Music composed and conducted by David Newman
Rating: *** and 1/2 out of *****
Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) created a genre-bending show of high intelligence and literary value called Firefly which blended elements of Western, Science Fiction and Horror. Firefly was on the air for about fifteen episodes before being cancelled, in large part because Fox showed the episodes out of order. But a devoted and passionate fan base quickly rose, too late to save the show, but in enough numbers to stun Fox with DVD sales. The show did so well and had such a following that they green-lighted a film follow-up, which was retitled Serenity and in due time was released to theaters, where it promptly disappeared without making much of a splash. Nevertheless, the film is regarded by many, fans and critics alike, as one of the best science fiction films ever made.
For the film, Whedon hired film score veteran David Newman (The Phantom, Galaxy Quest, Ice Age) who is a capable but underrated composer to helm the Serenity project. Newman writes terrific music to generally lackluster films. This score is a little different, in the sense of being a hard listen without the context of the film. Appreciating the score requires understanding the narrative arc of the film, at least in the broad strokes.
Titled Serenity, the film follows the crew of the ship Serenity, who are more often than not on the wrong side of the law. They are currently renegades, hunted by the bloated and tyrannical galactic government because of their two passengers Simon and River, brother and sister. The sister, River, has obtained top secret information that could bring the government to its knees, and Serenity really traces her story. The film was once summed up perfectly by a fan, who said that it is the story of the crew of the Serenity trying to find a little inner serenity. For most of the film they are tossed about, hunted, shot, and generally maltreated, and all the while they don’t really know why they’re still running. As the resolution of the story arrives, finally the film eases back and we can relax and find resolution.
Musically, David Newman’s score follows this same path. The opening cue (“Into the River”) is mysterious and gives us a sense of the growing of the tyrannical government’s tentacles across the galaxy, introducing in a slow, withdrawing motif for the government. In the second half of this cue, the music is restrained and cold. A certain level of unsettling dissonance is brought in, and it is this dissonance that is what makes the score so hard to listen to. It maintains itself in nearly every cue, even in the softer moments, but is especially pronounced in the action music, which is all over the place, struggling to find a rhythm.
Thematically, the score struggles to be at peace, but there is always that unnerving dissonance, which hovers subtly throughout, just as the characters struggle and yearn for peace. River’s theme is a quiet motif that is performed on some sort of electronic synthesizer, and turns up many times (“Trading Station Robbery”). The barbarism of the Reavers, which are essentially cannibalistic marauder-zombies, are portrayed with clanks and rumbles and wailing brass in some of the most dissonant elements of the score (“Mal Decides”). While not necessarily fun to listen to, it makes musical sense for the chaos of the Reavers to be written as a chaotic, choppy wall of sounds with little or no through-line.
In contrast to these two motifs is the main theme of the score, the theme for Serenity the ship itself. It makes a brief appearance as an almost Wild West cue, with guitar and fiddle early in the score (“Serenity”), and though it recurs throughout, it does so mostly in distorted form as it fights to find its place in the rest of the music. Again, perfectly suited for a film about the pursuit of serenity. The score gets progressively choppy as we enter into the battle music for the final confrontation, almost all of which is included on the album and dominates the entire back third. All three major motifs are heard throughout, though none has a particularly rousing performance. Finally – finally – as River’s secret is broadcast throughout the system, the music resolves itself into a wonderful action cue (“Jane and Zoe/Final Battle”), which includes a fully orchestral performance of River’s theme in the cue’s second half as she is at last free of her burden.
From there to the end of the album, the score is dominated by the Serenity theme (“Funeral/Rebuilding Serenity,” “Prep for Flight,” and “Love”) as the characters have, at last, found peace, meaning, and serenity. This budding harmony in the music swells suddenly into a soaring and glorious rendition of the Serenity theme as the ship takes flight once more, though it ends abruptly (“Love”). The end credits, the final cue on the album, is a rousing rendition of the Serenity theme with full Western flair, leading with the banjo, guitar, and tambourine, followed by strings and brass.
All in all, it is a very artfully done score that is not easily enjoyed on the first listen, given its dependency upon the narrative arc of the film itself. But if listened to repeatedly with an eye to how the motifs and themes resolve themselves at the end, it can grow on you.