Home > Reviews > MOON KNIGHT – Hesham Nazih

MOON KNIGHT – Hesham Nazih

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest super-hero to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Moon Knight, is also the first one to be introduced via a Disney+ television series. Whereas this show’s small screen predecessors – WandaVision, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye – all had their roots and main characters in the big screen film franchise, Moon Knight is a brand new story featuring original characters, who are intended to move into the main MCU as the films progress. The show is a wonderful combination of action, drama, comedy, and fantasy, which stars Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant, a mild-mannered docent at the British Museum in London, whose life is turned upside-down when he realizes that he has a form of dissociative identity disorder, and actually shares his body with an American former mercenary named Marc Spector; even more amazingly, Marc is also the earthly avatar of the ancient Egyptian god Khonshu, and has the power to transform into the super hero Moon Knight in order to do Khonshu’s bidding. Before long, Steven/Marc are swept up in a grand adventure involving a religious cult leader who wants to purge the world of sinners, and a search for a mysterious artifact deep within the pyramids of Giza, while also conducting a deep exploration of the emotional trauma and latent mental illness that defines Marc and Steven’s relationship.

Moon Knight is a creative, ambitious, visually impressive, wholly enjoyable romp that balances classic superhero adventures with some moving and at times deeply troubling explorations of what having a dissociative identity disorder means in real terms. It also offers a wonderful portrayal of Egyptian culture, both contemporary and ancient, where gods and avatars exist side-by-side with the people of a vibrant and modern Cairo. Oscar Isaac is superb as Marc/Steven, especially when he adopts a slightly bumbling comedic persona and a dodgy English accent, which stands in contrast to the tortured, stoic, and occasionally violent American mercenary that is his polar opposite but shares his mind and body. Isaac is supported by May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly, a fellow archeologist-adventurer and Spector’s ex-wife; Ethan Hawke as the charismatic cult leader Arthur Harrow; and F. Murray Abraham, who provides the rich and sonorous voice of Khonshu.

The score for Moon Knight is by the brilliant Egyptian composer Hesham Nazih who is, to the best of my knowledge, the first Egyptian to score any major American film or television project. I would imagine that, for most people reading this, Moon Knight will be the first score they have heard by Nazih, but he’s actually been working in the pan-Arabic film music industry for almost 20 years, and is well-known in that part of the world for his scores for films such as The Blue Elephant, Welad Rizq, and Diamond Dust, as well as for several popular TV series. Ironically, his international breakthrough might have come not from a film, but from a TV special – The Pharoah’s Golden Parade – which was a 2-hour event broadcast in April 2021 during which mummies belonging to various kings and queens of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt were moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, a few miles away. The whole thing was a grand, spectacular celebration of Egyptian culture, featuring light and laser displays, and parades of men and women in traditional dress accompanying these ancient rulers to their new resting places, and Nazih was commissioned to compose an hour-long concert work to accompany the parade. Nazih’s music for it was utterly spectacular, and it seems that he may have been recommended to Marvel by director Mohamed Diab based on that work. Some have suggested that I may have even played a tiny role in getting Nazih this gig myself; my review of The Pharoah’s Golden Parade, and the subsequent special award I gave it as part of my 2021 MMUK Awards, made the mainstream news in Egypt, and it could be that that burst of publicity helped – and if that’s the case, then I’m absolutely delighted.

However it all happened, the fact that a composer like Hesham Nazih is scoring a major Marvel/Disney TV series is nothing short of remarkable, and better still is the fact that the music is just sensational. It’s an old-fashioned big-orchestra superhero action score, anchored by a massive and memorable main theme, but which also seamlessly works in elements of Egyptian classical music, anchoring it in a specific place and a specific culture, while remaining appealing to a broad audience. The score was recorded in Austria with the Synchron Stage Vienna orchestra, a full choir and vocal soloists, and numerous regional specialist instruments including a rababa fiddle, a mizmar horn, a ney flute, a traditional frame drum called a douf, and an arghoul, a double-pipe single-reed woodwind. Nazih also has some heavy hitters as part of his team – the orchestrators include Nicholas Dodd, who famously worked with David Arnold and James Horner on scores like Independence Day and Avatar, and Leigh Phillips, who recently received significant acclaim for reconstructing several lost Jerry Goldsmith scores for new recordings by Tadlow Music with the City of Prague Philharmonic.

Everything is built around the main theme, which is introduced in the opening cue “Moon Knight,” and when I say that everything is built around the main theme, I really do mean that. The theme is based around two parts – an initial explosion of eight staccato hits, followed by a more lyrical 11-note melody, and then the two ideas playing contrapuntally – but, in a perfect illustration of one of the show’s core concepts, the theme breaks down, shatters, splits into multiple pieces, and gets scattered throughout the score. Sometimes Nazih uses the full theme, but at other times he uses little 2-note and 3-note and 4-note bursts, and not always the same three or four notes. These recurring motifs are embedded in almost every subsequent cue; they don’t specifically represent Steven, or Marc, or Khonshu, but rather represent the idea that they are separate individuals and identities that are only brought together as a whole through Moon Knight himself. It’s a brilliant way of conveying one of the show’s core ideas through music, and the mileage Nazih gets from the almost infinite number of motivic combinations this approach allows gives the score a real depth and richness.

