Godzilla: King of the Monsters
One of the principle functions of a critic is to recognize where art can be improved on. What could have been different to make a work of art, or in this case a film, better? This is, possibly, my favourite part of evaluating film scores. Not because I particularly enjoy tearing into the music and ruining a composer's day, but because oftentimes after seeing a film I will have a musical vision in my head that, for me, fulfills the potential of the picture in a way the composer was unable or unwilling to recognize. Seldom does it happen that a composer can execute what I perceive to be a fitting score, and boy oh boy did Bear McCreary nail Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Of course, I will have some very nit-picky observations to make, but for the most part I have nothing but praise for this new king of blockbuster scores. Directed by Michael Dougherty, KOTM is the 35th film of the Godzilla franchise, sequel to the 2014 Godzilla film that marked the inception of the MonsterVerse series. It is loosely based on the 1964 film Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, introducing some of the most famous kaiju invented in the history Japanese cinema and exploring a number of narrative themes long-associated with the pop-culture icon Gojira. Among these themes is the prevalence of the named kaiju, Godzilla especially, as an extended metaphor for Japanese-American relations. In this sense Godzilla represents the domesticated Japanese monster of America, reinforced by Ken Watanabi's appearance as the token Japanese character (Dr. Serizawa) to seek a relationship with said monster. Moreover, as depicted in this series, Godzilla is a response to nuclear warfare, come to correct the balance of nature which humankind has tipped. By virtue of the kaiju's synonymous legacy with Japanese cinema this past century Godzilla has entered into the very fabric of Japanese folklore as a primordial, mythological deity, and it seems to me that composer Bear McCreary was aware of all of these associations, allowing them to inform the composition process from the start. McCreary did not write a homage so much as he did a modern score that demonstrates an acknowledgement of and love for Japanese cinema. Between this and the composer's experimental attitude, guided by an honest curiosity and passion for all things awe-inspiring, McCreary's music for KOTM is essentially what you would expect to hear if a rock star was handed an orchestra. On listening to the music the first words that come to mind are thunderous, bombastic, deep, dense, and anything that screams LOUD, appropriately illustrating the weight of the monsters that is mercilessly emphasized on-screen. According to the liner notes, the score was meant to be operatic in scale, and though volume has been used in the past for many a score to cover poor craftsmanship, here it has a real purpose and adds to the cine-musical experience.
The score is led by a 90-piece orchestra, joined by the London Voices, a set of diverse, international soloists, a Tokyo-based taiko ensemble, and a heavy metal rhythm section besides. The techniques of the taiko ensemble include kakegoe, referring to the shouts and calls used in traditional Japanese theatre and martial arts, as well as full out taiko drumming, adding to the thick textures of the orchestra. The chanting heard in the score comes from the traditional Japanese musical form known as shōmyō, wherein Buddhist monks would practice droning prayers as a spiritual exercise. Here it is used to hypnotize the listener, set to Babylonian texts that had been earlier translated from lyrics provided by McCreary and eliciting the feel of a Greek chorus. Ethnic woodwinds also make featured appearances throughout the score beside the yaylı tambur, a bowed Turkish instrument favoured by the composer and performed in KOTM by Michalis Cholevas. All of these elements come together in McCreary's new theme for the antagonistic space monster, King Ghidorah, with the yaylı tambur offering a caustic timbre to his cosmic nature. The theme opens with the chant in a triple meter, expanding into larger three-note groupings to symbolize the three heads of the hydra ("Ghidorah Theme"). Among the ingredients of the score that make it so delicious is the resurrection of older themes from the Godzilla canon. Most notably, the theme for the original 1954 Godzilla, composed by Akira Ifukube, but also the immortal "Mothra's Song", written by Yūji Koseki for the 1961 Mothra. In lieu of its revival in KOTM, Ifukube's Godzilla theme has reached a landmark as the longest running musical theme for a single franchise in film history. The cultural kinship Ifukube experienced with the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, stemming from his Ainu heritage, led to the adoption