REVIEW: Robin Hood (2018) Score by Joseph Trapanese
The father of modern film scores, Erich Korngold, wrote his greatest work in 1937-8, the score to the Warner Bros. picture The Adventures of Robin Hood. It's been a staple of concert performances ever since, creating an iconic sound for the Prince of Thieves that is as memorable as Errol Flynn's own performance. Other composers and groups that have turned their hand at the tale include Michael Kamen (Die Hard, X-Men), Andy Price (Knightfall), John Barry (the James Bond series), Clannad (Harry's Game) and Edwin Astley (The Saint). The latest scorer of Robin's adventures is American Joseph Trapanese, whose recent work includes Oblivion, Tron: Legacy, Straight Outta Compton and The Greatest Showman. His score for Robin Hood is as unconventionally against-the-grain as the film itself; instead of hunting horns in the greenwood, we're met with industry, guerrilla warfare and flame. Trapanese's score embodies the same principles as the picture, abandoning the familiar flavour of medieval heraldry in favour of a wholly modern and unique companion to the story.
The score opens softly as Tuck speaks to the audience, setting the scene; the piece takes us into the pages of a storybook, to Robin and Marian's first meeting, their whirlwind romance, and Robin's eventual draft into the Crusade. There is a mysterious element to the introduction, faint keys dipping in and out, nostalgic, paired with Tuck's telling us to forget the versions of the story we'd seen before. A motif for Marian is introduced here, a slower whisper of keys, appearing through the film when she is near, or Rob is thinking of her. The score swiftly changes energy in this first track, as the envoy from the Sheriff races to Loxley to deliver the draft notice; there's a wonderful sense of destiny and duty from the music, giving the scene the weight it needs in such a short burst of time; the score is doing the work. This highlights the point Tuck is making - we know the man, but not the story. This is arguably the most 'familiar' piece in the score; rather than knowing a theme, we know a feel. This is immediately abandoned for more a ruthless pace!
For the scenes set in Syria, there is a harder, dirtier, raw and imposing nature to the music, as the Christian Crusaders are swarmed and attacked by the Saracens. The piece is stripped bare, and loud, with repeating drums and coarse electric stings, creating a feel of pursuing and unrelenting danger, which pairs perfectly with the scene of Robin weaving through the narrow streets of the peninsula. This early track highlights the modern approach to the score. Korngold, of course, had a sweeping, hearty, theatrical score to his Robin Hood; recently, Marc Streitenfeld's score for Ridley Scott's 2010 film is a surprisingly classical, thematic work, arguably as good a teller of the story as the scenes on the screen. As this film features period-ambiguous costumes, language and set design, the score, too, is a very modern composition, with some tracks feeling like they could fit in to a modern-day thriller, which is both to its accomplishment and detriment. In this case, the faster the energy, the better the unique score works. For all scenes in the Holy Land, there is a danger, a grit and a pace to the music accompanying them, which perfectly reflects the fear and confusion in Rob. The same can be said of the scenes in Nottingham, with Robin fighting guards and stealing money; these themes contain the same blend of urgency and danger, but with an unmissable sense of fun.
Robin has his own leitmotif, first appearing in the track, 'Rob Inspired,' which accompanies the scene in Nottingham where John tracks down and recruits Robin to his cause of striking back against the Sheriff. It's a straightforward yet very effective set of notes (similar to Streitenfeld's Merry Men motif from 2010) played either lightly after a personal achievement for Rob, or loudly, quickly, brilliantly during an action scene or an emotional moment. It's probably best realised in the track, 'Becoming the Hood,' where it appears accompanied with heavy drums, strings and a classic heroic brass section. Robin's actions are often tied to the theme associated with Marian, just as its strings-heavy appearance during his journey back to his manor. A lot of Robin's connections and actions towards Nottingham are because of his connection to Marian, and so it's a clever touch to make this theme representative of the city to Robin.
