Beowulf - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review
1“I am Beowulf!”
A veteran of a great many action movie scores, Alan Silvestri has never really attained that headlining status that crowns so many other composers. But, with the likes of Predator 1 & 2, The Delta Force, the Back To The Future trilogy, The Mummy Returns and especially the wonderful score for Van Helsing - quite the best thing about that movie, in fact - he is nevertheless a solid theme-scriber and an expert at providing percussive testosterone to macho movie mayhem. Therefore it is not much of a surprise that Robert Zemeckis turned to him to furnish some bold, propulsive swagger for his CG adaptation of the epic poem Beowulf. The two had also worked together on Zemeckis' prior foray into mo-cap, The Polar Express, and have had a very successful collaborative career for over two decades now. The thing is that Silvestri actually had a few different ideas this time out, the period and the setting giving him impetus to create a score incorporating a couple of unusual themes and a slightly more novel approach, overall. It is definitely enjoyable, but it does take a couple of listenings before you begin to properly get what he has done here.
For this re-telling of the epic Old English poem/saga of the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) coming to the aid of a stricken Danish kingdom suffering under the remorseless attacks of the monstrous troll Grendel (Crispin Glover), Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil (Stardust) Gaiman and Roger Avery revealed a crafty examination of what it really takes to be a hero and how your own legend can also prove to be your own undoing. Whilst many people simply sat back and embraced those oh-so-lush motion-captured visuals (even more striking in the movie's intended 3D look), I thought that the film offered quite a tantalising and adult approach to such otherwise broadly generic entertainment. The story that they tell is psychologically much more complex than all that fancy-ass CG world and character creation would have you believe, and the fact that they leave a lot of the exposition up to ourselves to work out - Beowulf's self-bolstered reputation versus his undoubted courage and skills; the ambiguity, the shame and the curse that contact with Angelina Jolie's sea-demon, and Mother of Grendel, always results in; and the blighting nature of badly-kept secrets - was a crafty trick to play in what audiences thought was just an exercise in wild spectacle. But would Alan Silvestri's booming score take in such thematic delicacies? Not really known for his restraint, the composer shows evidence that he took on board these asides but still seems to have hidden behind his typical brass 'n' bass, crash, bang and cymbal wallop routine just when he appears to be probing new psychological territory. But his attempts to break his own action-dominated constraints are still admirable if not exactly successful for much of the time.
Firstly, his score is hugely bombastic for what often turn out to be unusually small signature cues, instead of stretching out the pounding rhythms for the expected length of his usual set-piece compositions. For instance, the main title, which is actually the theme for Beowulf, himself, is surprisingly brief - a nine-note fanfare for rolling brass and a rise-and-fall choir - that will reappear during many of the subsequent tracks. And, barring one fantastic episode which I will cover in detail later, this pattern dictates all the action cues in the score - a departure for Silvestri who often relishes the job of blitzing the ears with lengthy sessions of all-out adrenaline, either as long tracks or as a series of shorter ones that, essentially, flow directly into one another. Secondly, he employs a couple of old lilting Celtic-style songs - one of which works well, the other only partly - to provide us with a sense of time and place, whilst the rest of the score's instrumentation can, at first, seem a touch anachronistic with copious synthesisers, electronic percussion and an overly produced sound that, divorced from the technically marvellous visuals, can seem slightly vulgar and modernistic. (Though, naturally, when heard alongside such cutting edge imagery, this very element performs extraordinarily well.) But, and here's the thing, the album works well enough to musically embody the super-large tale of rip-roaring heroics and laugh-in-the-face-of-danger bravado, regardless. The key to this ebb and flow of soft yearning in one cue and ribald, strenuous clashing in the next is Silvestri's exceptional use of recurring motifs which wrap up his musical storytelling with a lyrical symmetry and, in the process, cleverly bestows the score with endless repeatability.
