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Soundtrack Review: Rupert Gregson-Williams – Wonder Woman (2017)

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Superheroes are awesome!

This is especially true if you are a major Hollywood studio with the rights to some superheroes (unless your name is 20th Century Fox and those superheroes call themselves the “Fantastic Four”). In all seriousness, though, superheroes are, obviously, booming and while many do seem like the billionth carbon copy of another one, one particular character was sitting there, waiting for a big blockbuster outing.

The character in question is obviously Wonder Woman. Despite the popular Lynda Carter TV-series and a lot of appearances in animated movies, the popular DC heroine never graced the big screen.

Finally, a good female-led comic film

That was until Zack Snyder’s divisive “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” premiered, where Wonder Woman played a supporting role, whetting the appetites of the audience by being one of the few things almost everybody loved about the film.

Her solo film was already in the works and eagerly awaited, a significant factor being that this might finally stop the row of bad female-led comic films. Too many years, Hollywood-producers simply connected the failure of films like “Catwoman” and “Elektra” to the fact, that audiences just don’t want to see a woman in the starring role, but fortunately, Warner came to reason and finally started shooting “Wonder Woman” after what feels like eons in development hell.

The studio went almost all-in, when pursuing a female director for this production, first settling on Michelle McLaren of “Game Of Thrones” fame, before she left, being then replaced by Patty Jenkins, whose last theatrical release was the critically acclaimed “Monster” (in which she directed her star, Charlize Theron, towards an OSCAR).

The studio went only “almost” all-in, though, because they didn’t give the task of providing a musical score to a woman.

The DCEU, as Warner’s big comic book franchise is called, consisting of “Man of Steel”, “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad” were composed by Hans Zimmer, Tom Holkenborg (or JunkieXL if you are one of the “kewl kidz”) and Steven Price with Zimmer functioning of the defining voice of the franchise. Audiences loved it, film music fanatics, however, were more on the fence about it.
DC’s arch nemesis, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the target of criticisms regarding their soundtracks for quite some time now, due to their inability to keep thematic consistency or at least have their themes play in significant, memorable ways.

Therefore, no matter how good or bad the DC scores are as a whole, audiences just praise them for having big music moments in their films which help them notice the music. Be it Superman’s first flight or the music video-like murder scene of the Waynes, the music was mixed in the foreground, thus it already must be better than Marvel’s music, right?

One major “music moment” in the DCEU was Wonder Woman’s jump onto the battlefield. Accompanied by a sudden electric cello riff, she got ready to kick some ass, winning the hearts of everyone in the theater.
The riff in question was performed, and according to rumors even written by, Tina Guo who has been Zimmer’s go to solo cellist for quite some time now. Zimmer himself was pretty vocal about getting a woman to provide the score to the “Wonder Woman” solo entry and reportedly Guo was his first choice. [watch Tina Guo’s official music video]

For some odd reason, women are criminally underrepresented in the film music world, be it for open sexism or subconscious sexism in the form of a simple habit of getting male composers. Naturally, “Wonder Woman” was seen as THE occasion to give a major Hollywood gig to a female composer, just like they did with a female director, but eventually, the project went to Rupert Gregson-Williams.

Hurray! Beautiful soundscapes and themes reintroduced to the DCEU

Gregson-Williams has spent an awful lot of his career scoring sub-par comedies starring Adam Sandler with the occasional animated film in between (which understandably inspired him more). In recent years, though, he did go through some sort of renaissance, with films like “Winter’s Tale” in 2014 before getting “Legend of Tarzan” and “Hacksaw Ridge” in 2016. The former was pretty ill-received, considered a standard Remote-Control effort, whereas the latter got its fair share of praise [read our review]. Thus, people were very unsure about what to expect from “Wonder Woman”.

What will please a lot of people from the get go is the continuity. Gregson-Williams does use the popular cello-riff. In fact, he develops it in a pretty clever, thought-out way: The subdued, seducing version of it, that played a few times during “Batman V Superman” in scenes before Diana’s big reveal, kicks the album off, before teasing the characteristic rhythm. That rhythm, which actually is a big cliché in scores today (just listen to “Angels and Demons” or “Green Lantern”) is used a few times in the first third of the score whenever Diana comes closer to the Wonder Woman we know today. There are hints of it later in “Amazons Of Themyscira” or a comedic variation that sadly did not make it on the album for a certain Richard Donner homage, before finally exploding in “No Man’s Land”, giving us the long awaited electric cello.

For many people, though, the e-cello will clash with the rest of the score, due to its soundscape being more akin to the melodic Remote-Control soundtracks of the 2000’s rather than the more industrial minimalism of today (especially the other DC scores). Whenever the “War Cry”, as it’s called by many now, emerges, Gregson-Williams spices the score up with quite a few synthetic effects that are nowhere else to be found. For some people, it will work but for many it’ll be out of nowhere, jarring even.

