Film Reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road Soundtrack Review

mm4With George Miller’s critically acclaimed fourth Mad Max instalment now disappeared from theatres around the country; we have the soundtrack album in for review. In truth, we’ve had the review disc in for a while now, but as can sometimes be the case with music reviews; real absorption and reflection in order to do the work justice takes a little bit more than a couple of listens, so what are ya gonna do?

First some honesty.

While black turtlenecks, beards, eyeglasses, and a studious disposition are not mandatory accoutrements when it comes to composers of symphonic movie scores; this author does find it a little tough taking a guy who dresses in bright retro striped tracksuits and flat-caps seriously. Yes, the main man Junkie XL, or (when he wants to be taken a little more seriously by stuffy old farts like me), the main man Tom Holkenborg, is the principal musical architect of Fury Road’s score. While his sartorial style and ‘down with the kids’ nom de voyage have zilch to do with his ability to write a good ditty; one can’t help but be vexed by a man seemingly at such odds with the task at hand.

Anyway, enough about one ageing writer’s all but irrelevant reservations regarding the man’s image, let’s see about his score.

Anyone who has seen the last fifteen minutes of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1982), and also had the pleasure of catching Fury Road; will understand that the latter is something of an extrapolation and expansion of the former. It is Miller’s post apocalyptic vision perfectly crystallised, and condensed down to the simplest of dynamic formulas. If we were to indulge a quick nerdgasm; it could be expressed in computer BASIC language thus:

10 PRINT “Drive fast, and Survive at all costs”

20 GOTO 10


The film’s apparent surface simplicity is an absolute strength, and a well documented one at that. However, it also surely provides Mr. Holkenborg his single biggest inspirational obstacle to overcome.

That is to ask the following question: Will a film that is by design almost completely relentless and single minded in it’s pace and purpose; provide adequate inspiration for a listenable and interesting score, or will said score suffer from a lack of… shall we put this, light and shade?

This then begs a further question: Does it matter either way?

Ok, it seems pretty clear where this line of thought is going, and yes; we can cut to the chase and say that Holkenborg’s score is thematically, and tonally a bit of a one trick pony. It vividly lacks the kind of variation that comes so naturally with a more diverse plot to work from. While one could describe Fury Road (the film), as nothing but one big long truck chase with lots of fighting; this would be disingenuous, as it somehow works so beautifuly as a cinematic experience. However, at least from the score’s point of view; this is pretty much exactly what you get… to escape, chase, flee, and fight to, and precious little else, because precious little else of a radically different nature actually happens in the movie. Fact.

While we are swinging more towards the cons of the score; let’s mention the biggest elephant in the room; namely Nelly the War drums. More specifically, big, giant, bombastic, in your face Taiko war drums. While the effectiveness of these pounding drums is never in too much doubt (adding an obvious dose of power, pace, and dynamic accent); the technique is rapidly becoming somewhat long in the tooth, massively overused, and wearisome. Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises was festooned with them, and Fury Road takes it a whole stage further than even that. Whatever the next big trend in cinematic scoring turns out to be; it really can’t come soon enough.

To be fair; the movie itself makes significant cinematic use of the old war drum…er thing, by actually having one of the chasing battle trucks be there purely to carry Taiko war drummers (and of course that memorable mutant metal guitarist on bungie straps at the front of it). The over saturation of war drums in the score, while fairly justifiable then…apt even (considering these visuals), just gets a little too much from an isolated musical experience point of view.

My final criticism can be viewed in context with the aforementioned paucity of thematic variation present in the movie, but in one’s humble opinion; a different composer could have avoided, or at least diminished the problem.

What are we talking about? Well, there is a feeling when listening to the entire score (and at 71 minutes, and 17 tracks; it is certainly not lacking in run time), that Mr. Holkenborg could have been much more imaginative with his exploitation of the instruments available to him, even those just within the orchestra. He makes use of brass sections and string sections etc (but not soloists in either), and I’m sure there are all manner of Contrabassoons, Double Basses, and Euphoniums employed to bring those super-low, menacingly dark rumbles to the proceedings. However, it just never feels like we get to hear any other instruments, and the overall timbre changes very little from track to track.

For example, when the war drums do give us break, and bugger off for a brief moment; XL actually manages to squeeze out a really beautiful featured theme. It is the only such theme in the whole score, and is repeated several times throughout like a ray of glorious sunshine breaking through foreboding storm clouds (pardon the overtly flowery language there). In context, it is very wonderful. However, the modus operandi for playing the theme is always ‘Brass plays theme, then Strings play theme to ‘up’ the pathos….then back to the pounding war drums’. Perhaps a more seasoned ‘old school’ composer (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner et al), may have executed the delivery of this theme in more interesting ways, particularly as it was to be repeated several times. It could have been weaved it into different parts of the score as leitmotif perhaps too. A lonely Oboe as lead instrument, and maybe the soft beauty of the Flute to occasionally bring something different to the mix. Mr. H does not do this, and he is a long long way off doing anything remotely like this. It’s Brass section, then String section, then back to war drums. To this reviewer’s ears, it’s a little crude, and an opportunity lost. It really is a wonderful, stirring theme amid all the roar and pounding, and one pines for a more sophisticated delivery of it.

So, we are coasting well towards the end of this review now, and if it seems like it’s been mostly bad news, then many apologies. It was not the intention to come across that way. In actual fact, Fury Road is a very effective piece of work. I have yet to mention it, but the production is top notch. There are some excellent little nuggets of nape of the neck tingling audio joy to be had, and it doesn’t want for power and vigour, depth and hugeness, or indeed crystal clarity. It is almost Wagnerian in it’s drive (pardon the pun).

However, if truth be known; of the aforementioned seventeen tracks; the best stuff has been offered up by track ten. After that, we are mostly getting in to drums drums drums and more drums reprise territory. That is until the obligatory, slightly cheerier, clunky but subtly triumphant final segment/cue.

It must be said, there is no rule that says an effective movie score must translate well to an isolated audio only, listening environment. It is simply a bonus when it does. For example, James Horner’s wonderful score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (shamelessly self-plagiarised though it is), is a breathtakingly beautiful, solid and cohesive piece of work that serves the film’s narrative and characters incredibly well. It also works perfectly as a pure listening piece too, even though there are mere incidental cues included (and this is so often what helps to kill a movie score’s ‘listenability’). The same cannot as easily be said for say, Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible and experimental score for Planet of the Apes. It’s arguably a more impressive achievement, at least conceptually; but a much tougher sell as an audio only experience methinks.

So with Fury Road then; the fairest one can be about it, is that it falls somewhere well short of faultless when isolated, but serves the film perfectly well, perhaps too well (if there can be such a thing).

Yes, I would have like to have heard our man Junkie back off on the war drums a little more often, explore the orchestra’s varied delights more confidently, and perhaps shave fifteen minutes off it’s run time; but hey…other opinions are not only available, but equally valid. We only deal in objective subjectivity here you know.

Despite my comments, it has actually been a very enjoyable experience getting deep and granular with this score, and future spins are assured, even if they may not include tracks 11 to 17 that often.

If you loved the film, and dug the score; then give it a go. Just don’t play it the car, lest you begin shunting lesser drivers out of the way, yelling “It’s a great day to die!” and spraying your mouth chrome.

3 Stars




Ben Pegley

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