• Ben Erickson

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is the fourth and easily the most positively received film of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The score was written by Rupert Gregson-Williams, brother to composer Harry Gregson-Williams, and both members of Remote Control Productions, Inc. While the score for Wonder Woman is rather enjoyable it is necessary to discuss the impact Remote Control Productions has had on its conception. This organization represents over fifty leading film composers across the globe. The list includes Ramin Djawadi, James Newton Howard, Steve Jablonsky, Trevor Rabin, and several other distinguishable composers of our time, and it is run by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer and Jay Rifkin founded Remote Control Productions, which Rifkin later abandoned following a lawsuit against Zimmer, and it has since become a mentorship program of sorts for many of today's finest film composers, finding success both within and outside of the company. The problem, however, is that Remote Control Productions has for all intents and purposes monopolized the film music industry via the use of composers who imitate the sound and style of Hans Zimmer. No doubt there are still plenty of composers, particularly those scoring independent films, who should take pride in the unique designs of their scores, but the mainstream is being overrun, and this organization has already contributed heavily to the decline of original film music. It comes as no surprise, really. Hollywood never fails to obsess over artistic innovations that contribute to box office success. In the past, musical formulas developed to better sell films were rather obvious; at least, they were obvious enough that they could be spotted by the audience after being well abused. This time, however, the formula is too subtle. It has only been spotted by a handful of critics who, while fighting the good fight, are unlikely to sway the approach of well compensated musicians. I will not go into detail now about the composition formula involved (this can wait for a review on a Zimmer score), but have no doubt that it does use a formula. The DCEU is quite clearly the next mega-movie franchise to be governed by this group, with the exception of Suicide Squad, and film scores everywhere are in danger of being lost to this "new Hollywood style" as the industry relentlessly pumps out like-sounding scores, where no single score has real value because everything sounds the same. It is the closest the industrialization of classical music has ever come to pop. Luckily for us, while this has influenced the construction of the music for Wonder Woman, the score holds up well enough on its own merits. For starters, the score introduced several new themes that interact well with the film, and it also brought back what Zimmer characterized as the Wonder Woman war cry, first heard in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Gregson-Williams' setting of the war cry in Wonder Woman is commendable for its changing instrumentation, and its logical inclusion in that it only appears once Diana dawns the Wonder Woman getup. In fact, the first time it plays we are already well over an hour into the film, heard during the cue "No Man's Land" when she fights the Germans in the village. It seems a small thing, but I am sure it was very tempting to bring the theme back sooner in the interest of doing less work where it would have been out of place in the narrative. When Zimmer's rock anthem was first introduced in Batman v Superman I was not sold. It seemed crude and forced, just like Wonder Women's arrival to the scene, but retrospect has completely turned me around on the subject. When it reappears in Wonder Woman it is so out of place to hear an electric cello raging with the less aggressive timbres of the orchestra that it makes for a wholly unique sound. Not only that, but it completely reverses Rock & Roll's masculine identity. This is not a heavy metal band made of guys with waist length hair jamming on stage; it is raw, feminine power. In the film it proclaims Diana's warrior prowess as she combats the enemy single-handed, and in the recording studio it is brought to life by cellist Tina Guo, who herself performs like an empowered warrior. The Man of Steel theme is quite feminine by comparison, using a soft piano melody to represent his humble Kansas boy-scout roots. It is worth noting that there was a big push for a female composer to take the helm of Wonder Woman. Given the film succeeded in having a female director and a female lead musician it is rather unforgivable of the producers that they would rob the film of this opportunity. Not to say Gregson-Williams did a bad job, but they could have made a significant step for gender equality, especially since female composers are still grossly underrepresented in Hollywood. The first cue to open the film, "Amazons of Themyscira" plays out as a sort of film overture. We hear a hint of the war cry and the ostinato strings below as we are brought through the main title and the new DC logos before arriving to the modern day. Building anticipation in the strings leads us through a sly rendition of the Bruce Wayne theme from Batman v Superman as a Wayne Enterprises vehicle pulls up to deliver a package to Diana's office. The package reveals an old photograph, triggering a memory of Diana's younger days as we are briefly introduced to a stunning and dramatic setting of the theme for Harmony, bringing us to the island of the Amazons. Diana's theme greets us; an idyllic, lilting timbre inviting us to explore the island with Diana as a young girl, complete with a resplendent choir that paints a vision of beauty and wonder. Diana's theme is more traditionally charming, imbuing qualities of curiosity, adventure, nobility, and righteousness. An ancient, apricot woodwind known as the duduk repeatedly leads us upward before retreating, adding to the Greek flavour of the music and, in a sense, foretelling Diana's potential for Godhood. Already this has been a refreshing change to hear an opening sequence on first viewing of a superhero movie that suggested the score had been composed with story arc in mind.

