Sunday, May 28, 2006

X: 3 The Last Stand soundtrack

While the box office dollars still pour in for the final installment of the X-Men series, John Powell's soundtrack is doing very well, too. Aside from being critically accepted, the score is selling remarkably well; ranking 167th in sales today (192 yesterday) - after only a few days on the market.

While my own review is still being scripted (and is due in a couple days), here's what my favorite soundtrack reviewer Clark Douglas, had to say about Powell's latest:

Review: X-Men: The Last Stand

I can't put my finger on which one, but there's surely some quote from Shakespeare that would suit the tragicomedy that is the films and music of the "X-Men" series. The first two films are very good, but the scores aren't quite as stellar. Michael Kamen's score featured ill-advised electronics, and John Ottman's score had a fine theme, but he failed to use it to any effect, and also failed to provide much interesting underscore. Third time seems to be the charm musically, as John Powell steps up to the plate and finally delivers a score worthy of the X-Men, but the film is a train wreck. It makes me wonder what Powell could have done with the first two films, where he might have gotten some genuine inspiration from the film itself.

Before getting into my score review, I should point out the suspicious nature of Brett Ratner's liner notes. He talks about his desire to "completely satisfy all the uncompromising fans of the series throughout the world." Perhaps he thought that giving every single character possible a few seconds of screen time was what everyone wanted, throwing history and character's personalities out the window for the sake of time. He speaks about how John Powell's score elevates things to the next level, and how it's as important to the film as Ian McKellan is. Which, in this case, is true, but it shouldn't be. In fact, the film finds itself turning to McKellan, Powell, and special effects team for it's only hints of quality. Powell's score should be a small part of a major success, instead, it's the highlight of a miserable failure. Which is all the more reason to commend Powell for his effort here, for retaining his high level of craftsmanship despite an undeserving film being the recipient.

The score begins on an almost fairy-tale like magical note with "20 Years Ago", a woodwind-heavy piece that toys around with the main theme and some pleasant melodic ideas before the score dives into the thrilling "Bathroom Titles", which presents the first fully-realized presentation of the main theme. It's an exciting piece, a dark cross between Ottman's "X2" theme and John William's "Superman" theme. Fortunately, unlike Ottman, Powell utilizes his main theme fairly regularly throughout the score, though not to the point of overuse. Things get darker in "The Church of Magneto, Raven is My Slave Name", which presents a darker motif for Magneto's character, and some dissonant, almost horror-like ideas in sections. In "Meet Leech, Then off to the Lake", Powell's secondary heroic theme is hinted at, the main theme gets a fresh spin, and things grow quietly dark and dissonant again. "Whirlpool of Love" is one of the early highlights, blending orchestra with a female choir, it's an awe-inspiring cue that introduces the Phoenix theme for the first time. It's a marvelous theme, one of the best of Powell's career, with just a hint the Middle East in it's chord progressions, though not it's instrumentation. "Examining Jean" and "Dark Phoenix" are two solid suspense cues, particularly the later, which makes good use of the female choir. "Angel's Cure" is a rumbling suspense that ultimately gives way to the first full-blown performance of Powell's secondary heroic theme, a soaring melody that is much less aggressive and more triumphant than Powell's main theme. I love the quiet use of the choir in "Jean and Logan", quietly, almost inconspicuously, performing the Phoenix theme in the background before the dark dramatism of "Dark Phoenix Awakes" take over, slithering into "Rejection is Never Easy", which sports some more fine choir work. "Magneto Plots" kicks off a series of cues in the mid-section of the album which form a remarkable dramatic arc. The second piece, "Entering the House" features suspenseful cooing and chanting from the choir, and then leaps into some intense action in "Dark Phoenix's Tragedy" with snarling brass, colorful motifs, pounding percussion, and then a marvelous performance of the Phoenix theme which builds in intensity before melting into a brief, mournful choral requiem in "Farewell to X". A respite from the intensity is provided in "The Funeral", which presents a new theme entirely, a gentle, romantic melody which is similar to John Barry's themes of the 1990's in it's simple yet beautiful orchestration, and similar to Jerry Goldsmith's "Medicine Man" thematically.

Powell continues to let the score cool down before turning things up to boiling point again... "Skating on the Pond" offers up a pleasant variation on his secondary theme, but then "Cure Wars" gets darker, more suspenseful, with occasional flashes of action via brass blasts and flashes of theme. After a brief pause, "Fight in the Woods" kicks off the longest consecutive set of cues on the score, a nonstop array of massive, powerful, action material. Powell has an huge, 141-piece version of the Hollywood Studio Symphony, and unlike some recent action scores which force the orchestra to play second string to the synthetic elements (such as Klaus Badelt's "Poseidon"), Powell fully utilizes the elements at his disposal, never more evidently than on the final third of the score. "St. Lupus Day" browses through Powell's secondary theme, main theme, and "Funeral" theme before "Building Bridges" gives Magneto some Goldenthalian brass and militaristic percussion. "Shock and No Oars" is a fantastic piece of music with the choir offering up some apocalyptic chanting, and "Attack on Alcatraz" has a lot of exciting flourishes from the woodwinds to add to it's pounding and blaring, along with several statements of the main theme, it's the most traditional "comic book superhero" piece of music of all the action cues. "Massacre" is a frantic little bit of action that leads into "The Battle of the Cure", yet another blazing action cue. In my estimation, the best piece of music on the album is "Phoenix Rises", a simply awe-inspiring cue featuring the best mixture of choir and orchestra in an action cue since John William's "Duel of the Fates". The piece is somewhat a reprisal of the "Dark Phoenix's Tragedy" cue, but longer and even more thrilling, chills go up my spine every time I hear it. The performances of the orchestra and choir are just dazzling here, it's four minutes of film music heaven. Things wrap up with "The Last Stand" which reprise all four major themes from the score... a longer, lovely rendition of the "Funeral" theme, and closing statements of the Phoenix theme, the main theme, and the secondary theme.

Powell's score, as you can tell from all my gushing, is really a wonderful listening experience, and gives the X-Men the musical conclusion they deserve, even though the movie failed to do the same. Some of the tracks have rather brief running times, but Powell compensates by letting some tracks run into each other. Tracks 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6-7, 8, 9-11, 12-15, 16, 17-18, and 19-27 could have been compressed into only ten tracks, instead of 27, but it doesn't really matter. Plus, if he had done that, the last track would've been 28+ minutes long. I am just a slight bit concerned about one thing... the fact that Powell's music sounds slightly more generic than usual. Over the past few years, he's developed a very distinct, original voice, and that voice is definitely heard in "X-Men: The Last Stand"... but I'm also hearing a lot of Goldsmith, Silvestri, Goldenthal, Williams, Elfman... basically, there are some of portions in "The Last Stand" that sound as if they could have been written by any number of composers. In this instance, I don't really have a problem with it, but I would just hate to see Powell lose that distinct voice of his in an attempt to fulfill the requirements of directors and producers. Originality is something that's so hard to find these days, and Powell is one of the few modern composers that has it. Anyway, "The Last Stand" may not sound groundbreaking in terms of superhero scores, but it's all done so skillfully, in such an intelligent, exciting way, that I can't not love it. This one comes highly recommended.

Rating: ****1/2


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