So, as if you didn’t know, I’m a huge Star Trek fan. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I was going to see Star Trek Into Darkness on opening weekend. Since my birthday was the same weekend as the opening, it was like J.J. Abrams himself gave me a present.
It’s really difficult to write a non-spoilery review of the film, but I’m going to try. There will be minor ones, but I won’t reveal any major plot points. Still, if you’re concerned about spoilers, don’t read this review until you’ve seen the film.
This review contains spoilers for the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer television series.
If you follow me on Twitter (@listener42), then you know I use the app GetGlue to play a FourSquare-like game with the media I consume. And, for the last six months or so, you’ve observed many quotes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I finally got around to watching a series my college friends told me was something I should see.
This isn’t a review of the show — I’ve saved that for the 15th-anniversary retrospective that’s being posted this week. Instead, it’s a review of the soundtrack to the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling”, which I received last month and loaded onto my phone.
Yesterday*, I was having kind of a bad day, and I had a long drive ahead of me. So I figured I’d put on some music that had good associations. See, I really liked the Buffy series, and “Once More, With Feeling” was a really good episode — on Facebook, my friend Dave said, “to this day I consider this to be the greatest single episode of a series I’ve ever seen”, and while I’m sure I’ve seen great single episodes before, I can’t think of anything at the moment to contradict his statement. And, according to the episode’s Wikipedia page, the critics tend to agree.
I think the soundtrack works best if you have fond memories of the show, or were significantly affected by it. For me, one of the most emotional arcs of the show was Willow and Tara’s relationship — beginning with the episode she chooses Tara over Oz, and ending with Tara’s accidental death at the hands of Warren Mears. I was particularly moved in the episode following Tara’s death, “Villains”, when Willow invokes the god of death to try and undo what was done to the person she loves. Tara’s death occurred after she reconciled with Willow following a breakup, and that breakup happened shortly after “Once More, With Feeling”. (Trust me, all of this will be relevant in a paragraph or so.)
So, in the beginning, I got a few laughs out of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s opening number, “Going Through The Motions”, and I actually thought I’d have a nice Saturday afternoon drive. Although Gellar’s voice occasionally sounded thin, I remember being surprised at how good she did with the song — which explained how empty she felt about her life after being resurrected in the beginning of the season**. “Motions” was followed by a medley featuring solos by Anthony Head (Giles) and Emma Caulfield (Anya), and again I found myself laughing along with Caulfield’s rock anthem about her dislike of rabbits.
Bunnies aren’t just cute like everyone supposes.
They got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses,
And what’s with all the carrots?
What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?
I guess you had to be there.
The third track was equally amusing — “The Mustard” — which is a 19-second declaration that the dry-cleaner got the mustard out of producer David Fury’s shirt.
And then things took a turn for the sad, because Amber Benson (Tara) began her first solo, “Under Your Spell”. The song is actually pretty happy on the surface, and if you haven’t seen the episode, you may not know that, just before it, Willow and Tara argued about Willow’s increasing usage of (and dependence upon) magic. Benson has a beautiful voice — an unexpected joy, given her character’s soft-spoken manner — and she spends several minutes serenading Willow. She ends with a verse that could be considered a little dirty, but is still kind of sweet:
The moon to the tide
I can feel you inside
I’m under your spell
Surging like the sea
Wanting you so helplessly
I break with every swell
Lost in ecstasy
Spread beneath my willow tree
Because of what happens through the rest of Season Six — the fight, the reconciliation, the death — I found my throat getting a little tight*** as I listened to the song, and I think that set the mood for the rest of the album.
On the heels of that song comes the duet “I’ll Never Tell”, where Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya sing to each other about the things that niggle at their seemingly-perfect relationship. It’s a hilarious song which, among other things, rhymes the words “Scoobies” and “rubies” with the words “tight embrace”. Brendon isn’t the best singer in the group (by a long-shot), but Caulfield carries the song for him, and anyway it’s more about his lyrics than his abilities.
X: Is she looking for a pot of gold?
A: Will I look good when I’ve gotten old?
X: Will our lives become too stressful / if I’m never that successful?
A: When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley?
One more interlude follows that song — producer Marti Noxon lamenting “The Parking Ticket” she receives — before things get serious. There’s a great scene with Spike where he fights the urge to sing and dance before being forced to succumb — “Rest in Peace”, in which Marsters channels the rock gods of the 70s and 80s while still sounding like a small-theater performer. He’s not an amateur, but he’s no Anthony Head.
