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GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE – Frank Ilfman

Original Review by Christopher Garner

Gunpowder Milkshake is set in a world of professional assassins. Sam (Karen Gillan) works for The Firm, but between one job going wrong and another job resulting in her taking in the nine-year-old daughter (Chloe Coleman) of one of her victims, she finds herself on the run from her own company as well as another criminal conglomerate. Along the way she is helped by a crew of other hitwomen: her long-lost mother, Scarlett (Lena Headey), and a trio of “librarians” (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino). Director Navot Papushado wanted to make a film that is an homage to noir and spy films of the 1940s and ‘50s, to Japanese assassin comic books, and to spaghetti westerns, taking his inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergio Leone. The film has had a mixed reception by critics, but most enjoyed it, even while noting some of its flaws.

Israeli-born Frank Ilfman provided the score, in his fourth collaboration with Papushado. They seem to have a very collaborative relationship, getting together to create a list of temp pieces and songs that they feel will work well in the film and as inspiration for the score. They wanted the score to be an homage to the scores of the same kinds of films that inspired this one, taking elements from John Barry, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, and Michel Legrand (among others). Thanks to the pandemic, Ilfman had nearly a year to work on the score, and he has created an outstanding leitmotific score that is not only one of the best action film scores of recent memory, but in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the best scores of the year.

Taking inspiration from Barry’s score for The Ipcress File, Ilfman used a cimbalom (often doubled with harpsichord) for the main theme of the film, which first appears in all of the first three tracks on the album. It’s built around a repeating five-note motif over four chords, and has a haunting beauty to it. Hearing it three times in the first three tracks performed with little variation may initially worry you that it will be overused, but after those first three cues it appears less frequently and in a more varied way. The theme is usually performed on cimbalom, but Ilfman varies its sound in later cues by switching up the accompanying orchestration. It’s played along with a drum set, horns, and a high four-note motif on synthesizer in “Dressed to Kill,” accompanied by glass harmonica in “A Careless Whisper,” and plays over soft strings and then propellant synth in “Are You a Serial Killer?”

Being leitmotific, the score is replete with themes for the main characters and groups of bad guys. Scarlet’s theme is introduced first in the appropriately titled “Scarlet’s Theme.” Her theme is played by an electric baritone guitar over timpani. It barely begins before the main theme reappears and plays along with it. Ilfman wanted a spaghetti western vibe for the character of Scarlet because she’s something like a modern gunslinger. The Morricone-styled theme works really well as counterpoint to the Barry-styled main theme. “The Firm” introduces a menacing theme for the company that employs Sam. It’s a descending three-note motif that ends on an ominous unresolved tone, first heard on woodwinds and doubled by low strings. Later versions of the firm theme extend it beyond its original three notes, such as in “944 Bullets” where it is expanded to five notes. A group of killers called “The Monsters” are represented by a theremin and low strings playing a descending four-note melody. Their theme comes back in “Rock Monster” accompanied by some ‘60s surf-style guitars and harpsichord. “Yankee and the Goons” introduces a musical identity for a trio of mostly imbecilic hitmen that Sam fights multiple times in the film. Ilfman gave them a small mariachi band feel, with whistling, accordion, mandolins, and harmonica. It’s a comedic sound meant to convey the goon’s ineptitude. Sam and Emily (the nine-year-old girl Sam rescues) get a theme that appears for the first time at 1:18 in “Redemption is for the Careless.” The theme is made up of see-sawing minor intervals (usually thirds) performed over the same four chords on which the main theme is based, and features a wordless female vocal. Sam and Emily’s theme is back in “Are You a Serial Killer?” and “The Sam and Emily Story,” where it gets a serene arrangement. Perhaps the most beautiful presentation of the theme comes in “Madeleine’s Adagio,” which is a gorgeous lament. “McAlester’s Theme” isn’t introduced until Sam finally comes face to face with the big bad at the end of the film. His theme is built around a three-note motif that rises and falls.

Along the way there are a smattering of other themes as well. “Gunpowder Milkshake” introduces a gorgeous theme at :54 that sounds like the main theme (complete with cimbalom), but inverted and built around a repeating seven-note motif. The cimbalom is doubled by high strings in a sweeping musical moment that definitely could have been written by John Barry. Another theme is performed by high strings toward the end of “13:8 in 60 Seconds.”

Other cues, like “Escape Route,” “Fudge You!” and “The Standoff” build tension, the third of which is a wonderful homage to something like Fistful of Dollars by Ennio Morricone. Harpsichord, whistling, spring reverb, and guitar create that spaghetti western vibe. When the orchestra comes in it lends an air of steady determination that is only cemented by the trumpet and soprano solos that follow. It’s really excellent.

If you listen to any of the interviews Ilfman did for this score (and there are a surprising number of them), you’ll hear that he went out of his way to be “non-conventional” about the big action scenes. There are three in particular that he talks about with some pride (and he has every right to be proud of them—they are exceptional). The first is “Goonfight at Gutterball Corral,” accompanying the fight scene in the bowling alley between Sam and the Goons. Ilfman said that he struggled to find the right sound for this scene. He tried several different ideas, but didn’t feel like any of them worked until he had the idea to combine an indie rock band with an homage to Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold.” The result is glorious. The cue begins with a grungy electric guitar (played by Charlotte Hatherley), drums (played by Alex James Thomas), and some perfectly Morricone-esque whistling (performed by Ilfman himself). Some men chanting “fight” leads into the addition of the full orchestra, harpsichord, and an amazing wordless vocal by soprano Grace Davidson. Any fan of Ennio Morricone is going to love this. I recommend you watch the recording session for this cue that Sony uploaded to YouTube. It’s not often that a studio makes what is essentially a music video for a film score cue.

