Film scores

Soundtrack review: Doctor Strange (Michael Giacchino – 2016)


“Doctor Strange” is a 2016 American superhero film featuring the Marvel Comics character of the same name, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It is the fourteenth film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film is directed by Scott Derrickson, who wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill from a story by the duo and Jon Spaihts, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton. In Doctor Strange, surgeon Stephen Strange learns the mystic arts from the Ancient One after a career-ending car accident. As much as I couldn’t wait for the movie, a score by Michael Giacchino is an even bigger reason to celebrate. He is one of the top composers today and, for me, a rock solid guarantee for a great score.

As this score begins and the first notes come at me I get flashes of magnificent compositions like his ‘Star Trek” and “Jupiter ascending” and also James Newton Howard’s “The last airbender”. That is a musical place I reach rarely because such level of brilliance can’t be achieved all the time. But I love it when a fantasy score starts epic and with a dose of choral work. One thing I can always count on with Giacchino scores is that he will never restrain his music; he goes all in with every score and it’s just a joy to listen to. “Ancient sorcerer’s secret” has me hooked already.

Remember the piano delight which was “London calling” from “Star Trek Into Darkness”? We get glimpses of the same romantic sadness in “The hands dealt” and knowing Giacchino’s preference for puns in his cue titles I bet this one refers to the accident where the doctor loses the use of his hands. A piano theme is never just a piano theme with this composer and as the strings subtly join in I am charmed.

I love the comfort of a Michael Giacchino score. I love his musical land and how much at home I feel in it. This one is not an ordinary composition by any means…the time warp and the mystical elements make some of the cues sound like acid trips and the weirdness bleeds into a lot of the music but there are the anchors I’ve began to recognize ever since his Lost days, the furious stabbing string motifs, the horn infused space travel themes and the sudden quiet breaks which act like the eyes of the storm (just listen to Post op paracosm) and are followed by just as abrupt explosions of epic.

But yes “Doctor Strange” is strange…awesomely strange that is. This musical experiment which shows how much confidence the composer has in his craft, works as it gives me a glimpse of the story at hand without seeing the movie.  It’s always rewarding when music has substance even when it’s experimental. A cue like “Reading is fundamental” is alive and unpredictable and Michael’s music is like a visual representation of the difference between 2D and 3D; he writes three dimensional music that’s just as spectacular as the mind bending visual effects of the movie. The music doesn’t stay in one place and jumps and loops and hides and runs and

As interesting as this score is I do miss the majestic beauty of “Jupiter ascending” in the first half. I know the stories are different but the limitless imagination of this score could have gotten a bolder (pun intended) approach. Then again if the composer chose to focus more on the spiritual part of the movie and direct his music both inwards and outwards it’s an understandable choice.  Also the longest cue of the score “Sanctimonius Sanctum Sacking” has a lot of filler moments which cast a shadow over the second brilliant half of the cue.  Speaking of puns tough I notice the comeback of the “World’s worse….” cue title series. Here we get “Astral world’s worst killer”. A gust of nostalgia comes as I recognize a motif from one of my favorite Giacchino themes “Primates for life” from “Dawn of the planet of the apes”.

And then Michael Giacchino goes and saves the best for last. In a twisted and strange score it’s natural that the main theme explodes in my ears in the third to last cue, “Strange days ahead”. I love the title as well; it invites sequels and expansion of the universe. I wouldn’t have suspected it either by how quietly the cue started…but then a tide slowly rises…and about 2:30 minutes in a superb string motif announces something before the theme comes in all its glory; it’s a beautiful and epic sister of his “Star Trek” theme and the horns connect it wonderfully to the Marvel musical universe. Regardless of who writes an MCU score something likes them and this one is a glorious addition to the pillars that Brian Tyler already placed. I just adore a theme that soars high without any restrictions; it brings me joy, it motivates me, it makes me think I can fly myself and I will listen to this one insanely much.

And as this story goes the end credits come and bring yet another level to this score. “The master of the mystic end credits” is a wink of insanity and delight in the vein of Brian Tyler’s “Can you dig it” from the “Iron Man 3” score of Steve Jablonsky’s “Half shell” from his Turtles album. It’s a twisted cue which sounds nothing like the rest of the score; it’s a warped composition with electric guitar sections and keyboard inserts that make me think sometimes of the psychedelic overtures of the 70s classic rock anthems. Did Queen or Deep Purple write this track? Did the guys from Dream Theater help Michael Giacchino craft the end credits? No, I’m sure they didn’t. This is just the experiment of one of the most gifted composers we have the fortune of listening to these days and I applaud him once again.

Cue rating: 88 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 33 / 66

Album excellence: 50%


“Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret”

“The Hands Dealt”

“The True Purpose of the Sorcerer”

“Post Op Paracosm”

“Smote and Mirrors”

“Ancient History”

“Strange Days Ahead”

“Go for Baroque”

“The Master of the Mystic End Credits”

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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  • There is a definite theme running through that appears first in “Ancient Sorcerer’s Secret” and then gets a choir treatment in “Mystery training”. It also appears towards the end of “The Hands Dealt”. It is quite beautiful and majestic. And yeah the piano theme running in ‘The hands dealt” and expanded in “Strange Days Ahead” is just gorgeous and reminds me a bit of “Night on the Yorktown”. The score is just fantastic and just below Jupiter Ascending in terms of scale and listening pleasure.

    It’s a relief to finally hear a MCU score that is not bland and generic (Well maybe except Ant Man and the first Captain America). Now if Giachhino nailsRogue One, he will have had 7 fantastic scores in the span of 2 years.

    • YES YES YES!!! the second it started playing i said thats the star trek theme! So this morning
      i started googling to see if anyone else thought so and you are the first other one to notice it!
      I would think most anyone would hear it also?