The mentioned soundscape of the bulk of the music, however, is really pleasing and beautiful. It’s certainly nothing new if you have heard any score by Zimmer or his prodigies and back in 2006 or something it would have disappeared under countless of similar works, but in 2017, it’s oddly refreshing. The woodwinds, in particular, are really nice and add some real beauty to the scenes in Themyscira. The first three tracks are just a joy to listen to. They may not be overly exciting, but they manage to transport you into the lush, colorful, peaceful land of the Amazons and even when the narrative of the film changes into the “real world”, the score doesn’t suddenly become unpleasant.

In that way, the few synthetic elements mentioned above give the score variety and sadly, variety is needed, especially regarding the themes.

Gregson-Williams does introduce his own array of themes and some of them are really gorgeous but unfortunately, they tend to sound the same. It’s really hard to tell Diana’s theme apart from Steve Trevor’s and so on. It’s hard to even be sure how many themes there are because they all blend together. Is a nice melody in a nice track a variation of a theme or just an on-off motif for a specific scene? It’s really hard to tell. Again: they are not bad! You will catch yourself a few times listening up to a beautiful bar and many times you will be aware of the melody, having heard it before in the score, but you will pop some synapses trying to recall where it comes from or what it represents.

But unfortunately, too much temp love

What doesn’t help this whole situation either is the awful amount of temp-tracking going on in this thing. Now, temp-tracking is not even expected nowadays, it’s a given. Every score of a tentpole movie will sound like another which itself was tempted with another popular score and so on, but some are more noticeable than others and some just manage to come up with enough original material to make up for it.

“Wonder Woman” has a lot of cues that just scream their inspirations right in your face. Be it “Like A Dog Chasing Cars” (“The Dark Knight”) in the last two minutes of “The God Of War”, the drum rhythm with the weird bee-swarm sound from “Arcade” (“Man Of Steel”) in “Wonder Woman’s Wrath” or the embarrassing “Action Reaction” which combines “Mad Max Fury Road”, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Terminator”. You can even hear that one synth-hit from “Cry Little Sister” from “The Lost Boys” in it, though that one is very likely to be a coincidence. And of course, no post-2010 score would be complete without a decent “Time” (“Inception”) rip-off, so cue “We Are All To Blame”.

Whether this is due to Gregson-Williams not being able to work off temp-tracks with his own voice or to Patty Jenkins or some producer just loving their temp-tracks way too much will probably never be revealed unless the Lasso of Truth gets involved. In the composers’ defense, one has to mention, that there is an interview regarding “Wonder Woman”, where he pretty clearly alludes to being sidelined when writing the score. His statements are naturally sugarcoated since he’d like to stay in business, but one doesn’t have to read between the lines too much to get it. But whoever is responsible should be ashamed for a cultural icon like Wonder Woman deserves much better.

The highpoint of bad decisions is met with “No Man’s Land”. It’s a turning point in the movie, a very important scene for Diana, her friends and the audience. The whole film builds up to this point and it’s arguably even more significant to the character than the whole finale and just when everything gets as emotional as possible, “Specters In The Fog” from “Last Samurai” plays. For some people and probably most of the general audiences, it might not be that big of a deal, but it will pull a whole lot of film music enthusiasts right out of the movie.
On the bright side, it is indeed a very uplifting and emotional track and works extraordinarily in the scene and hey, it gives you a longer variation of the beloved Zimmer-track, but it’s still a pity, that a scene like this got an “inspired by” soundtrack instead of an original one.

Another downside is the villain material. Instrumentally, it gets a few nice touches through the dulcimer, even featuring a dulcimer performance of the War Cry which is probably the most intelligently scored moment in the film and deserves major props, but the melody itself is just as unremarkable as possible. There is a dark, menacing four or five note motif that will pop up in “Angel On The Wing” and “Ludendorff, Enough!” on low strings, foreshadowing the big reveal of the villain theme. Then it hits you. This IS the villain theme. There is absolutely nothing to it. It gets a bit more interesting whenever the composer implements a little woodwind flourish (“Ludendorff, Enough!” and “The God Of War”) or brings back the dulcimer. But it’s not worthy of Ares.

Overall, just quite above average

All this may sound like we have an atrocity at our disposal. In reality, it’s just, alright. If you are a hardcore fan of the DCEU you will find things here to enjoy. It’s optimistic soundscape and uplifting spirit mark a welcome change to the bleak synths of the other three and it’s nice to hear returning themes. Some of the things Gregson-Williams does with the War Cry in “No Man’s Land” and “Wonder Woman’s Wrath” are really commendable, the horn variation in particular, and after Steven Price ignored Zimmer’s scores completely despite cameos and references to Batman and Superman in “Suicide Squad” the little snippet of the Batman-Theme heard in “Amazons Of Themyscira” is more than welcome.

The last couple of tracks (minus “Action Reaction”) need some credit as well. Despite the similarity of all the themes, their bold, emotional statements in “Hell Hath No Fury”, “Lightning Strikes” and “Trafalgar Celebration” are not to be dismissed easily.

The album closes with the song “To Be Human” by Sia and Labyrinth. It incorporates some of the thematic elements by Gregson-Williams (though nothing’s wrong with you if you won’t notice that) but with names like Sia and Florence Welsh, who wrote the song, you would expect something mind blowing. It’s kind of representative of the whole score: Not bad at all, very competent and enjoyable even, only just… quite above average.

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Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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