Rating: *** and 1/2 out of *****
The X-Men franchise has hit its share of snags, and X-Men First Class is an attempt at rebooting the series by telling the story of Xaviar and Magneto’s origins and how they came to stand on opposing sides in the mutant war. While the original X-Men film’s score by the late Michael Kamen was mostly functiona, John Ottman’s score for X2 took the music of the series to a new level. The scores by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams were more annoying than inspiring, and as a result, I did not walk into this score expecting to like it.
Yet, as it turns out, there is much to like. It is by no means an intellectually complex composition, but that’s not the only criteria for a film score. Henry Jackman’s score is really, really fun; it is entertaining and emotionally satisfying music, even if Jackman is no Mozart. Clearly inspired by the Hans Zimmer philosophy of film scoring, Jackman offers us a score that drinks deep of the typical Zimmer-escue cutting string ostinatos, with a domineering, bold brass anthem for the film. But at this point the score takes itself above general cut-and-paste Zimmer knock-offs, Jackman bringing into the score a full orchestral ensemble, including large wind section, playing (shock of shocks) in the upper registers of the score, and this adds an entirely new dimension to the score, making it richer and more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Jackman infuses the Zimmer style with his own flare, making most of the cues truly enjoyable.
One of my favorite elements of any Zimmer-esque score are the anthematic themes played in powerful statements. What can I say, I like me the anthems. They are not unfrequently the only saving grace of such a score. This is thankfully not the case here, though the main anthem gets a full orchestral workout in the opening cue, “First Class,” and has repeated appearances in the music, turning electronic in “X-Training,” and delivering one hell of a statement in “Sub Lifts,” coupled with dramatically rising string ostinatos, electronic background, and high, inspiring choral harmony. Magneto’s theme starts dark (in the second cue, “Pain and Anger”) and stays dark throughout (reaching its evil peak in the final two cues, “X-Men” and “Magneto”), despite his character beginning the film as a good guy. This can be interpreted as a likely scoring mistake by Jackson, who does not make the effort to walk Magneto’s theme from light to dark by gradual progression over the course of the score. This is, however, possibly not his fault, since the audience already knows the way his character will turn.
Among the other elements of the score, Jackman utilizes the electric guitar, an instrument that frequently grates with the general sound of the orchestra when used in other scores (for instance, in Nicholas Hooper’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix score). Yet it appears Jackman knows the trick to orchestrating the electric guitar to mesh well, because I not once was annoyed or thrown by its appearance in the music. In fact, it has that softer, cooler ringing quality to it, rather than the harsh, static noise sound some use it to produce.
So if you’re looking for an enthusiastic, fun romp through better-than-average blockbuster film score land, this is definitely the score for you. I’ll see you there.