On the Avengers Suite

I’m a bit of a score nerd. You may know this about me considering that I have talked about musicals a fair amount here on this blog. But score is different. Score is the part of a movie that is typically the thesis of the film in song. Think of the music in Star Wars, you can probably hear it. Think of the Jurassic Park theme, yes, it’s a classic. You probably think of score and themes more than you know because at least since the rise of the Summer Blockbuster they have been a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

I’m an anime fan so theme songs and character theme songs have always been important to me. I’m also a huge musical theater nerd so my brain tends to cling to themes and score quite easily. Big movies tend to have themes still, especially fantasy and sci-fi ones; because as you know, I am a huge nerd. Harry Potter has a brilliant score that when played still makes me feel like I’m just about to hop off the Hogwarts Express back to school. The Lord of the Rings has many themes because that’s what Tolkien would have wanted and if you want to ask me about musical theater, well, let’s just say recently I was in the kitchen baking whilst holding a chef’s knife and singing “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd

But I also love superhero movies and if you read the title and you’re a very smart cookie then you know why we’re here. Let’s talk about The Avengers Suite.

 
I’m still emotionally recovering from Avengers: Endgame because of course I am but out of all the scenes that didn’t do it for me, the very end which I won’t spoil has a resurgence of a piece of musical score that I’ve now spent over a decade with. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about Marvel’s Avengers

To paraphrase Lindsay Ellis’ feelings on The Lord of the Rings: Marvel’s Avengers is good that I hate it. That first movie directed by Joss Whedon was such a perfectly imperfect adaptation of decades of comic book lore into a movie that made me happy to be a comic book fan for the first time in my life. And while I have gushed about the film, the love seemed to run out as the films pressed on and Whedon’s enthusiasm was replaced by the Russo Brothers’ mostly okay filmmaking. 

In prep for Avenger’s Infinity War, I went down the Road to Infinity in which you trot through all the MCU films that lead up to what was the second to last film in a decade’s long saga. My opinions on the MCU movies range from pretty dang good to wow, I wish I could erase that from my mind but I want to praise especially Joss Whedon for one thing and that was his ability to frame shots that felt like they belonged in a comic book. I’m not the only person to say this but I am especially grateful for it considering my history with comics. The Russos have tried to frame such shots as well but it really just feels like they’re doing it because Whedon had set the bar so damn high.

And through all the movies, the tears, the comments about Captain America’s butt and the jokes that failed and the CGI that seemed spotty there was one thing that stuck with me and that was the score. The Avengers Suite as its called is the piece of score that accompanies all the superhero shots in the entire MCU relating to, well, The Avengers. So let’s really analyze a scene and that the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie.

All the heroes return to New York, the dumb CGI army is about to attack. Loki is being angry and needs dry shampoo. All the heroes are together and are doing their best and we get this amazing low angle circular shot of all of them sort of posing and mugging and over it is the triumphant overture. The drums build drama. The strings add lift. The brass adds this larger than life element and even though there are parts of that shot that are objectively silly (like Black Widow just cocking a gun) it feels grand. It feels important. It feels like these guys are your heroes and they can do it. It’s inspirational, honestly.

What I love about score is how it builds. The softer notes that multiply and grow into a bombastic refrain. Good score is like a thesis statement to the film. Duel of the Fates shows you exactly what the stakes are between the Jedi and the Sith.

The Jurassic Park theme shows you that these marvelous and beautiful creatures are awesome and wondrous.

The music, the score is the pulse of the film and tells you, the audience, what you should be thinking or feeling in a brilliant trick of audiovisual shorthand. 

In instances when score is used correctly, it’s magical. Some of the Jurassic Park sequels have mistreated the iconic score by not placing it in shots with the dinosaurs but in shots of the new park because these movies have a budget now. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams is very smart in his use of score because he so badly wants you to think good things about this movie. Score is a powerful tool and when used wisely, it can make or break a scene.

When I saw Avengers Endgame in theaters, despite my current ennui towards the film in the moment when Captain America summons Thor’s hammer and says those magical words and the music swells and for one beautiful moment you feel just on top of the world. You feel energized and a part of this giant team of heroes determined to save the world. In that moment, I was an Avenger. 

