By Charlie Brigden
Mutation. It’s something that has happened since life began, and will undoubtedly happen again. This would sound much better if Patrick Stewart were saying it. By referencing mutation I thusly invoke the saga of the X-Men, and as the latest film starring that lot – Days of Future Past – is out now, it’s a good time to talk about the music of the children of the atom. Since 2000, the X-Men have appeared in five motion pictures of their own, with two further spin-offs dedicated to Hugh Jackman’s gruff anti-hero Wolverine. But have they had music that matches their character – and iconography?
To be honest, X-Men (2000) was a massive shock. The comic book movie as a legitimate film had all but died after Joel Schumacher murdered Warner Bros.’ Bat-franchise (New Line’s adaptation of Marvel’s Blade was a success in 1998 but didn’t go out of its way to let everyone know it was based on a comic), so when Bryan Singer’s movie emerged in 2000 as a fairly decent blockbuster with reasonably-well drawn characters and a script that wasn’t dreadful, it helped re-energise the genre. Singer originally wanted John Ottman to compose the score – as he had done for Singer’s previous flicks (including The Usual Suspects) – but he had to decline as he was busy helming his first and only directorial effort, Urban Legend.
Next in line was John Williams, but he also had to reject due to his work on Saving Private Ryan, but the third choice was certainly no slouch. The late Michael Kamen was one of the most revered composers of the time because of scores like Brazil, Highlander, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and also had an in with the production due to his work on the Lethal Weapon movies for producer Lauren Shuler-Donner’s husband Richard.
Like a lot of modern film music, Kamen’s score was not left alone on completion. The score he wrote was quite dark and sinister, with brushes of gray and black as opposed to the more overt heroic themes of previous superhero movies like Superman or Batman. Understandable really, as while the X-Men are the heroes of the piece, the whole point is that they’re feared and mistrusted by those they try and protect. A somber tone permeates the score, best summed up by the opening cue ‘Death Camp’, a harrowingly emotional piece that sets the stall out for the respectful tone of the film and its dramatic approach to the source material. Here we have a line of violins underscoring the horrifying separation of a young Magneto from his parents at Auschwitz, and the subsequent display of his powers as his anger grows, illustrated via intense piercing strings. It’s so good it was even used again in a later instalment of the series.
Unfortunately for Kamen – and the score – 20th Century Fox didn’t have much enthusiasm for his traditional orchestral score, instead wanting something with more attitude and a more modern sound aka electronic, undoubtedly influenced by the previous year’s success of The Matrix and its heavily electronic-based soundtrack. Kamen’s score was modified and replaced in part by music overlays by composer Klaus Badelt – whose final credit in the film was for “Additional Electronic Percussion”. Kamen’s music was released on CD at the time of release by Decca (under the credit “Michael K-Men”), featuring just under forty minutes of the score. It’s a decent presentation but meanders a bit, and messes up at the end by not including the fantastic finale and end credits cue, with the big statement of the main theme as Xavier is pulled away from Magneto’s plastic prison. Whether or not an expanded version of the score may be released soon is anyone’s guess, but it may be complicated by the issues surrounding the electronics.
By the time the inevitable sequel rolled around with Singer again at the helm, John Ottman was now available and not only scored X2 (2003, also known under the soccer-esque subtitle X-Men United) but also edited it, a double role he would pull for Singer on many an occasion. Not only bigger-budgeted than the rushed original film, X2 was better written and better directed, free of the character introductions needed for part one to create one of the best comic book films at that time (and it still holds up). One of the biggest successes of the film is certainly Ottman’s score. With Fox now having more faith in Singer due to the near-$300 domestic box office taken for X-Men, Ottman was free to compose a primarily orchestral and thematic score more integrated into the action than its predecessor. Ottman’s score shines from the opening titles, as delicate piano tones segue to a swelling chorus under the opening narration of Xavier before blasting into the excellent horn-lines of the main theme. It’s a marvellous opening, and but a taste of things to come.
Interestingly, one of the most memorable pieces of music in the film is not part of the score but instead a classical composition. In a genius move for the introduction of the character Nightcrawler, Singer uses ‘Dies Irae’ from Mozart’s Requiem, the piece’s furious choral movements matching the character as he teleports through the White House. It’s ridiculously effective, with the music and the images edited perfectly to create one of the best action sequences of the 2000s. Ottman proves himself a worthy successor to Kamen many times, with the epic “Mansion Attack” sequence a stand-out. As William Stryker and his team attack the Xavier school, Ottman uses chaotic and dissonant brass to initiate the infiltration with distant percussion and swirling strings as Wolverine furiously defends the kids. A sweeping and sinister motif develops as helicopters approach and more and more troops arrive, with brass outbursts as Logan goes into his beserker attack against Stryker’s men.
But one of the strongest strings in Ottman’s bow is his use of emotion. To be fair, the film’s climax provides a strong emotional throughline to latch on to, but it wasn’t a slam dunk by any means. However, with Ottman’s music scoring of the last few signs where Jean Grey saves her colleagues and then passes on, well it just flows beautifully. Flashes of it are signposted – ‘Jean and Logan’ and ‘Augmentation Room’ both echo what comes later – but it’s ‘Goodbye’ where it really kicks into gear. There’s tension generated by the strings and percussion as our heroes’ jet is unable to take off as the water from a compromised dam approaches, but as she begins the journey that will end her life, the signs of Jean’s power are predicted by short statements of choir.