As an album, Beowulf's score seems to work in two halves. The first, if anything is the more aggressive because it not only depicts the hero's defeat of the monstrous Grendel, but it also contains a section that celebrates his former exploits - Track 6, I Did Not Win The Race - and appeals largely to the character's arrogant, boastful nature. His main theme crops up in a few pieces, even transforming into the soft, lamenting ballad A Hero Comes Home, sung in Track 7 by actress Robin Wright-Penn, who plays the forlorn Queen. Beowulf's tempestuous voyage across the seas to the Danes' cold land is a powerful moment full of insistent pounding bass, blistering anvil-clashes and searing choral chanting. The sound of this is not unlike a modernist take on Basil Poledouris' thunderous main theme for Conan The Barbarian - still one of the very best bygone-beefcake-hero cues ever composed - but Silvestri seems, to me at least, to have his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek regarding such granite-jawed musical grandeur. There is an unmistakeably fun element to my ears that may be enjoyable but can sort of dilute the mood of a film that is, in actual fact, a serious revision of heroic mythology.
But there is more going on than mere mead-quaffing merriment in these Viking halls. The first of the two Grendel Attacks - Track 2 - may be strangely bland considering its title, especially so when you consider the savagery that is seen on-screen (and even more so when you look at the bloodier Director's Cut), yet it manages to convey the trauma that Anthony Hopkins' King Hrothgar and his people experience in the aftermath of the veritable massacre. Track 8, the Second Grendel Attack, puts this right, of course as Silvestri delivers a terrifically gutsy, lurching set-piece of aural violence balanced and, ultimately defeated, by Beowulf's strident theme, now brought into full action mode and irresistibly percussive and rousing. The first song, also sung by Robin Wright-Penn, is Gently As She Goes, a soft and simple ode that, for some reason, always reminds me The Wicker Man's Gently, Johnny track - even though it sounds nothing like it. Thankfully brief, this crooning nevertheless adds atmosphere to the score, the mood of the song apt for the closing of a night's carousing and bragging around a roaring fire and a banquet table.
Marking the transition point on the album and in the film, as it happens, comes Track 10, The Seduction, which is Silvestri's touch of magic. Sly, devious and oh-so captivating, this sweetly melancholy cue is absolutely pitch-perfect for the sequence when Beowulf meets Grendel's mother - no vile hag, but a seriously delectable golden sea-minx - who allays his heroic challenge with a teasing flirtation, a manipulative guile and a temptation that not even the stoutest of hearts could refuse. Lilting, sensuous and mournful, Silvestri's music here supplies distant bass to add weight to the curling string wisps, reverberating harp and soft, slender choral harmonics. Although this cue marks a distinct change of pace and tone for the album and the story, it also reveals the power that Silvestri can have with secondary themes. If the main Beowulf fanfare and action cues suffer from the looping synth-work and a somewhat misplaced electric guitar, the composer more than makes up for it with the second, more reflective half of the score. Seduction is so damn good that you don't mind that he reprises it later on for Track 16, The Final Seduction. The story of the film revolves - literally - around cycles, history repeating itself over and over. Thus, his double-use of the Seduction theme is totally validated, its hypnotic voice an unexpected and therefore coveted delight. The second half of the score also builds upon the lost and tragic melody of A Hero Comes Home and it seems, throughout these ensuing tracks, to course, hand-in-hand, with Beowulf's theme, the notion being of a conflicted, embittered destiny that can only be met with pathos and doom.
Where this sort of theme-extension comes vaguely undone is with those afore-mentioned action cues. Beowulf's main theme is naturally strong and dominant, but it is also horribly simplistic in that it can - and does - fit into virtually all the action tracks that Slivestri creates. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, you understand. It's just that Alan Silvestri is capable of so much more than mere regurgitation. The theme of fallible heroism and flawed honour is a tad more complex than his brazen brass, thumping percussion and textured electronics seem prepared to convey. With a 97-piece orchestra and 40-voice choir at his disposal, Silvestri appears to have contained his score a little too tightly when he should really have opened up a bit more and allowed a few more deviations from the crusading path that he has so rigidly created for himself.
However, it is easy to forgive and forget such misgivings when he then does the kind of the thing that made his name in the first place ... and does it so damn well.