of a primitivist approach to the music that lends itself perfectly to Godzilla's primordial nature. Ifukube used shifting time signatures to create asymmetrical accents, imbuing additive rhythms within a modal, folk-like melody much as Stravinsky had done in The Rite of Spring. McCreary's take on the theme enlists kakegoe shouts and added instrumentation while staying true to the original range and orchestration in establishing a contemporary take ("Godzilla Main Title"). "Mothra's Song", originally titled "Mosura no uta", is a duet, customarily performed in the Malay language by twin fairies to summon the benevolent Mothra. While the fairies do not appear in KOTM, their surrogate other takes the form of Zhang Ziyi (Dr. Chen) and her off-screen twin, who assumes a connection with Mothra not unlike that of Dr. Serizawa's connection with Godzilla. The theme is ritualistic in nature, like a seductive dance, drawing from the tradition of Imperial Japanese court music known as gagaku. McCreary fleshes out Mothra's Song for tutti orchestra, with a treble chorus and woodwinds on the melody as a gesture to the theme's origins ("Mothra's Song"). Mothra's Song further presents an unprecedented strength within the character, who by virtue of her being a moth does not appear all that threatening by comparison to the other kaiju. These themes may seem strange to the uninitiated, but as in my case this revival has been a welcome opportunity to familiarize oneself with stunning works of the past.
A handful of other themes were written for the film, including one for the pterodactyl-like kaiju known as Rodan, more correctly defined as a four-note motif that rips through the French horns above 'jungle drum' bongos ("Rodan"). Considering the purpose of this film is to experience an epic battle royale, a theme for each monster makes sense and is a smart way to compose as it creates opportunities wherein the kaiju leitmotivs can play against each other or even in counterpoint to one another as they battle on-screen. Where I take issue and get nit-picky is when the number of themes introduced becomes excessive. If I am being honest, every theme that is not directly related to a kaiju comes off as extraneous in the score, though some to a higher degree than others. The three extraneous themes to which I refer are the Monarch theme, representing the science organization that studies the titans in secret ("Welcome to Monarch", "Outpost 32", et al); the Ancient theme, representing the might and history of the titans as a general subject ("Memories of San Francisco", "The First Gods", and "King of the Monsters"); and the Family theme, representing the Russel family and their developing relationships throughout the film. The Monarch theme is taken up in the brass as a heroic muster, calling to action the resources of the Monarch institution to help prevent disaster at the hands of the titans; the Ancient theme plays out as a simple, four-note melody, with oscillating thirds highlighting a dissonant and grand fear below; and the Family theme is made of falling piano keys with sul tasto strings providing a tender foundation ("For Andrew", et al).
The Family theme was one I found to be peculiarly irritating. Not for its structural design, though this too seemed derived somewhat from the Monarch theme, but because I was in no way interested in being subjected to an emotional journey independent of the kaiju in a monster film. This, and its being introduced quite late in the score (its brief appearance at the end of the "Outpost 32" cue notwithstanding), gave the theme a cheapened quality, though McCreary's capacity for developing that theme in such a short space of time is impressive ("Redemption"). Of course, this criticism is not aimed at McCreary so much as the producers for not having dispensed with an unnecessary subplot. Still, I do not believe a distinct theme was necessary here either when subtle, "emotional" cues would have sufficed, thus tying into the bigger issue of thematic excess. I cannot help but wonder if, rather than creating a few thematic devices too many and using them as a crutch to fill in the holes, the film would have been better served by unique cues. If, say, the Ancient theme had been heard as it was on the yaylı tambur at the beginning of the film with the recap of the San Francisco disaster ("Memories of San Francisco") and then subsequently abandoned for the rest of the film, that scene would have felt uniquely and singularly terrifying. Instead, rather than growing more powerful with each viewing, the strength of this cue will wane with retrospection as it has been uniformly injected at various points in the film, losing its exclusivity by way of having to compete against itself. I am all for taking elements of established cues, such as the mysterious, pivoting strings