• Ben Erickson

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (abbreviated hereafter as Fallout) is the sixth episode to enter the Mission Impossible film franchise, following Ethan Hunt in yet another daring and action-packed spy adventure. Christopher McQuarrie returned as director from the fifth installment beside producer and leading man Tom Cruise, and joining the impressive composer lineup thus far -- including Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino since the 1996 reboot -- is Lorne Balfe. It is curious that Joe Kramer, composer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, did not return as he has been McQuarrie's regular choice of late. No doubt his efforts are already missed considering the highly critical reception of Balfe's Fallout score thus far. Earlier this year I wrote a rather merciless review for Balfe's work on Pacific Rim Uprising. Maestro Balfe, if you are reading this please know that this will not be another tirade denouncing your music. Instead, though I do not have sufficient cause to write you a good review, I will do my best to offer some constructive feedback to the negative sentiments expressed from film music enthusiasts. For those who are familiar with my work you will know that I do not care for album reviews, as evidenced by a recent editorial I wrote. The idea that the score "does not work on an album" is of no consequence to me. Some critics argue that a soundtrack album release invites criticism on the album's worth separate from its film. In that case I would argue this no longer abides in the realm of film music criticism, only music criticism. And since we are calling it what it is why is it critics have not more often put film music, as experienced on soundtrack albums, within the context of Western classical music, or applied a knowledge of music theory to what they hear in support of their opinions? Regardless, it has never been the composer's intention to put the music they write for a film on to a separate album as the album is an industrial product. Thus, what is being evaluated has more to do with methods of distribution than artistic merit. That is not to say soundtrack albums do not have value. Despite disagreeing with the method of evaluating music separate from its filmic context, I have personally come to know a great many wonderful film scores through soundtrack albums. Furthermore, when I approach a film music review the soundtrack album helps me prepare for the film experience ahead of time. The longer the album and the more I have to work with as a listener prior to the film the better. That said, Balfe's music for Fallout works well within the film. I would not go as far as to say it is "extraordinary" or "phenomenal" as a whole, though there was one exceptional scene which we will discuss later, but it works. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the score we can go over the more obvious features that make it what it is. The size of the orchestra for one is astounding: 32 brass players (12 French horns, 12 trombones, 4 trumpets, 2 saxophones, and 2 tubas), 8 woodwinds, over 100 strings, 12 bongos, 14 additional percussionists, and an 80-piece choir. The score took nine months to write and thirty days to record on two major London stages, producing roughly two hours of music that derives from Lalo Schifrin's score for the 1966 Mission: Impossible television series. Paramount even admitted it might be the largest orchestra used for one of their films. One accusation thrown around early in the score's release was that it sounded like one big synth orchestra. Given the facts regarding performance numbers and the clear timbres present throughout the score this seems a heedless accusation. It is true that electronic components have been known to influence the sound of acoustic instruments greatly in the past, but that is not the case here. Thematically, bringing back Schifrin's theme was the best decision the film franchise ever made. It has given the films a musical through-line that would plainly not exist otherwise given the amount of composer turnover. What is more is it is a terrific theme. The distinct 5/4 time signature maintains its syncopated jazz roots with a repeating two-bar bass riff beneath an independent but equally distinct melodic rhythm. The melody seems unintuitive given the extreme intervals used within. However, if we were to remove the eighth-note rhythms we would see a simple chromatic descent in the whole notes, performed with a D Minor tonal centre for the first 12 bars, moving to the subdominant G Minor for 4 bars, and returning to D Minor for the stacked cadence. It is also fantastic that the Mission Impossible series has maintained the tradition of using an opening credits montage near the beginning of each film, offering glimpses of the events yet to come and making room for strictly musical form ("Fallout"). This tradition sets the tone for every film, eliciting an altogether playful and intriguing vibe that perfectly captures the danger and thrill of espionage.