The other element of the score, which sort of achieves a similar aim, is the use of choir. Moon Knight is one of the most choir-heavy scores in recent memory, but it’s also very varied in tone and texture, and can come across as soothing, intensely scary, or epically apocalyptic, as the narrative demands. Sometimes the choir sings simple wordless notes – oohs and aahs – but then it often bursts out in a massive scale, with chanted lyrics in an ancient Egyptian dialect; some of the lyrics translate into English as “life and glory shall be yours,” which gives you an idea of what it’s all about. Obviously, these huge choral outbursts are intended to show the scope of the power of the Egyptian gods who lead much of the story, but the choir also has a secondary purpose in driving home the point about dissociative identity disorder – the voices inside Steven/Marc’s head. Sometimes the voices exalt as one with a singular purpose, but sometimes they are chaotic, overlapping, chattery, a metaphor for the times when three distinct personalities – Steven, Marc, and Khonshu – are all vying for dominance of one body at the same time, competing for attention. It’s yet another brilliant conceptual illustration by Nazih, which again gives the score a deeper meaning in context.

Tonally and stylistically this is all classic Hollywood super hero stuff, full of grand orchestral gestures, colorful arrangements, and bold thematic statements – throughout the score I got frequent flavors of Jerry Goldsmith (especially The Mummy), Basil Poledouris (especially Conan the Barbarian), and James Horner (especially Krull and Willow), not in any specific melodic way, but in terms of the overall approach and wanting to create a similar sense of power and scope, and how the whole thing is imbued with an inherent lyricism.

The action music in Moon Knight is especially impressive. Nazih uses the entire orchestra to its fullest potential, often focusing on heavy and throaty brass, underpinned with swirling rhythmic strings, chanted chorus, and roaring and rolling percussion; cues like “The Village,” “Village Scales,” “Storage Locker,” “The Sky,” “No Suit,” the lyrical “Eye of Horus,” “Befriending Myself,” and “Rise and Shine” are especially impressive in this regard. I love how Nazih incorporates the sound of the ney flute into the body of the action in the thrilling “Full Moon Fight” and the gargantuan “Moonlight Fight,” and how later in “Take the Body” his strings flash and dance and create a tapestry of elegant movement and exhilarating power. Weaving through all of this action material are endless fragments of the main theme – three notes here, four notes there, a different three notes over there – and then, in the moments where the entire theme is reprised, the score just soars.

The second half of “The Village” also introduces one of the score’s secondary thematic ideas, representing Harrow and the followers of the goddess Ammit. Harrow/Ammit’s theme is a sinister, insidious idea arranged initially for what sounds like a dulcimer backed with mournful choral textures and metallic percussion, but which also gets a great deal of attention from the full orchestra. Harrow/Ammit’s theme is not as immediately prominent as the main theme, of course, but it does get plenty of mileage, receiving notable subsequent statements towards the end of the eerie “Village Scales,” in “Chaos Within,” throughout “What Suit,” and in the dominant “She Is Here,” the latter of which also features a wonderfully mournful-sounding solo female vocalist.

Once in a while Nazih heads off into light horror territory. The version of the main theme in “Phone and Elevator Blues” sounds especially haunting when performed by the scratchy rababa, accompanied by dissonant orchestral sounds and an imposing choir. This is counterbalanced by the love theme for Marc and Layla, whose complicated relationship is initially spiky and a little antagonistic, starts to thaw in the piano-led “The Boat,” and finally comes to fruition in “The Kiss” amid an array of romantic strings.

I also really appreciate the faux-classical textures of “Fake Passport,” and the more contemporary-sounding electronic textures in the second half of “She Is Here” that seem to be channeling Arabic hip-hop and EDM music (some of which also can be heard on the song soundtrack). The sweeping, nautical feel of “Welcome Travelers” as Marc and Steven meet the goddess Taweret on the deck of a ship traversing the sandy oceans of the afterlife, adds a new scope and dimension to the fantasy aspect of the score, and has some especially enchanting choral sounds. Both “The Cave” and “All Your Fault” have a sense of sadness and tragedy and anguished loss to them which, in context, is really powerful, and this bleeds through into several subsequent cues that deal with Marc/Steven’s backstory and the origins of their mental illness – “Open the Door,” “Give Her a Call,” and “The Inevitable,” among others.

