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Soundtrack review: Bad times at the El Royale (Michael Giacchino – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Bad times at the El Royale (Michael Giacchino – 2018)


“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a 2018 American neo-noir thriller film written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. The film stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman and Chris Hemsworth. Set in 1969, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers who find themselves at the El Royale, a novelty hotel at the border of California and Nevada. But as the strangers — including a priest (Bridges), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Hamm), a Southern gangster (Johnson), and a former singer (Erivo) — settle into their rooms, they discover that something strange is afoot inside and outside the hotel. Michael Giacchino wrote the score.

I can’t wait to see this movie, plot, cast and, of course, Drew Goddard are right up my alley. Then there’s my favorite current composer and the guy who has won my “Score of the year” award for the last two years running, Michael Giacchino. The track list is juicy concluding with a massive 10 minute end suite and clocking in at 75 minutes. Plus, of course, his cue title gimmick with puns I never get tried of, right from the opening track “The Suite at the El Royale”.

One of the abilities that make Michael Giacchino such an extraordinary composer is writing music that mixes texture with thematic content in a way that provides both the base and the spaceship with which to fly away. I can’t think of another composer right now and can deliver both minimalism and epic in the same composition and make it sound so very natural. I know all this and yet with every new score I find myself amazed at this unique craft. I listen to the music and almost nod my head unconsciously telling myself yep, this sounds right, there’s no other way this score could have been written, this is the natural way, I don’t even think somebody created this to match or accompany something, this has grown together with the story. It’s even hard for me to explain what I am experiencing while listening to this album; the elements in his music and the way he combines them, from ambient to choral to melodic to loud and back again make me not need anything else while listening to this score. It’s that sensation of having served the perfectly balanced meal where I cannot find a single thing missing, from ingredient to texture to the smallest condiment.

It doesn’t matter what kind of story he writes music from; this Tarantinesque thriller is a bit of a novelty after years of franchise blockbusters and animation movies but Michael Giacchino’s sound has no trouble adapting to the story and adding new ingredients to the mix, like a touch of noir, subtle Mexican inserts (and we know he can go full Latin fun as he did in “Coco”) and that ironic jazzy vibe that describes mystery. There’s a constant tone of apparent sarcasm in the music with the brass and percussion playing hide and seek on some cues like the delightful “Mirror mortals”. The score doesn’t take itself too seriously while in the same time being meaningful. I love the minimalistic approach and by the way some of the instruments are played I imagine a reduced orchestral setup where the musicians are actually dressed in tees and shorts and sneakers instead of the usual suits.

Don’t let the quiet, minimalistic tone fool you; there are passages when my eyes almost get misty as I recall my favourite emotional moments from lost: “Darlene-eyed monster” and “My memory, my memory”. But those are just my resorts. The composer tackles the dark thriller genre in his own way and absolutely nails it. The point is “Bad times at the El Royale” brings a metamorphosis in the Michael Giacchino sound, an adaptation of his usually bold and effervescent music to fit the claustrophobic setting of this story, a setting that makes the music compensate in depth what it lacks in richness. He metamorphoses his sound in such a way than on cues like “Clingin’ in the rain” someone might hear some Bernard Herrmann vibes.

The best thing about “Bad times at the El Royale” is that however you imagine a score for this movie should sound or however you wish this score would sound, I’m sure that’s what you’ll find when you’ll listen to it. That’s Michael Ghiacchino. Even at his most unusual and unexpected.

Cue rating: 94 / 100

The Suite at the El Royale
A Room with an Entrez-Vous
Rough Around the Ledger
It’s Ms. You to You
Mirror Mortals
When Push Comes to Hoover
Darlene-Eyed Monster
My Memory, My Memory
Sea You Again Soon
Clingin’ in the Rain
A Bang up Robbery
You Can’t Flynn ’em All
Billy Lee Is Not My Lover
Roulette the Chips Fall
Absolution Presents Itself

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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