Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Let’s Talk About Steve Jablonsky’s ‘Transformers’ Scores

First of all, as we begin, let me emphasize that I’m no music expert. I have no background in music. I can’t speak to any technicalities regarding chords, melodies, or music theory. I’m just someone who deeply loves musical scores from film and listens to them like it’s their job. If you’ve ever listened to the podcast, you’ll know that it’s something that I talk about regularly. So, with that in mind, it’s time we recognize Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers scores as some of the best we’ve heard from any major blockbuster in the last thirty years.

Perhaps they’re not widely talked about because Michael Bay’s Transformers are not highly touted in any way, shape, or form. They made a lot of money, sure, but not many are claiming them to be among the better franchises we’ve seen over the last 15 years. So it’s understandable that certain aspects of those films will be overlooked. However, I’m going to make my case for why Jablonsky has earned his spot among the top tier of blockbuster scores. And it all starts here with ‘Arrival to Earth’ from the first Transformers.

This piece of music is nothing short of excellent. It’s interesting too because, on its own, it doesn’t invoke anything Transformers. There’s nothing bombastic or urgent about it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite with its majestic and sublime qualities. The strings reverberate a feeling of imposing elegance, especially when accompanied by the chorus of angels behind them. As it crescendos it only gets better and better, with an elevated glimmer at the half-way mark, before letting the vocals take over for a moment. Then there’s the horns. Just pure bliss. It’s truly an evocative piece of music. Similarly the ‘Optimus’ and ‘Bumblebee’ tracks are distinguished by the same tones and heroic melodies.

However, on the flipside of that coin, tracks such as ‘Downtown Battle’ and ‘Soccent Attack’ offer up that loud bombast you’d expect from a movie like that. The horns are prominent and the Hans Zimmer-esque drums do much of the heavy lifting. These tracks aren’t anything transcendent, but are still effective and work seamlessly with Jablonsky’s main themes.

Which leads to my last point regarding Transformers, I love how ‘No Sacrifice, No Victory’ is kind of a meshing of the main theme and film’s more gaudy components.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is easily the worst of the films on the whole, but Jablonsky and Lisbeth Scott do come ready to play. ‘Prime’ is foundational to the film and does a great job of invoking the same feelings of ‘Arrival to Earth’ while carrying a bit more urgency with the drums and pacing of this piece of music.

Then there’s ‘Nest’ – a track that truly separates itself from anything we heard in the first film. Again, I can’t speak to its nuances like a musician can, but its guitar riffs and pacing offers a fun energy. It then, of course, incorporates some of Linkin Park’s ‘New Divide’ into it as well. To me, this is one of the more defining pieces of music for the film.

However, I have to admit that my favorite track from this score is ‘Forest Battle’ for its sleight of hand. This is also something that is missing in a lot of action films these days. The building up of tensity (to accompany the action on screen) and then the release of the main theme. Again, this is a really bad movie, but the editing here and how the music is incorporated is quite great. Easily Bay at this best with this movie. As Optimus is taking on a few Decepticons, Jablonsky uses primarily drums (with some heavy strings) to give the moment some heft as the action is taking place. It’s nothing “amazing” per se, but I do like how different it is from anything else we’ve heard to this point. However; near the half-way point, we hear Optimus yell “I’ll take you all on” as he gears up for a fight, and Jablonsky brings the party.

As someone who grew up with Transformers, and now a massive film score nerd, this moment gives me chills. It’s easily the best moment of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The rest of the score is still very good. Shout-out to ‘Matrix of Leadership’ for its use of vocals and poignant qualities. Bay doesn’t utilize it well because of his storytelling, but the track itself is really great.

Okay, let’s move on to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is the best of the Bayformers. There are several great tracks, but the conversation begins and ends with ‘Battle’ – which is one of Jablonsky’s best pieces of music. For one, it’s distinctive from the previous two films, so it has its own identity in Dark of the Moon. Secondly, the structure of it is incredible to me. It starts off with an urgent, but somewhat subdued melody, that quickly picks up pace once the drums kick in at about the minute mark. Another 20 seconds later, however; those strings kick in and it goes to a whole new level of excitement. The gravity that it invokes renders this feeling of tenacity and adrenaline. As someone who plays beer league hockey, if I need to get amped up before a game, this is the track I play. You’re ready to go after listening to this.

I cannot get enough of that. I love how captivating and engaging that piece of music is, on its own and in context of the film. It’s just a lot of goddamn fun.

Another track to highlight is ‘It’s Our Fight’ – which is equally great. What I love about this piece is how methodical and nuanced it is. The first minute is slow and steady, but as it picks up pace, it simultaneously carries over that ‘Arrival to Earth’ gracefulness with its strings. Somehow it has both a gripping bite and gentle poise. That’s not a coincidence, though, because this is used when Optimus Prime is leading the charge in the Battle of Chicago as it begins to crystalize, and Optimus is a character known for his fighting prowess and his tender leadership. Jablosnky leans into that duality perfectly with this piece of music. There’s no denying the urgency of this track – which gives the action sequence a fun energy – but I do love how it never waivers from that balancing act.

