Tag Archives: music

2016 in Review: A Soundtrack


It’s been a while since we did a review of the year’s soundtracks, so we drafted in frequent collaborator Tony Black – and head honcho at the TV and film music podcast Between The Notes – who put down his microphone in favour of writing down his thoughts on the top soundtracks of 2016. Plenty to consider before you vote in this year’s Failed Critics Awards.

Let’s be honest, it’s not been a great year at the movies has it, 2016? Not if you’re a major blockbuster at least. Oddly enough though, the same can’t quite be said for the scores to many of those films, dodgy or otherwise. David Ayer, Zack Snyder or even Scott Derrickson may have let you down, but Michael Giacchino, Clint Mansell or Cliff Martinez have been right on the money with their orchestral scores to some of this year’s most disappointing or divisive pictures.

Here are five scores to the biggest (and not necessarily best) movies that have troubled your multiplex that I consider to be composers close to the top of their respective games:

5 – THE WITCH (Mark Korven)

Just like you probably hadn’t heard of The Witch before early this year, chances are you won’t have heard of Canadian composer Mark Korven. He’s a new kid on the block. Much like how Robert Eggers wowed us with his debut feature, Korven backs him up with a score that drips remote, screeching, primeval terror and the coldness of the austere Puritan setting in which Eggers tells his chilling tale. It’s not Sunday afternoon easy listening, but it’s one of the best horror/chiller scores in years.

Standout track: Caleb’s Seduction

4 – STAR TREK BEYOND (Michael Giacchino)

The new master and heir apparent to John Williams; it’s rare Michael Giacchino has a bad year. After a stonking 2015 scoring a raft of average movies with stunning music, he delivers this year both with Doctor Strange and even more so Star Trek Beyond. It’s his third score for the JJ Abrams spearheaded revival of the classic TV score and it’s possibly his best yet, a heady mixture of iconic, reworked themes with powerful, thrilling brass and an elegant sense of galactic scope. Plus you’ll always have a good laugh at the wonderful puns that litter the names of his cues, as if you needed more of a reason to listen!

Standout track: Night on the Yorktown

3 – 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Bear McCreary)

You’ve heard Bear McCreary, even if you don’t know his name. Trust me. He scored the excellent Battlestar Galactica remake and it’s his music that forms the memorable title track to The Walking Dead. He’s been much more television based (and continues to be) but in scoring the underrated, Hitchcockian sequel to secret blockbuster Cloverfield, he truly advances to the big leagues with a score one parts mythic, and two parts a gorgeous mesh of dark thriller & Jerry Goldsmith-esque creeping mystique. Even if you don’t love 10 Cloverfield Lane (and you should), it would be a surprise if you don’t end up a little in love with how it sounds by the end.

Standout track: Michelle

2 – THE NEON DEMON (Cliff Martinez)

Following previous partnerships with Nicolas Winding Refn on films such as Drive or Only God Forgives, Cliff Martinez perhaps reaches amongst the peak of his accomplishments with his remarkable and unique work on The Neon Demon. Now, not everyone took to Winding Refn’s garish horror about the fashion industry, but Martinez’s music drips with substance. It often sounds like diamonds falling onto a cold floor, infused with a sense of warped, pulsing disco, underlain with painful violins capturing the tragedy of Elle Fanning’s main character. It’s a stunning piece of work, and remarkable for the fact the standout piece, ‘The Demon Dance’, is a contributing from Julian Winding, the directors brother. If it’s not being played in clubs forevermore, it’ll be a travesty.

Standout track: The Demon Dance

1 – HIGH-RISE (Clint Mansell)

There’s a strong argument that Clint Mansell is the greatest composer on this list discussed today and, after listening to his score for High-Rise, it’s hard to provide a counterpoint. Ben Wheatley’s absurdist, neo-capitalist, period masterpiece and searing critique on Thatcherism may both be the greatest film of 2016 but also have a score to match. Mansell belies his roots as a Midlander growing up in the gaudy, concrete monstrosities of the 60’s & 70’s to deliver an operatic and creeping piece which matches Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s commentary. It’s full of brash violins, strong towering themes and an underpinning of controlled mayhem which Mansell explodes outward for effect at just the right moments. Of all these pieces, it’s the score that can be most listened to and enjoyed in isolation. Even in Mansell’s glittering career it’s a standout, possibly career best piece of work.