We move on next to “Dawn’s Lament” and “Dawn’s Ballet” — Michelle Trachtenberg, trained as a dancer, has a very thin soprano voice, but she dances her feelings instead. The Dawn songs are followed by “What You Feel”, where Tony Award-winning guest star Hinton Battle explains that he’s going to be taking Dawn back to Hell to be his bride, and that he’s the one who’s been making people sing and dance.
Next, we go back to the Scoobies: Anthony Head (Giles), who is a rather talented musician and singer, doesn’t seem to hit his full potential in “Standing”, although he definitely excels in his duet with Benson (“Under Your Spell/Standing — Reprise”). Again, Whedon’s writing to this point in the series strengthens the emotional connection viewers (and listeners) feel with the song: Giles is going to leave Sunnydale because he feels he’s standing in Buffy’s way, and Tara is going to leave Willow because she’s been lying about her addiction to magic usage****.
The next song, “Walk Through The Fire”, is an ensemble/”get ready to fight the villain” montage number, led by Gellar (again her voice is a little thin and her singing feels flat — although she’s supposed to feel unemotional so I guess it was a character choice). Eventually everyone joins in, and Hannigan receives the line of the day with “I think this line is mostly filler” — I wonder how long it took Whedon to come up with that. It’s followed by the most plot-filled song of the episode, “Something to Sing About”, when Buffy reveals to everyone (except Spike, who she already told) that, when Willow resurrected her from the dead, she pulled her out of heaven.
There was no pain,
No fear, no doubt
Till they pulled me out
So that’s my refrain.
I live in hell
‘Cause I’ve been expelled
I think I was in heaven.
So give me something to sing about.
Please give me something.
Spike, who over the past twenty or so episodes has been getting closer to admitting (to himself and to others) his feelings for Buffy, saves her from dancing herself to death, and then Xander admits that he summoned Sweet (the demon played by Hinton Battle) because he wanted to know if he and Anya would have a happy life together. Sweet reprises “What You Feel” and then disappears.
The episode ends with “Where Do We Go From Here?”, a final ensemble where everyone sings about the way their relationships have changed, and closes with “Coda”, where Spike and Buffy kiss for the first time.
Where do we go from here?
Where do we go from here?
The battle’s done
And we kind of won
So we sound our victory cheer
Where do we go from here?
Though the episode itself was excellent, the soundtrack was more effective (in my case) because of the emotional associations with the material. Fans of Buffy will definitely enjoy listening to this, although casual watchers may not get the same level of appreciation. As far as the material itself, the songs are arranged and ordered in such a way that the weaker offerings are interspersed with the stronger. If we could’ve had Benson knock it out of the park with the opening, I think that might have worked a little better, but it wouldn’t have been germane to the primary plot — that Buffy feels nothing since leaving heaven and can’t admit it to anyone except Spike, who she’s supposed to hate (but doesn’t, not really) — I can understand why Whedon didn’t go that route. Still, if for no other reason than to hear “Under Your Spell”, “Under Your Spell/Standing — Reprise”, and “Walk Through The Fire”, I am definitely keeping this soundtrack on my phone. I might get a little teary-eyed driving to work someday soon as a result, but you know what? I don’t care.
Because I am drawn to the fire. Apparently, some people will never learn.
Note to Parents: I’d rate this soundtrack a very light PG for mild language (mostly “hell”) and thematic elements (death and sex). Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
****I realize that pretty much every TV show has to have a character addicted to some kind of drug or behavior — alcohol, gambling, sex, painkillers, whatever — but I never really liked the “Willow’s addicted to magic” storyline. It seemed a bit forced in there just to give us some additional tension. The tension was necessary — up until the last quarter of the season, The Trio wasn’t really that great of a Big Bad in terms of villainy — but I almost wish we could’ve had something else (besides Dawn’s kleptomaniacal cry for help, which also was pretty annoying).
This is the tenth and final article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks. You may wish to refer to the previous entries in the series for more information.
