Shazam!

Shazam! Score Cover
Benjamin Wallfisch (2019)

 

Why You Should… if you’ve followed Benjamin Wallfisch’s developing career path carefully, because Shazam! is the anticipated lightning bolt that resurrects grand majestic orchestral harmony for the DC superhero brand.

Why You Shouldn’t… if you’ve become too closely attached to the rowdy power anthem style that Hans Zimmer now made synonymous with the brand. 

Release date: 5th April 2019 (DIGITAL)
Composer(s): Benjamin Wallfisch
Length: 73:
Recorded By/At: The Chamber Orchestra of London, at Abbey Road Studios, London.
Label: WaterTower Music

Corporate mismanagement had significantly reduced the potential of the DC Extended Universe after being unable to fully lock onto both Zack Snyder’s initially proposed vision, nor being to provide a more coherent alternative solution. The backward, regressive nightmare production for 2017’s Justice League had fractured both internal and external perceptions of the franchise. Out went Kevin Tsujihara after sexual harassment scandals (a move which was the single largest wave of relief for fans of the concept combined with his poor decision making) and in came Walter Hamada, who immediately dissolved the previous slate to concentrate more on honing each individual entry to tailored pattern. With the focus now returning to reveal each superhero entry by building their own segments of the larger DC map, the next to follow 2018’s billion dollar hit Aquaman was David F. Sandberg’s SHAZAM. Based on the Fawcett Comics creation, the idea of juvenile orphan Billy Batson (played by a winning combo of Asher Angel and Zachary Levi) encountering the mystical Wizard Shazam and becoming his next champion simply by uttering the word is a novel aesthetic in an already overcrowded period for superhero films. Batson is adopted into the Vasquez foster family, and his only clue to exploring his newfound powers largely lies in foster brother Freddy Freeman (a superb Jack Dylan Frazer). Expected comparisons are made to the MCU’s Captain Marvel because of the existing namesake plagiarism lawsuits, but this DC effort is by and large the grand winner in both film and score. The continued farcry of Shazam renders the final film as a rare, genuinely distinguishable superhero film in an era of genre saturation. Sandberg’s minimal budget was a revelation compared to other sibling efforts, and equally adept was his proficiency in horror: a narrative element weaved superbly in a millennial coming-of-age story. The film survives not only as long overdue big screen proof of Zachary Levi’s exceptional comic timing, but also as the final released chapter of concept mastermind Zack Snyder’s originally envisioned franchise map, utilizing one of the finest modern film composers to be associated with Remote Control Productions.

 The DC brand has musically become synergized with Hans Zimmer’s methods of composition and production, but a surprise plot twist characterizes Benjamin Wallfisch’s conceptualization of the score. He successfully manages to remind modern listeners who have claimed the Zimmer sound for these legendary characters that full-blooded orchestral music is still a champion fit for the brand. That it manages to succeed in every musical respect where Danny Elfman’s Justice League backfired is humorously telling; for a few years now, I’ve held a suspicion that the up and coming musicians are finding far more accessible and engaging ways to keep these heroes musically gratifying than the veterans they grew up admiring. Shazam is absolute confirmation of my hypothesis. Tonally, the precision of Shazam is key to its immense likeability, a factor which the music respects and employs in spades. The Chamber Orchestra of London is the epicentre of the music, lending one of its defining performances for film scores. Weighted emphasis on orchestration and dynamic contrast is always appreciated. Commentators have observed several throwback undertones for the main theme, “Shazam!” with comparisons to Robert Folk, James Horner, and even John Williams thrown. That last mention is the ultimate proof that Wallfisch’s plan works momentously; because Sandberg’s specific vision for the score was greatly a prodigy of the Superman score. As a theme and album, Shazam invokes the absolute concentration of when DC mastered its optimistic, joyous superheroes, and the main theme is no exception. It’s orchestrally and melodically, the most pure-hearted main theme for a comic-book character since Williams’s Superman, and that’s a loveable pace-changer. I’ve found a great deal to love and defend about the darker voice for DC, but the other side of the coin remains just as profitable and valued. The official fanfare in its ascending flight debuts at 0:06 into the piece, a fountain of bravado and innocence that is a breathtaking joy to hear.