However, in a score full of highlights, perhaps the two standout cues overall are “Constellation” and “New Skillsets”. The former underscores the scene where Moon Knight and Khonshu work together and channel all the power of the Egyptian gods to literally ‘turn back the night sky’ – altering the heavens and the cosmos, with modern Cairo and its ancient pyramids silhouetted against it. The music gradually builds in epic orchestral and choral intensity, running through multiple statements of the main theme, until the moment at 2:55 where the solo vocalist starts singing the main melody in an ancient Egyptian dialect, a plaintive and haunting echo through time that sends chills up the spine. It’s just magnificent.

The latter underscores the final episode’s climactic action sequence where Moon Knight is joined in the battle against Harrow and Ammit by Layla, who has by this point fully accepted her role as the avatar of the good-hearted hippopotamus goddess Taweret and become the Scarlet Scarab, the first Egyptian superhero, in her fabulous outfit. In this cue the full power of both the Main Theme and Harrow/Ammit’s theme is unleashed for an apocalyptic battle between gods and men, as immense versions of Khonshu and Ammit fight on the steps of the great pyramid, while Moon Knight and Harrow fight on the streets of Cairo. The female battle cry at 1:29 heralds the first appearance of the Scarlet Scarab in full regalia – new motif! – and from then on it’s a musical war between the two themes, both in full and deconstructed, plus the new Scarlet Scarab motif, the entire choir, all the vocalists, and the regional specialty instruments. It’s staggeringly good and, with a final reprise of the theme in “Summon the Suit,” ends the score on a massive high.

This isn’t Hisham Nazih’s film music debut, in any way, but it’s nevertheless a magnificent way to introduce himself to the wider film music world. Moon Knight is a phenomenal score, full of all the things I love about film music – big themes, big orchestras, big choirs, big emotions, intelligent thematic application, clever representation of key concepts, and moments of raw, overwhelming power. It’s also yet another reminder – as if one were needed – of just how much compositional talent there is working outside the established Hollywood mainstream. For years I have been trying to convey with my ‘Under-the-Radar’ reviews the fact that, for all the criticisms that have been rightly made about the state of contemporary American film music, there is still brilliant film music being written in all parts of Europe, in Scandinavia, in Japan and China and Korea, in Vietnam, and across the Arabic-speaking world, if only people would take the time to seek it out and listen. Fortunately for us Marvel and Disney have taken all the hard work out of it, plucked Hesham Nazih from relative obscurity, and placed him at the forefront of the Hollywood mainstream – and in response he has written an absolute knockout. Moon Knight is already at the top of the list of 2022’s best scores, and I hope the rest of Hollywood takes note and continues to hire Nazih – and many of his equally talented contemporaries – going forward.

Buy the Moon Knight soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Moon Knight (2:10)
  • The Village (1:36)
  • Village Scales (2:13)
  • Phone and Elevator Blues (2:09)
  • Chaos Within (3:37)
  • Full Moon Fight (2:13)
  • Storage Locker (2:36)
  • What Suit? (2:48)
  • Moonlight Fight (3:19)
  • Fake Passport (2:33)
  • She Is Here (4:37)
  • The Sky (2:34)
  • The Boat (2:05)
  • Take the Body (3:06)
  • Constellation (4:16)
  • No Suit (3:29)
  • The Kiss (1:54)
  • Eye of Horus (1:11)
  • Welcome Travelers (1:42)
  • Weight of Hearts (2:33)
  • The Cave (2:56)
  • All Your Fault (1:55)
  • Open the Door (1:45)
  • Give Her a Call (3:12)
  • The Inevitable (5:15)
  • Humble Disciple (4:15)
  • Befriending Myself (3:32)
  • Rise and Shine (2:43)
  • We Need More (1:30)
  • New Skillsets (6:08)
  • I’ll Never Stop (2:36)
  • Meet My Friend (0:37)
  • Summon the Suit (2:17)

Running Time: 91 minutes 22 seconds

Marvel Music/Hollywood Records (2022)

Music composed by Hesham Nazih. Conducted by Gottfried Rabl and Bernhard Melbye Voss. Orchestrations by Nicholas Dodd, Adam Klemens and Leigh Phillips. Special vocal performances by Delaram Kamareh and Sayed Imam. Recorded and mixed by Bernd Mazagg, Martin Weismayer and Scott Michael Smith. Edited by Jeff Gartenbaum. Album produced by Hesham Nazih.

  1. Michael
    May 6, 2022 at 10:27 am

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been quite impressed by the scores for the Marvel shows, since the composers seem to have more freedom. Even someone like Jackman wrote a great score for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier where he didn’t had the influence of the Russo brothers and managed to rework themes and make new ones.

    And I so agree that we need out of the radar talents that can bring fresh blood to the industry, and Disney has been doing that with their TV shows.

  2. May 7, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    I’m very close to anointing this the best of all Marvel scores… (IMO) it’s at least at the same level as Black Panther and Eternals which are my two favorite right now.

    Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single cue from this short decade that is as jaw-dropping as Constellation, especially in context of the scene and how it elevates it.

  1. January 28, 2023 at 10:00 am

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