Eight soundtracks. Four composers. A ten-year cycle of music and magic. And now, my list of the eight soundtracks, in order of preference:
Goblet of Fire by Patrick Doyle — After the three soundtracks from John Williams, the franchise was ready for a change, and they got it with Doyle. Incorporating consistent themes throughout the soundtrack, he was able to create an entirely new character using the music, and if a few tracks didn’t really fit the rest of the album, as a piece of art it was, to my mind, the best of them. Favorite tracks: “The Story Continues”, “Foreign Visitors Arrive”
Deathly Hallows, Part 2 by Alexandre Desplat — I actually think this soundtrack had better composition than Goblet, but Goblet is still my favorite. Still, DH2 is a close second thanks mostly to Desplat’s use of cycles in addition to themes. Favorite Tracks: “Lily’s Theme”, “Courtyard Apocalypse”
Prisoner of Azkaban by John Williams — Potter finally gets mature and serious with Williams’s third and final soundtrack, and although the middle of the album feels a little muddled, the finale makes up for it in spades. Favorite Tracks: “Buckbeak’s Flight”, “Finale”
Sorcerer’s Stone by John Williams — I’m surprised at myself for not ranking this soundtrack more highly, especially since it introduced “Hedwig’s Theme” (the musical theme most associated with Harry Potter), but it just didn’t resonate with me the same way the first three on the list did. It was too light in tone, I think. Favorite Tracks: “Hedwig’s Theme”, “The Quidditch Match”
Deathly Hallows, Part 1 by Alexandre Desplat — Excellent uses of themes and a great battle sequence overcame a rather annoying tendency to score fugues, sustains, and accents over the main body of the music. Favorite Tracks: “Obliviate”, “Polyjuice Potion”
Half-Blood Prince by Nicholas Hooper — Hooper really redeemed himself with this after what I felt was a lackluster effort in Phoenix, and I certainly enjoyed the soundtrack. It’s just that the others were even better. I also don’t think Hooper had a lot to work with in what is probably the worst of the Potter films. Favorite Tracks: “Opening”, “Dumbledore’s Farewell”
Chamber of Secrets by John Williams — While the general tone of the soundtrack was less juvenile than Stone, the film itself was too slapstick-y in too many places to really justify a truly dark soundtrack. Williams did the best with what he had. Favorite Tracks: “The Dueling Club”, “Reunion of Friends”
Order of the Phoenix by Nicholas Hooper — No real cohesive theme, a jumbled bunch of cues, a soundtrack out-of-order from the film, and far too much repetitiveness overshadowed Hooper’s clear talent at creating memorable musical phrases. Favorite Tracks: “Flight of the Order of the Phoenix”, “The Ministry of Magic”
And, finally, my favorite track out of all eight Harry Potter soundtracks:
“Flight of the Order of the Phoenix” by Nicholas Hooper. As I said above, Hooper definitely knows how to write music that you’ll remember and enjoy. He just swung and missed with the Order of the Phoenix soundtrack as a whole. Tell me you can click that link and not remember the flight through night-time London and I’ll… well, I don’t know. I’ll do something, I guess.
I think it’s really hard to do a soundtrack that completely misses the mark. I can’t remember a single one I’ve listened to that actually pulled that off. However, in re-listening to these eight soundtracks, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good soundtrack needs a few cohesive themes, not too much crazy orchestration, and the ability to make listeners re-enact the film’s scenes in their heads if they’re not actually watching the movie. Most of the Potter soundtracks do all three of those things — they all do at least two. I count that as a rousing success for the studio, the films, and the composers.
And now, as your reward for making it this far, here’s a little bonus: three of my favorite Wizard Rock songs, in video form, all by Ministry of Magic:
This is the second article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks. You may wish to refer to the previous entry in the series for more information.
According to a recent special on the Biography channel, John Williams was asked by the studio to write a music cue for the upcoming Harry Potter film. He wrote the iconic composition now called “Hedwig’s Theme”, which as I noted in my previous article contains pretty much all the music for the first film, at least in part.
And then, when Warner Brothers hired the man who wrote the themes for Star Wars, Superman, and many others to score the first of what would become eight blockbuster films about a boy wizard, he expanded upon that theme to give us the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
From the opening notes in “The Arrival of Baby Harry” to the — for lack of a better term — megamix track of “Harry’s Wondrous World”, Williams takes the listener on a musical journey full of light, sweeping wind, string, and horn instruments, with a liberal dose of bells that simultaneously engender wonder and apprehension: what are these people going to do next, and how is it going to make me go “that’s amazing!”?
