Mad Max: Fury Road surprised me. I had watched Thunderdome and parts of the other two movies growing up, and I was mildly, skeptically optimistic about the new movie when I saw the trailers and promos. I certainly was NOT expecting it to be one of the best action movies I’d ever seen. Now, this is coming from someone who’s generally not a huge fan of action movies, mind you, but I still was very pleasantly surprised by the movie.
I do have some mixed feelings on the music, though, and if you know me, you can probably predict at least partially why.
The 2010s Hollywood Sound
I’m sure you’ve heard it. Quick, staccato string ostinato. Impossibly huge drums. Glitchy electronic percussion. And most important of all, huge honking low brass sound (usually backed up by some digital synths).
This is the sound made (in)famous by Hans Zimmer and copied by most Hollywood composers working today.
I don’t blame any composer for writing in this style; this is the sound that so many directors ask for nowadays. Fortunately, usually there’s some unique bits that are grafted onto this sound, be it a big sweeping horn melody (…okay maybe not that unique), distorted cello in The Dark Knight…
But I’ve gotta be honest: it gets a little bit old. I can only hear so many fast string lines and low brass “BWOOOOMP”’s and big percussion-section “DOONNN! DOON DOONNN!!”’s before it starts to grate a little bit and become self-parody.
(Note: This is where I might usually post an example track, but I’d rather not risk insulting any fellow composers, because again, I don’t blame any specific person for this sound becoming so ubiquitous. Except maybe Hans Zimmer.)
Mad Max: Fury Road buys into this sound whole-heartedly. It’s got all the makings for a cliché-ridden mid–2010s Hollywood film score.
And yet somehow, it works… and to be honest, I kinda like it. I haven’t entirely worked out why, but I’ve got some ideas.
Blurring the Diegetic Line
I’ve spoken about this concept before, but Fury Road does an impeccable job at blurring the line between diegetic or source sound (that is, sound that emanates from within the world itself; e.g., car sounds, gun shots, dialogue) and score. One aspect in particular stands out, though. Yep, it’s everyone’s favorite onesie-wearing flamethrower-guitarist.
THE DOOF WARRIOR.
This absurd monstrosity, along with a legion of drummers on the truck’s back, acts as a sort of demented, post-apocalyptic war cry throughout the film. And their sound blends seemlessly into the score, to the point where, most of the time, it’s difficult to determine what’s supposed to be being played by on-screen characters and what’s supposed to be “score.” This feeling is enhanced by filtering and stereo/surround effects in the theater, where the sound actually follows where the performers are visually, especially with regards to the guitar.
On top of this more obvious blurring of the line between reality and mind (also enhanced by Max’s hallucinations throughout the film), between diegesis and score, is the fact that Junkie XL utilized tons of sound design elements in his score, from growling animals to car engines to just hitting pieces of metal.
This performance adds to the general impression of a fever dream that pervades the entire film, of heightened reality and insanity. It’s definitely a fitting piece of the puzzle of what makes this movie so damn effective.
A Logical End-Times
This might sound a little melodramatic, but I think it’s also just logical that the music in this film is what, if the world were to end next week, post-apocalyptic warlords would want their war-parties to be playing, having heard them in all the latest Hollywood action flicks and EDM from the world before the apocalypse. After all, the aforementioned “Doof Warrior” is apparently named after an Australian slang term for a desert rave. George Miller has gone on record saying that chronology in his universe is fluid; every Mad Max movie takes place a couple decades after the apocalypse that happens next week.
So big honking drums and pieces of metal and blaring distorted guitars and even the weird synths that come in when the canyon motorcycle gang enters the picture just kinda works in this world. It’s insane and stupid, but that’s what Max’s Australian wasteland demands.
In Defense of Ear Candy
I get down on ear candy fairly frequently. By ear candy I mean music and sound that sounds cool and is usually really well-produced and effective, but also full of clichés or just very surface-level without much depth. I tend to prefer my music to have a lot of depth.
But I’ve been realizing lately that, most of the time, film scores with too much depth aren’t what movies need, at least not in the same way that stand-alone pieces of music can have. And in a film like Mad Max, where there’s already a lot to take in at once sensorially, it helps that the music is in-your-face, demanding, and relatively transparent. It’s not difficult to figure out what it’s trying to say. It’s pure unadulterated insanity most of the time, and when it gets quieter, it gets more Mahler-ian, which, again, the audience can understand, and from interviews with Junkie XL, it seems that’s exactly what director George Miller wanted. It also helps that the score is extremely well-produced and just sounds amazing for what it is. I’ve listened to it several times over the past few days just because I love the sound of the production, it gets my heart pumping, it’s enjoyable at a surface level. And even though the movie is very artfully done, at its core it’s still entertainment.
I mean, dang, some of the drum fills in the climactic track “Chapter Doof” sound straight out of a Phil Collins song.
Part of me does wish it was a little bit weirder and more subtle and less cliché at points, sure, and after several listens it starts to lose its effect a bit (but really few pieces can break through that tendency). I think in twenty years the score might be the most dated aspect of the film. But despite all that, as a film score of its time, I think it’s very effective.
About the Author
Jon Bash is a composer, performer, and arranger of an eclectic variety of polystylistic music, including for games, films, the concert hall, and electroacoustic playback/performance. In April 2014, he presented a paper on sound art in video games at the international Ludomusicology Conference in Chichester, UK. Jon studied music composition at Western Washington University under Roger Briggs (who composed music for Civilization III) and Bruce Hamilton, graduating magna cum laude in March 2013 with a Bachelor of Music in Composition and in June 2015 with Master of Music in Composition. He is currently working on several chamber works and music for films & games in Bellingham, WA, where he lives with his wife and serves as the WWU Music Department Program Coordinator.