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LIGHTYEAR – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In November 1995 the upstart studio Pixar released the film Toy Story, and kick-started a revolution in animated filmmaking. Within years most of the main studios had their own animation departments and were churning out massive amounts of content for kids, but the origins of the boom all traced back to a simple story of a little boy, his toy cowboy, and his toy astronaut. That astronaut was, of course, named Buzz Lightyear, and the in-movie conceit was that he was an action figure from a movie in that universe that none us of had seen: we just had to accept that it was real. Well, now Pixar have actually made that movie – the Buzz Lightyear origin story that the toy in Toy Story is based on! It’s a classic sci-fi adventure in which Buzz, a hotshot Space Ranger astronaut in Star Command, becomes marooned on an apparently hostile alien planet after suffering the effects of time dilation on his space craft, and has to find a way back home – all while confronting a threat in the form of the evil Emperor Zurg. The film is directed by Angus MacLane and has a voice cast that includes Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, James Brolin, and Taika Waititi, with Evans replacing Tim Allen as the voice of Buzz.

The score for Lightyear is by Pixar’s current established in-house composer, Michael Giacchino; it’s his third score of 2022 (after The Batman and Jurassic World: Dominion), and his eighth score for Pixar overall – his work for them dates back to 2004 and The Incredibles, and encompasses such excellent works as Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out, and Coco. Like the film it accompanies, Giacchino’s score is a classic space adventure, filled with memorable themes and exciting action. It’s also much simpler and more straightforward than most of his more recent work – the emotions are direct, the themes more easily recognizable – and this works in its favor in terms of how it will have a broad appeal to a wide audience. The main theme for Buzz is especially memorable, a total ear worm, and has the potential to be one of the all-time classic Giacchino melodies.

Something that listeners will notice right off the bat, though, is the fact that Giacchino’s music bears absolutely no relation to the music Randy Newman wrote for the Toy Story films. While some may be disappointed with this – Newman’s theme for Buzz was a lot of fun! – I actually think this was the right decision. Lightyear is supposed to be a totally standalone product, the film that inspired the toy in Toy Story, and as such it makes sense for it to exist in isolation. Furthermore, although he can write outstanding action music, as his rejected score for Air Force One attests, Newman’s sardonic and whimsical sound would perhaps not give this version of Buzz the right sort of gravitas; whereas the Buzz from Toy Story was a figure of fun, comic relief adrift in a world he doesn’t understand, this Buzz is all hero, all the time, and the music has to reflect that.

As such, Giacchino gave this Buzz a truly heroic identity through the use of a recurring theme – and it’s a terrific one. Imagine a Giacchino theme – something along the lines of Tomorrowland or Sky High – run through with influences from the best genre work of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, and you get an rough idea what the score for Lightyear sounds like. It’s mostly fully orchestral, and usually accompanied by a bank of relentless percussion, and often has a subtle electronic sweetening underneath it all to enhance the sci-fi genre elements. Stylistically, quite a lot of it is a throwback to the early parts of Giacchino’s career when he was writing scores for video games like Medal of Honor, Secret Weapons Over Normandy, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, not just in terms of the actual arrangements, but in terms of the level of enthusiasm that comes bounding out of the music.

The theme for Buzz is the very first thing you hear, at the beginning of the opening cue “Mission Log,” which builds out from a four-note motif into a noble horn refrain underpinned with a militaristic snare drum riff. From this initial starting point the theme heads off in numerous different directions with numerous emotional variations – at times it plays as a piece full of reflection and poignancy, at other times it is a rousing and heroic action anthem – but no matter where you are in the score the theme for Buzz is never too far away.

I love the expansive statement of the theme in the title track “Lightyear,” which has a rich militaristic sound full of resounding brass counterpoint and rapped snares, and which at times reminds me of a combination between James Horner’s Glory (especially when Giacchino brings out his pennywhistles to add color to the strings after the 1:18 mark) and Jerry Goldsmith’s Small Soldiers (another movie about action figures that come to life). “The Best Laid Plans of Space and Men” is bold and vibrant, while “Mission Perpetual” (the cue which was released as a single prior to the full album dropping) has an insistent sense of forward motion and drive that is positive and upbeat, and has a fun bubbly electronic pulse underneath the orchestra, as well as a sweeping string countermelody filled with charm and optimism.