After “Arrival”, Williams sets the tone for the rest of the film with “Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts”, which contains a musical cue I like to call “wizards doing wizard stuff” — a sort of generalized positive theme. More even than “Arrival” or “Hedwig’s Theme”, I think the music in “Visit” really exemplifies what the film is about — Harry knowing he can do this magical stuff and then learning the full truth of it.
Unlike the other scores, I found it hard to discern a specific series of musical cues directly related to a specific character. Even as early as Chamber of Secrets we received a cue just for Professor Lockhart, but the music in Stone was really more about atmosphere. To wit:
“Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts” — the scene with letters pouring into the Dursleys’ house.
“Diagon Alley and the Gringott’s Vault” — the jaunty tunes of happy times, also repeated during the Christmas scenes, and then more bells and horns played triumphantly. This track also contains the “epic discovery theme” which is played again in various forms when we find out that it’s not really Snape who’s the bad guy*.
“Mr Longbottom Flies” — this is the scene where we’re truly introduced to just how much a spoiled brat Draco Malfoy is, and it would have been a good place to put a musical cue for him, but instead we are treated to the “flight theme”, which is writ large in the Quidditch match later. There’s also a very heavy-handed “you’re in trouble” cue which is used when McGonagall tells Harry to come along with him.
“The Quidditch Match” — every single positive theme is used in this track. Since Quidditch was one of the big things people were dying to see in theaters, it only makes sense that Williams went all out. Plus, in scenes where it’s hard to have a ton of dialogue — in Quidditch, the players are too far apart to really communicate effectively — the music has to play an additional role. That is, it is the dialogue. Still, that’s no excuse for cramming literally every triumphant cue into the ending of the track.
“In the Devil’s Snare and Flying Keys” — at this point we knew none of the heroes were really going to die, and Williams played that up by using bells, harps, and those hanging xylophone-y things that sound like pleasantly-jingling keys to communicate that.
“The Chess Game” — of course, we jump straight into the chess game, which finally gave Ron a chance to shine, and although it used lower octaves and lower-registered instruments, it still felt more silly than serious. There were the requisite horns, but the percussion threw it off for me. Honestly, the percussion made me think of what Ken Thorne used in Superman 2, and at the end of it, when Ron sacrifices his piece, that felt very Superman-y to me. But again, with Superman being a larger-than-life hero, you expect this kind of music; Harry Potter being such a larger-than-life film, I guess it’s no surprise.
“The Face of Voldemort” — for a “final battle” track, this had the right amount of gravitas, but since the battle in the film was more about “stuff happens to Harry” than “Harry defeats Quirrelldemort”, there really wasn’t a whole lot for Williams to work with.
There’s one track that really made no sense to me, which was “Christmas at Hogwarts”. The latter half, when Harry realizes that he has presents, is very strong (and again full of bells), but in the beginning there’s a chorus softly singing Christmas songs, and it sounds more creepy than anything else.
We hear a lot more music-for-specific-characters in the later films, likely because we’ve already learned about the world and don’t have to deal with all the sonic exposition. We know how we’re supposed to feel at certain times. Because there’s so much to explore in the first film, and so much that viewers have to be introduced to, it makes sense that Williams focused on trying to create the right kind of ambiance — that is, making sure you know that Draco’s supposed to be evil, that the Great Hall banquet is supposed to be happy, and that Quidditch is fun and exciting. The few times Harry is in true danger, at least early on (like when he first meets Fluffy), deep brass and low strings are used, with very few bells.
In fact, a whole lot of bells went into the soundtrack of this film. Listening to it, it feels more… I guess juvenile would be the right word. Again, that makes sense — the music is really telling you what’s going on in the way that an eleven-year-old can understand because the film is told mostly from the point of view of an eleven-year-old. There’s a lot of bells and harps, a lot of heavy strings that drag your emotions in the right direction, and remarkably few brass hits, the kind you might hear in one of the later films. Basically, the more bells you hear, the “better” the film is going for our heroes.
Overall, I think that the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack will forever live on in our hearts because it gave us “Hedwig’s Theme”. However, in terms of soundtracks, I’d say it’s only average. There was a lot of what I feel is “filler music” — “Hogwarts Forever! and the Moving Stairs”, for example — that, while useful in the film, was hard to reconcile when listening to it as its own piece of art. I’d rank it in the middle of the pack** — better than the sixth, not as good as the fourth, and probably the second- or third-best of the three Williams did.
*I feel comfortable saying this and not giving a spoiler alert. Seriously, if you don’t know by now that Snape’s not the bad guy, you should stop reading these articles and go read the books.