That it manages to capture both Batson and Shazam in the same element is downright incredible- how did Wallfisch pull a Herculean balancing act between boy and man off to the point of perfection? The twinkling string layers are gorgeously intertwined over the body of the piece much like the flapping cape of the hero. The fanfare segues into a choral 4-note descent, before a subtheme at 1:03 premieres, being modulated into the multiple shifting meters. At 1:50, that subtheme becomes a bolder presence, fondly reminiscent of Shirley Walker’s animated Superman theme. The resulting string interlude calls for trumpet and flute trills, in a way that you haven’t heard in a superhero film for a long, long time. This interlude is actually the human character motif for Billy Batson, as subsequent listens would eventually reveal. At 3:04 the main theme returns atop pounding timpanis before a succession of serial subtheme placements round off the theme. It’s an astounding achievement, and one of the finest compositions Wallfisch has written. This theme is examined in due progress over the score’s course, as the composer’s malleable sculpting of the identity is folded comfortably into varied rhythms and meters that confirm its melodic flexibility.

The familial aspect of the core narrative is addressed by Wallfisch in a contrasting aesthetic that infuses precocious energy and flourishing harmonic delicacy in major key dominant portions. “You Might Need It More Than Me” offers some lovely contemplative passages on piano and strings, the shimmering Horner-like piano rhythms elegantly balanced by the counterpointing flute arpeggios. The tender solo piano technique on top of sparse strings popularized by Michael Giacchino is the bookend of the piece itself, however when placed alongside the subsequent harmonic journey that the cue takes and when you consider the overall picture it tries to paint, this is one of the most vital character-specific cues on score. That the piece manages to take the listener on a gentle path of emotional investment with only minimal reference of Billy Batson’s own theme is remarkable use of musical economy. Personal material for Billy’s orphaning is conveyed longingly in “Compass”, in piano brackets that would earn softer, slowed down meditation of the string interlude posed in the titular theme. The tonality of the cue deft in its transformation from harmless innocence to frantic restlessness. The subsequent major key reprisal of the interlude’s opening section on warm major key piano confirms this as Billy’s own theme. There has been a quiet request from casual listeners of a DC disposition to hear more character-oriented cues that deviate from the action passages, and Wallfisch provides gratifying answers in adequate quantity. A grand majority of the narrative decision making in the DCEU has called for intense dramatic orchestration, which so far has left very little room for the non-superheroic opportunities in composition. That the score for Shazam continues to accommodate powerful bursts of flight, leitmotivic musical narration, intriguing portions of suspense material and softer undertones across the same uniform soundscape is a feat of balance that you have to congratulate the composer for.

In addition to the technique and orchestrated precision, there are numerous variations and hybridizations of style that warrant appreciation. So much of the final product’s score prides itself on excellently modernized writing without betraying the core principles of the orchestra that I find myself being pleasantly surprised at the display of genre-bending creativity. “Subway Chase” is a power-stroke for its combination of flighty jazz syncopation on top of the existing wavering violins. Stylistically, it elicits comparisons with the “Costume Montage” track from Elfman’s primary Spider-Man score for its superb showcase of focused hyperactivity and creativity in a limited duration. The frenetic onslaught of the ensemble in “Them’s Street Rules” is another short cue that showcases Wallfisch’s ability to write outstanding material in a smaller amount of time. Then, when paired with the surprising levels of flighty bombast in “Superman It”, it becomes clear that the composer can attach an overarching sense of story across multiple cues whilst attaining a sufficient level of interest from the listener. Urbanization of the largely traditional instrumentation is provided through pizzicato string and acoustic guitar to reflect the downtown Philadelphia locale that the Vasquez family raise the foster children in. Four-note phrases of the main Shazam theme are the principal melodic anchor of “Dude, You’re Stacked”, in the same reverent awe that Freddy sees the lightning emblem on the transformed Billy’s suit. The score continues the trend of clear-cut musical packaging from Rupert Gregson-Williams’ Aquaman. Both scores resurrect a significant harmonic focus for the DCEU in a way that modern listeners can widely appreciate (unlike Justice League which only really scored with older collectors of the Williams and Elfman albums), and Shazam becomes living, breathing proof that the right sound for the right superhero is a crucial defining factor. The standard orchestral approach is no longer the immediately guaranteed key to success in the genre, with cross-cultural flair as exhibited in Black Panther and shamelessly abundant glory for Aquaman the prior year as strong evidence.

