The Adventures of Tintin – Motion Picture Soundtrack

It must be a somewhat tricky thing to be John Williams these days.

He’s an active, sought after, popular and highly regarded top draw, 1st division film composer. He’s a legend in fact, and he can lay claim to some of the best and most memorable film scores of all time sitting in his own back catalogue. He has been Spielberg’s ‘go to’ guy for decades (not to mention Mr. Lucas, and many others). He has nothing to prove to anyone, and he’s one of this reviewer’s personal, all time favourite film composers.


This isn’t 1983, I’m not twelve, and you do have to wonder if these days, with so many glories behind him (and so many of them so long ago); Mr. Williams feels a certain unique type of pressure to deliver something extra primo-good when the Beard comes a calling. He has the best of himself to live up to after all. How does that even begin to work?

The question indeed arises: What happens when the world’s most well known film composer (some would perhaps even say the “best”), gets a call from the world’s most famous Hollywood director to score his new movie? How does it affect things once it’s clear this is not merely any old Steven Spielberg movie, but his latest major, big budget, crowd pleasing blockbuster, as well as a pet passion project now decades in the making? What then? What happens if il maestro just can’t find too many of those heavenly magic notes said director has waxed so lyrical about so many times in the past? I certainly wouldn’t want to be in JDub’s moccasins if genius block ever clogs up his manuscript pen…

Let’s just hit the ‘pause’ button a second, before I accidentally lead you all too far towards a certain expectation for this article that’s gonna be way off base.

This score already gets a pass, that’s not even open to question or debate. There is no ‘poor’ music here, so let’s just dispel that notion right off the bat. In fact it’s really very good, and what’s more; really very consistently very good throughout.

I’m not sure someone of Williams’ outstanding musical gift is even capable of exhaling anything even approaching a ‘poor’ composition into the world, which I think he’s proven over and over again.

No, what I’m getting at is something more elusive and difficult to really quantify upon first acquaintance. However, after listening to the entire 18 track album half a dozen times or more, I think I now know what it is that’s slightly bothering me, and what it is that colours everything. I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that although the score is of course faultlessly executed, and chock full of delightful details; there’s something important missing from it. Something that certainly appears in every one of his most celebrated masterworks. What am I talking about? Well, It’s simple really. To my ears at least; it’s missing a really memorable tune.

Corny I know, but there it is.

Now, I realise that, as a composer you don’t necessarily set out every time to write themes that people can instantly hum or whistle and take away with them buried in that peculiar bit of brain estate reserved for such things. Ok, yes granted. I don’t suppose many people walked out of Blade Runner in 1982, humming much of the Vangelis score either, yet few now would challenge the notion that the movie’s soundtrack is a true standalone masterpiece worthy of repeat listens (I own it, and listen to it often). It’s a similar deal with Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes. While not the most listenable stuff, it is instantly recognisable. It’s downright amazing, experimental, daring and wildly effective, but you try humming any of it. There are many others (Tangerine Dream’s electronic score for ‘Thief‘ is one I’ve listened to recently). But having made my point, I do think with most blockbuster, popcorn type film scores, there’s usually room and good reason to have at least one big memorable signature theme. Taking Tintin as an example; you’re talking about 18 separate pieces of music and an hour long run time (and that’s only the stuff they deemed ‘best’ to put on the CD). Surely with all that room to play with, and given the action/adventure/mystery nature of the movie; you should expect at least the main ‘Tintin’ theme to be a magnificent, and memorable romp even if the rest is so much musical backdrop.

To my ears, the score Williams has created is certainly more than serviceable enough. It’s dynamic, bright, playful, efficient and attractive. It’s easy to listen to, and enjoy. It does exactly what it says on the tin[tin] (excuse the pun). The mysterious bits are mysterious, and the big expansive bits are big and expansive. Incidental bits are tight and punchy, and sound like they work well underneath the dramatic segments they obviously accompany within the context of the film (which I have unfortunately not yet seen). Incidental music however is by its very nature and purpose, incidental. It is, more than anything else, what separates a symphonic film score from say, a standalone classical work.

