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Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

It’s been 10 years since Transformers hit theaters. Who would have thought at this point we would have five films let alone that Michael Bay would have directed each of them? It is rare for a director to stick with a franchise for such a duration, but honestly what film is better suited to his over-the-top high-octane style of fast car driven action movie? Also sticking with the franchise through it all is composer Steve Jablonsky, whose music style is similarly well-suited for Michael Bay films and Transformers: percussive, electronic, and featuring strong, memorable themes in bold brass. At the time of the first film’s release, I wrote a favorable review for SoundtrackNet while the majority of the film music critic world hated on it. But Jablonsky’s original score did exactly what the film – and franchise – required. It established strong, memorable themes for the hugely popular and recognizable cybernetic characters and a musical identity that would weave through all five films. The end result – while the ratings of the films have certainly not been great – is a franchise with more cohesiveness in the soundscape than nearly any other, save maybe Star Wars. With Transformers, the scripts may be a mess, but Transformers rises above the musical thematic mess that has plagued franchises like X-Men, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I know a lot of people don’t like this franchise anymore, Michael Bay in general, or these scores. Many never did. I happen to think Age of Extinction was a step up from Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon. Regardless your opinion on the scores themselves, they are appropriate scores for these films. Jablonsky heavy-handedly provides the electronic percussive sound mass that the action style needs, with anthemic melodies for the heroes that rise above Bay’s chaos, dark pulsating bass for the villains, and musical identities that are easily recognizable and relatable to the summer blockbuster movie goers. While Age of Extinction left most elements from the first trilogy on the chopping block, The Last Knight brings back Josh Duhamel’s Colonel Lennox, John Turturro’s bizarre Agent Simmons, Glenn Morshower’s aptly named General Morshower, and the Witwicky family (now Witwiccans… seriously). Also left behind are most of the new themes, namely the Imagine Dragons collaboration. In place of the Age of Extinction themes is a more classical tone featuring solo strings for the characters of Merlin and Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edward Burton.

In an interview, Jablonsky said he liked the concept for The Last Knight because it allowed him to explore a more classical tone for parts of the film. For this, he wrote a quiet moving violin theme representing Burton and the Medieval history parts of the storyline, which is reminiscent to some of his score for Your Highness. This theme is presented in full at the end of the album in “Sir Edward Burton” with soft choir and solo violin, but also opens the album with “Sacrifice”. The main part of this theme is a repeating three-note melody that starts the film off with a quieter tone than previous ones. Choir, brass and percussion come in later in the cue as Michael Bay blatantly copies Ridley Scott’s opening to Gladiator with the barbarian horde. These musical ideas continue in “Merlin’s Staff”, which picks up into more of a Transformers feel as the percussion, string ostinatos, and brass come in. Jablonsky also throws in a three note augmented second in this cue that I thought was a new theme, but it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the score. The presence of solo cello and violin in a breath of fresh air for the franchise, however and are used frequently throughout the score.

The Burton/Witwiccan theme returns in “Purity of Heart” and slowly builds over percussion to become a backing rhythm to the brass chords from the end of “Sacrifice” or the “B” theme. This secondary theme – it’s really the main melodic part of the theme where the rising three-note theme is the main motif – returns in a full statement on the solo violin in “Seglass Ni Tonday” before a celtic-inspired fast string part comes in with the three-mote motif dropping down to the lower strings. This B theme is somewhat like the theme from Age of Extinction heard in “Decision” and “Dinobot Charge”. “Cogman Sings” and “The Greatest Mission of All” further develop the theme, although the former cue includes the hilarious moments when Cogman tries to dramatize the story first with the organ then singing, in a way poking fun at film scoring. Hints at the theme return in other cues, such as in “Battlefield” as long chord statements in the brass, and the most interesting in “Merlin’s Tomb” where it is passed from the brass to choir to strings in various forms.

The other new characters in this film, Izzy and Vivian, get brief musical identities but are lost among everything else. For Vivian, it’s unfortunate, but Izzy’s theme, introduced in “Stay and Fight” and “Izzy”, disappears early on because the character does as well and is fairly inconsequential to the film. Vivian, on the other hand, is much more central and sort of replaces Izzy as the female lead after the first act (and note, while it’s not mentioned, Vivian is the name of the Lady of the Lake in the Arthur legend). On the other side of things, Cybertron gets an entirely electronic theme in “The Coming of Cybertron” with beats that sound almost like a heartbeat behind an otherworldly droning.

The major Transformers themes developed in the first film are woven into this score in only a minor capacity although they are more prevalent here than they were in Age of Extinction. One reason for the paucity of the major themes is that Optimus Prime is missing for most of the film, and the Autobots take a backseat to Burton and Cogman for nearly the entire second act. The first appearance is a subtle hint at the Autobot theme in the brass in “Code Red”. The only other use of the major themes before Optimus’ return is in “The History of the Transformers” where the All Spark theme is used at the end. “Your Voice” opens with an ominous, low strings statement of the Optimus theme as he awakens. This cue closes with a brief statement of both the Optimus and Autobot themes. Bumblebee’s theme is unfortunately entirely missing. The All Spark theme, which was also used as the Heroic theme in the first film, is used the same in both “I Had My Moment” and “Did You Forget Who I Am”. In typical Transformers finale fashion, “Calling All Autobots” contains the biggest statements of the themes, first the Autobot theme with the standard clinking percussion and string ostinatos, and then into a heroic statement of the Optimus theme.

Jablonsky’s fifth Transformers score does not rehash old material the way many sequels often do, and in fact one weakness of the score is that scarcity of the well-known themes. When compared to the previous scores, The Last Knight is the broadest in scope tonally, ranging from pulse pounding electronic action music to quiet solo violins. It maintains the consistent Transformers tone with brass chords, moving ostinato string lines, and bold percussion, even treating much of the solo string scoring with some of these styles, tying it into the soundscape. Interestingly, the musical identity of The Last Knight lies with the new Burton/Merlin themes rather than with any Transformers thematic development. Musically, this fifth film does not come across tired in any way despite being the same director and composer. Instead Jablonsky managed to breathe new life into the series with the development of a series of new musical ideas while also staying true to the Transformers brand.

Transformers: The Last Knight was scored at the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles, California. An article on the scoring sessions can be found here.

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