• Ben Erickson

Incredibles 2

Fourteen years ago Pixar released their best-ever picture The Incredibles. Directed by Brad Bird and inspired by 1960s spy and comic books like the Fantastic Four the film was an astonishing success, and it served as composer Michael Giacchino's first feature film following his work on the show Alias. Much as the film spoke to the 'glory days' of superhero escapades so too did the music take after the glory days of writing and recording practices. John Barry had originally been asked to score The Incredibles since the big jazz band sound he had endowed to the Bond films was what the director was after, but to avoid mimicking himself the composer turned down the offer. When Giacchino was invited to score he drew mock-up cues on piano for Bird to hear, orchestrating them later with relish to capture the spirit of the film as envisioned by the director. Giacchino set brass at the forefront of the score and created something that was explosive, emotional, and emphatically alive, using analogue tapes to record as the practice - though deemed prehistoric by many - ultimately revealed a better quality in the brass. The full company orchestra recorded in the same studio, feeding off one another, and assisted by expert mixers they put together an in - wait for it - credible final product. Incredibles 2 does not disappoint. Like its forebear the music is fresh and sidles into the on-screen action with ease. It could be something to do with the nature of music in an animated feature, the use of jazz music in film, or the unique relationship between the two, but whatever the exact cause it creates an indelible experience that few scores can claim. At times campy, at others sentimental, and most often just plain fun, the use of jazz idioms permit musical avenues in film inaccessible to other more well traversed genres of music. To say the music is upbeat is a huge understatement. Almost every cue involves complex meters with duple and triple patterns, wide assortments of instruments with a balance far removed from the standard Hollywood orchestra, and healthy doses of thematic material interspersed between distinct, clean-cut episodes of cine-musical jazz. The orchestra for Incredibles 2 was augmented with a large brass section, using auxiliary trumpets, saxophones (alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophone), trombones, and tubas. The woodwind section was also enlarged, with excess flutes, clarinets, and bass clarinets, and an additional rhythm section was provided, including a drum kit, electric guitar, electric bass, upright bass, and piano. Other instruments given more prominence throughout the score include harp, triangle, xylophone, and Moroccan drums, creating vastly different tone colours from what we are used to hearing. Giacchino wrote a thematic dyad for The Incredibles with melodies that fed into one another as a seamless whole, reviving both melodies for the sequel. The first theme is a fairly straightforward heroic endeavor lead by trumpets, using offbeats to punctuate the 'bang-bang pow-pow' of superheroes in action. The theme is led by an important and recurring vamp in the bass trombones and handed over to an electric bass for a lighter touch once the melody enters. There is also a B section to this primary theme that changes up the rhythms and accents, adding colour to the hectic and demanding duties of heroes as they respond to further dangers. The second theme is the romanticized depiction of superhero antics, as heard in "The Glory Days" from the original. It is more fluid and more tonally stable than the heroic theme, carrying the moral spirit of the would-be good doers and their admirers with a fond recognition for what feels right in the world. The final bar of this section in particular is used regularly - separate from the rest of the melody - for its distinct rhythmic and intervallic expression. The two themes make fleeting appearances in Incredibles 2 but do not function with the autonomy you might expect of such memorable melodies. Giacchino shared that he did not want to rehash old themes more than he had to because "it derails what you're trying to do narratively." Coming from the man who scores nothing but sequels I think it is safe to say he is in the right on this one.