And the best example of this comes in Track 14, the glorious Beowulf Slays The Beast, which is, hands-down, the action highlight of the score and is simply terrific, folks. This is a raw, pulsating tour de force that never lets up. Pure Silvestri, this starts out fast and just speeds up all the way whilst adding more aggression, more dynamism and more excitement - think Predator's forceful militarism crossed with the soaring exhilaration of Van Helsing's more swashbuckling moments. His one concession to giving us a breather throughout this pulverising track are the very slight bridges he places in-between each component cue within the piece, yet even these inevitably serve to up the ante and the pace by raising the pitch, the overall tempo having to keep up with a surging fury that is incredibly buoyant. That “fun” element is also nicely elbowed to the edges this time around as the gravity (literally, in the film) of the dragon-battling finale is all the more apparent and the now-ageing Beowulf's former bravado has become a matter of pride and redemption of the soul. Beowulf's theme is driven faster and harder, the urgency of the sequence given thunderous weight and a locomotive-like momentum. Silvestri is in his element here and that sensation of a headlong rush is most definitely his calling card.
Sadly, though, he chooses to end his soundtrack with another rendition of A Hero Comes Home, but this time it is a horribly over-produced pop ballad version sung by someone called Idina Menzel. Quite frankly, this is atrocious and simply doesn't fit the tone of the score at all. This reminds me of the days of James Horner's ubiquitous marketing trick-songs that perennially sit like preening divas at the end of many of his scores. My advice is to program this track out altogether as it detracts more than it grants. It is also worth mentioning that there are several pieces of music in the movie that have not made it onto this release of the soundtrack. The end credits, for example, after that dismal song has played out, feature cues that are fresh and would have been nice to have heard here. Other scenes have cues that have been augmented and extended via tracking-in bits and pieces from elsewhere - particularly Beowulf's dragon-tussle which dials down some core elements whilst drafting in other snippets to pad it out, creating a slightly different version than the one heard on the album.
Overall, Silvestri's score for Beowulf is the composer testing out new ideas amid his tried-and-trusted bass-bashing sturm and drang, though he seems unable to find the appropriate breadth for his orchestra, or to completely eradicate that none-too-serious twinkle in his eye (or ear, if you like.) But the score is still very enjoyable and if, like me, you prefer your heroic music exciting enough to pump iron to, this is an appropriately dynamic and addictive accompaniment.
Full Track Listing is as follows -
1. Beowulf Main Title 0:54
2. First Grendel Attack 1:51
3. "Gently As She Goes" - Robin Wright-Penn 1:36
4. What We Need Is a Hero 1:40
5. I'm Here to Kill Your Monster 1:48
6. I Did Not Win the Race 2:16
7. "A Hero Comes Home" - Robin Wright-Penn 1:08
8. Second Grendel Attack 4:02
9. I Am Beowulf 4:33
10. The Seduction 4:04
11. King Beowulf 1:45
12. He Has a Story to Tell 2:42
13. Full of Fine Promises 1:12
14. Beowulf Slays the Beast 6:02
15. He Was the Best of Us 5:24
16. The Final Seduction 2:25
17. "A Hero Comes Home (End Credits Version)" - Idina Menzel 3:13
Total Album Time: 46:35
VerdictBeowulf incorporates much of Alan Silvestri's trademark flourishes. There are hints of Van Helsing here and nods to Predator and The Mummy Returns there, but this back-catalogue pillaging actually sounds quite welcome by and large, and he does whisk the score out and away from such cosy familiarity with the songs A Hero Comes Home and Gently As She Goes and, of course, the simply majestic pair of Seduction tracks. At first, this didn't seem like an appropriate score for such a blood-spilling, Olde Worlde epic of brawn and rampage, but it is surprising just how well his music meshes with the jaw-dropping visuals. Anachronistic - well, some of the instrumentation and the synth-augmentation stick out in ways that, say, James Horner, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith etc wouldn't have allowed - but then you only have to listen to such things as Vangelis' work for Alexander or Tyler Bates' awesome score for 300, or a multitude of interpretations from Hans Zimmer to discover how well a lot of seemingly “inappropriate” music can gel to time-removed historical settings.
Not quite quintessential Silvestri, then, but Beowulf is still an exciting enough romp. His score gets an 8 out of 10 from me. It has its problems and there is an air of disappointment about it that only a few determined listens will stamp out, but this still contains some great stuff and, above all else, it flows in a lyrical cycle - just like the epic poems of old, themselves, like to turn full circle.
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