In "History Lesson", when Diana's mother teaches her of the Amazonian's ancestry, we experience a warped sounding string with an ominous choir that causes the threat of Ares to remain surreal. The choir and the chord structure beneath loosely reveal a dormant version of War's theme, followed by a variation of the Harmony theme, more stable and driven as the Amazonians fend off Ares' corruption. During a sparring session with her aunt, Diana accidentally wounds Antiope, cuing "Angel On the Wing" where a sensitive exposure of woodwinds introduce the Grief theme for the first time. Diana stops at the edge of the island to observe herself, fearing her own power as the war cry is hinted at once more, until Steve Trevor's plane crashes into the sea and the music summons a wider, darker range of instruments. The theme for Harmony takes off above a surging string ostinato as Diana dives through the water to investigate, with a percussive march announcing the arrival of the Germans. Diana's theme and the theme for Grief are similarly structured, both using repeated off-beat pick-ups and step-wise motion to express the struggle and growth inherent in Diana's journey. Ludendorff's theme is a perversion of this idea in six notes, only it begins on the downbeat, from a place of strength, growing more malevolent with each statement. Bassoon and brass rumblings dominate most of "Ludendorff, Enough!", broken away with agitation in the orchestra as Steve recounts his escape from the German compound. Later, when Ludendorff betrays his own commanding officers, a three-note chromatic descent falling to D grows from the bottom of the orchestra; a second signal to War, growing thicker with each statement. The figure trades between this descent and an aloof, almost appeased character in the celli, reaching deep into the musical chaos symbolic of Ares' corruption across the war-torn state of the world. Ideas like these are quite minimalist in comparison to their DCEU counterparts, acting as red herrings for the villains and offering strength to them in place of campy screen writing. "Pain, Loss, and Love" opens with an anguished performance of the Grief theme as Diana weeps for the death of her aunt. Diana's theme soon follows in a meditative setting as she makes the choice to leave her home and the only life she has ever known behind, exploding into a highly emotional departure when she receives her aunt's headdress, and transitioning into the Harmony theme momentarily. The strings take us through a calm reflection afterward, lightly commenting on the last glimpses of Themyscira Diana will see for a long time. A love theme for Diana and Trevor is first heard as they sail for London, appearing once more at the village celebration and again when they depart at the end of the film. The theme descends with a lamenting quality, reflective of their ill-fated love for one another, and when we reach London we hear a quaint attempt at period music with a modern orchestra in the humdrum of the streets, followed by Waltzy elevator music as Diana tries on several London outfits. The elevator music is particularly effective at remarking on the absurdity of the situation when she strolls down a set of stairs sword and shield in hand. The the next significant musical cue does not appear until we enter the trenches at "No Man's Land". Dawned in the red and blue armour and led by steady percussion, Diana takes the fight to the Germans. The music supports her with confidence, direction, and purpose, adding layer upon layer as the [Greek] Dorian scale repeats itself right to enemy lines where we experience an enormous ritardando leading to the eruption of the theme for Harmony. This is not a complacent, accomplished harmony, this is an active enforcer for belief in a better world; the very antithesis to War. As mentioned above, the war cry ostinato and the raging cello make their true Wonder Woman debut here, tearing through the screen like a banshee as all hell breaks loose in the village, and when the townspeople are saved they cheer for Diana along with the choir before a more contented state of the Harmony theme enters. "Fausta" resurrects Ludendorff's theme at the armistice gala before Ludendorff fires the gas bomb on the village, cuing the theme