard McCann. Album produced by Lorne Balfe.

  1. Devon Byers
    July 15, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    Great review – really love the growth here.

  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:01 am

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