Film scores

Soundtrack review: American Ultra (Marcelo Zavros and Paul Hartnoll – 2015)

“American Ultra” is a fast-paced action comedy about Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), a seemingly hapless and unmotivated stoner whose small-town life with his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), is suddenly turned upside down. Unbeknownst to him, Mike is actually a highly trained, lethal sleeper agent. In the blink of an eye, as his secret past comes back to haunt him. Sound exactly like the plot of Chuck to me. Marcelo Zavros wrote the score and it’s always exciting to hear something from him. Additional cues were written by Paul Hartnoll, an electronic music guru who worked with Orbital.

The opening track by Hartnoll isn’t just electronic music, it’s the deepest place in the rumbling belly of electronic music. It comes from the underground before reaching the surface with a wooden sounding percussion that gets me in the groove of the score right away. Marcelo Zavros opens his side of the dialogue with a shimmering summer electronic cue that makes me wish I was back on vacation at the seaside. It’s the kind of music I’d expect to see on promotional movies featuring surfers.

I am a big fan of electronic music. It usually brings a huge wave of nostalgia and emotion over be but this is exactly what seems to be missing from “American Ultra” so far: emotion. The music is enjoyable but it lacks depth or emotion. It sounds like someone jamming carefree. When the atmosphere gets darker and more serious the music seems to be livelier. I enjoy the relentless pace of “Sheriff Attack” even if it still lacks feeling.

The music of “American Ultra” is like a trick of the light dancing in front of me which I fail to grab. I always feel like I got it but it’s just an illusion and the music slips back out from my grasp. Another problem I have with the score is that the cues feel disjointed and independent, like a collection of electronic pieces that could work on anything. They are enjoyable for a one time listen but I couldn’t associate them with a movie or a story.

I think though that this is what the composer aimed for. The tone of the movie is light and feel good and the music doesn’t need to be deeper or more compelling. I am sure I would enjoy it even more in the context of the movie. But for a standalone listen which got my undivided attention, it just wasn’t enough. Different mood, different conclusion I guess…

Cue rating: 66 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 0 / 41

Album excellence: 0%

 

 

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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