When she is finally ready, a wonderfully sad string melody plays as she tells her friends she will not be joining them. As her powers increase, Ottman’s Phoenix motif plays with an angelic female vocal, only to quickly play out as she is swallowed by the ocean. Melancholy tones close out the track as the jet leaves the area, heartbroken. But what Ottman does next is provide a superb finale full of hope and optimism. After a reflective yet playful passage scoring Professor X’s class, ‘Evolution Leaps Forward’ opens up as we return to the lake where Jean died, with a beautiful violin melody building to the return of the Phoenix motif in a grand statement as we move over the water at speed, a glowing light ready to emerge as the choir soars before the main theme crashes in over the end title. Incredible.
Trauma Records originally released the score at the time of release, with a generous hour-long presentation that covered most of the major cues (although predictably, not the finale). Thankfully, La-La Land Records released a remastered edition of the score last year, featuring the complete film score over two discs. The album is limited to 3500 copies and is still available, and highly recommended.
So, most people loved X2 and we were all set to have a great trilogy. But then something got in the way, or should I say someone. A big blue boy scout with a red cape. After the success of the second movie, Warners decided to poach Singer and make him direct Superman Returns. Ottman went with him and who were we left with? Brett Ratner, John Powell, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
To be fair, at the time I had no idea who Powell was (I still haven’t seen the Bourne movies, although I’ve heard the music), and I have to admit I wasn’t immediately taken with his score. This was partially because I wanted Ottman to stay on the film, but also because The Last Stand was a dreadful piece of shit for 80% of its running time. By the time I managed to hear the music separately from that film, I had purged the visuals from my mind and found a quite impressive score. What I discovered in the score is what Powell has become known for since his music from How To Train Your Dragon: a fine command of melody, and finding emotion from that.
Powell’s main X-Men theme follows an evolution of sorts from the previous films, with a big and brassy arrangement which has a similar template to Ottman’s main title with the thundering strings, which Powell’s theme then is overlaid on top. With a bit of a nod to Bernard Herrmann’s overture from North By Northwest as well, it’s a killer way to start the picture, although probably puts expectations a little too high. The theme iself isn’t plastered all over the film (although it receives some nice variations), and Powell is a good enough composer to make most of the music interesting enough without always recalling it. His other themes are good enough, with a wonderfully sweeping almost romantic theme, an emotional and optimistic theme representing the hope of Professor Xavier, and an eerie choral motif for Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix character.
Action highlights include the powerhouse sequence where Xavier gets taken out by the Dark Phoenix, with the inventive woodwinds and melody providing the sense of emotion the actual scene lacks. The fight in the woods has a driving bellicose rythym that owes more than a little to Jaws, and really the last third is just action packed, with the brotherhood attacking Alcatraz, and the last stand against the Dark Phoenix. The sound is massive at times, unsurprising considering Powell used a 141-piece orchestra, and his constant use of brass is admirable (as it almost seems outlawed in some scores lately). But there is relief at times, with the lovely and playful pond skating scene, and the majesty of ‘Whirlpool of Love’.
There is however a criticism of this score – and Powell at times – that I do find valid. It feels a lot of the time like it’s heavily over-orchestrated, too many eggs, cooks, etc. At times it’s awesome, and at others it almost feels headache-inducing because so much is going on. That said, when the music is of this quality, it’s easy to not be hugely bothered about that kind of thing, but the score is easily at its best when Powell lets his themes breathe and his chorus scream.
Naming a fine prequel isn’t always the easiest thing, but Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) is one of the better ones. Taking the central relationship of Xavier and Magneto and pulling back a few decades, the film looks at when they became friends in the 60s and how the X-Men developed. On score duties this time was Henry Jackman, who eschewed any kind of continuity whatsoever, but still managed to create one of the most iconic themes of modern times.
The story with First Class goes that Jackman was not allowed to score the film the way he wanted; that is supposedly a big orchestral opus in the vein of Star Wars. While little of that is evident in the final score, what exists still packs a strong punch. Of course, the central theme of the film is ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, the guitar/string combo representing the character of Magneto and his crusade for justice. So popular that it’s been used again and again in trailers, it’s a perfect theme for Erik – direct, driving, growing ever more violent. The strings mixing with the electric guitar give it an edgy feel and when it opens up, it adds a layer of grandeur.
Jackman’s theme for the X-Men has a similar structure, but its vibrant strings are joined by brass. It’s very much a call to arms theme and sounds nascent, undeveloped. When it does come to the fore it’s enhanced by electronics and a fantastic horn section, but it still feels like it’s built to be mutated into something else. That said, it’s great for the film, and it has a warmth to it that’s missing from Magneto’s theme (as you’d imagine). These two themes really form the backbone of the score in one way or another, with variations running in and out of just about every cue. There are a lot of electronics used with the orchestra, and I suppose it at least means it has continuity with the earlier scores, but it feels like a missed opportunity to not do more with the orchestra, especially considering the era the film’s set in.
That said, it certainly has a unique feel compared to the other scores. The heavy use of guitar gives it a more contemporary feel, which is appropriate given the new actors and settings. And while it’s certainly defined by ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, that isn’t a bad thing. It’s an amazing theme that has really slipped with ease into the lexicon of recent film music, and unsurprisingly. Listen to the album tracks ‘X-Men’ and ‘Magneto’, where it’s finally unleashed as Magneto’s theme proper, villainous and proud, with a great magnetic effect that personifies his new name and position. Blinding.
And we’ll leave it there. To find out what we think of Days of Future Past, rap your claws here, and start wondering what Ottman will do for the already-announced next chapter in the X-Men saga, Apocalypse…