“Dear God, please, let it feature a score by Chrisopher Young! He’s THE ONE!” Well, that’s shortly summarized how people felt before the newest entry in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, “Doctor Strange”, finally received an official composer announcement. Film score enthusiasts and critics in general have always been criticizing the overly generic music dominating the soundscape of the comic movie adaptions’ scores. Because of director Scott Derrickson long-living relationship with Young, having always worked with him as composer on his previous movies, rumours were soon spreading if the producers would really allow such a composer – continuously staying away from working on huge blockbuster projects because of the ultimate lack of creativity given to the composers – to score a high-budget Marvel movie that is “Doctor Strange”. Unfortunately, that did not happen, although one must admit that Young would have been a terrific choice who clearly could have created something special for the film if he only would be given the chance. The fans’ expectations were dominated by the suspicion that the creative team behind the movie would rather want to have another typically RCP-sounding score, infamous for their generic action writing and missing a true musical identity instead of getting an intelligently-structured, well-developed, multi-thematic mystery score.
Contrasting these early expectations, almost everyone seemed to be surprised when Marvel suddenly announced veteran composer Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek, Jurassic World) to score their newly presented origin story. Due to his enormous success and his ever-growing popularity over the past few years, it’s only been a question of time when Giacchino would finally be asked to join the MCU – but no one expected him to be integrated in the world’s most successful film series that fast. Accompanied by the previous announcement of Alan Silvestri returning to score “Avengers: Infinity War”, hopes are slowly growing that the upcoming comic movie adaptions will finally receive some truly memorable scores, something the largest amount of music written for the MCU so far were clearly missing, containing catchy earworm-main-themes that you’re still humming while you’re walking outside the cinema.
Fortunately, Giacchino’s “Doctor Strange” – whose main character receives a kick-ass main theme that some will consider to be one of the year’s very best – takes that chance.
Marvel’s newest origin movie, already a huge success, tells the story of the fictional world-famous neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose life changes forever after having had a horrific car accident that robs him of the use of his hands. However, forced to look for healing, he leaves the US for a trip to Nepal where he discovers a quite unlikely place, Kamar-Taj – a mysterious enclave which appears to not simply being a recovery center. He soon finds out that ist real aim is to protect the world from dark forces bent on destroying our world, everything we define as reality. Equipped with newly trained magical powers, teached by the so-called Ancient One, Strange has to leave his past behind and is chosen to defend humanity from one of the most dangerous sorcerers there has ever been in the history of mankind.
The album, filled with some typical Gia puns as usual, starts off with “Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret” presenting some broody orchestral writing, the composer once again exploring his ostinato-based, brass-heavy action writing that leads into a fulminant first statement of the score’s main theme in an arrangement for full orchestra and choir – it actually shares some stylistic similarities with Giacchino’s own “Star Trek” theme – which can be heard at 2:18. As a follow-up, “The Hands Dealt” gives us a beautiful piano solo variation of Strange’s theme, the composer’s typical manner of illustrating the more intimate moments in a movie. However, it is especially well-done how Giacchino deconstructs his main theme early on – Strange is not yet the man he will become over the movie’s running time.
Bringing some real strangeness to the score, “A Long Strange Trip” musically reflects Strange’s first-ever experiences on a journey through multiple dimensions with electronical manipulations of orchestral sounds, reversed choir singing and brass dissonances that create an abstract, almost experimental soundscape. The composer further continues the established style of orchestration in the subsequent cues, harpsichord, harps, celeste, sitars and guitars forming the cornerstone of Strange’s musical discovery of multi-dimensional worlds far away from Earth.
One aspect which I consider as quite disappointing is the lack of intellectually well-developed material for the story’s main villain. There appears to be aggressive chanting choir work which the composer revisits numerous times during the score’s biggest action sequences; however, Giacchino fails to give Kaecilius, Strange’s main antagonist, and his followers a more substantial, distinct musical personality that could even play contrapuntally to Strange’s own melody. Cues such as “Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking”, “Astral Doom” and “Smote and Mirrors” underscore the confrontation between the hostile magicians with electronic pulses driving the main melody forward, dissonant string performances, heavy brass clusters and over-the-top choral chanting. Weaving in and out are several short harpsichord-led performances funnily underlining Strange’s difficulty to actually adapt to his newly-discovered magical power.
