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BLACK ADAM – Lorne Balfe

October 25, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest comic book super hero film in the DC Extended Universe is Black Adam, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starring Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Sarah Shahi, Bodhi Sabongui, and Pierce Brosnan. Johnson stars as the titular character, a man from the city of Kahndaq circa 2500 BC, who helps lead a rebellion against a tyrannical king, and is endowed with magical powers by the Council of Wizards (the same wizards who gave similar powers to Shazam in another DC film). Thousands of years later Adam is brought back to life by an archaeologist who believes he can help defeat the oppressive regime currently ruling present-day Kahndaq; however, Adam’s new presence in the modern world catches the attention of the Justice Society of America (which is, apparently, different from the Justice League), and a team led by super-heroes Hawkman and Doctor Fate is dispatched to Kahndaq to determine whether Adam is a friend or a foe. The film has some potentially interesting things to say about the nature of heroism, and has some fun depicting a contemporary north African culture not usually explored in films like this, but by the end it devolves into yet another massive fight sequence between CGI avatars hurling each other through walls… ho hum. Such is the way with most DC films, although this at least does have a vein of humor in it which stops it being so dreary and self-serious.

The score for Black Adam is by Lorne Balfe, who is of course now an experienced hand when it comes to these big budget sci-fi superhero movies, having written the music for Black Widow in 2021, among many others. I’ve talked before about the ‘Lornaissance’ that has been going on for the past couple of years; Balfe has really impressed me with a lot of his recent scores, ranging from the aforementioned Black Widow to the TV series His Dark Materials and The Wheel of Time, to things like The Tomorrow War, and more low-profile projects like Rumble and Silent Night. All those scores have shown an increased level of creativity, thematic prominence, and sense of fun that was in my opinion missing from some of his earlier work. Black Adam very much continues that trend. It’s a score which still adheres to many of the tried-and-tested approaches that have been heard in previous DCEU projects – Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, and so on – but it has a stronger thematic core than most of those earlier scores, and on the whole has more energy and vitality, which makes the score a much more engaging experience.

The score is built mostly around two main themes – the Black Adam theme, and the theme for the Justice Society – but within those themes are actually several sub-themes and motifs that exist independently of each other, so that they can combine with and play off each other in a variety of interesting ways. The themes are presented in two concert pieces during the score. The “Black Adam Theme” is the thematic identity that represents Adam, the ancient city of Kahndaq, and the dramatic impetus for his story of revenge and redemption. There are several elements that make up the theme, including an initial cello ostinato, a darkly heroic brass fanfare best heard at the 0:57 mark, an ululating choral idea first heard after the 1:20 mark, and a searching, aspirational secondary theme for strings that comes in around 2:05. All of this is surrounded by a massive, imposing orchestral accompaniment that has a real rock star swagger, and is full of pounding prominent percussion and electronic beats. Balfe says that he envisaged the theme to be a musical characterization of Johnson’s ‘The Rock’ persona, coupled with the anthemic sound of a high school marching band, and it’s a ton of fun – rousing, stirring stuff. In terms of Balfe’s previous work it gives me the same vibes as things like Pacific Rim Uprising, but I like this more.

Meanwhile, the “Justice Society Theme” represents the combined efforts of Hawkman and Doctor Fate, and the super hero rookies Atom Smasher and Cyclone, who journey to Kahndaq to confront Black Adam. The Justice Society Theme is more traditionally lyrical and heroic, and is usually carried by flurrying strings, backed with a strong percussive beat and chanted choral textures. A more courageous, brassy fanfare variant of the theme appears around the 1:40 mark, but interestingly Balfe really only uses these two ideas to represent the four members of the team – Hawkman doesn’t appear to have his own theme, and neither do Atom Smasher and Cyclone – although Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate does have a sort of warped, electronically manipulated texture that crops up in scenes where he uses his powers to bend reality and create illusions in the minds of his enemies.

These various themes and sub-themes dominate the melodic part of the score, and what’s clever about them is how Balfe offsets them against each other to depict the shifting allegiances. At the beginning of the score Black Adam and the Justice Society are clear antagonists, and as such Balfe pits the themes against each other during their early battles, but then when the two sides join forces in the finale Balfe often plays them contrapuntally, supporting each other – for example, in “Slave Champion,” when the Justice Society Theme plays with the choral chant from the Black Adam theme underneath it.

There are lots of great statements of the main Black Adam theme, in “Teth-Adam,” “Kahndaq,” “The Awakening,” the grungy “Change Your Name,” “Your Enemies,” the menacing “Prison Break,” and many others. The Justice Society Theme doesn’t really get properly introduced until the fifth cue, “Introducing the JSA,” although here it is sometimes underpinned with an unexpected hip-hop vocal sample that gives it a contemporary, urban vibe. Subsequent statements in “What Kind of Magic,” “Lake Baikal, and “The JSA Fights Back” are more traditionally satisfying; in fact, the strength and memorability of these themes is one of the score’s primary appeals.

A lot of the action music that surrounds the statements of the themes is fun and creative. I like the use of tribal percussion and Middle Eastern woodwinds in “Kahndaq,” and the terrific brass triplets that feature prominently at the end of the same cue. The Middle Eastern vocals in “Shaza-Superman” and “I Was Him” bring back fond memories of when James Horner would use vocalists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to add a layer of ethnic authenticity to his music. The relentless energy of “Fly Bikes” is a shot in the arm, and the way Balfe incorporates statements of the Black Adam theme into the fabric of the cue is impressive. The angelic choral ideas in “A Bad Plan is a Good Plan” are surprisingly beautiful, and the instrumental variation on the choral chant in “Not a Hero” is driving and relentless.

