The Mandalorian: Chapter 1 – music by Ludwig Goransson

Of all of the elements that have been pored over exhaustively where The Mandalorian is concerned, I’m not sure the music is getting its due. There was an entire episode of Disney Plus’ streaming documentary series Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian devoted to it, making it clear that showrunner Jon Favreau thought that the music was a big deal.

The most obvious antecedent to The Mandalorian’s music would seem, on the surface, to be the two movies subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, which used elements of John Williams’ music as a flavoring, and his style as a template. Composers Michael Giacchino (Rogue One) and John Powell (Solo) struck out in their own Williams-inspired directions. but it still basically sounded like Star Wars stylistically…but that’s not what Ludwig Goransson (who made a fantastic impact with his score to Marvel’s Black Panther) is doing here.

The Mandalorian takes a very bold step beyond the anthology movies’ stylistic parameters. Not only is the show’s music (at least in the first season) free of even so much as a single reference to Williams’ body of work, but it stylistically breaks free of the 19th century romantic musical lexicon that has defined Star Wars until now. Sure, there’s an orchestra (and, given how much money Disney threw at every aspect of The Mandalorian, a decent-sized one), but there are electronic elements unlike anything that has graced filmed Star Wars before. The strongest resemblance I can think of to any prior entry in the franchise’s musical canon would be the computer game Star Wars: Force Commander, which chopped up and sampled Williams’ music before throwing it into a kind of techno-metal stew.

The Mandalorian is unapologetic about leaning hard on otherworldly eletronic elements if the scene calls for it, sometimes in combination with purely acoustic instruments, but never in a way that seems out of place; it enhances some of the colder aspects of the story, such as Mando’s ruthless nature, and often coincides with story situations that are down to pure survival, such as trying to get a blurrg to stop munching on you (as blurrgs are wont to do), or IG-11’s unsubtle approach to the encampment where his bounty is being hidden away, and the resulting high-octane response.

There’s a second flavor at work here, mostly acoustic, that seems to sit more comfortably in a Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone-inspired western vein – just a reminder that The Mandalorian is really more of a modern western with sci-fi trappings than anything. These cues are really among the most fascinating, unafraid to use a momentary silence to build tension rather than slathering on the entire orchestra.

For the big, epic moments, however, Goransson doesn’t disappoint with a full orchestra at his disposal. These three flavors – let’s call them electronic, western, and orchestral for lack of a better set of labels – often occur withing the same cue. “Bounty Droid” starts electronic, but ends with a massive orchestral flourish as Mando commandeers the heavy artillery that, just moments ago, was aimed at him. “The Asset” – the scene which reveals the tiny being whose continued existence is the driver for so much of The Mandalorian’s storyline – starts out in a sparse western vein with electric guitar before culminating in an orchestral conclusion that’s just quite simply magic.

4 out of 4Nearly every aspect of the production The Mandalorian is amazing, and again, nothing less was expected considering that Disney was going to throw everything at the first live-action Star Wars series in an attempt to change course on the franchise after a series of movies that have stirred heated debate among fans (some of whom are, quite honestly, taking the whole thing too damned seriously). The music, either in the show or on its own, is well-judged, perfectly-pitched, epic stuff.

Order this CD

  1. Hey Mando! (2:13)
  2. Face To Face (5:13)
  3. Back For Beskar (2:25)
  4. HammerTime (2:17)
  5. Blurg Attack (1:25)
  6. You Are A Mandalorian (3:55)
  7. Bounty Droid (3:02)
  8. The Asset (1:35)
  9. The Mandalorian (3:18)

Released by: Disney Music
Release date: November 12, 2019
Total running time: 25:23

Space Station 76 – music by Marc & Steffan Fantini

Ah, Space Station 76 – I hadn’t even thought about this movie in years when the soundtrack popped up out of nowhere in 2020, six years after the movie itself met with some minor film festival buzz before becoming a creature of the streaming media ecosystem. Filmed on a bunch of gorgeously retro-futuristic sets – evoking that ’70s sci-fi vision of what the future might be – Space Station 76 was a joy to look at, but there wasn’t much to actually watch. It was as much a retro sci-fi parody as it was a parody of the entire decade whose sci-fi it was spoofing, poking fun at the “I’m OK, you’re OK” vibe of the 1970s. It’s a pity it just wasn’t that funny, especially since it was billed as a comedy. The score, however, serves as a pleasant reminder that the movie’s music may have been even more successful than its look in evoking that decade.

