Moviedrone: The Finest Film Soundtracks, Solstice Edition

As we reach the halfway point of 2022, Charlie Brigden takes stock of the first half of the year in film music for Moviedrone

Hi. How are you? I know it’s been a long time, and I’m sorry. You know, I’ve just had some things to work through. You understand, right?

I’ll be honest, life has been a struggle for a while now, and it’s sometimes surprisingly hard to write something that previously flowed like water. It felt like someone blocked the pipe somewhere along the line. But I’ve been chipping away at it, admittedly with the help of several hundred milligrams worth of SNRIs, and there’s been a breakthrough of sorts.

I wanted to ruminate a little about something that’s always been a terrific source of film music: the sword and sorcery genre, mainly because of the release of the Robert Eggers ( The Witch) Viking epic The Northman . Said films have often come across as ropey and cheap, and many of them have been cash-ins of the more successful pictures like the Ray Harryhausen 1963 classic Jason and the Argonauts and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role as Robert E. Howard’s noble warrior thief in John Milius’ 1982’s musclefest Conan the Barbarian .

I mention those two specifically because they’re both perfect examples of how good the music of the genre can be, with Bernard Herrmann’s stirring and typically intriguing score for the Greek legend of Jason and his trials, and Basil Poledouris’ muscular yet beautiful music for Conan and his search to unlock the riddle of steel. Conan is a particular favourite of mine, with its mythic soundscape and Prokofievian lyricism that seems to have the innate ability to unleash some sort of creative wellspring inside me. Also, the track ‘Riders of Doom’, with its blinding male chorus, has the kind of Wagnerian feel that would make Colonel Kilgore weep.

Other gems include Harry Robertson’s music for 1980’s Hawk the Slayer with its orchestra-augmenting synths and electric guitar resulting in probably the funkiest score of the genre, Lee Holdridge’s brilliant The Beastmaster from 1982, which sounds like the best western score you’ve never heard, and Claudio Simonetti’s score for master of gore Lucio Fulci’s Conquest from 1983, which, when not repeating the doom-laden sludge synth riffs from Dawn of the Dead, sounds like the big evil computer in Superman III sucked up Gheorghe Zamfir. The Italians – as they are wont to do – made a whole mini-industry out of them, no doubt inspired by the previously popular peplum pictures of the ’50s and ’60s. The great Pino Donaggio got involved with Hercules (1983) starring legendary muscleman Lou Ferrigno and The Barbarians (1987), while Carlo Mario Cordio’s score is by far the best thing about the terrible Ator, the Fighting Eagle from 1982. The same goes for Thor the Conqueror (1983), which is awful but boasts a fine score by Francesco de Masi, who himself wrote peplum scores in his early days.

Joel Goldsmith (son of Jerry) wrote a fun score for 1997’s Kull the Conqueror that combines a Conan-esque palette with lots of heavy metal shredding, and while John Carter (2012) errs more on the side of science fiction. It’s a lot of fun and has a fantastic score by Michael Giacchino. Sadly that seems to be the exception as a lot of these kinds of films, at least in Hollywood, have boring dirges that follow the stereotypical action identikit score, like Ramin Djawadi’s Clash of the Titans which is drab and uninspired compared to Laurence Rosenthal’s thrilling music for the 1981 original; another wonderful Harryhausen adventure.

And like Thurisaz, the triangular Nordic rune of boundaries, we come back to the beginning to wonder what awaits us in The Northman , which has been scored by Bjork collaborator Robin Carolan – handy, as the Icelandic singer has a role in the film – and Vessel aka Sebastian Gainsborough. But until then, your mission is to listen to Led Zeppelin’s amazing Viking epic ‘No Quarter’ ad infinitum. Because the winds of Thor are blowing cold.


A delight this year has been the reteaming of composer Cliff Martinez and director Steven Soderbergh for the action thriller Kimi (Watertower Music), where the former once again provides a minimalist avant-garde masterpiece that goes against genre expectations. Full of paranoia and with Martinez once again on a Bernard Herrmann kick, Kimi is a score that on its surface may seem simple but reveals itself full of almost imperceptible intricacies. Dominated by the main theme contrasting between high and low notes, the score is almost impressionistic, slowly unveiling its sense of paranoia and mystery with sincere robotic synths and the ever-present Cristal Baschet, a Martinez signature. It’s only when it plays its cards at the climax that the Herrmann we’re used to comes in with those inimitable thick strings. A film music fan’s wet dream.