Standout track: The World Beyond the High Rise

In terms of honourable mentions, a shout out again to Giacchino for Doctor Strange, to Henry Jackman for The Birth of a Nation, the great John Williams for The BFG, Johann Johannson for Arrival, John Ottman for X-Men Apocalypse, Abel Korzeniowski for Nocturnal Animals and John Powell/David Buckley’s collaboration on Jason Bourne. There are more I’ve missed, undoubtedly, from even the honourable mentions, let alone the best of list.

So take a moment to remember than even in a hellish political year, or a largely average one for movies on the screen, the composers behind the music are still delivering work you’ll be listening to for years to come. 2016 does have one saving grace, after all…

Cobain: Montage of Heck

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

I know that in some quarters of the internet and out there in the real world, Kurt Cobain (and Nirvana specifically) are seen as “overrated”. Bracketed into that “good at the time but we’ve moved on now” category by folk who either simply don’t like Nirvana or feel that they somehow grew out of the whole angsty grunge rock thing that went on during their youth. Great as a band who completely changed the sound of mainstream music in an era where 6 minute guitar solos and hair metal were inescapable, but just don’t fit in to a modern world some 25 years later. Once good, now dated. Over. Rated.

But that’s not me. I fucking love Nirvana. Come As You Are was the first riff I properly learnt how to play on guitar, their songs were what me and my friends covered when we jammed together, and they’re the songs I still play first even now whenever I sporadically pick up a guitar. They changed everything for me personally, from the way I’d dress to the bands I’d listen to. Pixies, Wipers, The Meat Puppets, Husker Du; they are in my album collections because of Nirvana. I have very fond memories of discovering their music, arguing why In Utero is their best album (because it just is OK?!) and wandering around the grottiest parts of Wolverhampton looking for the market with the guy who sells the Outcesticide bootlegs.

This may sound controversial, and I can understand why, but I doubt there’ll ever be a better band; better musically, lyrically, influentially, whatever category you like. There are very few bands that equal their talent, their output and their influence, albeit in my heavily biased opinion. They’ve been my favourite band probably since around the age of 13, and they still are at the age of 28 (fuck me, I’m older than Kurt was when he died, that’s a depressing realisation). So, obviously, I was very excited about the idea of a proper documentary exploring Kurt’s life using actual archived unseen home videos and recordings. Crucially, making it stand out from all of the rest, it being the only documentary that was produced with the cooperation of his family.

To that extent, it’s a powerful, emotionally draining and thoroughly engrossing documentary. Director Brett Morgen had unprecedented access to stacks of personal family home videos, exclusive interviews with Kurt’s former friends, girlfriends and family members, as well as rare unheard recordings and demos. For those unaware, the film’s title, Montage of Heck, comes from a cassette tape that Kurt recorded in his youth, mixing songs, clips and weird noises. It seems somehow prophetic that his journal scribbles, sketches, audio recordings and tapings would be stitched together someday and shared with the world in this way. Seeing as much of a full picture as is possible in this format, not just a glimmer of the real man behind the myth; the so-called voice of an apathetic, disassociated youth culture who hated themselves and wanted to die. It’s a very emotionally raw and moving documentary.

Witnessing a particular video that was shot towards the end of Kurt’s short life, clearly stoned out of his mind in a barely conscious state as he tries to hold his infant daughter steady as his wife, Courtney Love, gives her a haircut; it’s deeply distressing. Not only because you’re seeing a man in no fit state to be looking after a child, but because of all of the footage you’ve seen up to that point. To watch this once creative man, this bright light, dim to such a weak ember, is the true tragedy being told here.