While there are bits that sound like they’re reaching, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to meet the vibe of a serious sci-fi score of that era, much of the score takes on a laid-back, mellow, ’70s pop vibe, a sound carefully constructed to sit comfortably alongside several vintage slices of Todd Rundgren and Ambrosia that punctuate the proceedings. The blend of new score and older songs is reasonably successful, helping the movie to conjure a lot of its retro vibe. (The Rundgren and Ambrosia selections are not included here, and that’s okay; they’re readily available elsewhere.)

3 out of 4It’s perhaps not the best plaudit for a movie that its most memorable elements are its score and its production design (shame about the story and the characters, though), but the score’s release is a nice reminder that the movie was an audiovisual feast, even if it forgot to stick the landing with a satisfying story.

Order this CD

  1. Introduction (0:55)
  2. Title Sequence (Alien Ship) (1:55)
  3. Roller Skating (1:43)
  4. Irregularities (0:33)
  5. Stressing Me (0:35)
  6. Here Comes The Delivery Man (0:42)
  7. 70’s Joy’nt (0:53)
  8. World Of Fantasy (0:47)
  9. Hello (0:38)
  10. Sunshine, No (0:45)
  11. Asteroidal Pocket (2:18)
  12. Sex and Death (1:09)
  13. Never Been To Earth (1:09)
  14. Romantic Joy’nt (0:51)
  15. Last Gerbil (1:25)
  16. Mail’s Here (0:29)
  17. Home Movies (1:08)
  18. Mom In Pod (1:07)
  19. Budding Romance (1:19)
  20. Logan Is Coming (0:16)
  21. Asteroid Hits (2:25)
  22. Asteroid Misses (2:15)
  23. Sunshine Floats (0:51)

Released by: Madison Gate Records
Release date: April 3, 2020
Total running time: 26:06

Black Mirror: Hang The DJ – music by Alex Somers & Sigur Ros

Arguably the 21st century’s most legitimate and enduring successor to the O’Henry-inspired twisted morality tales of The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror began on Channel 4 in the U.K. before migrating to Netflix and gaining an international audience beyond C4’s reach. Each of its stories are couched in the technology we have, or the technology we’re all but destined to invent given current trends of both technology and society. While many an episode of Black Mirror ends with a dark twist, Hang The DJ has a much happier one, an oddball among the show’s typical cynicism.

Hang The DJ‘s score is an exercise in barely-tonal minimalism. The episode concerns itself with an omnipresent matchmaking system, Coach, which pushes couples together for relationships of various lengths as it tries to determine their ideal match. Failure to abide by Coach’s matches risk banishment beyond an unspecified wall around the city/county/country in which the story happens, but when the alternative is being permanently paired with someone who isn’t one’s ideal match, and one is forbidden from doubling back to a former match, is that really such a threat?

Rather than hewing closely to the contours of the two protagonists’ budding-but-uncertain romance, the score almost seems to be providing accompaniment for Coach and its influence on the lives of everyone seen on screen: it’s atonal at times, almost a background drone that only foregrounds itself in melodic terms when the two main characters’ attraction increases. Even at the end, when they seriously contemplate climbing over the wall themselves rather than waiting for banishment, there’s little in the way of urgency or traditional tonality. It’s not an action scene, and the momentousness of it isn’t signalled by the score.

4 out of 4Things become more melodic and “human” once they’ve escaped – the constant drone of Coach’s presence is gone, and along with it the rigid matchmaking system that dominates everyone’s lives, and suddenly it’s Sigur Ros doing the music.

Hang The DJ is a fairly brief score, one whose impact and meaning may be a little hard to grasp when heard in isolation. But despite its brief duration, much like the story it accompanies, the score makes an impact.

Order this CD or download

  1. All Mapped Out (1:26)
  2. Sorry (2:58)
  3. Hours, Days, Months (1:31)
  4. Into Place (3:31)
  5. Match (1:31 – Sigur Ros)
  6. Out There (1:43)
  7. Sleeps (0:48)
  8. See You (1:53)
  9. Treasured (1:34)
  10. Ruined It (3:19)
  11. One Year (2:09)
  12. Doubts (1:58)
  13. Three, Two, One (1:12)
  14. We Agreed (0:33)
  15. One, Two, Three, Four (0:39)
  16. There’ll Be A Reason (1:28)
  17. End (4L58 – Sigur Ros)
  18. Over And Over Again (1:07)

Released by: Lakeshore Records
Release date: December 30, 2017
Total running time: 34:18

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – music by John Williams

Star Wars fandom may never be a cohesive whole again once the post-original-trilogy trilogy wraps up. The Force Awakens was knowingly derivative – on purpose, so we’re told in hindsight – to bring a new, younger audience into the familiar story beats of a Star Wars movie, while The Last Jedi‘s iconoclastic approach to the story’s remaining original trilogy characters seemed to split Star Wars fandom down the middle. The one unchanging constant in this whirlwind, however, has been John Williams, the architect of the orchestral Star Wars sound.