The other themes used throughout the film consist of two character themes and a returning riff from the original. The riff is more a sign of impending danger than anything, using syncopated rhythms on a repeated tonic to propel itself forward and ending with a foreboding three-note ascent before repeating with thicker orchestration and greater emphasis. It takes on a new life in Incredibles 2, performed at the beginning of the film as the family is about to face the Underminer ("Episode 2") and put to use a whole bunch during the finale sequence ("A Dash of Reality", "Hydrofoiled Again", "A Bridge Too Paar", "Together Forever and Deavor", and "Elastigirl's Got a Plane to Catch"). Helen (Elastigirl) takes on a much more active role for Incredibles 2, once again operating as a superhero, and so naturally she was given a theme. As is her new nemesis, Screenslaver. The themes do not necessarily act as antithesis to one another musically, but they are very in line with the characters and what they represent. Helen is bringing back style and trust in society among superheroes, using graceful and tactful approaches when dealing with crime. Her theme delivers this revitalized sensation with muted trumpets and saucy saxophones that are seductive and sexy, bringing an appeal to superhero business that never existed before. The theme gets a good showing early in the film when Elastigirl is given her new suit (This Ain't My Super-Suit?"), when she takes on her first assignment ("Elastigirl"), and when she goes to catch the monorail ("Train of Taut"), heard one last time toward the end of the film once all is well ("Happily After-Deavor"). The Screenslaver theme is comparatively quite simple while still being very effective. It is made of four successive notes that repeat and circle around one another, regularly stressing each note with breaks in between. As mentioned the shape of the motif is cyclic, using a repeated middle tone (C# in the example below) to provide a harmonic centre for the others to revolve around. It spins like the hypnotic spiral for which Screenslaver takes their name, and it also broods and ruminates as the character does over past wrongs they perceive to have been caused by superheroes ("Ambassador Ambush", "Searching for a Screenslaver", "Helen of Ploy", etc.), almost like the motif cannot break free of itself, or in this case let go of a grudge. It is small wonder why the term tune-smith has been applied to Giacchino so much over the years with thoughtful, effortless themes like these. Yet these themes are only a small component to what makes this score a great story telling machine. Every instrument in the ensemble has so much character in their individual timbre that their narrative purposes are made virtually limitless. Whether it is a mysterious harp, playful flute, or reflective piano, every moment breathes. One never gets the sense that Giacchino is just filling in the gaps. Every second matters. "Consider Yourselves Undermined" takes up a funky, slap-bass beside wonky, muted brass; the onomatopoeic wah-wah sound of which is produced by altering the resonance of a single note with the mute, while "Diggin' the New Digs" takes up a loungy, laid-back vibe, almost like a standard swing chart. The cue booms with a high-life metropolitan feel, picking up after "Life's Incredible Again" from the original. What follows is a myriad of jazz techniques that surpass all expectation, using the full arsenal of instruments at the composer's disposal. Dense jazz chords slam the screen in repetition at the end of "Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Oxygen" on wailing, blaring – like BLARING – brass, using falling lip trills to cap the cue (for our purposes jazz chords might be considered any that use added, altered, or compounded chord tones such as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc.). Mounting tensions like these imbue the score at every turn for more thrilling, daring encounters ("Ambassador Ambush" and "Elastigirl's Got a Plane to Catch") while drum fills, brushing cymbals, syncopations, swung rhythms, running woodwinds, frenetic accents, walking bass, timpani, and endless riffs inhabit the rest of the score. This is tight jazz where falling into a groove is second nature. There is an intimacy about it - the improvisational call and response and the complicated interaction between performers, such as the rumbling piano going back and forth against the in the pocket brass shots when Helen battles Bob ("Helen of Ploy"), that they make sound so easy. It really feels like a live performance. The score for Incredibles 2 sounds as if a jazz band reunited for one last album release, reworking old favourites and lighting up the scene with fresh material. It is worth noting that there are some fabulous bonus cues on the soundtrack album as well, using cool jazz in "Chill or Be Chilled - Frozone's theme" and gospel inspired vocals for "Here Comes Elastigirl - Elastigirl's Theme". These jingles, along with the third "Pow! Pow! Pow! - Mr. Incredible's Theme", make minor appearances in the film, alluding to old tunes that existed on radio and television in the superhero heyday. More bonus cues still can be found with recordings of the D Cappella vocal ensemble, performing the same jingles along with "The Glory Days". As film scores go this incorporation of vocal jazz and vocal percussion - though absent in film context - is unheard of, and it is wonderful to hear the versatility of the human voice and how well it can imitate such a wide variety of instruments. Ending the film is the "Out and a Bout" cue, using the self-same progression with a hint of the Incredibles theme heard at the end of "The New Babysitter". The cue is comically interrupted by the expulsion of Violet's boyfriend Tony from the family car before beginning anew and leading into the "Incredits 2". The first "Incredits" was gloriously arranged by Gordon Goodwin, who won a Grammy award for his efforts, and though I have not yet heard whether or not he returned for the sequel his influence still holds beautifully. Regardless, no one to my knowledge aside from Giacchino has reached this 'level of jazz' in film since the turn of the millennium. It is so refreshing to hear such class brought in with the brass as opposed to the commonly overrun string section, executed with explicit detail that fits the tone of the film to a tee. Giacchino is gifted to have categorically achieved this sound twice now, taking two great films and raising them to their highest standard. No one could ask more of a composer. His praise, and a good long break if such a thing in Hollywood exists, are well earned.