Allowing family members and those close to Kurt to have their say in what he was like, it means you get to see not just Kurt the musician, but Kurt the father, the husband, the artist who just wants to stop being a rock icon or considered the voice of a generation. By no means a saint, but a real human being. You learn through the 140 minute run time to discard those old flippant comments you’ve probably read in the interviews he gave, things he’d said that never really gave you much of an impression of what he was really like beyond the fact he hated interviews and the constant prying into his personal affairs and accusations from journalists.

From the videos of him as the blue eyed, blonde haired, carefree toddler, always smiling, playing and singing, on to being the troubled pot-smoking teenager who was passed about from relative to relative because nobody could be arsed to really put in the effort to help him. Right the way through to Nirvana suddenly taking off like a rocket. It all just stings a little. Whatever your opinion about Nirvana’s music is, it’s difficult to watch these private moments of a man who is no longer in this world after taking his own life. An interview with his mum where she describes the first time that Kurt played to her the master copy of Nirvana’s seminal album, Nevermind, it just sends chills down your spine.

On top of all this, you have Cobain’s own music sound tracking the whole production. Sometimes using the actual Nirvana recordings, some stuff recognisable from various bootlegs, live shows, early demos or covers. At first, it did seem slightly jarring. Soundtracking clips from when he was 3 years old with tracks from In Utero shouldn’t have worked, but actually it fit in place snugly. They also animated stories / narrations from his own recordings in the early part of the documentary to fill in gaps where there was no archival footage, which also suited the tone quite well, giving proceedings an almost fantasy-like or mythical atmosphere.

I don’t think that there’s much in the early part of the film that will be new to viewers who already know a bit about Cobain’s upbringing (being shipped from mother, to father and step-mom, to aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on) but it’s still affecting to see honest interviews with these people. It’s well documented that Kurt and his dad didn’t get on, but to see his actual father getting close to tears when thinking about the time he turfed his own son out of their home, both he and his wife (Kurt’s step-mom) blaming themselves to some degree, it gets to you. As does pretty much the whole movie.

montage of heck

What it does lack is a certain something by not having Chad Channing, Pat Smear or more importantly Dave Grohl there at all aside from in old clips. They aren’t interviewed nor really recognised in any way, although in the case of Grohl, it’s fairly obvious why he wouldn’t want to appear given his ongoing legal battles with Courtney Love.

Nor for that matter does it have any interviews with Kurt’s daughter Frances, who co-exec produced the film. But, whether there’s anything for her to add really doesn’t seem clear as it’s a documentary celebrating Kurt’s life rather than his legacy as such. Krist Novoselic, however, does feature in part. Particularly in the second quarter of the movie as its focus shifts to the adolescent Kurt Cobain, during Nirvana’s formation and their meteoric rise. Krist then disappears for a while once Courtney Love makes her first appearance, reflecting what happened in real life in some ways, but it’s a shame he doesn’t really come back into the narrative again. The tensions on the group during their European tour could’ve made for some fascinating material, but I guess that just wasn’t the direction they wanted to take the documentary in. Its intentions are clearly to honour Cobain’s memory rather than drag up old long-since forgotten petty arguments between friends.

If you’ve read any biographies on Kurt Cobain, then you’ll notice Montage of Heck skims some of the more destructive aspects of his life. It doesn’t really cover the Sub Pop / Geffen “selling out” saga, the aforementioned bust-ups between the band, any interviews with Butch Vig or Steve Albini, or anything after he came out of the coma in Rome. It also feels kind of disappointing at the end in not attempting to offer up any real personal opinions from people like his mother, his friends, Courtney or Krist about why Kurt took his life when he did. We find out about his failed suicide attempt and reading between the lines of what Courtney says, that he was terrified of being alone and losing his family, you can just about stitch things together on your own.

