Review: Beowulf (2007)

Composer: Alan Silvestri (original songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard)

Label: Warner Bros./WEA Records

Catalogue Nr.: 372924

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Something's rotten in the state of Denmark! The deformed monster Grendel and its seductive demon mother are terrorizing the realm of king Hrothgar (wonderful: Anthony Hopkins). Enter Beowulf, a mighty but arrogant hero-wannabe armed with lots of muscle and a booming voice (by Ray Winstone). Beowulf slays the puny monster Grendel but ultimately has to pay a large price to make a deal with the mother demon. Admittedly, the Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf is no Shakespeare despite the Denmark analogy but screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman really did their best to flesh out characters and made the most of what they had. They provided a script that enabled director 'Bob' Zemeckis to produce one of the best-paced big budget movies in recent years, yet the film itself has received a fair share of flak from various critics long before its release. Mainly its revolutionary use of performance capture technology is something that many folks have a problem with (some even refused to see the picture for that reason) and it is likely to continue dividing moviegoers as well as critics in that regard for years to come. Having seen Beowulf in Imax 3-D I can say that it is certainly an interesting alternate way of telling the untellable in a time where almost everything is digital anyways... nothing more and nothing less. It lead to astonishing results in this very movie that are pushing the envelope for years to come. Plus it is so refreshing to watch a gritty animated picture that isn't just about annoyingly talking animals!

The score:

For Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis brought back his usual creative team once again, including long-time friend and composer Alan Silvestri. A scoring assignment for a Zemeckis movie has been described by Silvestri as the safest possible working environment for any composer, thus its rather surprising that Silvestri played it save this time around. He approached Beowulf mainly within the limitations of his musical resume of recent years without taking any steps forward or backward. Within this range though, Silvestri never fails to amaze and he certainly does not fail here. His score for Beowulf can be devided in two parts (just as the film it accompanies): The introduction and rise of the Beowulf character as a mighty, over-the-top arrogant warrior was scored by Silvestri with extensive passages of grim, chanting male choir and a razor-sharp horn fanfare spiced with driving electronics while the character's fall as an easily corruptible, weak human being was treated with an odd, often low-key poignant grandeur. Silvestri's use of electronics was another big surprise. Their integration in the score with the choir and orchestra as an individual sound palette makes it a rather honest creative decision instead of an attempt at creating an unidentifiable mess of sound as it is the case with most modern blockbuster scores (wink-wink... remote control...). Silvestri made sure that whatever there is of individual electronic elements, you can actually identify as such without loosing the effectiveness of the whole work. With that said, I must admit that at first, I did not really get into what Silvestri was trying to achieve when I listened to the CD for the first time. Especially the "Beowulf Main Title" is rather confusing as an opener of a movie set in the sixth century with it's electric bass and synths building up the rhythm of a larger main theme statement for male choir and horns. Especially the electronic beginning is odd but that short passage really just underscores the Warner Bros. Logo. As the title comes up, Silvestri unleashes the power of the choir and orchestra. The theme itself is once again razor sharp and spot on in its over-the-top expression of grim pride that drives the Beowulf character and positions itself well along other marching-like hero themes by Silvestri.

With a Zemeckis film its not surprising that the spotting is very careful and music is used only when its really needed, even if its a big adventure movie and thus, most of the action before and during the "First Grendel Attack" was left unscored to a great effect. The whole appearance of Grendel is done entirely with the use of sound. Silvestri starts to kick in after Grendels rampage through the mead hall with accentuating strikes of percussion and understated moments for brass as Grendel threatens queen Wealthow. Her husband, King Hrothgar challenges the creature to fight him but Grendel remains still. Only Silvestri's use of a theme with calmly humming male choir is telling us that there is something else going on between the king and the monster, which makes the face-off terrifying and at the same time emotionally compelling. "Gently As She Goes" is actually presented out of context, as it appears back to back with "A Hero Comes Home" in the movie sung by the queen for Beowulf and his men before their fight with Grendel. The melody can be seen as some sort of theme for the queen and actually makes an appearance later on in the underscore. Robin Wright Penn's performance is really good, especially if you consider that there is barely any instrumental accompaniment apart from a harp (which her character plays in the movie), some tambourine-like percussion and a medieval wind instrument, so her voice is basically what makes this whole thing work. Continuing the underscore is "What We Need Is A Hero", a full statement of the main theme and essentially a larger-than-life extension of the main title accompanying macho Beowulf sailing over a stormy sea and making macho jokes with his macho fellow Wiglaf. The fanfare stuff and male choir spiced with synths and large percussion certainly has balls and makes it pretty clear that these characters have some, too. On to a little more prominent techno-beats with choir in "I'm Here To Kill Your Monster" that drive Beowulf and company's ride to the king's castle. Silvestris hero theme growling powerfully and solely on horns from the lower end of the tonal spectrum continues but this second half of the track was cut from the film.

