With a visual explosion of a movie, so vibrant and neon-emblazoned it makes the eyes bleed, the Wachowski Brothers produced (well, over-produced, actually) another pop culture classic that split audiences down the middle. Personally, their adaptation of the popular Japanese cartoon about a madcap family and its super-charged, nitro-glycerine injected hi-octane junkie of a son, Speed Racer, was a film that I initially didn't take to. Something about style over substance and a headache-inducing approach to visual storytelling set me adrift early on. But, hey, you know what - watching the film again on Blu-ray opened the whole adrenaline-fuelled, primary-colour-collision right up for me to a point where I wasn't just tolerating it ... but loving it! Daft, irreverent, irresponsible even, Speed Racer is like nothing you've ever seen before and, like any such groundbreaking piece of cinema - something that far too many insipid and derivative formula flicks claim to be all too often these days - it courts contempt, adulation, stunned incredulity or complete indifference. But one thing that cannot be denied, no matter what your take on the visionary-yet-pretentious moviemaking siblings' latest extravaganza is the overwhelming quality of its score. Actually one of the best original soundtracks of the year, so far, Michael Giacchino's delirious, bombastic and warmly effervescent music is another triumph for the composer who, with The Incredibles, M-I:3 an Ratatouille behind him, has straddled several genres with distinction. Unafraid to embrace big band brash 'n' crash with hints of lounge and jazz thrown in for good measure, Giacchino takes a uniquely hybridised approach to his scoring.
He folded John Barry-esque Bondian swagger around The Incredibles, took Tom Cruise on a wilder-than-wild sprint-a-thon through cardiac-inducing Schifrin-accelerated action-licks for M-I:3 and submerged us in the gooey lilt of Mancini's Parisian delectation with Ratatouille. For Speed Racer, he takes the insanely catchy theme tune from the cartoon - composed by Nobuyoshi Koshibe - and uses it as a springboard to create one of the most outrageously delightful and toe-tapping musical cavalcades this side of the lush MGM scores of the early sixties. His approach, as always, is big, wide and excessive, bringing in crashing walls of instrumentation that twist, pivot, career and collide at every turn, much like the Mach 5 that Speed Racer drives, in fact. His music can be a bullet smashing through helter-skelter set pieces like Casa Cristo and 32 Hours, or it can smother and amuse in fusion mixes like Vroom And Board and The True Heart Of Racing. Every track feels alive and almost bubbling over with detail and flair. Giacchino also likes to create multi-cued tracks that tell their own mini-stories within the whole musical narrative, which is why he is so tremendously exciting at scoring action set-pieces - he is perfectly adept at reflecting both the visual action and the inner motivations that spark it off. It is also pertinent to add that nothing he does is actually new to the given genre, or to the art of film-scoring par se. Rather it is how he puts all this good stuff together with such dynamism and infectious syncopation that it takes on a presence and a verve that evolves into something fresh, invigorating and now, with Speed Racer cementing his style with style, unmistakably Giacchino-ian.
So many tracks stand proud on this score that it is difficult to single-out any highlights. The album flows so well from start to finish line that the whole thing positively shines as one enormous fave-in-the-making, with the simply terrific main theme making a quite a few appearances and being referenced in several canny guises. Track 4, The Tragic Story Of Rex Racer, is utterly superb in its blend of serious underscore, ethnic wailing, electric guitar plinking and lively side-chiming and the way in which this diverse opening segment then brings in a subdued version of the heroic main theme, and then gradually chokes things in ominous strings and a sense of dread. The mid-point stranglehold of tension then gives way to a furious spell of percussive action that the choir overlaps with tragedy and the track finally drifts into a pregnant silence.
Vroom And Board is destined to become a calling card showpiece of the composer's multi-faceted approach. We have villainous underscore, titillating 60's sit-com shtick, Herrmann-esque string-led chords, a mid-way switch to pensive reflection with harp and dark tones that pull the rug from under our feet. Propulsive Incredibles-style action flares up in the next track, World's Worst Road Rage, but Giacchino adds electric guitar and more contemporary drums to create a driving, swirling melee of musical surge that will become one of signatures of this film's score design. Searing violins lead us to a beautiful and wistful type of Americana lullaby and the tenderness of the relatively short piece is almost Western in its evocation with muted trumpet quietly playing out the cue. True Heart Of Racing comes next with some brass-blasting Silvestri-riffs to punctuate its pell-mell sense of sumptuous overkill. Another pure-blood belter on the album, the percussion gets a great workout and the sense of fun is wickedly deconstructed with trembling strings that recede into a scheming distance. But one of the score's epics follows-on swiftly. Casa Cristo is indeed a mighty monster of a track. The pace quickens with sizzling electric guitar, a steady beat drives ever onward. Early chanting from the choir lends eerie gravitas and then the main theme kicks in for a darker fleeting rendition. Hectic strings and brass compete, racing as determinedly as the cars on the screen and little violin and celli circles whirl around the choir during the seconds before a grandly heroic finale as the main theme returns with brief gusto.
