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Review: Michael Giacchino, “Up: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

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Well, the release of Up is such big news here at Second Disc HQ that we felt one review just wasn’t enough!  We hope you’re as excited as we are about our first-ever “tag team” review.  To start things off, here’s Mike Duquette…

It’s fitting, really, that Intrada’s first soundtrack reissue in conjunction with The Walt Disney Company is a score to a film about fulfilling a lifelong dream. It’s been a dream of Disney fans for years to see some sort of stable catalogue presentation from the beloved film studio.

Granted, the catalogue presence from Walt Disney Records was and is top-notch, thanks to guys like producer Randy Thornton, who’s overseen a lot of the great releases from the fabled Disney vault throughout the past few decades. (The 40th anniversary edition of the Mary Poppins soundtrack and box sets for both Disneyland’s 50th anniversary and the 1964 World’s Fair exhibits are just three such projects par excellence.) But Walt Disney Records isn’t a major label, and doesn’t have the muscle like Rhino or Legacy might in getting those catalogue projects out there.

That’s where Intrada came in. Their sterling reputation as a label that knows how to put together a great soundtrack – and the knowledge of what will sell (recall the sellouts of their Predator and Spacecamp reissues in under a day each) – makes them the ideal partners to spread the Disney magic to the hungry, loving soundtrack collector’s market.

Thus, the first release from the label/studio partnership: the Oscar and Grammy-winning soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s Up (Walt Disney Records/Intrada D0013727-02), composed by Michael Giacchino. It’s not the deepest catalogue offering from a musical legacy that stretches back nearly 75 years – but it does finally right a major wrong in not having the soundtrack on physical media. And, it’s a hell of a score.

Giacchino, whose star rose off the backs of scores to television shows like Alias and Lost as well as video games in the Medal of Honor series, solidified his reputation with scores to Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille. But it’s Up that made him a star, in this writer’s book. Maybe it’s the subject material. The film’s plot – an old man with a bunch of balloons and a shared dream with his late wife travels down to South America and has the adventure of a lifetime – was stunningly simple yet wildly sublime.

Everything about the movie, from key scenes (the sob-inducing, wordless overture, in which the birth and death of Carl and Ellie Fredricksen’s lifelong relationship is chronicled), to delightful characters (who wouldn’t want a dog like Dug, the lovable mutt with a collar that allows him to speak?) to appealing geometric patterns (notice Carl’s square build in contrast to the round frame of eight-year-old stowaway Russell), makes Up a high watermark in animation, right up there with Mickey Mouse steering Steamboat Willie along the river, the presentation of Simba, the Lion King, before an adoring audience of savannah dwellers and Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s high-flying adventure over a moving van.

Notice that all those moments are marked by great music, too. Giacchino doesn’t disappoint, creating themes and motifs in the great tradition of film composers from Korngold to Williams. The ragtime-esque adventure theme, the beautiful waltz that accompanies Carl and Ellie’s life together, the sinister overtones of the villainous Charles Muntz – all of them paint the kind of musical picture that can be enjoyed without the visual accompaniment, the hallmark of all great film soundtracks.

Mike looks at Intrada’s presentation of the score after the jump, and Joe offers his views!

That’s not to say the score is a perfect presentation. The 26-track album (three of which are sound effects tracks), as commercially released through iTunes and Amazon MP3, is not a complete presentation; a promotional set given to Pixar staff and cast members featured the music in full, and was not licensed for use by Intrada. But that’s not the biggest issue; most of the tracks barely pass the three-minute mark, and while those themes and motifs are still palpable, some might feel like the music goes by too quickly, without a lot of variation and development. (By the fourth track, with maybe six minutes of music gone by, we are already at least 20 minutes into the film’s narrative.)

This is a minor quibble, though, and with so much else to love about the package (particularly Pixar’s gorgeous concept art throughout the liner notes, and the overall package presentation that lovingly conjures up images of old releases on Disneyland Records in simpler times), it’s a quibble that’s easily forgotten. Intrada’s Up CD proves, just as the film itself did, that adventure is out there. And we can’t wait to see what adventures Disney and Intrada will embark on next.

And for another look, here’s Joe Marchese…

When rumors first surfaced of the Intrada/Disney partnership, many felt there was nowhere to go but Up.  And of course, they were right!  So, Up arrived without the element of surprise…but with every other element needed for a rip-roaring soundtrack, and one worthy of the Academy Award bestowed upon it.  One cue by composer Michael Giacchino is entitled “Memories Can Weigh You Down,” but that’s far from the truth.  His score to Up is in the grand tradition of the Disney (and indeed, Disney-inspired) adventures we remember so well from our childhoods, and conjures a sense of wonder, of magic, of discovery.  It’s no mistake that those words figure prominently in the Disney ethos.  Giacchino’s score to Up radiates those qualities.

