With this month’s one-two punch of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” it’s clear why Michael Giacchino has become Hollywood’s go-to composer. He once again delivers both the loud and quiet musical passages with force and grace, making him the master of superhero and animated movies.
“You need the quiet time in order for the louder times to mean something,” Giacchino said. “This is good for the audience, too. It pulls them in.”
Indeed, ever since Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” the 49-year-old composer has moved freely between animation, sci-fi, and superhero movies, winning the Oscar for Pixar’s “Up.” Along the way, Giacchino has also conquered the Disney (“Zootopia”), Marvel (“Doctor Strange”), and “Star Wars” (“Rogue One”) universes, working four times with J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”), Bird (“The Incredibles”), and “Apes” director Matt Reeves.
With “Homecoming” and “War,” however, Giacchino experimented outside the box with unorthodox orchestration and instrumentation. And, with its haunting sense of melancholy, “War” is already being talked up as an Oscar contender ahead of this week’s release (stream the original score here).
Giacchino immediately made his mark on both movies by ditching his Marvel Studios fanfare for “Homecoming” and inserting the theme to the original 1967 “Spider-Man” animated series, and replacing Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox fanfare with his own thunderous Apes version for “War.” In each case, this plops us immediately into the worlds of Tom Holland’s younger Spidey and Andy Serkis’ world-weary Caesar.
Music Fit for a “Homecoming”
The moment Giacchino walked out of the screening of “Captain America: Civil War,” he knew he wanted to score “Homecoming,” and immediately made his pitch to Marvel president Kevin Feige before leaving the theater. “I love that clumsiness of the character, that wanting to run into the fray of things without even thinking, as a teenager would,” he said. “And I love that so much of it took place in his [high school] world, where even he was tortured by the other kids and not just by these supervillains.”
To convey a sense of nostalgic fun, Giacchino utilized the iconic animated theme as his template for “Homecoming.” “I wanted a theme that could be young and turned into something much more heroic and epic,” he said. “So it was important for me to let it grow and get to that point.
Giacchino’s favorite moment has Peter Parker pinned under concrete at a point of no return. “There’s a sadness to the pain and struggle,” Giacchino said. “It was fun to allow the theme to be big and heroic, as opposed to plucky and clumsy, as it had been up to that point.”
Abandoning the John Hughes Tribute Music
Director Jon Watts was fully on board with Marvel’s notion of making a John Hughes-inspired superhero movie, but it didn’t work musically. The ’80s-like synth cues seemed dated, so Giacchino cut them. “We were paying more attention to that idea than what the characters needed,” he said. “But once we reversed course, everything fell into place nicely.”
Giacchino’s unconventional orchestration for a superhero movie also fell into place, with pizzicato violin and weird, plucky guitar sounds. He also relied on a rhythm section that included buckets, odd metal objects, and a plastic oil drum as the kick drum.
Capturing the Vulture
For Michael Keaton’s Vulture, the scavenger arms dealer, who profits from alien tech, Giacchino wrote a Hitchcockian theme. “There are two ideas: low brass that’s big and ready to attack, and this rhythm thing, with low strings on different notes. It’s more of a cluster,” Giacchino said. “It’s this idea that this guy’s a little twisted. You think this guy is going to do the right thing, but then it’s completely not the right thing.”
However, the early, more hopeful version of the theme returns when you least expect it. Vulture opens up all of the artifacts that he’s stealing from a plane and the theme reminds us of what might’ve been. Once again, Giacchino reveals his musical strength for deep emotional connection.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
At “War” with Caesar
The composer’s approach to the third “Apes” saga (his second with director Matt Reeves, following “Dawn”) was to treat it almost like a mournful western. Caesar, the leader of the apes, struggles with his dark side at this critical juncture. After suffering personal tragedy and seeking vengeance, there’s no longer any chance for peaceful co-existence between apes and humans.
Giacchino explores this in the sublime “Exodus Wounds,” comprised of piano and strings before swelling with brass toward the end. “Caesar’s been on a crazy journey, and I was inspired seeing him grow and struggle,” the composer said. “It’s heartbreak…and how close you skate to those lines that you try to avoid in your life.”
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
An Ode to Nova
Along their journey, the ape tribe adopts Nova (Amiah Mille), a human war orphan. She’s a nod to Linda Harrison’s Nova from the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968). For this gentle child, Giacchino wrote a simple theme with piano and harp that repeats four times before resolving.
“For me, it was all about capturing this suspended tone of someone who is lost, doesn’t have a family, or anywhere to go, and day after day is the same,” he said. “At the end, there’s a change when she walks into the prison camp, where she finds her strength…helping other people.”
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fo
The Colonel as Counterpoint
Woody Harrelson’s ruthless Colonel McCullough represents humanity at its darkest. He declares war on Caesar and the other apes in a desperate battle of survival. “He single-mindedly protects himself after enduring a great deal of personal pain,” said Giacchino. “In many ways, he’s more the animal than Caesar.”
Giacchino relied on musical simplicity. The Colonel’s theme begins with repeated timpani drum hits, conveying the coming of dread. It’s an audience tease, forcing us to be anxious. But it keeps going underneath everything related to the Colonel.
For Giacchino, “Dawn” and “War” have taken him full-circle. As a kid, he watched the “Apes” movies and TV series and collected the toys. Now he has in his office the mixing bowls and ram’s horn used for the original “Planet of the Apes” score composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.
“It’s a blast, having them right here and getting to use them again,” said Giacchino about continuing the legacy with his own passionate contribution.