The first real highlight of the album is now to come with "I Did Not Win The Race" for a little macho story about a open-sea swimming duel that Beowulf tells to Unferth who doubts our hero's power. There is a melodic line for dominant male choir chanting at the beginning of the piece which reminds me a bit of a secondary theme from Polar Express (the motif for the tramp that wasn't on the soundtrack... as wasn't most of the score). This nice but too short choral moment is just the overture for a powerful action sequence where Silvestri really throws everything in. An excellent, high-pitched Silvestri brass fanfare is announcing the arrival of gigantic sea monsters and as Beowulf starts battling them, Silvestri's music starts pounding with more heroic variations of the main theme. Silvestri paid close attention to the dynamics of this highly acrobatic action sequence where every jump and every hit is just in place with the score. In the middle of the track, Silvestri is introducing a more rousing secondary heroic theme. More importantly for the plot though is the following subtle rendition of the grendel theme heard during the Hrothgar-Grendel face-off. Silvestri plays the theme softly here on harp, flute, strings and female choir with a effectively seductive touch as Beowulf tells Unferth that one of the monsters dragged him underwater but we see that he really fell for a beautiful mermaid. This scene is important as it shows Beowulf's weakness for seduction that plays a large part later on and Silvestri musically lays the foundation for the future failure of the character here. Another source song sung by Robin Wright Penn is following (with similarly sparse orchestration), which is Silvestri's introduction of the fallen-hero theme that dominates the score's entire second half. It's particularly very clever to sneak in this soaring but downright sad and powerful theme as a song. More big action music follows in best Silvestri fashion for the "Second Grendel Attack". Particularly noteworthy for fans is the Predator-esque driving piano ostinato that pops up halfway through the cue, implying that Beowulf and not Grendel is the predator to fear here. More importantly to the storyline is the introduction of a breathtakingly menacing, operatic choral statement that kind of musically represents the evil products of the deals between men and demons throughout the movie. Another cool moment from this track that should be mentioned is a cymbal-crashing drive accompanying a horn ostinato derived from the first three notes of the score's main theme. This will be Silvestri's basis for the latter action orgasm "Beowulf Slays The Beast" but more on that in its time.

The return of the restraint male choir theme for Grendel at the beginning of "I Am Beowulf" accompanies him dying in the arms of his mother. Silvestri is breathing the creatures' live away with faint, briefly high-played string chords before giving the first hint of his theme for the mother. It's a carefully suggestive motif for flute and female choir accompanied by echoing synths and harp, an approach that is both new for Silvestri and slightly reminiscent of ideas from Goldsmith's Basic Instinct (1992). A solo horn statement of 'the hero comes home' theme is then announcing a more prominent, slow statement of that same theme with full choir and orchestra (this passage was the core of the Soncinemad concert suite). After that, there is a clever variation on the 'gently as she goes' theme for Wealthow on harp, flute and solo horn as she presents Beowulf a golden horn as a prize for slaying Grendel. The solo horn passage sets in as soon as we see the horn, which I think is a rather clever choice. Beowulf then has to face Grendel's mother (after a series of short unreleased score cues) which is where Silvestri brings back his echoing harp-synth theme for "The Seduction", a sequence that is very effective and cinematically interesting (and not just because of Jolie's naked body). The echoing sonic of the music plays nicely on the mysteriously low-light cavern environment before a little celesta melody followed by gentle male choir announces the mother's rise from the water. The celesta part plays at her charming appearance (remember: she is naked and covered with liquid gold) while the male choir reflects the danger that lies within her beauty. As the mother floats around Beowulf, poisoning him with fine promises, Silvestri's score floats along with sweet and lush strings that are a bit reminiscent of Shore's string writing for the Lord Of The Rings scores. The music for the crowning of "King Beowulf" starts menacing, first on mysteriously gentle strings playing on the Grendel theme before the operatic choral theme for the sins of the fathers is announcing the doom of Hrothgar, accentuated with low bell strikes.