Up’s blend of heart-on-its-sleeve romanticism and fantastic adventure is wildly different from the muscle of The Incredibles and the Gallic charm of Ratatouille.  Is there anything this prolific composer can’t do?  While he’s represented this summer by Cars 2, he also found time to score J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and even the Selena Gomez vehicle Monte Carlo, and he’s committed to more films this fall and winter including the Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt 50/50 and blockbuster-to-be Mission: Impossible 4.  Talk about eclectic!  So it was a disappointment when an Oscar winning score by one of Hollywood’s premier composers was initially relegated to download-only status in lesser fidelity and without any bells and whistles.

Hopes were high for this first-ever CD release for Up, and the experience appropriately begins with the package.  Those expecting the typical Intrada liner notes might be initially jarred.  The label’s releases (such as the Disney/Touchstone Shoot to Kill, released on the same day as Up) often boast lengthy essays and track-by-track notes detailing both technical information and how each cue corresponds to the onscreen action.  Up, by contrast, offers a short introduction from director Pete Docter, another brief note from Giacchino, and pages of concept artwork from the film.  

The scholarly approach is missed, and hopefully will be applied to future releases.  But the folks at Disney and Pixar have compensated by designing a truly delightful booklet nonetheless.  It’s in the style of the old Storyteller series of books-and-vinyl/tapes from Disneyland Records.  Remember them?  You know, the ones with the chimes indicating when you should turn each page!  And the chimes are all that’s missing here.  The Disneyland Records logo has been lovingly recreated on both the cover and the CD label, and the bold color scheme has been replicated as well.  There’s an “alternate cover” on the back of the booklet, with a smiling sun that may remind you of Mary Blair’s artwork.  Among other considerable accomplishments for the studio and elsewhere, Blair was the renowned Disney artist responsible for the look of It’s a Small World, and a giant mural at the Contemporary Resort (my favorite!), and the homage here and in the concept art is fitting.  Could I ask (nicely?) that the Disneyland Records logo be retained on upcoming releases in the Intrada/Disney series?  It’s transporting, and a potent reminder of the Disney legacy.

From its first frames, it was clear that Up was a different kind of film, even by the standards of Pixar’s typically sophisticated fare for kids of all ages.  The much-talked-about opening montage captured the essence of a married couple’s entire relationship in a wordless four minutes, sensitively depicting very adult topics like miscarriage, failing health, death and grief in flashback form.  Giacchino’s music immeasurably enhanced the animation, with its instrumentation immediately nostalgic, decorated with horns and strings, and adaptable to both joy and sadness.  On disc, the gentle, evocative, slightly hesitant piano theme introduced in “We’re in the Club Now” builds to the sheer beauty of “Married Life.” After that emotional, elegiac opening, we musically meet young Russell, who stows away with 78-year old Carl, who staves off urban developers by strapping balloons to his house and literally going up, up and away with his beautiful balloons.  You’ll think you’re seeing the house rise as you hear the buoyant “Carl Goes Up.”  It’s a cue as grand as “Married Life” is humble, and a perfect illustration of visual music.

The motifs are varied in style and execution.  “Up with Titles” is a honky-tonk rouser.  “Three Dog Dash” hits the right ominous notes, and “Escape from Muntz Mountain” (ah, those cheeky Giacchino titles!) shows the composer’s expertise at crafting tension even as he weaves in the usually-lilting central theme.  It’s thunderous and exciting.  The turbulent “Memories Can Weigh You Down” again incorporates the theme, this time in a triumphant setting that even recalls a bit of John Williams in heroic mode.  Giacchino’s collaborator, conductor/orchestrator Tim Simonec, deserves much credit, too.  The colors of his orchestral writing are diverse and often unexpected.

Mike made mention of the generally short cues on this album, which clocks in at under one hour.   It was reportedly sequenced by Giacchino himself, who vetoed that lengthier “Cast and Crew” album.  The presentation strikes a balance between Henry Mancini’s “pop” arrangement soundtracks (which saw the maestro record new versions of the film’s cues for a record-buying audience) and the note-complete titles frequently delivered by our friends at Intrada, Kritzerland, Film Score Monthly and La-La Land Records to soundtrack collector diehards.  Intrada is, indeed, an expert in distributing its releases to that core audience; will Disney use its clout to see this very-digestible Up fly to a wider audience via Disney Stores or theme parks?

Two of the most enjoyable tracks are near the disc’s conclusion.  The end titles present the main theme in different treatments such as a smoky jazz setting and a bossa nova that evokes sixties lounge at its most intoxicating.  The album’s one vocal track, “The Spirit of Adventure,” is a “voh-de-oh-doh” pastiche written and performed with flair.  It’s too bad that the album follows those with three tracks of clanging, ringing, whirring, squawking sound effects  While these are an interesting addition, Giacchino’s music is so resonant that one wishes it had the last word on the album. 

There are still many questions about the Intrada/Disney label partnership, and indeed, you can expect many of them to be answered right here at The Second Disc in the near future!  But one thing’s for sure: the CD premiere of Up positively soars.

Written by Mike Duquette

July 15, 2011 at 11:08

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