In juxtapostion to the dramatic urgency of the score, Jablonsky brings a touching sorrow to the music with tracks such as ‘Sentinel Prime,’ ‘There is No Plan,’ and ‘The Fight Will Be Your Own.’ I love the somber qualities of ‘Sentinel Prime’ as they attempt to tap into why a leader of his ilk would succumb to fear. ‘There is No Plan’ has a nice slowed-down version of the main theme from the first Transformers. ‘The Fight Will Be Your Own’ is soft and wonderfully affecting. If you’re ever in a sad mood and need something to accompany that for you, it’s a great track to just have on in the background. Sometimes it does feel like the fight is our own.

The last track I wanted to note here is ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ – which plays in the film’s opening. I just love the fun energy of this track. For a film setting the stakes of its drama, and what Bay is trying to accomplish on screen, this music is flawless.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not exactly setting the world on fire when we’re discussing cinema and mainstream Hollywood films. It is, arguably anyway, the best of Bay’s attempts at the franchise, for whatever that’s worth. Either way, Jablonsky brings the heat. The urgency of this score, the emotion of it, the intensity of it at times, it’s all mesmerizing.

In 2014, we move away from the Shia LaBeouf-led movies and into the world of Mark Wahlberg. With this change, Jablonsky does reinvent himself a little bit here. The main theme, and the melodies surrounding it, are mostly gone in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Instead, we have a new ‘Autobots Reunite’ theme to replace it. And I gotta say, I quite love it. The strings evoke a little bit of that previous gracefulness, but this track is much more drum heavy. The big difference, though, are those *incredible* horns. Jablonsky’s emphasizes those French horns like never before, and it gives the film a feeling of “LFG” – especially when John Goodman’s Hound is shouting “Oh yeah! HELL YEAH! He’s back! He’s alive! OPTIMUS IS HERE!”

One of the more prominent themes of Age of Extinction is ‘Tessa.’ It features a touching piano motif that’s accompanied by a lovely vocal in the background. Regardless of what it means for the film, the music itself is exquisite and I love its tender rhythms. Bay comes to this piece of music often, and I don’t blame him.

‘Hunted’ is another fascinating piece to this score. It’s not verbatim, but the closes to anything Jablonsky did in Dark of the Moon with how it blends both a feeling of urgency with opulence. At least for the first half of the track. Because there’s a subtle, but dramatic shift, as those guitar rifts and drums pick up the pace and things become much more grave in tone. Then, with about a minute and half left, Jablonsky hits us with a heavy dose of drums and guitar riffs. And it goes so f***ing hard.

The best track in Age of Extinction is ‘Lockdown.’ Now, I’m not saying this should be in the echelon of the Darth Vader’s of the world, but as far as baddie themes go, it’s one of the best of the century so far. I absolutely love it. There’s something so simple, yet powerful about it. A compelling drum rhythm and modest keyboard (which seamlessly transitions to strings halfway through) progression that evokes intimidation and dominance. If Bay had a made a great film (I know, I know), this wouldn’t take much convincing on my part. This is incredible work.

Finally, there’s Transformers: The Last Knight. I understand why may claim Revenge of the Fallen to be the worst of them, and it may be, but The Last Knight is just so forgettable. Michael Bay had clearly checked out by this point. Thankfully, Jablonsky didn’t. By this point, we’re five films into the franchise and yet he’s still putting out bangers like ‘Purity of Heart’ – a string-heavy track that’s so luscious and ethereal. It’s honestly one of the best tracks in all of these movies.

Same thing can be said about ‘Seglass Ni Tonday’ – a fascinating cue that’s reminiscent of ‘Purity of Heart’ before it transitions in the last two minutes to a faster pace and engrossing string progression.

On the whole, the score for Transformers: The Last Knight is slightly lesser than Transformers, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it’s much, much, much better than the film itself. And I love how Jablonsky circles back to his roots with one of the last tracks, ‘Calling All Autobots,’ a track that recycles the main theme and melodies from the first film. Which is fitting given that this is where his relationship with the franchise ended.

As I noted at the beginning of this, I’m not a music expert. I don’t know the jargon. All I know is I listen to film scores all day, every day, and these scores rule. So maybe I didn’t convince you with my simpleton explanations. But give these scores a listen outside of their films. If you can stomach a re-watch, go back and see how incredible they are in context as well. They are easily one of the best things about those movies. Maybe *the* best thing about them. They are genuinely phenomenal pieces of music and belong in the upper tier of blockbuster scores. I’ve been waiting 10-years+ to say those words on this website. It was cathartic. It was joyful.

JD Duran
JD Duranhttps://insessionfilm.com
InSession Film founder and owner. I love film. Love art. Love how it intersects with our real lives. My favorite movies include Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows, Modern Times, The Godfather and The Tree of Life. Follow me on Twitter @RealJDDuran. Follow us @InSessionFilm.

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