However, the whole documentary allows you to see his life as it’s presented; the things he accomplished and the things he perhaps fucked up, and that allows you to make up your own mind about what might’ve been going on with him towards the final year or so of his life – or even to not care at all and just appreciate what he gave whilst he was around, maybe.

Essentially, Kurt seemed like a relatively normal, happy, fun kind of guy who had a difficult home life, but who also fit into the cliché of the tormented artist. Not through choice; he didn’t seem pretentious, like he wanted to be perceived as the tortured genius but in reality wasn’t. But because he was this creative genius who could’ve done almost anything he wanted to do. And pretty much did, I guess. He became the most famous rock star in the world and had the family he always wanted, even if it was for such a short amount of time. He even got to achieve his dream of making millions of dollars and becoming a junkie, as Courtney Love recounts during one of her many interviews.

Sadly, we all know how the story ends so there’s always that looming presence of his eventual suicide foreshadowing every clip, every anecdote. It just makes it all the more harder to see him when he was happy, when he wasn’t suffering from his chronic stomach pain or drug addiction. The happiest time of his life doesn’t even appear to be when he was making music, or when he was playing live or hanging out with band members and friends. From the way it’s portrayed in the documentary, Kurt lived his life fullest when in seclusion with Courtney Love for the six months prior to Frances being born and the few months after. He’s at his most human, his most relatable when seen alive in these moments. He’s young, in love and scared as he may be, he’s just not the junkie manic depressive his reputation is sometimes perceived to be.

I’ve lambasted other similar documentaries about deceased famous and influential people in the past for simply feeling like tributes. Which is nice an’ all, but very rarely makes for interesting viewing and sometimes comes off as mawkish and sappy. I think Montage of Heck avoids that pitfall as well as can be expected. If you are in any way shape or form a fan of Nirvana, or simply know nothing about the man and want to learn more, Montage of Heck is definitely worth anybody’s time.


Loud, intense and extremely bold – and that’s just J.K. Simmons! Whiplash is as good as (if not better than) you have no doubt already heard it is.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

whiplash 2Yesterday, the 55 films up for multiple and/or individual Oscar’s at the 87th Academy Awards were announced. There were plenty of notable absentees:  there was no sign of Nightcrawler, Gone Girl or Mr Turner for best picture;  Failed Critics Award winner Jake Gyllenhaal was snubbed for a best actor award;  everything wasn’t awesome for The Lego Movie as it was missing from the animated movies category;  remarkably there was no best editing nomination for Birdman;  and there were no nominations for Under The Skin for, well, any category at all.

As happens each and every year these days – and will no doubt happen again when the winners are finally announced in February – the actual candidates selected caused a proverbial shitstorm on Twitter. However, of all those to miss out in some way, if writer and director Damien Chazelle’s first feature film for five years (and only his second overall) were to have missed out on a best picture nomination, we may well have had a full blown cyber-riot on our hands. Whatever a cyber-riot may be.

In fact, Whiplash has, in total, received five nominations this year. It’s competing for:  Best Motion Picture of the Year;  Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (JK Simmons);  Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (Damien Chazelle);  Best Achievement in Editing (Tom Cross);  and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley)). Each and every one 100% deserved.

Adapted from Chazelle’s own Sundance Film Festival 2013 award winning short film of the same name, Whiplash actually received its first full screening exactly one year ago today at the 2014 incarnation of the same festival. It won both the Audience Award and the coveted Grand Jury Prize for being a “film of uncommon skill that showcases two compelling characters and pulses to a dazzling and irresistible beat.” A line that I’m finding incredibly difficult to disagree with. It has since gone on to be nominated for or an uncountable* number of other awards.

*as in, I couldn’t be bothered to count them, but you can see them all listed on Wikipedia.

Loosely based on Chazelle’s own personal experiences, it stars rising actor Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a talented aspiring jazz drummer studying at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Not content with simply being great, he dreams of becoming one of the greats and is prepared to sweat, cry and bleed all over his snare and cymbals in order to achieve this. J.K. Simmons, reprising his role as Terence Fletcher, the fictional New York music academy’s most revered conductor, recognises the raw talent in Neiman and invites him to be his new drum alternate. Abused (both verbally and physically) in front of the class by his new mentor, Neiman learns at his own expense that nothing less than exceptional will be accepted by Fletcher.