The soundtrack from The Last Jedi, appropriately for the middle chapter of a trilogy, leans heavily on themes already established. Themes for Rey, Kylo Ren/the First Order, and Poe/the Resistance are holdovers from The Force Awakens, with Rey’s theme given a great deal of development here. From the original trilogy, the Force theme (also frequently associated with Obi-Wan Kenobi) gets plenty of play here, as does a theme for another Jedi Master long past. The TIE Fighter battle theme is back as the Millennium Falcon shakes off its pursuers on Crait, with maybe two seconds of whimsy dropped in for Chewie’s new Porg sidekick. (Not heard on the album: the re-use of the Emperor’s theme for Snoke – perhaps a tacitly tuneful admission that the two were nearly interchangeable?) Luke and Leia’s reunion gets a somber, low-key treatment of their theme from Return Of The Jedi, tagged out by a short reference to Han and Leia’s love theme before Luke strides into battle against Kylo Ren.

Virtually the only truly new theme here is reserved for Finn’s winsome new partner, Rose (though that description should, perhaps, be the other way around). This leaves the movie’s major action setpieces for the majority of “new” material – percussive, raging battle music for Rey and Ren’s fight against Snoke’s guards, Finn’s final fight with Phasma, and naturally Luke’s climcactic duel with Kylo Ren. “The Battle Of Crait” rolls out a low, threatening motif for the oncoming First Order forces, as well as a choral interlude for Finn’s futile attempt to sacrifice himself for the Rebel cause.

The introduction to Canto Bight has an opulent opening (hearkening back to some of the “Coruscant” music from the prequel trilogy, which then segues into a boisterous jazz tune that sounds like it’s played by the same ensemble as the original Star Wars‘ Cantina Band music. It’s not a callback to that specific tune, but very much a delightful callback to its style. “The Fathiers”, accompanying the scenes of Finn and Rose lowering Canto Bight’s property value with large, four-legged help, is a callback of another kind – it sounds like a theme from an Indiana Jones movie slipped into the Star Wars universe.

I can handle a soundtrack falling back on old favorites more gracefully than I can handle the entire script of a movie doing so, and – spoiler alert – John Williams gives Luke Skywalker and Leia a truly epic sendoff, the 5 out of 4former with a mythic choral treatment, and the latter with her theme from Star Wars arranged for piano during the end credit tribute to the late Carrie Fisher.

With J.J. Abrams back in the driver’s seat for Episode IX, the question isn’t whether John Williams’ final Star Wars outing is worthy of the franchise. The question now becomes whether or not the movie itself will be worthy of Williams’ grand finale.

Order this CD

  1. Main Title and Escape (7:26)
  2. Ahch-To Island (4:23)
  3. Revisiting Snoke (3:29)
  4. The Supremacy (4:01)
  5. Fun with Finn and Rose (2:34)
  6. Old Friends (4:29)
  7. The Rebellion is Reborn (4:00)
  8. Lesson One (2:10)
  9. Canto Bight (2:38)
  10. Who Are You? (3:04)
  11. The Fathiers (2:42)
  12. The Cave (3:00)
  13. The Sacred Jedi Texts (3:33)
  14. A New Alliance (3:13)
  15. Chrome Dome (2:03)
  16. The Battle of Crait (6:48)
  17. The Spark (3:36)
  18. The Last Jedi (3:04)
  19. Peace and Purpose (3:08)
  20. Finale (8:28)

Released by: Walt Disney Records
Release date: December 15, 2017
Total running time: 77:49

L’uomo Puma (The Pumaman) – music by Renato Serio

Known to the English-speaking world as the infamously cheesy, MST3K-mocked movie Puma Man, L’uomo Puma boasts a score that, heard in isolation, outclasses its accompanying movie in nearly every inportant way. Well, for the most part.

Let’s quantify the outclassing being done by the score here: this isn’t “the first Star Trek movie was okay, but Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking score made it even better” territory. Instead, the orchestral portions of L’uomo Puma‘s score class up the adventures of Tony (the hapless nerd who receives “the powers of a puma”) and Vadinho just enough to give the perhaps mistaken impression that money was spent on the movie as a whole (spoiler: it really wasn’t).