Other features of interest include the use of "The Plot" melody, again from Schifrin's original 1966 score. A few interviews seem to accredit this melodic revival to Balfe, but with the exception of Mission: Impossible 2, in which Zimmer took a big turn away from Silvestri and Elfman's contributions, this melody has appeared in every installment of the film franchise. So while it was good of Balfe to pay attention to this musical continuity and incorporate it into his score as the avowed "Gang theme" it would be incorrect to give him full credit for this ("Change of Plan" and "Escape Through Paris"). What we can give him full credit for is the use of tactile bongos to create a stylized retro-acoustic for Fallout. Between this and the sporadic use of piano (Ex. "No Hard Feelings") the composer quite successfully created a distinct musical quality for Fallout uniquely akin with Schifrin's work. Unfortunately, much of this detail and nuance is overshadowed by the overwhelming consensus from film music aficionados that Fallout is another product of the Remote Control Productions (RCP) school. We cannot support or disprove this assertion without first defining what exactly film music critics mean when they talk about the RCP aesthetic, and so I will paraphrase what I have described before in an attempt to do just that. There is a list of common techniques shared among many film composers to arise from the RCP studio. This list includes: static key signatures; simple time signatures; stationary harmonic progressions; thick, stratified textures using repetitive melodic figures and ostinato patterns that allow for ease of access with fade-in fade-out spotting; broad, weighty instrumentation that targets extreme registers and dynamics for a primitive satisfaction or sustained, high range clusters used to elicit a similarly conditioned emotional response; and driving rhythms and melodies that are rendered characterless within dominating textures. Balfe's score for Fallout illustrates just about all of these conditions and thus is emblematic of many scores from the past decade and more. This style of writing is neither minimalism nor maximalism. The music does not dwell on any particular idea long enough or use reductionist techniques enough to qualify as minimalist in the traditional sense. Correspondingly, the music does not go far enough to qualify as maximalism. Assuredly the volume is brought to extreme proportions, but it lacks excess in every other dimension of expression (eg. emotion, harmonic and melodic contrast, etc.). Primitivism must also be ruled out as this style is not a deliberate attempt to revive primordial musical techniques from past cultures. Rather, it is a hybridized union of all these genres that nevertheless implies a musical regression from the comparatively complex styles of writing employed by every composer from the Renaissance to the end of the Romantic period. A true neobarbarism. It is a wonder so many film music enthusiasts condemn this formulaic style so passionately. It in no way challenges the listener and inherently suggests an attitude of indifference toward the film. Not to mention the lack of musicianship implied when resorting to this aesthetic. I do not mean that as a personal attack on the composers who employ neobarbarism as many of them have proven themselves to be excellent composers. But it is an objectively clear-cut way of writing music for film. Anyone can do it. What is more, everyone has done it. I am sorry to say that, barring the substitution of thematic material, this score which Balfe has been working on for a self-professed 22 years has been written dozens of times. Cues do not feel carpentered to a particular scene or sequence of events, but processed. There is little in the way of distinction and variation throughout, and from the outside looking in the chosen musical style coupled with the excessive orchestra looks like an attempt to disguise an inability or unwillingness to write creatively. What makes the score for Fallout all the more frustrating is that Balfe is clearly passionate about the music he was working with. Sadly, the extravagance only experiences diminishing returns and amounts to a missed opportunity. But maybe this is way off base, and instead of attempting to intellectualize what is happening we can stop and ask ourselves: who cares? Fallout is a late addition to a big franchise. Most film music fans will not feel the need to revisit it. What does it matter if it is unoriginal so long as we get that big bold statement of the Mission Impossible theme? It matters. People care. Especially everyone that does not wish to see the quality of film music plummet indefinitely in the midst of neobarbarism. Plus it is a learning opportunity. Not only for Balfe but for every composer charged with writing an RCP score. Neobarbarism takes away from the individuality of the composer. Surely if Balfe could land this contract he has more depth and interest to offer. Granted, we have all heard that the score was inspired by McQuarrie's vision for a darker approach to Hunt's journey. And if that is what the director wanted than fine, but with Fallout that "darker approach" felt like an excuse to use neobarbarism. Getting into the score we might start with a few general observations. First, the theme is everywhere in the film. Every major chase and every steady climax comes with a proclamation of those initial three notes, deconstructed and lengthened to broaden the scope and make the stakes feel higher. What does Balfe do with those first three notes? He repeats them, again and again and again, every so often moving a semitone down and then moving back up with the next phrase. He also uses the 5/4 rhythm from the theme regularly, only set on