What Giacchino missed with the musical confrontation between Strange and Kaecilius, is way better done in “Ancient History”, a cue of comparative calm between the huge action set pieces, in which the composer allows a slightly altered variation of the Ancient One’s motif to play as counterpoint to the Strange theme, this aspect wonderfully underlining their relationship. Forming the score’s big action climax, the subsequent “Hong Kong Kablooey” and “Astral Worlds Worst Killer” (because a Gia score without ‘worlds worst’ wouldn’t be a true Giacchino score) see the composer returning to his threatening, rhythmic-driven action scoring, the latter cue accompanying the first-ever confrontation between Strange and Dormammu, an immensely powerful pan-dimensional identity, which heavily relies on mystical string and brass textures, occasionally interrupted by impressive choral outbursts. A noble horn performance closes the cue in a more thoughtful, reflecting manner: The fight is finally over.
But Giacchino saves the best for the last three cues. Anchored by the 6-minute piece “Strange Days Ahead” (watch out, Gia pun ahead!), they represent some of the most entertaining music the composer has written in years. After the action-packed finale, the former cue sets an atmosphere of beauty and calmness following the preceding storm. Warm choral writing and the exotic-sounding but rather fitting Indian orchestrations, subtly hinting at a longing variation of the Ancient One’s theme in the cello section, are forming the cue’s first half until the composer finally unleashes the staggeringly heroic return of the Doctor Strange theme for full orchestra and choir, an incredibly dynamic orchestral tour de force that does the story’s epic scope justice. It is especially brilliantly done how Giacchino deconstructs his main theme at the beginning of the score and now, once that the film’s main protagonist finally has become the superhero we were all looking forward to, the theme comes to full power in its spectacular action arrangement.
Following this killer cue are two concert versions, the first one being “Go for Baroque”, a virtuosic harpsichord performance of Strange’s theme, a funny hint at what Johann Sebastian Bach, if the movie would have been released during that period, could have done with it. In musical terms, it is not strictly baroque, but probably, that has never been Giacchino’s intention – it is just utter fun that is further continued in the album’s closing cue “The Master of the Mystic End Credits”, a crazy Indian arrangement of the main theme that comes as unexpected as it is welcome, forming a fresh and more creative sound the MCU has been missing so far. Played on harpsichords and Hammond organs, this particular piece has a vibe to it that further distinguishes itself from the rest of the score even further.
All in all, nobody could deny that the composer really managed to wonderfully establish his unique voice in the Marvel Musical Universe, his music ticking all the right boxes and being satisfying on a technical level as well, a fact that contributes to the album’s nicely worked-out narrative that cleverly deconstructs Strange’s theme at the genesis of his own story and is released later on in its sheer glory as he – following the fate the Ancient One has seen in him – becomes one of the MCU’s most powerful superheroes. However, my main compaint about the composition is the dull underscore that ultimately lacks any sort of specific character development anyone could expect from that; it really feels like Giaachino tried to save the best for the big action stand-out sequences, but then failed to give the entire score a cohesive flow, and it is due to this criticism that prevents the score from getting an even higher rating.
Still, the composition’s originality, particularly the Indian-inspired instrumentation, and the exceptional quality with which the composer executes his musical vision stands out to me, and almost raises the album to a weak fourth star. The score Michael Giacchino has written for “Doctor Strange” is certainly a special one and hopefully, despite its unnecessary flaws, it will convince the Marvel executives that there are more Gia days ahead in the musical Marvel Cinematic Universe – at least, here’s looking forward to what “Spider-Man: Homecoming” will bring…
Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec and Jeff Kryka. Co-Produced by Charles Scott. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.
1. Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret (2:37)
2. The Hands Dealt (2:56)
3. A Long Strange Trip (2:28)
4. The Eyes Have It (1:23)
5. Mystery Training (1:53)
6. Reading Is Fundamental (1:39)
7. Inside the Mirror Dimension (4:04)
8. The True Purpose of the Sorcerer (2:09)
9. Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking (7:27)
10. Astral Doom (3:41)
11. Post Op Paracosm (1:15)
12. Hippocratic Hypocrite (1:34)
13. Smote and Mirrors (6:29)
14. Ancient History (4:08)
15. Hong Kong Kablooey (3:35)
16. Astral Worlds Worst Killer (6:17)
17. Strange Days Ahead (5:59)
18. Go for Baroque (2:55)
19. The Master of the Mystic End Credits (3:50)
Album available on Hollywood Records.