I’m always shocked that in film discourse, that more don’t talk about score. It’s such an important aspect of film and scene craft that I am surprised that more don’t think about just how vital that music in the background is. 

What’s your favorite piece of film score? Let me know in the comments below. 


The Soundtrack of a Young Man’s Heart

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I can’t be the only person who gets super pumped to Ready, Steady, Go!. I can’t be the only one still singing Go!!!. There’s something magical about a good shonen theme song. And while there’s one or two shojo that I like and still sing along to, there’s a special kind of magic that is used by the pairing of a good shonen and a theme. So today, in the spirit of the youthful revolution still in my heart, I wanted to talk about what makes a great shonen theme song, why the themes match so well and why I spent most of my high school career learning how to groan into a microphone like Hyde.

Before we even begin, there’s a saxophone playing elephant in the room. I am will not be mentioning any Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo in this post. Why? Is it because I hate Yoko Kanno? Is it because I can’t stand good music? Hell no. I love both of those soundtracks but Bebop is made greater because of the OST so it’s a little unfair to compare Yoko Kanno belting out her heart to the owl-shrieking that is SID during Monochrome no Kiss. The music of Bebop and the way Watanabe uses music in anime could and should be its own post along with the way Miyazaki uses music. I’ll pause for any more indignation despite reading the obvious reason why I’m not mentioning those works.

All done?

Excellent.

Now, let’s get on with the show.

Some of my favorite songs of all time are from animes. Some of those animes happen to be shonen series and while I’ve been very open about my love of the average shonen series, the way they use music really is genius. So much of the animation, style and feel of a show is conveyed just in the theme music. The translations alone should tell you where you’re going: Save the One, Save the All, No Rain, No Rainbow,  Alones, and so many songs titled Rain. They’re moody, they’re deep and most of them are far more intense than the light whimsy of most shojo. And when a shonen goes girly like Yura Yura for Naruto or the other half of the InuYasha soundtrack. Or it was thematic. The more intense song was the opening like Ready, Steady, Go! To the much softer Motherland that it transitioned into from opening to closing. Bleach is probably the most effective at this where you begin with a song like Asterick and close with Life is Like a Boat. By the end of an episode, you probably need a break and what better break is there than a 2 minute melodramatic-fest.

Even more brilliant is when a theme matches the plot. Think about Death Note briefly. The first two openings are Alumina for the closing and The World for the opening. Both are very 90s Japanese metal from Nightmare and they speak more to a benevolent leader who does what he can despite making unpopular decisions. Really, these are the theme songs to an Ayn Rand fever dream.

The fact of piercing through the whitewash will turn into the truth someday

I want to keep believing in it stubbornly; It’s just my faith. The absolute truth.

And that matches season 1 of the series. Light is a strong dictator with a mission but he feels he is doing the right thing. He feels like he is justice.

By season 2 we get two songs from Maximum the Hormone: Zetsubou Billy as the closing and What’s Up People? As the opening. These are about as vulgar metal as you can get. I totally understand why my aunt didn’t like me screaming these at home. That’s okay. Sang these songs in the halls at school because at school, no one understood the collective screeching of the Japanese Culture Club. By Season 2, Light has gone from caring about his mission to full nihilism and self-protection. Light is willing to kill anyone that stands in his way and that is very evident in these songs.

Despair the Billy

C’mon, morals

Go on, the unstoppable EraserRain

Despair the Billy

C’mon, morals

Go on, the unstoppable EraserRain

And both of the sets of themes are taken from artists who wrote around the series as opposed to just grabbing a song from a discography the way Paradise Kiss did with Do You Want To by Franz Ferdinand (and yes, I know this isn’t shonen, I just needed to prove a point).

I think Naruto also does this very well and it isn’t just because Wind is probably one of my favorite songs. As Naruto gains confidence so do the songs from Go!!! And Haruka Kanata and when the show despairs a little with the main as he loses friends and ties are broken you get songs like Wind and No Rain, No Rainbow, songs that reflect that to get anywhere there are things that must be lost.