Speaking of choral ideas, I also love the way Balfe has his choir go bonkers in parts of “Not Interested,” “Just Say Shazam”, “Release Him,” and others. In fact, the wild choral ideas Balfe uses occasionally remind me of Danny Elfman and the bizarro-world sound he brought to some of his brother Richard’s films, like Shrunken Heads. This gives Black Adam a similarly anarchic gonzo tone that I appreciate. A lot of the time the choir is actually singing Latin lyrics – according to Balfe, when translated into English, they speak directly to Black Adam’s character and journey: ‘he is calm, he rages within, across his bloody palm, a blade in hand, he controls his battalion, all at his command, his anger is fierce, his heart beats warm, his armor was pierced, his blood makes him crazy’. Good stuff.

Occasionally, however, the score does descend into that crushingly oppressive, heavy, howling, overproduced-within-an-inch-of-its-life music that often made things like Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman so painful to listen to, and people with a low tolerance for that general sound may find some of this album difficult. There are LONG sequences of score, especially during its middle section, where the album is nothing but thunderous action, wailing electric guitars, and relentless percussion, and with an album length of well over an hour and a half, it does occasionally get a bit overwhelming. Not only that – and this is something I rarely comment on – but the Balfe’s recording and mixing occasionally makes the score have an unusual amount of distortion, which I assume is a stylistic choice, but it’s prominent enough that even *I* noticed it, and I never usually notice things like that.

The only moments of downtime come in the flashback scenes where Adam is mourning the death, millennia ago, of his son Hurut, and as such cues like “Father & Son” feature a mournful cello lament sometimes offset with tapped tribal percussion, although even here a lot of the chord structure appears to be based around the Black Adam theme. These moments where the score slows down give the listener a chance to breathe and recover are welcome, but infrequent, and it’s back into the pulsating action before you know it.

The finale of the score – which sees Black Adam fighting alongside the members of the Justice Society of America against the demon Sabbac and the Legions of Hell, for the fate of Kahndaq and the world at large – is a mass of pulsating, energetic strings and bold, dominant horns, interspersed with the various different elements of both main themes, and the enormous choir, as well as some heavy electronic beats. The sequence from “Legions of Hell” through the swaggering “The Man in Black” to “Adam’s Journey” is about as epic as this music gets, and fans of Balfe’s testosterone-heavy sound will glean the most from it. It’s also perhaps worth mentioning a couple of musical easter eggs which are (unfortunately) not included on the soundtrack, most notably an outstanding orchestral arrangement of the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It Black” underneath one of the film’s main action scenes, and a musical cameo from the legendary John Williams in the post-credits scene setting up a future encounter between Black Adam and a more established member of the DCEU. I’m sure you can figure out which one.

For me, Black Adam is another illustration of just what a good, reliable composer Lorne Balfe is becoming, continuing the trend he has shown over the past three or four years. It’s a score very much steeped in the modern action superhero genre, and anyone who has an aversion to that heavy sound, or to the electronic percussion and manipulation that is often found in films of the type, may find it not to their taste. Personally, though, I enjoyed it a great deal; the various elements that combine to make up the two main themes are excellent, both individually and together, and the creativity Balfe shows in his orchestration and his choral ideas is impressive. The energy levels are high throughout, and it avoids the trap of simply relying on basic drum loops and endless drones. Overall, this is good stuff – perhaps a step down from Black Widow, but certainly good enough to recommend to anyone who enjoyed those previous efforts. Tell them the Man in Black sent you.

Buy the Black Adam soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Teth-Adam (3:33)
  • Kahndaq (6:10)
  • The Awakening (3:05)
  • The Revolution Starts (1:29)
  • Introducing the JSA (4:41)
  • Shaza-Superman (2:24)
  • Our Only Hope (2:06)
  • Change Your Name (1:27)
  • What Kind of Magic? (2:11)
  • Is It the Champion? (0:58)
  • Your Enemies (1:51)
  • Black Adam Spotted (1:38)
  • Not Interested (1:41)
  • Just Say Shazam (4:11)
  • Ancient Palace (3:15)
  • Little Man (1:41)
  • Time to Go (1:35)
  • Release Him (0:57)
  • Father & Son (3:36)
  • Black Adam Theme (3:57)
  • Fly Bikes (3:25)
  • Nanobots (1:34)
  • Through the Wall (2:55)
  • 23lbs of Eternium (2:28)
  • Is This the End? (2:05)
  • It Was Him (5:50)
  • Lake Baikal (3:00)
  • Capes and Corpses (1:08)
  • Hawkman’s Fate (2:11)
  • The JSA Fights Back (2:12)
  • A Bad Plan Is a Good Plan (1:57)
  • Dr. Fate (1:21)
  • Prison Break (2:35)
  • Not a Hero (1:23)
  • The Doctor’s Destiny (0:56)
  • Slave Champion (1:28)
  • Legions of Hell (2:17)
  • The Man in Black (0:47)
  • Adam’s Journey (3:51)
  • The Justice Society Theme (5:13)
  • Black Adam Theme (iZNiiK Remix) (4:01)
  • The Justice Society Theme (iZNiiK Remix) (3:53)

Running Time: 108 minutes 31 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2022)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Pete Anthony and James Brett. Orchestrations by Adam Price, Harry Brokensha, James Yan, Jack McKenzie, Aaron King and Samuel Read. Additional music by Adam Price, Kevin Riepl, Peter Adams, Steven Davis and Stuart Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Laurence Aslow, Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Ronald Webb, Catherine Wilson and Barbara McDermott. Album produced by Lorne Balfe.

  1. Morgan Joylighter
    October 25, 2022 at 8:33 am

    I’m glad you mentioned the distortion. I love this score musically, but the mixing makes it almost physically painful to listen to at some points.

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