Music in Film: Oblivion and playing spot the difference

In this week's Music in Film column, Ivan digs into M83's soundtrack for the sci-fi hit, Oblivion...

Music and film. If the two are chosen correctly, they’re an effective team. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters: how the music works within the film. But every so often, a soundtrack comes along that you’ve heard before… in another film entirely. The most recent case of dear ja vu? Oblivion.

It’s oddly fitting that the Joseph Kosinski thriller, considered by many (somewhat harshly) to be a derivative compilation of highlights from other films, should come with such a familiar accompaniment.  A soaring synth-led album by band M83, you can imagine parts of it appearing on the track list for Hans Zimmer’s greatest hits or slotting into the background of Tron: Legacy without anyone really noticing.

But why does it sound the same? How do these things happen? And does that make it a bad soundtrack?

Oblivion certainly doesn’t do itself any favours with the film’s opening sequence: a slow build-up to one big BRRRRMMMM just as the film’s title appears that screams “we liked Hans Zimmer’s Inception score too”.

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Those comparisons never really disappear throughout the rest of the album.

Waking Up is a solid second track, but it also introduces the main problem with Oblivion’s score: its theme. A looping arpeggio on a keyboard, going from minor third down to the fifth and up again, is full of Zimmerish atmosphere. Even the chord pattern, which jumps from C Minor past A Flat Major and E Flat Major to B Flat Major, echoes Inception’s most memorable number, Time. Add in some drums and you have something very Zimmeresque. A Zimpersonation, if you will.

That chord sequence is where Oblivion’s recognisable sound stems from. It’s a Zimmer trademark, a progression that appears all the way back in Gladiator’s Now We Are Free. It underpins Chevaliers De Sangreal, the climactic piece from The Da Vinci Code, and can be spotted hovering around the Batman trilogy. Across the years, it’s been a big part of what defines Hans Zimmer’s sound, helping to inspire countless Zimpersonations, from Marc Streitenfeld’s The Grey to Trevor Rabin’s Deep Blue Sea.

The pattern returns on fine form in Oblivion’s Tech 49 – with orchestral strings and very loud drums to hammer home the point. Then it drives StarWaves, a standout three and a half minutes that adds choir and pulsing bass over the top, finished off with some wonderful guitar samples.

It’s probably the most M83 track on the album. And yet it still doesn’t sound quite like their own music.

While Oblivion’s chords originate in Zimmerland, its instrumentation feels closer to another film – Tron: Legacy. It’s only apt that Kosinski’s two directorial features should have such relatable soundtracks; both are pushed along by falling arpeggios, electronic percussion, stellar orchestra work and a healthy dose of keyboard action. But they share something else in common: Joseph Trapanese. The composer worked with Daft Punk to bring their sound to the big screen – a score that, in its original or remixed version, makes for a nifty accompaniment to such everyday activities as cycling, doing your homework or fighting CGI Jeff Bridges.

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Trapanese has a knack for working with other artists. He even arranged Moby’s Extreme Ways for The Bourne Legacy. So, after collaborating with M83 on their 2011 album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he was the natural choice to pair up with Anthony Gonzalez for the lead singer’s first movie soundtrack.

Does that mean Oblivion is just Joseph Trapanese repeating his old work? Not at all. There’s enough difference between this and Tron: Legacy’s (admittedly more memorable) score, but Trapanese’s signature is audible in both. A composer’s voice can be a big part of what makes a score sound like another: who hasn’t enjoyed playing The Interchangeable John Williams Soundtrack Game?

But there are always other factors. When putting together a film, temp tracks are a useful way for editors and directors to get a feel for a scene. If they fall in love with a tune, composers can simply be requested to replicate that sound – perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many Zimpersonations around these days.

Orchestration can help composers to achieve that imitation, particularly when working within the same genre. The similarity between Oblivion, Tron: Legacy and Hans Zimmer comes as much from them being sci-fi/action films as anything else.

There’s also the simple fact that there are a finite number of chords a composer can use – and only so many that logically work in a sequence. To rely on the same progression doesn’t mean one work is copying another. James Newtown Howard’s Lady In The Water, for example, uses the same chord pattern as Oblivion’s main theme. They couldn’t be more different.

Above all that, though, there’s the overriding influence of the studio. It’s interesting to hear Anthony Gonzalez talk about his work on Oblivion. He told Pitchfork in a very candid interview:

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“I started to work on this project with a lot of hope, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to do something super special and original’. But you can’t really, because there are so many people involved and so much money in the game that it’s hard to change things. Hollywood kind of sucks the life out of you very quickly.”

Admitting that “people are going to expect a new album from M83 and that’s not the case,” he acknowledged how much his work was changed by other people’s input:

“You have to do quick turnovers when something is not appealing for the studios or the directors. I quickly realized that all the ideas of the music I had before working on it weren’t going to happen because it’s Hollywood and because it’s a $150 million dollar budget. I’m not the boss. I’m just someone working for them.”

His style seems to burst in at times – there’s some exhilarating percussion work on Radiation Zone that’s rather unique – but the Zimmer effect? That seems to have come from upstairs.

“They needed something bigger, more orchestral; it was hard for me to be told that my music was too indie for the film. I was pissed most of the time, but this is how it works. It’s like, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And I took it.”

If he had his way, he added, he wouldn’t even put M83 on the album cover.

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“I would have pushed for ‘Anthony Gonzalez and Joe Trapanese’, because for me, this is how the score was done. I didn’t want to involve M83 in that, but it’s hard because Universal wanted to push M83 because of the success of Midnight City. It’s funny because sometimes big studios don’t give a shit about you, but when you’re nominated for the Grammys, you start receiving emails like, ‘Oh, congratulations. We’re excited about the soundtrack.’ I’m like, ‘You didn’t give a shit about me two months ago when I got the job, and now you’re just acting like a …’ It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with the movie industry.”

It’s telling that his next film soundtrack won’t be a Hollywood production at all: he’s writing music for a movie by his older brother.

As for the studio, they’re no doubt very happy with Oblivion’s soundtrack. After all, it’s a solid bit of sci-fi bombast. Like the film, the music may not be terribly original but at the end of the day, they’re an effective team. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

You can read Ivan’s previous Music in Film column here.

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