It was those themes that inspired me so much as a youth and even more so now as an adult. As a teenager, my anime club and friends sang these songs. At home, I obsessed over learning the lyrics and even began to translate them for Gendou.com. I recorded fandubs. I made friends that I’ve kept most of my life. I’ve made new ones running through convention halls belting Ranbu no Melody. These songs, because they were of our hearts, were of our generation and we committed them to memory. There’s a reason when on road trips Amber and I both finish each and every non-sensual groan Hyde does in Ready, Steady, Go! (Actually, Amber usually leaves those to me. I take them on with pride.). So many of these songs were learned in darkened bedrooms, at late hours of the night, in between homework assignments and collectively with friends.

Look at the music I listen to that isn’t from an animated TV show. I still love the themes of shonen that are determination, forging your own way, self-reliance, the importance or friends and making your own family from those that value you. I also adore the way shonen theme songs frame love in a better way. It’s seldom the obsessive cringe-stalking of shojo series or the passive “I watch you while you sleep” of other girl-centric narratives, it’s romantic while also valuing the person you love like this piece taken from a Bleach closing theme.

I will protect you, from everything that makes you hurt

I don’t even care if other people laugh at me

I may not be able to make it perfect but I’ll definitely make you smile

I swear, I will protect you no matter what

Here’s where I’ll pause and let you have your moment of “Well, Amanda, that’s like totally a matter of opinion.” to which then I submit that point only then to remind you that you are in my world and we briefly go back and forth on the nature of reality and why my hair is blonde for some reason.

Sure, it’s all subjective. The stories and themes of shonen spoke to me and amazingly still do as an adult. If I could pin down one reason I never clicked with shojo it probably just was boring storytelling. I didn’t fit neatly into the narrative of “the normal high school girl”. By age 14 I had buried a parent, moved out from my mother’s house, was living with my aunts and was a strict honor’s student trying to balance a host’s personality on a misanthrope’s heart. Tohru Honda didn’t get me. Kagome Higurashi didn’t get me. And while I found disappointment after disappointment when it came to looking for representation in a female lead in anime, I did find my voice, my heart and my spirit in their male counterparts. That’s what led me to shonen all those years ago. Edward Elric gave me my voice. Yuki Eiri gave me my voice even though Gravitation is to shonen anime what a Jackson Pollock is to an upside-down framed toddler painting.

Not to say that there aren’t series that aren’t shonen that don’t get the music right. Most of the shonen ai series that have taken over my heart and corrupted it like a vine to a statue use music exceptionally: they have to. Most shonen ai series have such a shoe-string plot that something has to keep you in. If you aren’t watching Antique Bakery for anything other than watching Tachibana-san struggle emotionally and financially, you’re there for the beautifully mirrored opening and closing that is Life Goes On and that song is even echoed in the series itself. Tachibana’s ringtone to the phone he almost never answers is the slower, waltz-like version of Life Goes On Side D, the very same song that acts as the shows closing theme that is the foil to the upbeat version that seems to follow optimistic Eiji around which is Life Goes On Side K.

Gravitation is centered around a couple of bands so you’d expect the soundtrack to be great and it’s one of the best. Shuichi’s not so annoying when he sings and Anti-Nostalgic still makes me cry on the right day. I could spend hours going on how Sleepless Beauty is a fantastic song (you should hear me sing it) and how Shining Collection confirms that the true OTP of the series is not Yuki and Shuichi. (GASP. Leave me a comment and I will explain the song to you in a way only a person who has spent almost 20 years obsessing over Gravitation can.)

If I have to praise shojo for a moment (a very brief moment), I still know all the words to Sakura Kiss thanks to years of cosplaying as Tamaki and I’m surprised by how much of the dance from Lucky Star I still remember. Let Me Be With You annoys Amber but I like it. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt doesn’t fit into any one category but it has a fantastic soundtrack. Same could be said for FLCL but when you start with a good base, of course the result is good. (This also could be its own entire blog post but I’d call this one a shonen/coming of age story). 

This was different, wasn’t it?

Let’s do this again soon.