Less a blockbuster, more a full-blown cultural sensation, Marvel's Black Panther has shattered box office records and drawn critical acclaim worldwide. There are a myriad reasons for this, beginning with the fact it's Marvel's first film to be led by a predominantly black ensemble, which invests the entire project with a sense of topical urgency and helps fuel the diversity conversation currently engulfing Hollywood. It's brilliantly directed with a sense of pace and wondrous scale by Fruitvale Station and Creed director Ryan Coogler. It introduces us to exciting new corners of the Marvel universe in the form of African kingdom Wakanda, a fascinating mash-up of tribal tradition and futuristic design. And it's fronted by a tremendous ensemble, including Chadwick Boseman's eponymous T'Challa, Michael B. Jordan's vengeful villain Eric Killmonger, Letitia Wright as T'Challa's gadget-tastic sister Shuri, and Lupita Nyong'o as Wakandan spy, Nakia.
It is, in short, both a cultural watershed moment and brilliantly entertaining blockbuster in its own right. The movie has also drawn praise where most other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies are said to have fallen down: its score. Much attention has been given to Kendrick Lamar's curated soundtrack of music both featured in, and inspired by, the movie. But the soul of Black Panther belongs to composer and producer Ludwig Göransson, here reuniting with filmmaker Coogler for the third time following his previous two movies. Fuse the strained, elegaic beauty of those earlier scores with Goransson's production background with Grammy-winning artist Childish Gambino (otherwise known as actor Donald Glover), and the fascinating sonic landscape of Black Panther starts to become clear.
The story behind Goransson's score is as fascinating as the music itself. Keen to invest the project with authenticity (the white Swedish composer has observed with amusement that he's perhaps the least likely candidate to have scored a movie like this), he travelled to Senegal where he spent a month immersing himself in the culture. Unlocking a wealth of musical colours, he extensively researched a whole host of traditional instrumentation that has subsequently acted as the basis for many instruments that emerged in Western culture. The end result is a strikingly exotic soundscape that merges with good old-fashioned symphonic bombast and might, plus early 2000's trap hip hop, to create the most diverse Marvel soundtrack so far.
As one would expect the score is multi-stranded and thematic, with characters and situations being granted different musical ideas, leitmotif style. The theme for T'Challa himself is essentially split into A and B sections, the former a standalone, rousing brass ostinato that is slotted into his many heroic action moments, the latter a spectacular merging of the 132-piece London orchestra with the vibrant sounds of Africa. In short, the theme is a celebration both of Black Panther's superhero prowess and of Wakanda itself - T'Challa's destiny is bound up with the future of his homeland, and Goransson intelligently depicts this through his music.
The fanfare is sprinkled throughout the score, particularly noteworthy in 'Royal Talon Fighter', 'Casino Brawl' and 'Busan Car Chase'. It tends to build into the wider Wakanda theme during moments of triumph or character awakening, with the triumphant 'Waterfall Fight', 'Wake Up, T'Challa', 'Glory to Bast' and the climactic 'United Nations/End Titles' exhibiting the kind of terrific, brassy bravado of which Jerry Goldsmith would have been proud. Goransson also varies his musical palette where necessary, the lightly tapping percussion and woodwind of 'Spaceship Bugatti' striking a much more pastoral note.
Sitting alongside the orchestral set-up, Goransson's use of percussion, in particular, stands out for its ferocity and complexity. Threaded throughout are the six 'talking' drums that spell out the name 'T'Challa', in the process crafting a distinctive signature for Wakanda, and the battle that ultimately ensues for its future. The opening 'Wakanda Origins', 'Warrior Falls', 'Killmonger vs T'Challa' and the utterly magnificent duo of 'The Great Mound Battle' and 'Glory to Bast' showcase some of the finest percussion work heard in a blockbuster for a long time. Combine this with the celebratory sound of a 40-voice Xhosa choir (the Xhosa language is known as the 'click click' sound of southern Africa), plus the soaring tones of Senagalese musician Baaba Maal (used to stunning effect in 'Wakanda' and the moving 'A King's Sunset'), and you get one heck of a richly engrossing tapestry.
There are three other primary themes in the score. Perhaps the most striking is the one for antagonist Killmonger, a character whose complex and engrossing motivations have seen him hailed as the best Marvel villain so far. Goransson's music plugs right into his complexity, bridging the character's contemporary Oakland background with that omnipotent sense of tribal tradition that underlines his rightful claim to the Wakandan throne. Composed for a trap hip hop beat, plus the aggressively piping tones of the African fula flute, the piece makes several malevolent statements of intent in 'Killmonger', 'Killmonger's Challenge', Burn It All' and 'The Great Mound Battle', where it vies with the T'Challa/Wakanda material to thrilling effect. It's a genuinely unique sonic mixture that further helps distinguish the score.
There's also what might be described as the 'ancestry theme', alluding to T'Challa's late father, T'Chaka, and the fatal mistake in his past that led to the rise of Killmonger. A strained string elegy, it meshes gorgeously with the Wakandan textures in 'Ancestral Plane' before the later, highly dramatic 'Killmonger's Dream' cleverly flips the piece on its head, daring to suggest there is as much at stake in the villain's life as there is in our hero's. It also links both characters through their shared history, alluding to the dark secret that threatens to tear Wakanda apart.
The theme reaches its cathartic end-point in 'Wake Up, T'Challa', inaugurating the title character's iniative in leading the final assault on Killmonger, before several powerful climactic statements during 'A King's Sunset' (along with a final, poignant reprise of Killmonger's theme). The final puzzle piece is the theme for the separatist 'Jabari' tribe, a piece split into two parts (plus the accompanying 'Entering Jabariland') that uses grunting choir and percussion to reflect leader M'Baku (the scene-stealing Winston Duke).
Black Panther makes for a lengthy album (at 95 minutes, perhaps overly lengthy), but so dynamic and vibrant are Goransson's textures that the interest never flags. The score truly is an intersection point between Hollywood heroism and the captivating musical traditions of Senegal, a superb musical bridging of everything featured in Ryan Coogler's terrific movie. The Marvel movies have routinely been criticised for lacking personality in their scores but Goransson's work surely puts paid to that, not only supporting the narrative but investing it with additional life and - perish the thought - even being allowed to carry it on more than one occasion.
Musically authentic, moving and inspiring, it stands alongside Christophe Beck's Ant-Man, Alan Silvestri's Captain America: The First Avenger and Michael Giacchino's Doctor Strange as a fine example of what 21st century superhero scores could, and should, aspire towards. And as an immersion in the rhythms and textures of Africa, it even bears comparison to Jerry Goldsmith masterpieces like The Ghost and the Darkness. There can surely be no higher compliment than that. The Black Panther score album is available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.