When I was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, my film scoring colleagues and I had a running gag that always seemed to pick up our spirits when one of us was struggling to compose their latest assignment. Somebody would dial up a loop-based preset on their Roland JV-2080 synthesizer, trigger the loop by holding down a key on their MIDI keyboard and goofily exclaim, “Instant film score!” Every one shared a hearty chuckle which calmed our nerves during a stressful time.
Little did we realize we were predicting the future of film music.
I recently saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and my first thought upon leaving the theater was, “How can a film this great have a score that bad?” In all my cinematic experiences I haven’t quite encountered this particular phenomenon. There are indeed great films which harbor great scores and even bad films which harbor great scores; however, I haven’t encountered too many examples of an excellent film suffering a terrible score quite like this.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is flat-out my favorite Marvel film to date. It’s mind-blowingly awesome on so many levels! Unfortunately, music is not one of them. Why does this matter? If the film is indeed enjoyable (and profitable), isn’t that enough? I’ve struggled with this dilemma the past week and have come to the conclusion that it is not enough, in fact, it’s probably this attitude that is most responsible for the music being what it is. I’m first and foremost a champion of film music and for the sake of my craft of which I am devoted, I feel obligated to call attention to such malpractice and support my opinion that Marvel is squandering a golden opportunity to elevate their films further than they’ve ever achieved.
This isn’t simply an issue of taste or musical preference. It has nothing to do with how enjoyable or not the music is as a stand-alone listening experience. It’s an issue of function. I’ve said many times, “I don’t care what a score sounds like, I only care how it functions.” A Ferrari with square wheels is not a very good car no matter how beautiful it may be. Film music has purpose and should never be arbitrary within a film. It has a set of tasks to complete and a great score will set out to complete those tasks in creatively aesthetic ways. While the film scores of Williams, Goldsmith, Herrmann, Elfman, Barry, and other film music legends are mighty workhorses dedicated to unwavering service of their respective films, Henry Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the sofa spud who lives with his parents and can’t get out of bed before noon. It goes out of its way to not do much of anything except be present. It’s not offensive; however it’s not inspirational either. It’s simply there.
I’m not even going to place the brunt of my critique on Henry Jackman. I wasn’t present during a single music meeting; however, I’m hazarding a guess that Jackman did exactly what he was paid to do. No self-respecting composer would deliver this score voluntarily unless they were paid a lot of money to legalize a temp-track and look the other way in order to please a court of executives. My gut intuition is that this a systemic failure at the corporate level fueled by an unfortunate devolution of creativity where genericism is the overriding mantra of the day. You can smell the fear nestled in between the notes of this score and it reeks. Fear of inspiration. Fear of going after your audience with reckless abandon and making that personal connection with them. However fantastic the Marvel films are, they can never be so cocky as to not require an intimate connection with its audience through the power of music.
If any particular character in the Marvel universe deserves an emotional connection, it’s Captain America. His personal fuel is loyalty, patriotism, and the general belief in always doing the right thing. While some cues in Jackman’s score (like the scene at the Air & Space Museum) skim the surface of these ideals, they are mostly ignored by the music and feel woefully obligatory. What makes this unfortunate situation especially egregious is that Marvel has set out to create a cinematic universe where their characters and narratives interact and fuse together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. In this case, music could be their greatest ally in achieving this goal if they only choose to harness it.
Considering how many Marvel decisions have been colossal home-runs, I’ve always felt their music choices were a bit hit-or-miss. It’s no secret how much I admire Brian Tyler’s scores for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World (and the new Marvel audio logo) and Alan Silvestri’s retro-score for Captain America: The First Avenger; however the scores for Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Thor were less than stellar. I even felt that The Avengers succeeded as one of the best Marvel films to date in spite of its lackluster score.
Throughout cinematic history, music has served as ambassadors of nostalgia for perennially lauded franchises which mold, shape, and define multiple generations of cinephiles. Music becomes a character within their respective stories as prominent as the actors cast to appear on screen. The iconic music from the films of James Bond throughout the '60s, John Williams’ infectious choruses from Star Wars throughout the '70s and '80s, and the small to big screen scores spanning multiple decades of Star Trek all bind their distinct idiosyncrasies to the hearts of fans through a unique transcendence that only music can accomplish.
What piece(s) of music from Captain America: The Winter Soldier will heed such a call to claim its right as ambassador and transcend visual limitations to fuse itself into the hearts and minds of its adoring fans? What phrase will be sung by countless children wielding their make-shift vibranium shields as they thwart evil in their backyards? Marvel is at the doorstep of answering these questions and establishing a vehicle to permeate their cultural lexicon deeper than previous accomplishments…but they have to kick in that door and charge inside. It won’t happen just standing there.
I’m smitten with Marvel and the movies they are making; however, I’ll always remain faithful to my first love…film music. If Marvel ever applies the same brazen approach to deciding their directors and cast as selecting their composers, they will blow open the roof of their own expectations where even the sky is no longer the limit.