Continuing the topic of orchestral instrumentation, it becomes increasingly transparent over the course of the album that the classic tones were adopted for the Spielberg-esque direction.  The music for Shazam is fascinatingly complex in its underscore, but equally engaging in its spun yarn. Wallfisch begins teasing the Seven Sins as early as “Bus Rescue” at 0:33 courtesy of icy pizzicato and treble violins. Enveloped in monumental layers of mood that segues to a quick Shazam statement in the very end, the didactic approach to foreshadowing their connection to Thaddeus Sivana, the primary antagonist is intelligently handled. Because Sivana gains his powers from the Sins, the troublesome calling card for the Sins are frequently intertwined with the villain’s own 5-note theme, the strongest evidence of this appearing in “You’re Like A Bad Guy, Right?” Sivana’s own presence is strongly provided in “Super Villain”, appearing in gloriously self-referential march form. His theme debuts on tepid violins at 1:10 into “The Consul of Wizards”. In addition to the Sins and the Sivana villain, another secondary motif is the one for the Wizard Shazam, characterized by a rising and falling interlinked series of treble string arpeggio progressions. Harp flourishes convey the magic presented by the wizard to both hero and villain in alternate sequences in the film, with mild woodwind accompaniment. The arpeggios are then translated onto solo flute in the outset of “Seeking Spell”, the cue occupying a sparse texture. Non-agitating glissandi and bass piano make a slight lean towards the composer’s additional work for preceding franchise component Batman v Superman, the cue being expertly deceptive in its narration by ending the Shazam main theme with a false minor key mutation. The more thoughtful, potent sections of the score best register when concentrating on the mystic shadow of Greek Gods that now reside their powers in Billy, that carryover of bass choral regions and nebulous strings in “Seven Symbols” foreshadowing the larger role of Thaddeus Sivana as the antagonist. Wallfisch’s marriage of the wizard-related arpeggios undergoes a cycle of romantic chord progressions, ranging from curiosity to lonesomeness reflective of Sivana’s own childhood misfortunes.

Often in modern action scores, the middle third of the score is never the most interesting, and Shazam breaks convention effortlessly through these cues. Sivana is given a turbulent bass register that precedes his actual entry into the scenes on lower double basses. Typically, this unsettling tone is what opens the pieces that his material appears in (a noteworthy example being “Give Me Your Power”), though in the exception of “Come Home Billy”, there’s some juxtaposition of the Shazam and Sivana thematic elements in testimonial manner. The spirited woodwind performances counteracted against the aggressive string patterns fuse a contrast between Billy’s youth and innocence as well as Sivana’s age and grit. This cue remains an impressive study of character interaction on album. Wallfisch succeeds in invoking the necessary element of threatening danger using Sivana’s material, mostly because of the unnerving perception of the villain from the eyes of the foster children.  An oboe serves as precursor for Billy’s theme in “It’s You Or No One” and slowly begins pitting the Sivana’s theme along his to hint at Billy being chosen to stop Sivana in the final act of the film. Here, the villain’s theme at 3:20 is more accessible in part due to the surrounding orchestration’s reduction in intensity. The decision to elect Billy is musically proved correct at 3:57 with brass power statements of the Shazam theme, singular in its opening 4-note references. Trained listeners will be able to spot a surprising Easter egg for Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek main theme at 4:11, the near-identical notation and interval ascension too reminiscent to ignore. The monstrous Seven Sins are briefly captured through shrieking dissonance at the close of the piece. “The Rock of Eternity” poses a continued stay in the deeper depths of the orchestral plane, exploring the magical uncertainty that the Wizard views Billy with, as well as the child’s own unclear perception of the artefact. Fluctuations in levels of volume prove effective in maintaining an appropriate level of suspense that segues into the Seven Sins being unleashed on atonal horns and strings at 2:57, a non-linear brass identity for the sinful creatures achieving visibility.

