After the horror thrills of “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation,” director David Sandberg and composer Benjamin Wallfisch shifted tone with the light-hearted adventure of “Shazam!,” the box office hit starring Zachary Levi as DC’s iconic child-man superhero.
“David and I started discussing the score several months before shooting began,” said Wallfisch (who has been busy lately scoring “Hellboy” and Nat Geo’s “Hostile Planet”), “and we just found ourselves geeking out over our shared love of the classic superhero and adventure/fantasy scores that were being written in the ’70s and ’80s, those huge thematic, orchestral scores that totally wore their heart on their sleeve and were unabashedly emotive and motivic.”
Naturally, Sandberg wanted to go with a “classic” sound for their score, since Shazam hails from the Golden Age of superhero comics in the ’40s. And, of course, they were all in for recording the score in London with a 100-piece orchestra and 40-member choir. But the English composer, who was mentored by Hans Zimmer before becoming his musical collaborator (“Dunkirk,” “Blade Runner 2049”), said the classic inspiration went much deeper. “The question we started with was: What must it feel like to be a kid one minute, and a superhero the next, and how can we put those emotions of wish fulfillment, hope, and elation into music? That was the basis for so many of the musical choices,” he added.
“Personally, I guess it was a case of channelling my inner 14-year-old — the kid growing up in the ’80s completely obsessed with the film music of that era,” Wallfisch said. “I was in awe of it then and still am now. Of course, it’s impossible to get even close to the incredible genius of those scores by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and the rest — they are on their own untouchable planet. It was more about trying to channel the emotion I remember feeling when I first heard them as a kid, and bringing that feeling to this new character in my own way.”
Wallfisch started by developing seven crucial character themes after visiting the set in Toronto, where he closely observed the actors inhabiting their roles. Then he was able to start work on the score proper. But the first thing that stands out about the rousing main title theme is how much it owes to Williams’ “Superman” theme for the beloved Richard Donner movie with Christopher Reeve from ’78. The “Shazam!” theme contains the same kind of transformational ascendance as its DC predecessor.
“The starting point was of course finding a theme for Shazam, which took a lot time and iteration before it felt like it lived up to Zachary Levi’s [inspired] performance,” said Wallfisch. “After a lot of attempts went in the trash, the breakthrough came when I realized his character needed two themes: a ‘hero’ theme and a ‘transformation’ theme. The ‘hero theme’ constantly rises over a powerful orchestral march — it’s unashamedly optimistic, with the overall melodic direction hopefully communicating feelings of flight and hope.
“The ‘transformation theme’ is in fact based on the lightning bolt emblem on Shazam’s suit: if you turn that symbol 90 degrees and imagine it as the shape of a melody, it kind of resembles two rising octaves, which is how this theme begins. Like the ‘hero’ theme, it continues to climb from there. We also needed themes for the Wizard [Djimon Hounsou], the Rock of Eternity, Sivana [Mark Strong], the Seven Deadly Sins, a family theme, and even a motif for Mister Mind [voiced by Sandberg] for his brief appearances in the movie.”
For the family theme, the composer used melody that seemed searching and unresolved, yet maintaining a sense of quiet optimism. “This was to reflect Billy Batson’s lifelong quest to find his biological mother — a journey that ends in a very poignant way just before we hit the final act of the movie,” he said. “Then later, when Shazam transforms his foster brothers and sisters into superheroes, this family theme itself undergoes its own transformation into something much more joyful and ebullient — it was very exciting to find a completely different guise for that melody in that climactic moment.”
Meanwhile, the themes for baddie Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins (appropriately a seven-note melody) are very much intertwined: a transfer of dominance between the two themes as the movie progresses. Sivana, like Shazam, has to grow into his powers and his melody starts simply before growing darker and more menacing, “rising chromatically as opposed to the way Shazam’s themes rise diatonically.
“In terms of instrumentation, it’s characterized by the use of the low male choir as well as very dark extended bass woodwind and brass, to create an overall kind of ancient and gothic sound,” Wallfisch said. “I love how layered this movie is: on one side you have an incredibly exciting superhero story with all the brilliance and high stakes of a classic superhero character, and on the other side, a lot of the drama underpinned by the idea of family, and what it means to search for a sense of belonging.”