And so begins approximately 90 minutes of some of the most intense acting you’ll see all year. Simmons absolutely batters you with his performance, much like Fletcher’s approach to training his students. A barrage of expletives and belittlements are spat out of the screen with such ferocity and twisted humour that you can almost smell the beads of sweat trickling out of poor old Neiman as he is intimidated by the tight black shirted and imposing maestro.

It’s also a character steeped in controversy. The insults are not limited to obscure jazz musical references that fly over the head of the uneducated audience. An abject smattering of homophobic slurs bruise the keen protégé’s ego as much as the chair flung at him during his first proper band session would have had it connected. It’s been argued that the use of such derogatory language was unnecessary; that the point could still have been made without the repetition of particular phrases. Especially as a number of professional musicians have been in the news recently dismissing the film’s portrayal of music teachers as inaccurate. Drummer Billy Brown states in The Guardian this week:

“There are purists who think there’s only one way to play jazz. None of them are as militant as Whiplash’s tyrannical band leader, Terence Fletcher, though.”


And this is the thing. It’s less about the precise language that Fletcher uses. It’s not even about the tempo that the perfectionist bangs on about. It’s about forcing Neiman to be even better than the absolute best that he physically can be, pushing beyond his limitations of what’s achievable to meet what is wanted. Much the same way an army drill sergeant would break down a soldier to his core before building him back up, step by step, or drum beat by drum beat. Whatever the character of Fletcher is literally saying during the practice sessions most of the film takes place during is less important than the observable method he’s using.

But the film is not just about one man and his violently obsessive teaching methods. It’s about art and exceeding mere performance. It’s about the pitfalls and glory that can all come with committing your life to a passion in the hope of achieving a recognised greatness. Above all else, the film is about music – and the inspiration, joy and the pain it can bring with it. The open and rhetorical question is asked; to what cost do you value your ambition?

I’ll just put this out here right now. I hate jazz. It’s a musician’s music and though I can play a few instruments (badly), I just don’t get it. To this philistine’s ear, it sounds like a bunch of individually impressive musician’s each playing their own tune all out of sync with each other, resulting in a mess of noise. I appreciate just how much skill, dedication, practice and immense talent it takes to be a good jazz musician, and that it’s more about achieving a high art than perhaps any other form of music. The transcendence from air flowing through a metal tube to an unquantifiable uniqueness above playing a toe-tappingly good song. But please, don’t play it around me. The fact that I could not only stand it during Whiplash, but outright loved listening to this incredible music and have gone on to spend most of the morning listening to clips of drumming on YouTube, it highlights just how much of an achievement Whiplash is. At least, to me. On a personal level.

Another achievement of course is the fact that Miles Teller is actually playing those drums. Yes, believe it or not, that isn’t a CGI’d Teller or a 40-year old stand-in wearing a badly fitting toupée. Who’d have thunk it? There is, however, a reliance on some clever editing to make it appear as though Teller is playing most of these tracks in one go. As talented as he may be – and as dedicated to his role as he was to spend so long in a drumming-boot-camp – he isn’t. Or, rather, the thundering drum solo for which the film will most definitely become famous was not all done in one take. In fact, just that single sequence took two days to shoot and one immeasurably gifted editor (Tom Cross) to stitch together. Nevertheless… WOW! Whilst Neiman might have been a dick, shrugging off girlfriends and family in order to pursue his goal more narrowly and impress the unimpressable Fletcher, Miles does a fantastic job at trying to keep time with the Oscar-worthy J.K. Simmons’ tempo.