for Grief in the wake of the devastation. Diana rides off to hunt Ludendorff, spurred by the war cry ostinato, and once Ludendorff is slain we have a brief reprieve from the furious tempi as Harmony routes its musical adversaries. But when Ludindorff's defeat yields no end to the war Diana must be reaffirmed by Steve in her belief that good will triumph as the Dorian 'scale of belief' from "No Man's Land" returns. In "The God of War" we are finally exposed to the true musical form of War when Sir Patrick reveals himself to be the great Ares; ascending minor thirds that gradually sink to the bottom of the staff with contrary motion. It is interesting to see such a varied thematic score in this film because each theme takes up an antithetical aspect. Just as each Greek God was the embodiment of a particular ideal, or set of ideals, each thematic character - Harmony, Grief, War, Love - embodies its own ideal. The track "Hell Hath No Fury" really brought the music to a whole new level because it proves that Gregson-Williams made the effort to write an emotional score. Diana's theme takes an incredible turn, mounting change after change in key until it reaches an unstoppable wave, repeatedly collapsing over itself with steady triplets as Diana destroys the German soldiers in a single swell of fury. It is devastating because it reveals the helplessness of her character in that moment. When Wonder Woman cannot temper herself against War's influence, who can? However, after this momentary loss of control, Diana picks herself up with "Lightning Strikes". The cue begins with the theme for Grief at Steve's sacrifice, and as Ares provokes Diana she recalls her final moments with the English spy. Understanding Steve's love for her unlocks God-mode and Diana's theme and the theme for Grief merge into a single entity. The music is knowingly triumphant, just as she is, resolving with a satisfying reprise of the war cry ostinato and full-orchestra crescendo as she strikes down her brother. "Trafalgar Celebration" plays out like a quaint, old-fashioned, romantic film score. It is really lovely, and sets a tone of nostalgia for the past exploits. Returning to the modern day, Diana reaffirms her belief in love and her mission to the world, suiting up to seek justice with the Wonder Woman war cry as her herald. Though I appreciate that Gregson-Williams played up the beauty and the purity of the victory perhaps we could hear someone play up the devastation and the aftermath of the music in the future, particularly in lieu of the Batman v Superman premise. Like any film score there were moments when not a lot was happening, which, believe it or not, meant the music was fulfilling its function. Underscoring is at its best when the music does not draw attention to itself. The music builds continuity and develops the sound palette of the film simply by being present. The tone remained consistent throughout the entire film, both in thematic cohesion (jumping between three different worlds) and tempo (consistent in that it was appropriate to the tempo of the film), and compared to the vamped epicness of Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman made for easy listening. Gregson-Williams has a sound not unlike his brother, using more conventional instrumentation with a heavy Zimmer-esque quality, but it is still too early to define his personal composition style. Returning to this idea of an overall generic effect, it is becoming more and more common to perceive a sense of familiarity when listening to the music of any member of Remote Control Productions. If one listens closely they can hear the music of King Arthur and Pirates of the Caribbean, the sinister choral settings of The Da Vinci Code, the sighing strings of The Last Samurai, and so on. You may have experienced all or none of these associations due to the composition influence noted at the beginning of this review. Regardless of the film score's success, we cannot endorse Gregson-Williams' procedural approach to scoring Wonder Woman, nor should we unjustly convict him of plagiarism. Instead we must bring attention to the composers who have struggled to produce meaningful, original works of art that are a combined result of film narrative and personal expression.