McCreary displays a fondness for, to establish musical continuity throughout a film score, but the sheer number of themes present in KOTM seemed overkill. A number of recognizable techniques used by the composer are present, beyond what we hear in the thematic spectrum, including bass pedals with added bass motion in the strings, tam-tam rolls, percussive bells, rampant snares, taiko drums performed in call-and-response fashion, short bursts of staccati strings, mounting brass clusters, steady lines of percussion anticipating visual assaults, screaming woodwinds in the minor scale ("The Larva"), and a descending major scale that leaps across various scale degrees in Wagnerian fashion during Godzilla's grave fall from the sky ("Battle in the Sky"). It is curious that McCreary thought it prudent to bring back the original musical material for Godzilla and his rivals while disregarding Alexandre Desplat's contributions to the 2014 Godzilla. I cannot admit to losing any sleep over this choice. Much as Desplat's score was itself influenced by Ifukube and Japanese minimalism, it was not especially memorable. It simply leaves us in a similarly awkward situation as the 2017 Justice League had done, appropriating themes that, strictly speaking, were not written for the series at hand. It is likewise interesting that the recent Netflix release of the Godzilla: Monster Planet trilogy put equal efforts toward impressing upon the viewer the sheer size and bulk of the kaiju, and yet despite their close proximity in time and comparable interpretations, these scores are utterly opposing in style and orchestration. Composer Takayuki Hattori chose to labour in slippery, atonal lines and electronic atmospheres for the animated trilogy that scorn the volume of McCreary's KOTM, taking after the impressionistic techniques of Debussy and Poulenc so often associated with contemporary Japanese music. I do not mean to suggest that either approach is superior, merely to testify that there is more than one way to skin a cat. After all this I have yet to discuss Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla", the cherry on the cake. It is said that within moments of being approached by Dougherty to score the film McCreary had executed a plan in his head to use the Long Islander's song. He passed it by the director, obtained the rights, and recorded it to what must have been the maximum threshold in the studio. McCreary got a hold of his friend, singer-songwriter Serj Tankian, who is best known for his work as the lead vocalist of System of a Down (a testament to the diverse social circles of the composer). Tankian also appeared on the recent Game of Thrones (Season 8) soundtrack release, joined here by guitarist Brendon Small and Gene Hoglan's blistering double-kick drums, plus the rest of their Dethklok rhythm section. Their cover of "Godzilla" even drew the attention of Buck Dharma, lead writer of the song, who contacted McCreary not long after the single was dropped to share his appreciated. KOTM is the first Godzilla film the forty-two year old song has ever been used for, performed during the end credits. While we can't give McCreary credit for all of the unique designs that go into this score, such as the revived themes discussed prior, we can certainly see he was the one who brought the band back together, so to speak. The result was the integration of both traditional forms of Japanese music, shōmyō and gagaku, alongside Stravinskian rhythms and a heavy metal band. Using recognizable themes of the past McCreary has imposed a strong identity within the music that works well with the aims of the film, and the score is downright awesome besides. Despite my minor criticisms concerning the over-reliance on thematic material, which I will note were made lengthy merely to illustrate in full the root of my concerns on the basis that this has been an ongoing "problem" in many recent films, the score for KOTM is an undeniable win. Amusingly, it is everything I had hoped the music for Pokémon Detective Pikachu would be, that other Japanese-rooted, live-action creature feature. There were some nice nods in the film too, like the oxygen destroyer used in reference to the original 1954 plot device, though most other references following this were deep cuts into kaiju history. My only hope moving forward is that McCreary gets to score the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film so that he can revive the 1933 King Kong theme by Max Steiner. I could die happy after hearing those two in counterpoint together. #BearMcCreary #MonsterVerse
Hosokawa, Shuhei. "Chapter Two : Atomic Overtones and Primitive Undertones : Akira Ifukube's Sound Design for Godzilla". Off the Planet : Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema. Hayward, Philip (ed). London, UK: John Libbey (2004): 42-60