Can I see Whiplash picking up the best picture Oscar in a month’s time? If there’s any justice in the world, yes. Honestly, it seems difficult to look past the buzz for Richard Linklater’s Golden Globe winning Boyhood. Not that the film chosen by the Academy is always the best, of course. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if this exhilarating and thrilling drama didn’t turn at least a few of those nominations into fully deserved wins.

Whiplash is out in UK cinemas today and you can listen to Owen review the film on the next episode of the Failed Critics Podcast.

Depeche Mode: Alive in Berlin

by Paul Field (@pafster)

Depeche Mode: Alive in Berlin a film by Anton Corbijn. That sounds decent right, and if you’re a fan of the band, bed wettingly exciting times. Corbijn has had creative control of the bands imagery and videos for years and produced some amazing work, most people will remember the Enjoy The Silence and Personal Jesus videos. Film types will know Control, The American (with George Clooney) & the late Philip Seymour Hoffman leads in his latest. A Most Wanted Man.

personaljesusPersonal Jesus dir Anton Corbijn 1989

Watching the trailer for Alive in Berlin, I saw some fan interview clips…”How many times have you seen them live” is asked of one girl, “oh..fourteen times….this year”. Yeah, they can be quite obsessive, even me, I flew to Nice to see the warm-up gig for this tour. But that clip turns out to be pretty much it, a few questions to a few fans. Nicholas Abrahams on the other hand in his 2008 film, The Posters Came From The Walls explored the history and devotion of DM fans all over the world, their significance behind the iron curtain is fascinating. A quite remarkable and heart warming film that sadly, you’ll probably never get to see (put it this way, I had to arrange a screening via a local properly licensed film society, I still have that copy….)

posterscamefromwallsPosters Came From The Walls – dir Jeremy Deller & Nicholas Abrahams 2008

But Posters has no concert film, so Corbijns film will deal with fans, the band & will present the amazing live show…….

Lets pause and go back for more history, this has been done before. Legendary film-maker D.A.Pennebaker shot a truly cinematic documentary film in 1989’s 101. This was genius, they ran and filmed a competition for fans to travel in a tour bus and go to gigs culminating in the band performing their 101’st gig of the tour at the enormous Pasadena Rose Bowl. A truly wonderfully funny trip, fantastic backstage footage of the band and the bands most iconic live performance ever. If you want to see a proper music feature documentary, this is the best ever made.

Depeche Mode - 101 (Live) - Front101 dir D.A. Pennebaker 1989

So finally we turn to Alive In Berlin. A 5 disc set….. 5 flippin discs, this is crazy levels of content. Okay, so the audio is presented on 2 CD’s, that’s fine….what else have we here. The concert on DVD…good, good, still two more discs. The concert on DVD again with interview snippets at the end of the song performances. Wait…what? I’m looking for the Blu-ray, why would you present two copies of the gig (albeit with slight changes as filmed over 2 nights, but mostly the same tracks). Stop, wait…here’s the Blu-Ray. Oh… its an audio only version of the last album remastered in HD audio.

The concert DVD, both of them are utter, utter garbage. The interview segments are not even selectable on their own to skip through (they are mixed in at the end of each song), the picture quality is worse than VHS, the 5.1 mix sounds compressed to hell. The interviews themselves are boring, revealing nothing. This, people, is the most cynical cash grab I’ve seen so far. But don’t panic, if you did spend £35 on this, help is at hand. You can get a HD version of the footage by paying an additional £18 at iTunes. But not all the concert tracks, obviously…..

Online petitions have sprung up demanding a Blu-Ray release… no shit. And they will release it too. As an aside, on release day, the HD iTunes version was delayed and when I went to look at the two songs released in full HD as trailers for this, THIS CONTENT HAS BEEN REMOVED BY THE ACCOUNT HOLDER message popped up, so there’s no side by side for you of the DVD and the full HD versions. Its as if someone went into a panic at Sony and thought, what we’re advertising is not what people are getting…..

Here’s a publicity still:


…and here’s the reality:

dm reality
Welcome to 2014. Move on, there’s literally nothing to see here.