There is also a motif, not necessarily tied to any one character, for Robin and John's exploits, a gradually-unfurling collective of sounds to play over their plotting in the infancy of their schemes. There are elements of Robin's own theme in this, but it is tweaked several different ways in the film (used as part of the training montage, John's distraction of the guards for Robin's break into the treasury, and so on). John doesn't have a motif of his own, not in the same way Robin does, but more in the way Marian does - a specifically-toned repetition of notes, strong and foreboding, first heard when he attacks the Crusaders, lastly when he gets his revenge on the Sheriff. We don't get a whole musical identity for John which is a shame, but it's entirely because we don't really get a clear identity for John in the actual film - we just know he's strong and deadly and out for vengeance, and that's exactly the cues we get!
Quite a few tracks end in an ominous tolling bell, evocative of the church's ever-present cloud over the city. This usually serves as a bridge into the next scene, featuring a clergyman or the church itself, but it also serves as a tie to the Sheriff in some instances - his introduction in the film features longer, heavier bell rings. The Sheriff doesn't have a theme as such, more, he's accompanied by eery motions and soft yet ominous chords. Because the bulk of the Sheriff's scenes are centred around either the church's corruption or outright violence, the villainous score in the film reflects this in its accompaniment of the man and his allies.
The score is curiously compiled in that it sways from distinctive and evocative, unable to be differentiated from the emotion and the character, to simple fast-paced action or slow-burn malice. During the film itself, the stronger elements of the score are a part of the fun, particularly with the chunk of the film focussing on Robin's growth from lowly veteran into thief, into legend. The score seems to be at its weakest during scenes of elongated action, such as the horse cart chase through the mining town (never named on-screen, but given the title of 'the Slags' in the soundtrack - I think I know why they dropped that, huh!). What should be an energetic pace comes across as filler, energetic yes, but nowhere near as distinctive as the rest of the score. It's curious because of the directness of the stronger themes, where both smaller and bigger moments than this are memorable. The score should obviously be the backdrop to the action on the screen, being a companion, a map and compass, but it should also tell the story of the film. In some cases, it doesn't, not because it's simply not as strong as the other tracks, but because the tone seems confused.
As mentioned before, the period-ambiguous score works in the film's favour when the music is fast-paced, and when it's slower, it seems to have to work harder to be appropriate. There is one piece on the soundtrack release, 'Becoming a Hero,' which is a rhythmic 'montage' piece (and one I'm certain didn't find its way into the final film, if I remember rightly), with electronic bursts that, when I first heard it, thought it could be placed into a techno-futuristic thrillers like Minority Report or Blade Runner 2049, or something similar (or Trapanese's own Oblivion). It's only in the last quarter of this track that the strings of Robin's leitmotif bleed back in and take over, becoming a companion piece to what has come immediately before in the training sequence. It's not a bad track by any means; it's super cool and slick, but it's admittedly the only track on the album where it's tricky to remember you're listening to the Robin Hood soundtrack. The score's greatest strength is in it's distinctiveness as a companion to a period-piece, being unexpected and having the balls to back it up, but it's fair to say that there are a few tracks that don't fit even with each other. Again, I don't remember this particular track being in the final feature, so all this critique really is is a curious musing.
Probably what the score achieves best is the sense of tension, foreboding and triumph; the climaxes of such pieces are built up to with precision, whether they're a softer sense of hope and calculation building towards a fight, or panic and noise building to a final blow. No-one was ever going to compare this score against other Robin Hoods of the past, unlike the actual film itself, but it's just as distinctive a score as those that have come before it. It's not a particularly synonymous Robin Hood score, but its a fitting companion piece to the film it was written for, which is the sole goal of any film composition. The only downsides are where the music doesn't seem to fit the picture tonally or emotively, but the music itself is strong and intense, which makes for great solo listening. Being a film score geek, one of the things I was most excited about with this new film was the soundtrack, and I wasn't disappointed in this work, just as unique as the film itself - I don't want a repeat of the past, and I didn't get it!
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