We enter another edgy, dark path in End Of The First Leg. Early segments remind of Herrmann's deep and sinister trademarks of agitated strings, low mournful brass and a threatening voice that hangs poised like a spider over it all. The harp and the choir may attempt to swing the mood, but the tone remains grim and melancholic, some final notes on the piano swallowed by a climactic cloud of cynical dementia. Intensely rapid syncopation and ebulliently fluttering cymbals race parallel in Taejo Turns Trixie, the piece taking in some great Schifrin tom-toms that, beyond the cue's deep finale, return in Track 12, Bumper To Bumper, Rail To Rail, which is like an awesome homage to both Nelson Riddle and Neal Hefti with jazzily exciting trumpet swells amid dizzying string flurries and intensely vibrant beats that switch around and alternate throughout. Giacchino also incorporates the xylophone like nobody else working these days, making its sound vital and intrinsic. This is bombastic stuff, folks, but it never comes over as swamped by bass or lethargically-charged with percussion doing all the work as a lot of modern action material does. The final stretch of the track takes a more even route, allowing it to ease into the strategically Silvestri-spotted The Maltese Ice Cave. More frenzied strings and mini-climaxes jostle for prominence. Fierce string clusters do some serious business, the Middle-Eastern flavoured female voices then do battle with more ominous Gregorian male rivals, the harp flutters in to herald a thunderous crescendo and then, with the dexterity and timing of the Lone Ranger coming to the rescue, we are plucked from the jaws of death by Track 14's immediate pay-off with Go, Speed, Go!, the heroic main theme swinging in with pizzazz. But the jeopardy is by no means over as the yet more delirious action cavorts us to the end of the explosive cue.
Heart-aching memories and a revelation or two are dealt with exquisite warmth and poignancy in He Ain't Heavy and there's no prize for guessing what the title alludes to. Speed Racer's mixed-up emotions regarding his deceased brother Rex are wonderfully realized by Giacchino and it is reassuring that the composer can move from one theme to another with such simplicity and integrity. Overall, Speed Racer's score is a powerhouse, but these tiny moments of pain and pathos are just as equally affecting.
But, before you can shed a tear, the album roars onwards into the giddy build-up track of 32 Hours. Delicate, fractured snippets of the main theme flicker in and out of a cue that continues to rise in power and detail, the ultimate race is drawing near and Giacchino is not about to let us forget it. Imbuing his music here with varied elements of small and exotic percussion and timpani gives the piece an echo of Danny Elfman, but the impetus is of gathering strength, increasing speed and a date with destiny that cannot be deviated from. Listen to those incredible chimes and steel percussion at work just before the end. Wonderful - and we've still got the biggest and wildest track of all to come.
And, before you know it, you're thrust into Grand Ol' Prix and Reboot which, together, form the longest and most expressive, most dramatic music on the album and the series of cues that takes Giacchino forcefully to a position alongside the top echelon of today's score composers. So much is going on within these whirlwinds tracks and so many reflections of past action motifs - from Predator, King Kong, Van Helsing and Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Jerry Goldsmith's inventive early eighties work - that it is difficult to keep up and breathe at the same time. Thankfully, he allows us a final moment of heightened appreciation - those bells and chimes and a triangle return to tinkle away at the stratosphere - for the end of Grand Ol' Prix, but this is merely a breather before he plunges us into the one of the most euphoric passages of victory and heroic jubilation that I have heard for a long, long time. Reboot is a sheer delight that rockets us to glory - a sound like bamboo clapping a slow, steady applause cracks, both male and female voices finally unite, and, with the finish line in sight, the main theme catches up with us and together the whole ensemble lifts off the deck and glides - man, it glides - across it with something akin to a fuel-injected epiphany. Only the likes of James Horner could match this combination of spiritual uplift with ultra-high-energy excitement, Giacchino riding the crest in exultation as the spearhead of this musical procession.
And, it is not over yet.
That James Horner mention there is not so casual. Just as the man behind Titanic, Braveheart, Glory and Apollo 13 is so wont to do, Giacchino then spills over into a simply gorgeous, quasi-ecclesiastical celebration of sentiment, emotion and moving come-down from all the tension, energy and excitement in the tremendously lump-in-throat ode to Speed Racer and the legacy of his heroic brother, Rex, in Let Us Drink Milk. Overkill? Perhaps. But who cares when the music is this damn good. He even manages to bring in every element of his orchestra, the Hollywood Studio Symphony who, it must be said, have proved themselves with this phenomenal score every note as rich, thunderous and agile as The London Symphony Orchestra, with trembling strings, honey-laced voices, rumbling bass, almost military-sounding trumpet and trombone fanfares that wouldn't sound out of place at a remembrance service, gently humming electric guitar, diverse percussion and a full brass section. In a word - WOW.