The film then jumps forward in time, showing the aged king and his army in a battle with the Finns. One finish prisoner is challenging Beowulf, who then gives an impressive speech of how he died years ago, which Silvestri acknowledges with an interesting grief variation on his "hero comes home theme" for cello and strings in "He Has A Story To Tell". An emotional moment between him and his wife, Queen Wealthow is scored with intimate woodwind variations on the character's themes. A horn statement of the main theme accentuated with a low percussive strike at the end is musically accompanying Beowulf heading out to battle a dragon. Beowulf's agreement he made with Grendel's mother has come to an end, so the dragon represents the revenge of the mother and is at the same time a result of the father's sins. Silvestri quotes his 'sins of the father' theme several times while "Beowulf Slays The Beast" as a show stopper during an otherwise fulminate action orgasm that may not be entirely fresh but still sounds damn rousing especially due to the forceful use of the cymbals and choir. The track also has some electronic drums at times driving the action forward though film and album version have some differences in that regard. It's quite exciting when they kick in as soon as Beowulf is on the back of the dragon and the action really takes flight. Silvestri's final rendition of the 'hero comes home' theme in "He Was The Best Of Us" is for gentle flute, choir and horn with the grief variation from "He Has A Story To Tell" returns to note that Beowulf's words about his end were indeed true. Beowulf receives a Viking funeral and is passed with a gentle rendition of the Grendel theme. Wiglaf remains on the shores, looking at the burning ship on the horizon before he becomes involved with "the final seduction" and Silvestri brings a closing variation on his material for grendels mother. The End Credits version of "A Hero Comes Home" performed by Idina Menzel is like a James Bond-esque rock-pop riff of Silvestri's theme and apart from the melody shares absolutely no resemblance to the gentle beauty captured by Robin Wright Penn in the film version.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

RATING:

Original Songs as heard in the film: 78%

Original Songs as heard on CD: 78%

Score as heard in the film: 89%

Score as heard on CD: 71%

TOTAL: 79%

 

The presentation:

Congratulations to the folks of Warner Records as they have managed to release a score-only album for Beowulf, something they haven't managed for Polar Express (2004). The album offers the lions share of score heard in the film but is sadly missing all the lovely medieval source music that was recorded well over a year ago already. This source material would have added that little special something to the soundtrack that many critics have missed because these medieval music tracks are something entirely new from Silvestri. As it is, the only hints at that material are the sparsely orchestrated Robin Wright Penn songs. The underscore itself is represented sufficiently with the only major omission being the first half of the Beowulf-Dragon fight and that was thankfully used in the End Credits following the song. At almost 46 minutes though, there was certainly room for these little bits of unreleased material especially for the source music. Get that through your head, Warners: If a score is already shorter than the running time of a CD, you can very well spent a few extra bucks to make it a real complete release. It would have clearly enhanced the experience in this case.

Presentation by the Label: 60%

 

Summary:

Beowulf is just another score along with Van helsing (2004) that shows how Silvestri has changed his approach of adventure movies in times when pirate movies are scored with electronically altered orchestras to make them sound like synths. Silvestri, contrary to recent trends, remains honest about his electronic elements within the underscore and never even tries to camouflage that by creating an indifferent mess between synth and orchestra. Only within the unreleased traditional medieval source music he tackles something entirely new, so it's actually quite a clever combination of modern underscore and traditional source music while the latter adds to the former due to the integration of source songs. An honest modernism combined with his usual gift of melody leads to a very effective musical architecture that follows the character development of Beowulf from young and narcissistic hero to aged and fallen king who becomes victim of his own sins and weaknesses. As a stand-alone listening experience, Beowulf may confuse or even scare away some fans while introducing a whole new audience to the music of Alan Silvestri. This score is likely to divide critics until Ragnarok, just as the movie it accompanies.

 

Tracklisting:

01. Beowulf Main Title (0:56)
02. First Grendel Attack (1:53)

03. Gently As She Goes (1:37)

04. What We Need Is A Hero (1:42)

05. I'm Here To Kill Your Monster (1:49)

06. I Did Not Win The Race (2:18)

07. A Hero Comes Home (1:09)

08. Second Grendel Attack (4:03)

09. I Am Beowulf (4:43)

10. The Seduction (4:04)

11. King Beowulf (1:46)

12. He Has A Story To Tell (2:42)

13. Full Of Fine Promises (1:13)

14. Beowulf Slays The Beast (6:02)

15. He Was The Best Of Us (5:25)

16. The Final Seduction (2:26)

17. A Hero Comes Home: End Credits Version (3:13)