This long, long overdue CD release – this score’s first release on any format – was issued by Italy’s Beat Records in late 2017 in a ridiculously small pressing of 500 units, and to be quite honest, its track titles are opaque and unhelpful at best, managing to completely obscure where that track falls in the movie unless you’re a Puma Man scholar who has memorized the movie (a status which your reviewer is slightly embarrassed to admit he may be approaching).

There are three primary themes in the Puma Man score: a noble-but-mysterious theme for the alien visitors who conferred “the powers of a puma” upon a selected member of the human race, an ominously menacing theme for the machinations of the character played by Donald Pleasence (whose sole instruction from the movie’s director must have been “that’s nice, but can you do it more like Blofeld?”), and of course, the goofily late-’70s-supermarket-commercial-jingle feel of Puma Man’s theme.

The former two categories of music are where the most praise is deserved; they’re nicely composed, marvelously played, and well-engineered. The hollow echo treatment on the cellos lend them more menace than usual. Composer Renato Serio, known primarily to Italian audiences, wasn’t fooling around here; this music outclasses the movie it’s in easily.

If you’re even slightly enamoured of late ’70s scoring that tries to force an orchestra to play to a disco beat, then you’ll be a sucker for the Puma Man theme, a cheery recurring theme that seems oblivious to 3 out of 4the fact that its hero seems to have stumbled upon his superpowers and doesn’t really know how to use them. There’s something hilariously compelling about it – you’ll find yourself humming or whistling it for days afterward.

Earlier, the small pressing of 500 copies of L’uomo Puma was described as ridiculously small; maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just right, given how far underground this movie’s cult following must be. But for those who enjoy this slab of finest Italian-made cheese, it’s almost certain to earn a place of honor on the soundtrack shelf.

Order this CD

  1. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 1 (2:14)
  2. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 2 (2:13)
  3. Puma Man #1 (2:03)
  4. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 3 (2:38)
  5. Puma Man #2 (2:07)
  6. Puma Man #3 (3:13)
  7. Puma Man #4 (1:43)
  8. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 4 (2:04)
  9. Puma Man #5 (2:26)
  10. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 5 (2:36)
  11. Puma Man #6 (2:28)
  12. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 6 (2:07)
  13. Puma Man #7 (2:26)
  14. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 7 (2:40)
  15. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 8 (2:24)
  16. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 9 (1:42)
  17. Puma Man #8 (1:57)
  18. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 10 (2:15)
  19. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 11 (2:22)
  20. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 12 (2:14)
  21. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 13 (1:35)
  22. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 14 (2:03)
  23. Puma Man #9 (2:38)
  24. Puma Man #10 (1:49)
  25. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 15 (2:46)
  26. Puma Man #11 (2:13)
  27. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 16 (2:08)
  28. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 17 (2:38)
  29. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 18 (1:54)
  30. L’Uomo Puma – Seq. 19 (2:04)
  31. Puma Man #12 (3:14)
  32. Puma Man #13 (2:45)

Released by: Beat Records
Release date: October 20, 2017
Total running time: 75:12

Into The Darkness: 4 Themes – music by Cliff Eidelman

If an unused cue from a TV or movie music score is the musical equivalent of a deleted scene, an entirely unused/rejected score (or, in this case, demos) are the musical equivalent to a completely different cut that never escapes the editing room. Such is the case with Into The Darkness: 4 Themes, a download-only EP by Cliff Eidelman, the composer who steered the Star Trek film franchise into dark, operatic territory with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The four themes in question here are a four-track demo submitted by Eidelman to the producers of the then-yet-to-premiere Star Trek: Discovery, at their request.

What’s interesting about that request is that it didn’t come from Discovery creative consultant (and Star Trek VI director) Nick Meyer, but instead came from Discovery’s initial (and later dismissed) showrunner, Bryan Fuller. Reports have since emerged that Fuller had some very different ideas for launching a new Star Trek series for CBS, but had to rein some of his wilder ideas in. Eidelman’s track titles so specifically reference events in Discovery’s first two episodes that it’s clear that music was auditioned late in the process (as it usually is). “Battle Of Two Worlds” is a minor word swap away from Battle At The Binary Stars, the second hour of the series, and “Mutiny In Darkness” also references incidents in that second episode. So we can say with certainty that Eidelman’s music would have – if the composer had landed the assignment – accompanied a story very much like what actually played out on screen (with Jeff Russo’s accompaniment).