**I tried to put them in order, best to worst, but I really had a lot of trouble doing that. Each of them has merits and downfalls, and anyway, what I say is best may not be what you say is best. So I skipped that for now, but I might come back to it after all’s said and done.
This is the first article in a ten-part retrospective of the Harry Potter soundtracks.
With the release of Harry Potter 7.2: Potter Harder or whatever they’re calling it, we’ve reached the end of the saga of the Boy Who Lived. The internet is home to hundreds of reviews — from the fangirl SQUEE to the more reasoned likes of Roger Ebert — and, while I certainly feel satisfied after seeing the film, I don’t think you really need my review to help you decide whether to see it or not.
But a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a special about creating the world of Harry Potter, one that focused on music and sound effects. It reminded me that, for completeness’s sake, I needed to purchase the 7.2 soundtrack.
So I did, and I listened to it, and I liked it.
Music is an integral part of a film, and something I’ve been specifically listening out for ever since my dad took me to see Star Trek V. I was waiting in line, straining my ears, trying to hear the ending credits music, because I was that interested in what it was going to sound like. And, for what is universally considered the low point of the Star Trek film franchise, Jerry Goldsmith’s score was pretty great — so good, in fact, that he reused some of its cues in Star Trek: Insurrection (also a movie that was panned a fair bit, coincidentally).
When you have a movie franchise as huge as Harry Potter — and, believe me, the producers knew they had a gold mine on their hands, both creatively and monetarily — you have to have the best of everything. From Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman as the professors at Hogwarts to directors like Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron, Warner Brothers seemed to spare no expense to bring the magical world of Harry Potter to life.
The filmed version certainly made a convert out of me — I’d resisted reading the books, but one Thursday night my then-girlfriend and I decided “hey, let’s go see this Harry Potter thing everyone says is so good” and that, as they say, was that. I’m sure that story is repeated among many thousands of people; I can’t be the only one.
And one major part of the film was the music, composed by John Williams. The iconic composer, who’d previously scored Star Wars and Superman — walk up to anyone on the street and I guarantee they can hum the music from at least one of those — helped bring the film to life by defining the musical cue that, for all intents and purposes, is Harry Potter’s theme song.
“Hedwig’s Theme” contains the eight-note trill, the rising-and-falling violins, the “wizards doing wizard stuff” theme of Diagon Alley, and just about every other element of music found in the first film. Moreover, every composer (albeit reluctantly in one case — I’ll get to that later) has found a way to incorporate “Hedwig’s Theme” into his orchestrations.
While listening to the Deathly Hallows Part 2 soundtrack, I thought that it might be time to take a look back at the adventure of Harry Potter’s cinematic journey by listening to the soundtracks independent of the films. I pitched the idea to Escape Pod’s editors and they agreed, and here we are.
Note that I said “independent of the films”. I’m not going to go back and watch the movies with the soundtracks playing in my ears, or try to modify the audio coming out of my TV so that I only hear the music. Instead, I’m going to listen to the soundtracks and review them as their own elements of the film.
As some have said (I can’t find any quotes with a quick googling, but if you can, feel free to drop one in the comments), music can be its own character in the film. It’s not just atmosphere, not just accents; it’s almost like the chorus in old plays — it can tell you how you should interpret a scene, how it should make you feel (at least, according to the director), and even what the characters are thinking in a way that images alone cannot. So, from the sweeping nature of “Hedwig’s Theme” to Nicholas Hooper’s distinctive-yet-disappointing cues in Order of the Phoenix, from “Harry Potter’s Love” (meeting Cho in the Owlery) to the truly-beautiful music of Hermione obliviating her existence from the minds of her parents, we’re going to take a listen to the music of Harry Potter.
So join Messrs. Williams, Doyle, Hooper, and Desplat — and, of course, yours truly — over the next several days. And if you’d like to pick up the soundtracks, here’s some links:
Important Note: I am not a musician. Not really. I just appreciate music, and I have a limited understanding of the technique that goes into composing an entire soundtrack. I’m just writing from the point of a fan and average listener. You should expect that I’m going to mess up terminology and maybe occasionally completely miss the point of something one of the composers did. Just remember… not a musician.
I tried to embed video, but something about the CMS keeps stripping it out. So I just linked to the videos for now. If I manage to figure out the embedding, I’ll come back and fix it.