Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Made in association with Marvel, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best comic book film to be adapted in years. Granted I have no less love for everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is putting together, but the exciting hand-drawn animation set against a diverse range of characters from the Spider-Verse comic series was unassailably well-crafted. No fewer than three directors spearheaded the film – Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman – each adding their knowledge and insight to the pot, with English composer Daniel Pemberton producing a highly unique musical experience for the audience. Pemberton wrote his breakout score with Ridley Scott's The Counselor, going on to write for a number of high profile films including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Steve Jobs, and Molly's Game. He is known for embracing a wide range of musical styles in his experimental approach to multimedia scoring, a custom that was taken to its utmost limits for Spider-Verse. Half of the score was written in London, while the other half was written in Los Angeles, with the goal of capturing a prototypically Brooklyn sound in reflecting the cultural roots of protagonist Miles Morales. To assist in this endeavour a separate album of hip-hop and R&B songs was released, featuring several prominent artists and making varied appearances in the film beside the score. This is a very different musical universe than what we are used to with Spider-Man. The heroic, flowing orchestral melodies and fanfares we have long associated with the character have been replaced by powerful synthesizers and a deep dive into turntablism. Pemberton recorded a traditional orchestra, put it on "vinyl", and then had DJ Blakey scratch the hell out of it. Layered recordings were used for nearly every cue, matching each and every scratch with the on-screen action before music engineer Sam Okell tirelessly went back to include everything in the final mix. Different styles and lingo from turntablism were picked up by Pemberton along the way so that he could better define what he wanted in the sound – crab cuts, baby style, laser scratches, etc. – used also as a quasi-sound effect device for the web shooters of the Spider-Team. There was a lot of experimenting done with sound fed through synthesizers and turned through Kontakt instruments, with live orchestra and percussion added after the fact. One example would be the textures Pemberton wrote for the Prowler, playing metal brushes on boobams and roto-toms dampened with newspapers ("The Amazing Spider-Man"). The elephantine noise that signaled the Prowler's coming was created with an EMS Synthi and FSOL Digitana SX-1, using pedals on the unstable, analogue equipment that cut through everything else ("The Prowler"). Kingpin similarly was given long drawn string attacks ("Collider") along with one octave timpani gliassandi ("Kingpin Fight") that were both fed through synths. The entire score is built of small motifs and ideas like these where Pemberton took the bigger picture and broke it down into musical fragments. For instance, Morales' hobby as a graffiti artist played a part when the composer decided to transform the noise of the spray can into a hi-hat rhythm ("Miles Morales Returns"). In the same cue the hi-hat rhythm is joined by a separate scratch motif as Miles puts together his new suit, all accompanied by fat trombone blows and an ascending, crescendo-ing synthesizer. There was also a separate whistling motif performed by Pemberton himself in the early Brooklyn sequences ("Visions Brooklen 1, 2, 3"). The rest of the score had no shortage of crazy trial and error techniques like these, using dubstep and drum kit beats as bleeding textures to assist with the mix.
Miles Morales was given a theme on French horn with a repetitive, rising idea befitting of a superhero ("Shoulder Touch"), preceded by a brief octave jump motif associated with his destiny in becoming the next Spider-Man. This theme is the most persistent figure to reoccur through the score, usually presented in parts with a full statement at the end as Miles defeats Kingpin ("Shoulder Touch"). Some other moments call back to more standard film music writing, such as the tender string performances in "On Your Way" and "This Spark in You", when Morales shares intimate moments with his Uncle and Father. "Aunt May and the Spider-Shed" goes even further with Looney Tunes-style Mickey Mousing and Bernard Herrmann level film-noir tension as Spider-Ham and the monochromatic Spider-Man Noir are introduced, making for welcome if unexpected throwbacks. Spider-Verse has a little bit of everything, with music that has been informed by the film at every level. Anytime I can say this about a new score, especially one as insanely innovative as this, I mean it as the highest compliment I can offer. All scores are different, each adding to the films for which they are written in different ways, but more and more I find diversity with regards to the varying genres and styles of music a composer can tap within a single score draws greater appeal. That Pemberton was able to do this while being so thoroughly attentive to the on-screen narrative made Spider-Verse one of the best listening experiences this past year.