It’s been two years since I’ve written a year-end reflection on film scores — and a little more than 18 months since I’ve written anything on any score at all. I have enjoyed the change of pace and stress relief that comes from not balancing writing workloads that essentially combine to another full-time job, but a part of me became restless again in 2017 and more than a little curious to catch up on movie music.
“A little curious” is the key because these are by no means thoroughly researched picks. It turns out that pressing pause on film writing means it’s easy to press pause on film watching, too, and I can’t recall a time in the last 10 years when I’ve watched fewer movies (shouts to Daniel Hart’s A Ghost Story, Brooke & Will Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, and Michael Giacchino’s pun factory). Much of that has been replaced with more reading and more listening.
I digress. Here are my favorite selections from 2017 (with Spotify links that are misbehaving this morning). Until next year:
The LEGO Batman Movie — Lorne Balfe
Indulgence has never felt so smart. As magnetic as Will Arnett’s Batman is in The LEGO Movie, a dedicated LEGO Batman film and its ensuing soundtrack had no right being this good. From big band to Handel to euro-pop and nu metal, Lorne Balfe’s voracious sampling is, like the movie, an exhilarating, exhausting experience. Balfe takes decades of Batman theme versioning and marries them in an unholy union of sound: the fanfarish tendencies of Burton’s era, Zimmer and Nolan’s wall of sound approach, and even nods to Junkie XL’s trickling rockpocalypse in the DCEU. However you prefer your Batman, it’s all here with the volume cranked to 11.
Wonder Woman — Rupert Gregson-Williams
From annihilating box office prognostications to re-staffing Warner Bros.’ production team, right now is really Wonder Woman’s time and deservedly so. Wonder Woman is by no means a flawless picture, but its strengths as a necessary symbol at a particular moment outshine a limp third act and iffy CGI. There’s a soulfulness at work I’m not sure any superhero movie to date has captured as well. Part of that Gal Gadot’s winning performance, and part of that is the music. The glorious slow crescendo that opens “No Man’s Land” announces Diana’s power and relevance to the world, but “Pain, Loss & Love” is the real star in Rupert Gregson-Williams’ effort, embodying passion, empathy, sadness and strength. It’s a distillation of what makes the character so unique and vital, whether that’s today or 100 years ago.
Dunkirk — Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch
This was an easy pick. Dunkirk was the best film I caught this year, and boy am I glad I ponied up for IMAX because Zimmer and Wallfisch’s team-up deserves the biggest, boldest presentation possible. It’s a cerebral, stupefying listen. The expected blend of analog and digital instrumentation receive a novel facelift with the incorporation of the “Shepard tone.” Regardless of how you feel about Dunkirk‘s Venn Diagram of sound and music, its effects are undeniable, complementing Christopher Nolan’s accordion-like timeline with a sonic claustrophobia that feels essential for a wartime epic. Relief then, is a fleeting proposition. When it comes, like on “Home” and its riff on Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, there’s nothing quite like it.
Thor: Ragnarok — Mark Mothersbaugh
By and large, culture pastiche deserves a slow, painful death (looking at you, season 1 of Stranger Things) but this particular blend of Reagan-era actioners and the usual Marvel brand finally gave us a post-Iron Man movie worth remembering. “No One Escapes” especially features a stained-glass cascade of churchy synth tones under the conventional bluster. Mothersbaugh’s work is so critical to the unabashed gleefulness on display, a perfect accompaniment to Ragnarok‘s hipster approach to MCU cliches.
Lady Bird — Jon Brion
Thor: Ragnarok and Lady Bird were both personal reminders that Mark Mothersbaugh and Jon Brion continue to put out solid work even if they’re no longer collaborating with Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas. Brion’s snappy title ditty is just the right amount of quirk, and the melancholic groove in “Lady Bird” sublimely assuages any fear that Greta Gerwig’s irresistible debut would be just another manic pixie dream.
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi — John Williams
The more I listen to this score, the more it confirms that The Last Jedi is about as honest and fresh of an episode of Star Wars as anyone could hope for. It’s such a brilliant blend of old and new. “The Battle of Crait” is another fine piece of action music, dusting off the “Here they come” moment all the way back in A New Hope. “The Spark” features such a moving nod to “Luke and Leia” and includes a great variation on “The Imperial March,” a cantankerous build to Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren’s epic non-duel. And what a non-duel it is! The seafaring, doomed end passages of “The Last Jedi” complement Luke’s send-off to Kylo Ren, a nefarious wink that in-context only feels threatening to the Jedi Formerly Known as Ben Solo. It’s yet another of Rian Johnson’s clever inversions, flipping the trope of the big baddie getting in his last laugh. 2017 was such a nasty, disgusting, soul-crushing year in so many ways, but let’s all count our blessings and be grateful that we’re still getting new music from the Maestro himself.