Lucrecia Dalt’s score for the horror feature The Seed (Invada) does its best to scare us through ever-increasing drones of dread, with occasional tangents into weird rockabilly. For the most part, it’s a beautifully layered and often terrifying experience, at least when it gets away from the slightly rote horror synth melodies you tend to expect nowadays, which it does pleasingly quickly. The further Dalt steps away from convention, the more fascinating and eerie The Seed becomes, eventually metamorphosing into something beautiful and pulsating and alive. It slips easily into a dreamy, ambient setting as the atmospherics take over and we’re confronted with alien synth heartbeats, oscillating radiophonic squeaks, and tendrils that seem to reach for us à la Sadako out of the TV in J-Horror classic Ring . Haunting.

Aska Matsumiya’s science fiction score After Yang (Milan) opens with a genre-defying delicate solo piano theme that not only instantly conjures images of time and space but also fragile elements making up the inside of an automaton. In this case, it’s the title character of Yang, a robotic child. The intricacy of Matsumiya’s score is interrupted early by a strange game show theme that sounds like a 1995 Playstation game; however, some stunning and serene cues restore it with a run of wondrous coruscating synths that have an almost religious heft and joy to them. Darker and more abstract pieces are introduced with a focus on exploration and the innate questioning we as a species possess – there’s a cue called ‘Butterflies’, remarkably free of structure and signposting. And as strings and piano are focused upon, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s glorious classical composition ‘Memory Bank’ is unveiled, with Matsumiya reprising the opening theme as a bookend, the perfect finale narratively and aesthetically.

After composing for Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, it was inevitable that Michael Giacchino would put his considerable musical talents to more superhero pictures, and with buddy Matt Reeves taking on the caped crusader, it was a dead cert that he would head for DC. And The Batman (Watertower Music) is a triumph, effortlessly slipping into the pseudo-gothic space the character has always occupied but with fresh urgency. The addictive four-note main theme is the strongest in live-action since the turn of the century, impactful and intense as well as matching his perseverance, while his seductive and noirish Catwoman theme builds on Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry in a beautiful and truly sensual way. His Riddler theme is appropriately haunting for this serial killer-esque portrayal of a previously benign character, and for once the underscore is equally as interesting, exhilarating and terrifying while constantly brooding.

House of the Devil director Ti West’s latest film X (A24) is a slasher that conflates the two similarly perceived worlds of horror and pornography, and it comes with an uncomfortably grimy score by Tyler Bates (Rob Zombie’s Halloween ) and doom folk heroine Chelsea Wolfe. Maybe not one to listen to with young ones about, given the copious amount of orgasmic vocals included, X begins with a sickening drone and pulsating synths and doesn’t let up. There’s a giallo feel to the whole affair, with some quite disturbing and sinister moments of atonal textures and the occasional delving into beautiful yet foreboding melodies that will remind you of Morricone’s work in the aforementioned subgenre, and it certainly decides to go off on one. There’s an incongruous nature to the whole thing that paradoxically gives it a disquieting coherence, with several dalliances into what we would consider stereotypical porno funk, which seems to be treated in a diegetic way, and as it builds it expands and overwhelms into a quite monstrous and uncomfortable form, with Wolfe integrating the 1918 song ‘Oui, Oui, Marie’ throughout.

In a coup for score enthusiasts, one of the most highly-requested classic scores has finally come out in its complete form. 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank (La-La Land) was a somewhat romanticised adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl , and legendary composer Alfred Newman was there to give it the beauty, compassion, and dignity her story deserved. His work is glorious, with the score dominated by the curious main theme and the more emotional piece that represents the innate kindness Frank saw in people. This double-CD set contains a remaster of the original LP along with the full complete score and it sounds amazing, just a stunning audio restoration.

Another gem from the past is a new deluxe edition of Michael Kamen’s score for the 1999 Brad Bird-animated feature The Iron Giant (Varèse Sarabande). Kamen’s always been known for expressive music, and here he got to do it on an expanded canvas for the heightened cold war sci-fi tale, where he combined sprightly colours for the enthusiastic Hogarth and wonderfully expansive brass for the Giant to underline their peculiar relationship. His unique aptitude for truly compelling action music is on display yet again, and the way he’s able to do that while creating an emotionally satisfying musical arc for both characters is a reminder of just how much Kamen is missed.

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