And then, for sheer fun, Giacchino's big-grin adaptation of Koshibe's theme rounds things off, intercutting the immortal line “Go, Speed Racer, Go!” with the retaliatory mantra of “Mach a-Go-Go!” Funnily enough, this evokes auras of country and western and Mexican cantina guitar harmonies with the more overt and unavoidably toe-tapping 60's beat that captures the likes of The Munsters and a vast array of other easygoing shows from TV's halcyon days. The updating is superlative and I have to admit that my family has been driven totally nuts by this track playing constantly over the last few days. I swear that little line loops around my brain even in my sleep - and I don't care. I love it!
“Go, Speed Racer ... Mach a-Go-Go ... Go, Speed Racer, GOOOO!!!!”
Help me ...
Working with a thirty-five voice choir and bringing in such elemental and epic motifs that once elevated such grand spectaculars as Ben Hur, Gone With The Wind, The Ten Commandments and The Egyptian is throwback stuff, indeed, but there is no-one else scoring films today who can so brilliantly combine all this with the wild and kinetic excitement of modern action fare and yet maintain a giddily off-kilter mish-mash of lounge and jazz syncopation as Micheal Giacchino. Connecting immediately and entrancingly with the heart and soul, Speed Racer, the album, is an absolute winner in every respect. Nobody else attempts this kind of lush warmth anymore, other than Giacchino. Once the province of the sixties mode of harmonic meltdown - rich orchestral themes sugared-up with catchy pop and belted-out by unified strings, brass, percussion and woodwinds all at the same time - this ballsy, big enveloping sound was the kind of thing that Williams, Barry and Mancini would expertly provide for comedies, spy capers, romances and anything else that demanded good-natured enthusiasm and relentlessly upbeat intoxication. The combination of oozing “lounge” with pulse-pounding action is something that Giacchino has cooked up himself, however. By turns rousing, driven, triumphant and moving, his score for Speed Racer knocks the ball right out of the park.
This general release disc offers a generous amount of the score, although some material has still been omitted. A small booklet illustrated with some scintillatingly gorgeous imagery from the film and a brief note from Giacchino, as well as a full rundown of the members of the orchestra accompies. The only thing that shaves a point of this release is the knowledge that there is around another hour of music that hasn't made it onto the disc. Having heard some of this stuff - and it is excellent - I have no doubt that, somewhere down the line, given Michael Giacchino's growing reputation and considerable acclaim, it will be released in a complete edition. For now, though, this is a fantastic disc that should not be left on the starting grid. Score-fans who haven't already picked it up, are urged to do so.
Full Track Listing -
1. I Am Speed (:37)
2. World's Best Autopia (1:15)
3. Thunderhead (3:07)
4. Tragic Story of Rex Racer (4:49)
5. Vroom and Board (3:38)
6. World's Worst Road Rage (2:41)
7. Racing's In Our Blood (1:52)
8. True Heart of Racing (4:05)
9. Casa Cristo (4:02)
10. End of the First Leg (2:20)
11. Taejo Turns Trixie (1:37)
12. Bumper to Bumper, Rail to Rail (3:07)
13. The Maltese Ice Cave (2:04)
14. Go Speed, Go! (1:24)
15. He Ain't Heavy (1:45)
16. 32 Hours (3:49)
17. Grand Ol' Prix (6:13)
18. Reboot (3:08)
19. Let Us Drink Milk (4:33)
20. Speed Racer (4:21)A rip-roaring success, Speed Racer is one of the best scores of 2008 and a firm indication of Giacchino's all-round expertise and virtually unmatched orchestral exuberance. The excitement and passion that he imbues each track with is equalled only by the infectious warmth and ever-hummable themes that he brazenly ladles over the top. Tremendously exciting and surprisingly touching, the music stands up to endless repeat playing and is a sure-fire tonic that truly does take you on a journey without pictures. By turns propulsive and physical, and yet spiritually embracing at the same time, this is a score that grabs you and won't let go until it has thundered over a day-glo horizon with you. The film initially left me at the side of the track, but I've since come round to embracing it on Blu-ray and this turn of events has, in no short measure, been bolstered by this incredible score.
My only caveat is that some of the music has not been released - and that the revved-up dance mix version of the main title theme that plays over the end credits is not present on the disc. But, otherwise, this is still a truly awesome soundtrack album that combines excitement with fun by the bucket-load, and packs a great emotional wallop as well.
This one crosses the finish line first ... and with style to die for. Very highly recommended.
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