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M3GAN – Anthony Willis

February 7, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s always interesting to me to observe when things go ‘viral’ online. Right now, in the early months of 2023, you can’t open up Instagram or Tik-Tok without being confronted by some pre-teen girl (or, perhaps slightly creepily, not a pre-teen girl) re-creating the dance from M3GAN, a short scene where the protagonist of the movie of the same name prances in an office hallway – whirling arms and hair flips and even a hands-free cartwheel – before bloodily dispatching someone with the blade of a paper guillotine. The dance craze comes from the eponymous movie, a horror-thriller with a rich vein of dark humor, about a toy designer who makes an incredibly lifelike android companion for her recently orphaned niece, but who then comes to regret making it when the doll/robot inevitably becomes self-aware and goes awry, embarking on a murderous rampage.

The film was directed by Gerard Johnstone and stars Allison Williams and Violet McGraw, with former child gymnast/dancer Amie Donald as the physical embodiment of the titular character, while actress/comedian Jenna Davis provides M3GAN’s voice, which can switch from sweetly endearing to chillingly sinister in a moment. I liked M3GAN a lot – it knows exactly what it is, knows how camp and silly it is, and never tries to be anything other than a fun and bloody horror comedy. The potential for memes and viral content was baked into its DNA from the get-go – some of M3GAN’s one-liners are gold – and its subsequent success at the box office, coupled with the film’s intentional ‘ambiguous ending,’ is clearly going to lead to sequels and spinoffs for years to come.

The score for M3GAN is by the Los-Angeles-based English composer Anthony Willis, who has been knocking around Hollywood for quite some time now, scoring short films, writing additional music for John Powell, and writing additional music for Henry Jackman, amongst others. His solo breakthrough came when he scored the critically acclaimed ‘Me Too’ drama Promising Young Woman in 2020, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. M3GAN is his follow-up to that score, and it clearly proves that Willis is a composer of considerable talent, whose profile is only going to increase from here on out.

Much like the film itself, the score for M3GAN has to tread a fine line between action, horror, and comedy, but Willis is savvy enough to successfully blend all the different elements required into a cohesive whole, without ever tipping its hat in a self-aware way that could otherwise have undermined its sincerity. The score was recorded in Hungary with the Budapest Scoring Symphony Orchestra, and then Willis combined those symphonic elements with some electronic sound design intended to convey the superior technology inherent in the story, most notably a vibraphone that is manipulated in a way that is intentionally intended to blur the lines between the synthetic and the organic. In addition, Willis also worked with soloist Holly Sedillos to add some ‘creepy, ethereal vocals’ that he says were intended to represent M3GAN discovering her world, and processing her environment.

Before we get into the score I want to address the two main songs in the film, both of which are performed on-screen by Jenna Davis as M3GAN. The first, “Tell Me Your Dreams,” was written by Willis with lyrics by director Johnstone and is an exceptionally pretty but sickly-sweet Disney-esque lullaby, one part charming, one part disturbing. The second, “Titanium,” is a cover of the hit David Guetta/Sia song from 2011, and is one of those vapid contemporary pop ballads intentionally designed to appeal to the pre-teen girl demographic, although the string arrangement of the song here is pitched at ‘unsettling’. What’s interesting about their use here, though, is the fact that Willis takes elements of both those songs and uses them as recurring thematic ideas in the score; specifically, the ‘Tell Me Your Dreams’ motif appears in cues like “Attachment Theory” and “Departing Funki” as a clever representation of the increasingly unhealthy relationship between M3GAN and the little girl, Cady. Then, perhaps most cleverly, highly deconstructed elements of the ‘Titanium’ melody come back buried deep within the score’s conclusive action material, especially in the excellent “Megan’s Fantasy,” “Two Titans,” and then in the sinister finale “A Message From Elsie”. As the lyrics of the song say: you shoot me down, but I won’t fall, I am titanium.

The rest of the score is defined mostly by a recurring three-note theme for M3GAN herself, which develops and morphs into a variety of settings as the score progresses, alongside the character’s own journey through self-discovery to self-awareness, and eventually to murderous psychosis. The theme is hinted at right from the opening moments of the score, accompanying the initial tragedy in “A Message from Oregon” with anxious piano lines over string-based suspense, and then subtly underscoring the awkward aunt-niece relationship between Gemma and Cady in “Those Aren’t Toys” and “Reluctant Guardian”. In these early cues the motif is representative of the concept of death and loss in general, but when M3GAN imprints on Cady and the death of Cady’s parents becomes the cornerstone of their relationship, the motif becomes a sort of all-encompassing musical representation of M3GAN as a whole, and begins to morph into different variations as the character herself changes.

Willis enhances the theme with Sedillos’s ghostly vocals and a bed of increasingly sinister strings in “On the Subject of Death,” which underscores the film’s a-ha moment of M3GAN becoming self-aware. The whole of “Calibrated Response” is an exploration of the theme, a moody, shifting, uneasy-sounding array of dark tremolo strings and glassy electronics, again backed by the whispery vocals. The version that runs through “Bully in the Forest” begins to hint at the darker side of M3GAN’s personality with a more dissonant edge to the strings and some boiling clusters of noise that feel like something about to explode; the explosion then happens in “Bad Boys Equal Bad Men,” which sees the theme enter full-on action mode amid an array of shrieking violins, rowdy brass, crashing percussion hits, and grating electronic sound design.

In “Angel of Death” Willis prominently highlights Sedillos’s vocal parts of the theme, but rather than being soothing or appealing, they have a much more ominous attitude. Then, in “Approximately 5 Feet Deep,” the theme slowly morphs from understated hesitancy to creepy horror music with whispered missives, and then finally into another explosion of frantic action full of powerful brass and yelping strings.