a single pitch. Both of these gestures give the audience familiar ground to tread on, but they have lost the ability to say anything on their own. The interesting musical features of the theme that offered character to the film have been sterilized within the neobarbarism style. One specific example that employs a repetitive, neobarbarism texture is the cue Balfe wrote to denote any surrealist experience involving Hunt. It is performed a few times in the film during dream sequences ("Should You Choose to Accept...") and once when Hunt has a disappointing conversation with Ilsa Faust ("We Are Never Free"). The cue enters on soft strings in D Minor, using only a single tone at the onset but quickly establishing a root position tonic triad. The tonic chord descends through a passing chord (D-G-A) to an inverted tonic triad and then ascends in the exact same manner back to the root position tonic triad. This self-same progression continues, joined by cellos on B-flat and G to add subdued tension and resolution to what Hunt is experiencing. The affectation of the cue is discouraged and forlorn. More than that its attitude toward the film speaks to what Hunt is experiencing separate from his inner emotional turmoil, almost like an invisible observer. Is this cue effective? Beyond a doubt. We can infer much and more from its contents and the context in which it appears. But instead of only using it once Balfe uses it at several points in the film. And by its third statement its repetitive inferences no longer have anything new to tell the audience, and the cue becomes ineffective. After all, there is only so much we can learn from what is virtually a single chord. Several textures Balfe wrote for the score suffer from this same dilemma. What was at first interesting and useful very quickly becomes mundane and meaningless because it lacks variation and finesse. That said, this might not be his fault. The spotting for the film was inordinately excessive, even for such an action heavy picture, and so to reuse material a number of times based on what might have been the director's prerogative is a common response. Even though there was a shortage of original ideas -- apart from a few new motifs that held little in the way of narrative value -- there were other interesting features of note. The alternating brass techniques in "Free Fall" as Hunt saves August Walker over Paris certainly resonated well with the stormy environment. The brief Goldenthal-esque string canon toward the end of "And the Warrior Whispers Back" as Hunt flies the helicopter offers a stirring sense of realization to Hunt's otherwise impassively wide-eyed features. Even the snare drums used in "Steps Ahead" as the IMF team covertly moves Solomon Lane through an underground sewer network held a clearer motivation than just about every other rhythmic scheme in the score. The scene I had mentioned earlier that I believe was scored exceptionally well was the "Stairs and Rooftops" cue, during which Hunt chases Walker to the top of a building. Though there are a lot of those fun bongo rhythms and piano ramblings inlaid within the cue as well as sumptuously dissonant choral swells the music is not exceptional on its individual merit. What made it exceptional for me was the climax of the cue, wherein Hunt reaches the roof of the skyscraper only to watch Walker and Lane escape. The wide-angle composition that travels a complete 360 married to the narrative horror of what has been unleashed unto the world and finally joined by mounting statements of the theme atop an alarming choir was glorious. Not to mention McQuarrie's decision to let the music shine. You could not ignore the score here if you wanted to. As a counter-argument to a number of the things I have stated, perhaps Balfe needed to write in a neobarbism style in order to reach this singly wonderful moment in the film. Perhaps the inspiration required would never have come had he not chosen this style from the beginning. But make no mistake, he made a choice. There was no temp score for Fallout. Everything that came about musically was a product of Balfe's influences. His likes, his dislikes, his comfort zone, and everything that has shaped him as a musician since he realized he loved music. To blame him for choosing this style might just be in poor taste coming from us as critics. Because that is what it comes down to for many of us; individual taste. My tastes lean toward unconventional methods of film scoring, and neobarbarism is today the definition of conventional. To put it simply, when I hear neobarbarism in a film score I lament everything else it could have been. Look at the choral music for instance. Balfe took a very amusing Latin translation of mission impossible (“missio impossibile”) and set it to an exciting rendition of the Mission: Impossible theme at the end of the film. Now what you might not have noticed is that a great deal of the choral elements appeared after a scene in which Hunt walked through a funeral service in London where a choral piece by the late John Tavener was being performed. What if Balfe had used that scene as inspiration for a completely different musical aesthetic? What if he had scored Fallout using holy minimalism as his baseline genre? Much of the music from the previous installments was contextualized based on where the team was topographically. Why not use classical French or English influences for the scenes in Paris and London, or traditional Indian music for Kashmir? Better yet, why not just turn back completely to the jazz roots set down by Schifrin since jazz usually receives the short end of the stick in film scores? There were many options, and I would love to know how many were considered before settling with the score Balfe wrote.