That being said, there’s something a bit less than pulse-pounding about the music presented here. It isn’t just that it’s a synth demo standing in for what was undoubtedly expected to be a full orchestra – I can cut it a break on that front knowing that it’s a demo – but it just doesn’t go anywhere. I’ve probably heard the actual Discovery theme as used on the show itself 20-25 times, and I can hum it. I’ve listened to Into The Darkness about as many times – and why not, when there’s no official Discovery soundtrack release as yet? – and I can scarcely remember Eidelman’s main recurring theme a couple of hours later. I do like his take on music involving the Klingons, as it gives a nod to the guttural, percussive brutality present in themes introduced for the Klingons down through the years by the likes of Goldsmith and Horner and Ron Jones, but that’s almost all I can remember of this EP later.

2 out of 4Scoring film and TV is a collaborative process. It’s entirely possible that even Jeff Russo didn’t hit it right out of the park on his first attempt at a theme, and that he received notes from the producers asking for either refinement or a from-the-ground-up rethink. It is, perhaps, unfair to judge Eidelman’s demos too harshly on the basis that they don’t represent a finished, polished product of that same collaborative evolution. I find the very idea of recruiting an experienced Trek composer fascinating in the extreme. But as a listening experience goes, Into The Darkness: 4 Themes shows perhaps too much restraint and not enough of the in-your-face brassiness that made so many of us fans of Star Trek’s music way back in the day.

Order this CD

  1. Into The Unknown (1:27)
  2. Battle Of Two Worlds (2:16)
  3. Mutiny In Darkness (2:13)
  4. Resolve (1:10)

Released by: Cliff Eidelman
Release date: October 20, 2017
Total running time: 7:06

Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey

You can probably be forgiven if the name of this movie – shown primarily in museums and other educational venues – doesn’t ring a bell. Animated in Taiwan to accompany an all-star voice cast that included the likes of William Shatner, Chris Pine, Mark Hamill, Samuel L. Jackson, Brent Spiner Robert Picardo, Hayden Christensen, Jason Alexander, James Earl Jones, future Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones, and rookie first-time actor Neil Armstrong, Quantum Quest incorporated real-time data from a number of NASA missions that were then ongoing: Cassini, the sun-watching SOHO, Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER, Mars Odyssey, and ESA’s Venus Express and Mars Express orbiters. I’m kind of sorry I missed this one, because the real-time, interactive nature of it precludes any kind of home video release (or at best would result in a home video release robbed of its most compelling features).

But there’s the soundtrack. Shawn K. Clement (composer on several early episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) pulls out all the stops, with the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra delivering a score worthy of a sci-fi epic (complete with theremin performed by Clement himself). With a barrage of percussion and occasional ethnic flourishes, Quantum Quest‘s score shows a bit of Battlestar Galactica influence (but then, so does a lot of other post-2005 sci-fi scoring). But it’s a very different animal, leaning more heavily on traditional 19th century orchestral influences and using the other elements as flavoring rather than foregrounding them.

4 out of 4Given the subject matter and the talent involved, it’s a bummer to have missed Quantum Quest while it was still a current concern. (Even the spacecraft upon whose data the movie relied are not all there now: Cassini, Venus Express and MESSENGER have all ended their missions by crashing into their respective planets.) The soundtrack makes quite a souvenir of both the movie and that very busy era of interplanetary exploration.

Order this CD

  1. Cassini (0:47)
  2. Anti-Matter (1:34)
  3. Sun City The Game (3:11)
  4. Opportunity To Serve (0:45)
  5. Departure Station (1:45)
  6. The Core (1:11)
  7. The Battle (1:14)
  8. Ignorant Moronic Fools (1:05)
  9. The Void (1:39)
  10. Ghost Fight (0:44)
  11. Incoming (0:55)
  12. Fate Of Trillions (2:06)
  13. Dave In Space (1:05)
  14. Fear / The War Machine (3:25)
  15. Ring City (0:35)
  16. Are You Milton? (1:18)
  17. Destroy The Dave, Destroy The Light (1:54)
  18. Cassini Commander (0:44)
  19. Flipping Switches (1:25)
  20. Destroy Me (1:02)
  21. Operation Photon Extermination (3:17)
  22. The Message / Dave Delivers (4:18)
  23. Universe Of Possibilities (2:18)
  24. The Quest (remix) (5:23)
  25. The Message / Dave Delivers (demo) (4:11)
  26. The Message (remix) (6:32)

Released by: BSX Records
Release date: September 1, 2011
Total running time: 54:23