Other cues of note include the light pop-rock cheese of “Funki Headquarters” and “Funki Redux,” and the gorgeous magical tones for Bruce, a motion capture robot that Gemma created and which now sits gathering dust in her basement, and which first appear in “Meeting Bruce”. Meanwhile, the cold electronic tones of “Prototype” underscore Gemma’s first, somewhat disastrous, attempts to bring M3GAN to life, but then the ethereal tones, breathy vocals, and wondrous strings of “The Perfect Algorithm” accompany Gemma’s success and essentially underscore the magic of M3GAN’s birth.

There had already been a burst of kinetic action in “A Hole in the Fence,” a mass of shrieking strings and pulsating and buzzing electronic textures, some of which were repeated in the aforementioned “Bad Boys Equal Bad Men,” but as the movie reaches its conclusion and M3GAN goes into full-on horror movie slasher mode, the score similarly drops all pretentions of subtlety and follows it down the rabbit hole of musical carnage. The final moments of “Detectives & Missing Data Reports,” as well as significant parts of “She’s Still Plugged In,” “Departing Funki,” and “Megan’s Fantasy” see Willis engaging in some quite striking and vivid action-horror dissonance, but it is in the triple-header comprising “Workshop Duel,” “Two Titans,” and “Model 3 Generative AN-droid” that he really goes for broke.

There is some gargantuan brass writing towards the end of “Workshop Duel,” but I do fear that some people may be put off by the cacophony that accompanies it, especially the wildly grating synth textures that are overlaid throughout the cue; personally I appreciate them, but I can certainly see how some would find them intolerable. “Two Titans” is much more boldly orchestral, and has real weight and gravitas, and I especially love the way the ethereal vocals and the little references to the more pleasant M3GAN music play off against the rampaging string lines and brilliant, howling, Goldenthal-esque brass passages. There’s a whole host of complicated string and brass writing running through “Model 3 Generative AN-droid,” but unfortunately for many the presence of the electronic distortion will diminish its impact. The little burst of James Horner and ‘Bishops Countdown’ from Aliens at the end of the cue – possibly equating Gemma’s fight with M3GAN against Ripley’s fight with the Alien queen – is a fun piece of meta-scoring for film music nerds.

The album concludes with the “Life & Death – Suite from M3GAN,” which provides a nice 5-minute summary of the score’s main ideas, and then tacks on a bonus cue, “Bruce’s Dream,” which reprises some of the Bruce material from earlier in the score and ends things on an unexpectedly warm note.

If the film music gods do their thing, then the success of M3GAN will combine with the BAFTA nomination he received for Promising Young Woman and be the final catalyst launchpad for Anthony Willis’s film music career. He’s already scheduled to write the music for director Amin Matalqa’s animated film Hump, which is pencilled in for 2024, but beyond that the sky’s the limit – and his work here, combined with the excellent work he has done on various How to Train Your Dragon shorts, and other things, proves he has the talent to succeed. M3GAN is a much more sophisticated score than its B-movie roots would immediately indicate; the clever development of the main theme, the intelligent application of the ideas from the songs, the interesting use of vocals, and the rip-roaring action finale, are all worthy of significant praise. The electronic ideas – while important to the story – may give some more symphonically-minded listeners a moment’s pause, but even that shrillness shouldn’t detract from the overall impact of the score. This is good stuff; despite all the Tik-Tok dances and viral memes the film has spawned, there’s more depth to M3GAN than one would otherwise expect.

Buy the M3GAN soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Funki Headquarters (1:09)
  • A Message From Oregon (1:50)
  • Those Aren’t Toys (2:43)
  • Reluctant Guardian/Meeting Bruce (3:40)
  • Prototype (1:09)
  • The Perfect Algorithm (2:27)
  • On the Subject of Death (2:16)
  • A Hole in the Fence (1:14)
  • Calibrated Response (3:19)
  • Corporate Misdeeds (0:48)
  • Tell Me Your Dreams (written by Anthony Willis and Gerard Johnstone, performed by Jenna Davis) (1:11)
  • Attachment Theory (2:49)
  • Bully in the Forest (1:50)
  • Bad Boys Equal Bad Men (2:21)
  • Angel of Death (2:07)
  • Titanium (written by Sia Furler, David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Nick Van de Wall, performed by Jenna Davis) (0:59)
  • Approximately 5 Feet Deep (2:12)
  • Detectives & Missing Data Reports (4:06)
  • True Guardian (2:05)
  • She’s Still Plugged In (2:56)
  • Departing Funki (1:25)
  • Megan’s Fantasy (2:44)
  • Workshop Duel (1:45)
  • Two Titans (2:36)
  • Model 3 Generative AN-droid (1:41)
  • A Message From Elsie (1:05)
  • Funki Redux (0:53)
  • Life & Death (Suite from M3GAN) (5:16)
  • Bruce’s Dream (Bonus Track) (1:53)

Running Time: 62 minutes 18 seconds

Back Lot Music (2023)
Music composed by Anthony Willis. Conducted by Péter Illényi, Zoltan Padi and Bálint Sapszon. Performed by The Budapest Scoring Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jack McKenzie, Tommy Laurence, Samuel Read, Thomas Bryła, James McWilliam and Phil Knights. Additional music by Brett Bailey. Special vocal performances by Holly Sedillos. Recorded and mixed by Viktor Szabó and John Michael Caldwell. Edited by Gary L. Krause, Emily Kwong and Ben Zales. Album produced by Anthony Willis.

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