(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.)
For a long time, Mel Gibson was nowhere to be found. A plethora of horrible outbursts put his career to an astoundingly sudden halt. The once-beloved actor and critically acclaimed director had lost his audience.
Now he seems to be coming back.
Hacksaw Ridge is his new directional effort about US Army medic Desmond T. Doss who managed to save the life of 75 of his comrades during WWII while being under constant enemy fire without firing a single bullet himself.
The reviews are praising the film, particularly Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Doss and Gibson’s intense but respectful direction.
The score was to be written by James Horner, who already worked with Gibson on films like ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Apocalypto’ to amazing results, but due to his tragic death in summer of 2015, the gig went to John Debney instead, who then got replaced by Rupert Gregson-Williams only weeks upon the release of the film.
Despite a promising start in the late 90’s and early 2000’s as an additional composer for Hans Zimmer or on his own projects like ‘Hotel Rwanda’ or ‘Over The Hedge’, Rupert Gregson-Williams unfortunately fell into the hell of being typecasted for bad comedies, with only the occasional animated movie here and there. ‘Winter’s Tale’ from 2014 ignited a sparkle of hope only to be crushed again under new Sandler-Flicks and the shockingly unremarkable ‘The Legend Of Tarzan’ earlier this year.
Obviously not the best conditions for a big break-through.
Let the soundtrack grow on you
At first listen, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ might not make the biggest of impressions.
The main theme, instantly introduced in Okinawa Battlefield is nice and the solo cello a fitting touch, given the rural roots of the main character, but the constant reprisal of it, without great variations can get a tad repetitive. The album may drag a bit for some listeners.
Thus, repeated listens are recommended.
The first couple of tracks are actually really beautiful and, as said above, the soundscape is interesting enough. It has a slight bluegrass vibe to it, but not too obvious and the piano parts in the opening track and others like Pretty Corny add another emotional touch. That track might be the best at representing that bluegrass-feeling the most, featuring a lovely guitar as well.
The most notable instrumental choice are probably the woodwinds, though. Those poor instruments have been banned from Remote Control Scores way too much and a film like ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ really doesn’t feel like the kind of film that would be full of woodwind soli; restrained but gorgeous in their subtlety.
And yet, here we are: Sleep has an particularily nice oboe performance of the main theme accompanied by piano and glockenspiel accents.
After 8 tracks of countryside-innocence, building up Doss’ characters and his relationships – most notably to his wife-to-be Dorothy Shute – the listener then is thrown into the brutality of war. Dorothy Pleads provides us with the last bits of beauty (with a gorgeous piano rendering of the main theme around the 90-second mark) before the last few bars get you ready, using the popular effect of a rising synth effect that suddenly cuts to silence, leading the audience into Hacksaw Ridge.
Brooding and tedious action parts
The action music, sadly, is not really impressive. Hacksaw Ridge consists of many brooding synth textures, drumming and follows the popular cliché of just getting loud and louder. The low piano hits are reminiscent of Horner’s suspense music and the structure of the track also is not too far away from similar ‘Braveheart’ tracks, which also could get a bit tedious from time to time.
Gregson-Williams is obviously going for tension in this track and he certainly achieves that. The fear and dread of the characters can be felt through the music, it just doesn’t go beyond that since there is no thematic grounding. Japanese Retake The Ridge goes even further by throwing the obligatory drum loops and some sound effects into the mix, without any hint of narrative.
Back to melodies
It’s not until I Can’t Hear You that the listener is granted some melody again in form of an epic statement of the main theme on brass with some ethnic touches that sound straight out of something Zimmer might have written for ‘Black Hawk Down’. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but in an age of film music where melodies are not allowed in “serious films” anymore, it’s a more than welcome return to the good ages of Remote Control. The following One Man At A Time blasts the main theme again in heroic fashion over a rapid string ostinato, probably underscoring a montage-like scene of Doss rescuing soldiers. The rousing epicness continues in Rescue Continues (adding a haunting flute during the last minute).
One of the emotional highlights for many will be Praying which, especially in the beginning might as well be the big finale of the album. The violin solo flowing into an orchestral performance of the main theme is beautiful and the shakuhachi blasts (introduced in I Can’t Hear You earlier) form another appreciated homage to Horner’s mannerisms while being faithful to the Japanese setting. It is not safe from a couple of “Horn of Doom”-hits shortly after the 2-minute mark, though.
However, the real finale is Historical Footage, which adds yet another layer of beauty through gorgeous female vocals and some uplifting, awesome, accentuating bells. It is really good stuff and a nice ending to the album.
Hidden gems make ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Rupert Gregson-Williams’ best score to date
All in all, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a really solid score with a good, somewhat unique first half and some neat RCP-callbacks in its final act. Sadly, the repetitiveness of the main theme, some meandering and especially the not-bad-but-just-passable action music diminishes the listening experience a bit. Nonetheless, there are enough hidden gems in almost every track: a guitar part, some nice metallic percussion, the Horner-sensibilities in some of the quieter string-movements, and so on to make it Rupert Gregson-Williams’ best score to date and while it’s not mindblowing, one hopes that this will open up some new paths to go.
It’s not perfect, but how many composers would have written something on a similar level after being brought into the project as the third guy on the last minute?
UPDATE: It seems like a major path has already opened up for Rupert Gregson-Williams as it was just announced that he will be scoring the highly anticipated Wonder Woman movie!
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