“His Name Is” continues the violent symphonic outbursts with rapidly mutating rhythm and meter changes, portraying the desperate urgency for the superhero to save his adopted family. This, combined with “Sentimental Nonsense” and “Run” opt to place spotlight on the confrontation between Shazam and Sivana, effective in the narrative overarching transition to the score’s final third. Percussive rattling, clanging and cymbal-crashing give way to a heartfelt statement of the Shazam theme and flight subtheme at 0:53 and 0:59 respectively in the latter track. The consistent alternation between heroism and terror throughout the cue is halted by a hilarious distortion of the hero theme at 1:51, Wallfisch’s sense of humour shining through. Systematic applications of the Sins motif are placed at the intro of “Play Time’s Over” allowing the composer to lean into the atonal horror he conjured for IT: Chapter One. He achieves a monumental blast of brass in “All Hands on Deck” that calls for Sivana’s theme to be transfigured on mutated strings and soprano reprise in the latter half of the cue. That Jerry Goldsmith Star Trek-ian motif at the end is finally confirmed as an auxiliary motif for the Rock of Eternity, a pivotal device that acts as a conduit of power transfer from God to champion. If your heart doesn’t soar during the pronounced thematic statement of the Shazam and Billy ideas in “I Can Fly”, then it’s strongly indicative of a lack of active pulse. The hero theme and the Rock of Eternity motif are cautiously addressed to hint at possible connections this late into the story without giving the film’s events away entirely. The final showdown in “Fight Flight” is a killer highlight in tension and execution of brass majesty and rippling layers, transfiguring Sivana’s theme on horns at 0:51 as he hurtles against Billy in mid-air, oppositely positioned against truncated statement of Shazam’s theme. The choral experimentalism for the Sins is a crucial guest role, only to be overshadowed by magnificent realms of harmonic mastery for Shazam. Brass then dominates the final piece of the puzzle, incorporating Shirley Walker’s trumpet flashes for the animated Batman serials.

With the sole exception of “I Name The Gods”, the remainder of the score comfortably returns to oriented material for the foster family and the Batson character. “Finale” serves as a neat round-up of the principal ideas of the score, tying up the loose ends of the climactic battle whilst emphasising the shift towards the hero’s theme across adverse orchestral writing. The ending Rock of Eternity anthem is suitably epic and propulsive, finishing the conflict perfectly. Billy’s theme earns poignant and bold reflection in “We’ve Got a Lair” and the emotional “I’m Home”. Wallfisch provides one final solo piano call of the Shazam theme to signify Billy’s acceptance of both his foster family and his newfound responsibility. There’s significant development of the Billy and Shazam ideas to consider along the progression of the story, and the successive layers at which the themes are linked is hugely impressive. The most astounding accomplishment for Shazam for me on a technical level is the fact that simply put; you don’t find narrative intelligence like this in superhero film scores. The level to which the aural tapestry for Shazam peaks is as powerful as any flight Billy could make, and the crystallization of the overall ideas throughout the album’s course is brilliantly structured. It’s easily the most proficient, mature and confident score for the DCEU, continuing the upward ascent for the franchise. The other defining aspects about the score are its powerful main theme rooted in innocence and bravado that is worn unashamedly on its sleeve, and the multi-layered style. Because the final concoction of all these thoughts is supremely packaged, this score will unite both mature and younger listeners of the DC franchise effortlessly. The only palpable downside to an otherwise fantastic album is the non-chronological placement of cues and the enlarged presentation. It’s become slightly concerning how more and more digital age album releases are arranged in a hyper-extended format, with a lengthy track listing comprised of several short cues. When the RCP era first began, the narrative was the exact opposite, and those larger suites contained some of the most exquisite movements in the final transition from silver to digital film scoring.  Just this one minor quibble aside, Shazam is the incredible lightning bolt that strikes gold for superhero film scoring, an absolutely spellbinding accomplishment that immediately rules in the highest echelon of Benjamin Wallfisch’s rewarding career. This is one of the strongest contenders for scores of the year in every aspect, and a terrific start to a year lined with diverse commitments for the composer.

Overall Score: *****

 

Track List:
1. Shazam! (3:59)
2. The Consul Of Wizards (3:01)
3. Seeking Spell (2:33)
4. Compass (3:26)
5. Seven Symbols (4:17)
6. The Rock Of Eternity (4:17)
7. Subway Chase (0:45)
8. It’s You Or No One (4:59)
9. Dude, You’re Stacked (1:18)
10. This Is Power (2:32)
11. Bus Rescue (2:29)
12. You’re Like A Bad Guy, Right? (1:16)
13. Them’s Street Rules (0:48)
14. Superman It (0:55)
15. Super Villain (1:39)
16. You Might Need It More Than Me (5:38)
17. Come Home Billy (3:02)
18. Give Me Your Power (1:41)
19. His Name Is (2:46)
20. Sentimental Nonsense (1:54)
21. Run! (2:13)
22. Play Time’s Over (1:48)
23. All Hands On Deck (2:05)
24. I Can Fly! (2:14)
25. Fight Flight (3:31)
26. Finale (4:11)
27. We’ve Got A Lair (1:31)
28. I’m Home (0:53)
29. I Name The Gods (1:32)

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