I feel like that latter cue also has some additional John Williams elements that come through in the jazzy percussion rhythms, which remind me very much of the music he wrote for classic Irwin Allen TV shows like Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. Some of the percussion patterns have a Latin salsa/merengue vibe that I really dig, and there are a couple of additional moments where he uses a vibraphone too, which gives it a real 1960s feel.

But Lightyear is not just a one-theme-and-done score, as Giacchino crafts additional thematic ideas for other concepts and characters. The theme for the evil Emperor Zurg first appears in “Zurg Awakens,” an ominous choral passage accompanied by shrill, urgent, trembling strings, before the whole thing explodes fully into life in the tremendous “Zurg’s Displeasure,” which comes across as an unholy alliance between the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, the Cobalt theme from his own score for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and one of Miklós Rózsa’s fanfares from a biblical epic. Further prominent performances of the Zurg theme appear in cues like “Space Afraiders,” the exhilarating “Zurg-onomics,” “Buzz, Meet Zurg,” and “Hiding from Yourself,” and it’s all very comic book villainy, but there is actually more to this than meets the eye. Zurg’s theme is clever in the way it often comes across as an intentional inversion of Buzz’s theme, and in doing so alludes to the film’s unexpected twist – that Zurg is actually an older Buzz from an alternate timeline.

Counterbalancing this is some quieter, more low-key writing which seems to speak to Buzz’s relationship with his best friend Alisha Hawthorne (and, subsequently, Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy), as well as to the sense of loss and failure that comes with a specific aspect of his mission. Cues like “A Hyper Failure” and parts of “Lightyear’s Behind” and “The Lone Space Ranger“ take elements of Buzz’s theme and arrange them in a more thoughtful, elegant, restrained performance for strings and piano that has hints of his perennially popular and poignant music from the TV series Lost. Then, towards the end of the score, cues like “Mistake It All In,” “To Infinity and Be Gone,” and “Hawthorn in Her Side” revisit this material to excellent effect, although the latter becomes more action packed as it develops.

Speaking of the action music, most of the rest of the score is full of it, and it’s some of Giacchino’s most enjoyable, busy and exciting and energetic and full of personality. “Initial Greetings” is an excellent example of the score’s action style, rampant string runs and blatting low brasses again underpinned with those ever-present snare tattoos; the clattering xylophone runs in the cue’s second half are pure Jerry Goldsmith. “Blown on Course” has a trilling, dancing string line underneath the statements of Buzz’s theme, which eventually break into a fantastic staccato brass texture that comes straight from John Williams and the original 1977 Star Wars. Later, “Afternoon Delight Speed” becomes rather dark and menacing towards its conclusion, imposing brass clusters that grow louder and more dominant, while “Light Speed at the End of the Tunnel” and “Relative Success” are explosions of tempo and intensity, with the latter having a little bit of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets thrown in for good measure.

“A Good Day to Not Die” has a bombastic percussive rhythm underpinning the orchestral flourishes that has a touch of Danny Elfman to it. “Oh, Hover” is fast and full of scampering movement, with a memorable brass action motif running through the entire thing. My favorite of the action sequences is probably “World’s Worst Self-Destruct Sequence,” a tremendously exciting and effective ‘countdown’ cue which builds and builds over the course of 90 seconds in a way that is very reminiscent of the magnificent “Taking Out the Railgun” cue from the first Medal of Honor video score from back in 1999, before ending with an enormous burst of the Zurg theme. In one final homage to one of Giacchino’s personal heroes, “Time to Space Your Fears” ends with a sequence that sounds like classic Alan Silvestri, circa 1987 and Predator.

The finale of the score is action and drama all the way, with multiple statements of Buzz’s theme and Zurg’s theme embedded into the fabric of the expansive action. “Improv-Izzy-tion” and “Back to Buzzness” are tremendously impressive – brass triplets, relentless snares, flourishing strings, imposing choir – and then “Home on the Space Range” revisits Buzz’s theme at its most emotional and heroic, giving the action a wonderful send-off. The conclusive “Infinite MOEtion” is a complete delight, a hugely enjoyable version of Buzz’s theme blended with the choir from Zurg’s theme so that the two identities essentially become one concept. Giacchino complements all the orchestral flamboyance with light rock-pop percussion, subtle electric guitars, and a lush bridge that references the Hawthorne theme – it’s so much fun. The 12-minute “One Suite Buzz” is the end credits piece, and offers a comprehensive rundown of the entire score that is immensely satisfying.

