A new John Williams score is always cause for celebration, especially since the maestro is now approaching 80. The Adventures of Tintin is the latest collaboration between Williams and Steven Spielberg, arguably the most celebrated director-composer partnership in modern cinema. Their association stretches all the way back to 1974's The Sugarland Express, and has encompassed masterpieces such as Jaws, E.T., the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park, so clearly the two men have developed the best kind of dramatic shorthand. This shorthand has endured for a reason: Spielberg knows how to apply music to the moving image. It may be a glib and facile thing to say but Spielberg has never been one to fill his films with musical wallpaper; Williams' scores are carefully placed so as to guarantee maximum emotional impact, and where it isn't needed, Spielberg won't use it. Detractors always claim the use of Williams' music is manipulative but what is music for if not for manipulation? Spielberg is clearly the man to draw out the best in an already talented composer, and this alchemical partnership has resulted in some of the most memorable film music in cinema history.
The Adventures of Tintin is Spielberg's first venture into the realms of motion-capture animation, blending three of Herge's classic comic strip tales (The Crab with the Golden Claws; The Secret of the Unicorn; and Red Rackham's Treasure) in one package. Jamie Bell plays the intrepid, bequiffed journalist, accompanied by his faithful dog Snowy, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. And of course John Williams leapt on-board to provide the music.
It's fascinating to trace the development of Williams' music over the years. Broadly speaking, there was a shift around the time of Jurassic Park from the broad, thematically rich canvas heard in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark to a more dramatically subtle style of scoring, perhaps mirroring Spielberg's own move into adult filmmaking with the likes of Schindler's List. Scores which followed (Nixon, The Lost World, Saving Private Ryan) were consequently much darker, although Williams has never entirely abandoned the thematic approach with which he made his name. Rather, his music has matured, underscoring the action rather than bridging it with a multitude of memorable themes (Minority Report and War of the Worlds spring to mind).
It's therefore pleasing to note that Tintin is Williams' most effervescent, whimsical score in quite some time. In recent years, Williams' lighter works have often been tempered with a sense of melancholy (Catch Me If You Can; The Terminal) but there's no such approach in Tintin. Just as Spielberg appears to be energised by the new-fangled freedom of motion-capture technology, so the director's enthusiasm appears to have spilled over to the composer. It's an unashamedly tongue-in-cheek work that maintains an entirely breezy outlook throughout. Yet technically it's very much part of the modern Williams mould, for while Tintin is a thematically strong score, it takes several listens for this to become apparent; compare this for example with the immediately bold personalities of the early Indiana Jones soundtracks. The interplay between different parts of the music takes centre stage in Tintin, the themes often woven in motivic, piecemeal fashion around the orchestra. Meanwhile, the frequent accordion injection adds an appropriately Gallic flavour.
Williams kicks things off with concert versions of his main themes. Tintin's theme is a delightfully retro jazz piece hearkening back to Williams' roots as a jazz artist. Complete with sax, bells, clarinets and harpsichords, it unsurprisingly calls to mind the likes of the Cantina Band, the Catch Me If You Can theme and The Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Snowy's Theme is a classic Williams scherzo, full of lively energy, both whimsical and dramatically engaging, a close cousin to The Adventures of Mutt from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
By contrast, the mysterious 4 note theme in The Secret of the Scrolls indicates the mystery at the heart of the story, although its moody tones are never overbearing or threatening. The boldest theme by far is the one for the Unicorn itself, a strident string piece surging over powerful brass like a ship ploughing across the sea. It especially comes to the fore in the terrifically exciting Sir Francis and the Unicorn. There's also a jaunty, vaguely drunken sounding theme for Captain Haddock, first heard in Captain Haddock Takes the Oars.
These are but some of the jigsaw pieces established by Williams throughout his typically complex score. There's also a swooning bit of European romance in The Milanese Nightingale and a hysterically comical bit of source opera music in Presenting Bianca Castafiore – one of the few Williams pieces guaranteed to raise a guffaw, especially when it reaches its ultra-sonic conclusion complete with smashing glasses!
All that taken into consideration, one then has to consider how each theme is deployed throughout the score. Highlights include the tongue in cheek jazz piano of Introducing the Thompsons, which promptly leads into a thrilling action piece dominated by Snowy's theme in Snowy's Chase; the moody interpretation of the Scroll theme in Marlinspike Hall; and the wonderfully laid back rendition of the Thompsons' theme in Capturing Mr Silk. Then there are the brilliantly frenetic action set pieces which remind the listener of Williams' past glories, particularly the frenzied brass runs in Escape from the Karaboudjan; the full blown assault of Red Rackham's Curse and the Treasure; and the sensational string work in the climactic double-whammy of The Pursuit of the Falcon and The Clash of the Cranes.
The frequent juxtaposition of the central themes with the orchestral bombast adds an invigorating humorous element to the score whilst also showcasing Williams' commitment to his central conceits. Captain Haddock's theme for example gets a heroic rendition in The Captain's Counsel, demonstrating how he has transformed from amiable drunkard into full blown hero. The climactic duo of Finale and The Adventure Continues then concludes the score on an upbeat note ready for the inevitable sequel. The final deployment of the adventurous Red Rackham's Curse cleverly leaves the listener on a high note, showing how Tintin has moved from investigative journalist to full blown adventurer; for many the sequel can't come soon enough!
In all fairness however, the above analysis only scratches the surface of this score. It's easy to underestimate Williams' achievement with Tintin. True, it might not have an immediately obvious identity and one is unlikely to end up humming the themes a la the Raiders March but the level of whimsical energy is astonishing, especially given Williams' age. He's one of the old guard and likely won't be composing for very much longer, so each new score is to be treasured and savoured.
Tintin is an unusual Williams score in that repeat listenings are virtually compulsory in order to glean all the riches. He's probably the only living composer who could weave together such a plethora of delights in such a coherent fashion, but that's one of the many reasons why he's been at the top of the film scoring tree for so long. Even in his advancing years, John Williams is more than capable of showing the young 'uns how it's done – fingers crossed for War Horse!