But still I’m just not feeling it.

Where’s my Star Wars fanfare? Where’s my Indiana Jones march?

Where’s my Superman theme? – A piece so imbued with pulse quickening excitement, it can make grown men giggle?

Where is the theme so beautiful it first makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and then all but brings you to tears?

Well, I guess it’s just not that kind of score, and perhaps…. just perhaps, Tintin is not that kind of movie, and it doesn’t actually matter that almost every part of William’s Star Wars score is more memorable than any part of Tintin‘s. Or maybe it does matter, and the score (on that level) is a failure. Sounds dreadful suggesting such a thing about an icon like John Williams, but there it is.

Of course half a dozen listens may not be enough to really allow the music to permeate and osmose into those far reaches of the brain, slow burning their way into affectionate familiarity, and maybe even love. But this is movie music of course, it’s designed to do a certain job in association with the visuals. Most folks see the film (and therefore hear the music) only once (not accounting for the number of times a given theme appears throughout the movie). So if it’s going to move you, it has to do it immediately as you don’t really get a second chance. Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Close Encounters, ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark all managed to hit those receptors right off the bat. I’d love to say that Tintin joins that rarified group, but I really can’t. Maybe it’s unfair to expect so much from it.

John Williams is a member of an elite and quite small group of film composers whose work has (and still does) enjoy widespread popularity in live performances, all manner of media synchronisation and cross-over appeal. From top symphony orchestras to marching bands the world over; his music is performed to delighted audiences and there’s a certain level of ‘serious’ music establishment validation for his work.

Listening to the Tintin CD reminds me that there’s a big difference between pure film score music (which this most certainly is), and music you would want to listen to for pleasure again and again or arrange and perform yourself.

It also reminds me how difficult it is as a composer not to repeat oneself, while still remaining identifiably ‘you’. For anyone familiar with Williams’ previous work, there are motifs and progressions here that could either go down like a glass of your favourite Pinot, or jar and rankle as so much self plagiarism. Echoes of Star Wars‘ and Raiders‘ minor themes proliferate and I’m not certain if these are deliberate nods or just Williams doing what Williams does. More worrying is a subtle but tangible feel of Danny Elfman’s original Batman theme cropping up here and there too. So much so that to my ears, it almost feels like Williams is having to contrive melodic differences in full awareness of how close he’s sailing to it. It’s certainly enough to take one out of the moment.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not going to do a play by play track review of the CD, I see very little merit in that, and don’t went to write 3000 words! But I will say that overall my favourite track, and the one that sticks in the mind best, is the final cut on the disc called: ‘The Adventure Continues’ – fitting really as it’s no doubt the last track a moviegoer would hear before leaving the theatre. I’m not too sure about the false ending though (it seemingly ends, then pauses, then starts up again only to do very nearly the same protracted ending again). I do wonder if this ties into something very specific in the movie visuals, or just a device Williams chose to employ. It’s still my favourite cut by some margin though, from an album that’s super high quality, and surprisingly easy to listen to despite everything I’ve said thus far. Easy, yes. A repeat listen further down the line? Maybe not.

I’m gonna wind up this review with a slight mea culpa:

Comparing John Williams’ latest work to his biggest hits of yesteryear is probably a stock in trade approach for some reviewers every time new material comes out. I, however feel I have been disingenuous and must apologise if my musings on the Tintin soundtrack languish too doggedly (if one can indeed be doggishly languid), in this purely comparative arena. It is unfortunately and very honestly, the angle that presented itself so relentlessly clearly upon listening to the disc. I actually somewhat regret allowing it to take quite such overpoweringly dominant control of my pen (well, my iPhone keypad, but you get my gist?), as it clouds everything. But i guess that it the point.

Ultimately, I’m still happy to stand by everything I’ve said here, but if I do ever happen to find myself reviewing another new Williams score, I will attempt to do so without so much as a mention of Star Wars. I might not manage it, but I think John Williams deserves that I do at least try.

Ben Pegley

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