If you haven’t heard of Michael Giacchino, you most certainly have heard him. He is the music composer behind the scores of some of the most popular blockbusters in recent years, with rousing, somewhat silly and eminently hummable tunes being his specialty. It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg tapped him to produce the scores for the first child-starring Amblin outing (2011’s Super 8) and Jurassic Park sequel in at least a decade, since he has a comparable knack for soaring melodies and fleet-footed arrangements as John Williams. In studying his output a thoroughly modern and down-to-earth sensibility all of his own becomes clear. Across four terrific feature film scores, 2015 marks the greatest period of Giacchino’s career to date.
The first of these scores wasn’t even intended for this year. Jupiter Ascending was due to arrive in the summer of 2014, but was then pushed back by a studio nervous about its marketability. This turned out to be sadly well-founded, but Giacchino was at least able to compose the score in 2013 and well before any cameras had rolled, a technique the Wachowskis lifted from Cloud Atlas collaborator Tom Tykwer. The result is a gleefully unbounded work, starting with a quartet of movements and only hitting further heights in a tale of warring intergalactic dynasties and destinies. Not being locked into onscreen pacing means that to listen back to his compositions is to have Jupiter and the House of Abrasax’s story retold with nigh-operatic revisionism, but without dispensing with those Wachowski-brand peculiarities that appear to be priming it for a cult following. He also plays right into the hands of the film’s reading as a campy spectacle for those empathising with Mila Kunis’ klutzy protagonist, to the point where even a montage of her rueful toilet cleaning takes on the bombast and peril of a Star Trek set piece (“I Hate My Life”). Those burgeoning fans hitting play on the album’s Spotify page, head-banging to the rousing end peaks of “Commitment” and eyeing winningly dorky pun titles (“Dinosaur to New Heights”, “Family Jeopardy”, “It’s a Hellava Chase”) will have all the more reason to keep it in a special place.
No definitive Giacchino year would be complete, though, without his eternal collaborator, Brad Bird, and their latest partnership Tomorrowland takes us closer to the retro-futurist joys of The Incredibles than ever before (though that is bound to be superseded once The Incredibles 2 lands in 2019). It’s a frantic ride with the most ideological defiance one could expect from a modern blockbuster, and at its peak it buzzes with the same wonder and ingenuity as the original Disneyland attraction. Bouncy, uptempo scurrying is the order of the day here, much like Ratatouille, and Giacchino delivers not only in his piano-twinkling compositions and jetpack-propelled humdinger of a theme tune, but in reality through his cameo as an It’s a Small World ride operator and his charming determination to wear the movie’s iconic pin even at unrelated press appearances. He once again weaves a spell over those science-loving nerds defying the Tomatometer and hugging the film to their chests, not just in the continuing slide of dorky track titles (now including the sole 2015 instance of his beloved “World’s Best/Worst” naming gag) but in flourishes like when the choir appears to have the rug hilariously pulled out from under them at the end of “Home Wheat Home”. That unmistakeable glee of his is on the biggest display here.
Giacchino truly shot one of Cupid’s arrows into fans’ hearts with his next 2015 score, Jurassic World, which is yet another budding geek dream come true, particularly given that he got noticed for the job while working on the soundtrack for the official Lost World video game. It’s as imposing a legacy to uphold as the even bigger franchise comeback of the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which sees John Williams’ return instead. I was never one to shed a tear at Williams’ original theme like many confess, but when Giacchino introduces his own ode to discovery and wonder via “As the Jurassic World Turns” and then fashions that melody into the downbeat “Pavane for a Dead Apatosaurus”, I came pretty close to feeling the same teary awe as Ty Simpkins’ character. It’s his major achievement in what is an otherwise enjoyably reverential score that sticks closely to the brass and choirs that gave John Williams’ original score both joy and menace, making the most of characters that have hardly as deep a world of emotion within them as those in his other projects.
Speaking of a world of emotions takes us to Giacchino’s fourth collaboration with Pixar, and arguably his best to date. Eschewing the jazz of Incredibles and Up, his major leitmotif on Inside Out seems to be the simple aural hypnotism of a finger meeting the rim of a wine glass, creating a sound like the reverberations of thick-glassed memory orbs throughout the caverns of Riley’s mind. Add in the strains of her family’s gentle domesticity and it’s music to build a Sims house to, which could not be more apt given both Giacchino’s history in video games and the widgets and warrens by which Pete Docter and company visualise a developing human mind. He summons orchestral power where necessary, and delivers in spades when tasked with making an unshakable gum commercial jingle, but his real genius comes out on “Joy Turns to Sadness”, where he becomes as tactful and consoling a presence in the end scene as the deuteragonists, and in the process creates his most subtly devastating melody since Lost‘s “Life and Death”. Just as a whole generation of kids will use Riley’s feelings as avatars for their own experiences, Giacchino’s arrangements will be the strains of their own cathartic moments.
What makes Giacchino doubly endearing in all of this is that he is as excited by these beloved franchises as the rest of us. He expresses that in a number of cheeky and humorous ways, yet while some instances of fans stepping up to shape the properties that shaped them have been disastrous, he has never let a basic sense for his projects’ narratives elude him. This duty tasks him with being present yet self-effacing, as with all composers, and Giacchino carries this out with aplomb even as he’s being awarded for doing so. He might have urged those tuning into his 2009 Oscar speech to go out and be creative, but his output from this year alone is all the inspiration they should ever need.