Friday, February 22, 2013

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino

In the previous installment of my Favorite Composers series I covered the work of Bernard Herrmann. He was the originator of many of the musical tropes still used in films today. Going through the samples I provided it like cruising through a listing for Turner Classic Movies. So you might be wondering, “Doesn’t he like any modern film scores?”

I certainly do. But the type of colorful and emotive film scores that I enjoy just aren’t in demand right now. But there is one composer whose work is both colorful and emotive and he’s managed to score some great assignments. He’s fused old and new scoring techniques together and created some of the most memorable and exciting movie music of the past few years.

Michael Giacchino started out creating music for video games and television series. Some of his most popular music comes from the original set of Medal of Honor video games. These games were set during World War II, and featured protagonists battling Nazis and taking part in several key battles. For this series, Giacchino based his sound on John Williams’ work from the Indiana Jones series and worked in some of the more somber stylings similar to what is heard in JFK. The result was a series of four scores that many folks still find to be Giacchino’s best work. Here is a track from the third Medal of Honor game that showcases his action music and the some of the Williams influence on the score.

Giacchino went on to work with director J.J. Abrams on his two television series, Alias and Lost. He created a very specific sound for both series, and his work on Lost has garnered him plenty of acclaim. In fact much of the style he honed for that series has turned up in his later soundtracks. Here is his theme for Life and Death from Lost.

But the scores that brought Giacchino to my attention were for Pixar films. He created a jazzy energetic score for The Incredibles, fusing a full blown 1960s spy style to the whole thing. Yes there’s more than a hint of John Barry’s style in this score, especially from the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The whole score is bursting with energy and fun, including some of Giacchino’s most exciting action music. Here's a jazzy piece used during a montage in the film.

That is what I love most about Giacchino. Nearly all his scores have an amazing amount of joyful energy to them. Whether he’s doing a single track for the end credits to Cloverfield or taking an old 1930 style tune and turning it into full blown action music in Up, you get a sense that Giacchino is having plenty of fun with the whole score. And speaking of Up, his excellent scoring of the Married Life montage was probably responsible for his Academy Award win.

One of Giacchino's skills is his ability to take existing themes and turn them into new and exciting variations. He's done this on a number of movies including Speed Racer, Land of the Lost, Mission: Impossible III and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. But some of his most interesting adaptation was for his work on the 2009 version of Star Trek. He not only created an excellent series of new themes for Kirk, Nero and Spock, but managed to work the original theme from the ‘60s television series into the end titles. It’s a lengthy piece, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Now, Giacchino has worked in a few different genres including horror with Let Me In and romantic comedy with The Family Stone. But I really love his jazzy stuff. The way he uses the classic Mission Impossible theme in Mission Impossible III and ramps up the action music along with it is impressive. He tackles all kinds of jazzy styles in his work for Ratatouille. But one of my favorite scores by Giacchino is the fast and furious Speed Racer. I love how he takes the classic theme from the old cartoon and turns it into an anthem, an action set piece, and a driving underscore depending on what the scene calls for. But the most amazing and hilarious use of the piece is during the triumphant conclusion where Giacchino brings in the heavenly choir to sing the praises of Speed Racer. Glorious stuff indeed. 

Giacchino continues to have a good relationship with directors Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams. So as long as these two directors continue to make films, we'll continue to enjoy Giacchino's fun and vibrant music. And with Abrams directing the upcoming Star Wars film, it could mean a full blown William's meets Giacchino match up. It might sound something like this, from John Carter.

Next time we'll talk about my all time favorite film composer. While he isn't as well known to the general public as some of his contemporaries, he created some immediately recognizable themes, styles, and musical cliches of his own. His influence on the world of film scoring is considerable and he worked successfully in nearly every genre. In my opinion, when you want to hear the best in movie music, you don't need to look any further than Jerry Goldsmith.


  1. Excellent bit of writing there, Roman!
    Giacchino wrote the best score of 2012, IMO, and this essay of yours really goes a long way toward proving the fact that's he's quite possibly the next "Williams"! (Not a "successor to the throne", but a "torch-bearer")
    Thanks for this great little article!

    1. Thanks for reading Richard! I'm not too comfortable calling him the next Williams. But I will say that he is carrying on the tradition of Williams, Goldsmith, Horner, etc. So I think torch bearer is a much better description.

    2. A versatile composer. Often, the best scores blend so well with the imagery of the movie that we don't notice them without deliberately diverting one's attention to listen.