One additional thing I feel I have to point out especially in Lightyear are the orchestrations, which are just terrific. Throughout the entire score the layers of what each instrumental section is doing is fascinating; each element is constantly doing something interesting, presenting a new percussive pattern to keep the score moving forward with energy and dynamism, tossing a rhythmic element around between different parts of the brass section just for the fun of it, or merging two or more sections together to create fascinating colors and instrumental combinations. This sort of thing sounds like it should be a ‘well, duh’ statement, but I feel like you don’t hear this type of intricacy and sophistication in film music as much as you used to, where the entire orchestra and the choir and the electronics have this type of synchronization. When I get that sense from a score nowadays, like I did here with Lightyear, I feel like it’s important to point it out.

This is all especially impressive considering the circumstances in which the score was recorded, at the height of COVID. Giacchino recorded the soundtrack with an 89-piece orchestra and 39-member choir over 5 days, but in an interview with Slashfilm he explained that COVID changed everything because he realized he was not going to be able to record these things the way he would normally. He said, “I like to have the whole orchestra in the room together and really work the performance that way. But that was not going to be allowed. If we were even allowed to record, everyone had to be separate. So, you couldn’t have the strings with the brass or the brass with the woodwinds. You couldn’t do any of that. Everyone had to be completely separated, 6 to 10 feet apart. So even if you wanted the full orchestra in the room, they would never have fit the way the distance had to happen. Woodwinds had to have all of this plastic in front of them. The brass had to be surrounded in plastic shower curtains. So not only did you have those obstacles, they couldn’t even hear each other or watch the body language of someone else playing.”

The bottom line of this is that Lightyear is a terrific achievement. Considering the legacy of Toy Story, and of Randy Newman’s music for it, it would have been very easy for people to reject a different musical approach to the character outright simplly because it is different – and, to be fair, I have seen some people doing just that. For me, though, going in with that state of mine would be doing the score a disservice, because Giacchino’s work here is tremendous. Buzz’s theme is one of the catchiest in recent memory, Zurg’s theme is a bombastic over-the-top treat, and the relationship between the two themes is a clever reflection of the story. When you combine that with action music that recalls some of Giacchino’s best work on the Medal of Honor series, and some judicious and intentional homages to Giacchino’s favorite action and sci-fi scores and composers from when he was a kid, you get a score which entertains from beginning to end, and truly takes the listener to infinity and beyond.

Buy the Lightyear soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mission Log (2:23)
  • Initial Greetings (3:27)
  • Lightyear (2:45)
  • The Best Laid Plans of Space and Men (1:15)
  • Blown on Course (1:37)
  • A Hyper Failure (0:55)
  • Lightyear’s Behind (1:45)
  • Mission Perpetual (2:41)
  • The Lone Space Ranger (2:24)
  • Afternoon Delight Speed (4:43)
  • Light Speed at the End of the Tunnel (0:34)
  • Relative Success (0:41)
  • Zurg Awakens (1:53)
  • Operation Surprise Party (0:44)
  • A Good Day to Not Die (2:38)
  • Zurg’s Displeasure (0:30)
  • Space Afraiders (3:57)
  • Zurg-onomics (2:00)
  • Oh, Hover (2:57)
  • Mistake It All In (1:33)
  • Buzz, Meet Zurg (1:33)
  • To Infinity and Be Gone (4:13)
  • Hawthorn in Her Side (0:59)
  • World’s Worst Self-Destruct Sequence (1:39)
  • Time to Space Your Fears (4:01)
  • Hiding from Yourself (1:21)
  • Improv-Izzy-tion (0:50)
  • Back to Buzzness (3:10)
  • Home on the Space Range (2:59)
  • Infinite MOEtion (2:06)
  • One Suite Buzz (12:19)

Running Time: 76 minutes 31 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2022)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by XXXX. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka, Pedro Osuna and Curtis Green. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by Stephen M. Davis. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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  1. January 28, 2023 at 10:00 am

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