The second of these big action cues is “La Balada de los Charros,” in which Sam fights the goons for the final time at a medical clinic. During the fight Sam can’t use her arms at all and the goons are incapacitated in a variety of ways thanks to their previous encounter with Sam. Ilfman takes the mariachi sound that was really only hinted at for the goons previously and dials it to 11. The full-blown mariachi sound (complete with traditional Mexican yells, laughs, and whistles), flamenco percussion, and baroque ensemble emphasize the ridiculous nature of the scene. When a handful of people start chanting “sombrero” at the end of the track I always have to laugh. Ilfman wanted both of these action cues to sound like they were composed for something else and needle-dropped into the score, and that the beats in the film were edited to match the music, even though it was the other way around.

The third of the big action cues is “To the Death,” which starts with solo organ playing a repeating motif over the same four chords that make up the harmonies for the main theme and for Sam and Emily’s theme. Ilfman then masterfully layers more and more instruments over that base, first adding low strings, then drums, before the upper strings take up the melody. Ilfman then gradually adds woodwinds, synthesizer, horns, and harpsichord. All the while the motif that started with just the organ builds and builds into an awesome variation on the main theme. The brass section takes up the theme at the end as the higher strings start arpeggiating. If you have the opportunity, you might listen to this cue at high volume and just let the grandness wash over you. It is stunning.

These three cues are probably the standout action cues in the score, but that’s not to say the rest of the action music isn’t good, because it is. The trio of cues “Bare Knuckles and Gold Bars,” “The Library Fight” and “The Big Gundown,” are great examples of combining the full orchestra with an upbeat electro-rock sound. The indie rock band is back at the beginning of “Bare Knuckles” accompanied by harpsichord and synthesizer. When the orchestra comes in as well it sounds epic. “Library Fight,” contrary to what its title might suggest, is mostly the calm between two storms. “The Big Gundown” then sees the orchestra and choir take center stage, creating a sound far more majestic than what you might expect to hear during a fight scene.

The score wraps up with three cues, the first of which, “Red Dot Marks the Spot,” is a slow burn, brooding its way to a concluding presentation of the main theme. “Sam’s Theme” was arranged for solo piano and performed by orchestrator Jeff Atmajian, who gets a compositional credit on the track. It’s a soft lounge-jazz version of the theme that is really lovely. “Ensemble Pour Toujours” is an end credits cue with a very ‘60’s French-pop sound, but coupled with modern electronics to give it an interesting old-meets-new feel. The female vocals add variety, through wordless embellishment at first, and then through dialogue spoken in French. And the end the main theme comes in played by strings and fits seamlessly over the top of all of this throwback sound.

Everything in this score is just done so well. Ilfman is at the top of his game here. The wealth of leitmotifs, the fun call-backs to film music styles of yore, the huge action music—it all just combines into something fantastic. I should add that action film scores are almost never my preferred kind of music, and these type of hyper-violent action films are not for me (I won’t be watching it), but this score is so much better than a typical action score. I can’t recommend it enough, especially to those who are familiar with all the music that inspired it. It’s just great.

Buy the Gunpowder Milkshake soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles (1:21)
  • Home Sweet Home? (0:35)
  • Scarlet’s Theme (0:53)
  • Gunpowder Milkshake (1:28)
  • Big Bad Mommy (1:43)
  • New Books and Clean Guns (2:07)
  • Dressed To Kill (1:38)
  • Le Bonbon (1:44)
  • A Careless Whisper (1:06)
  • The Firm (1:32)
  • The Rollin Roars (2:05)
  • Goonfight at Gutterball Corral (2:49)
  • The Monsters (1:20)
  • Rock Monster (1:08)
  • Yankee and the Goons (1:24)
  • Redemption Is For The Careless (2:20)
  • 13:8 In 60 Seconds (3:57)
  • La Balada de los Charros (2:27)
  • Are You a Serial Killer? (2:50)
  • 944 Bullets (3:02)
  • The Sam and Emily Story (1:55)
  • Escape Route (3:09)
  • Fudge you! (2:29)
  • Bare Knuckles and Gold Bars (2:27)
  • The Library Fight (3:47)
  • The Big Gundown (2:33)
  • To The Death (3:02)
  • Madeleine’s Adagio (3:01)
  • McAlester’s Theme (1:48)
  • The Standoff (2:07)
  • Red Dot Marks The Spot (4:55)
  • Sam’s Theme (written by Jeff Atmajian) (1:44)
  • Ensemble Pour Toujours (performed by Susana Nakatani) (2:28)

Running Time: 72 minutes 34 seconds

Milan (2021)

Music composed by Frank Ilfman. Conducted by Matthew Slater. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Gareth Cousins. Album produced by Frank Ilfman.

  1. August 11, 2021 at 9:32 am

    It worked fantastically in the movie too. I only paid attention to it as a Karen Gillan fan (not an action-violence fan either) and was shocked at how good the score was as I was watching it. Particularly the more emotional cues were used in a very Zimmer-climax-adagio sort of way while being totally their own thing.

  2. August 17, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Hi Christopher:

    Nick Wollage recorded the orchestra, but I mixed the score. Would appreciate if you could correct the credits block there (then feel free to delete this comment). I’m glad you liked it!

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