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Soundtrack Listening: ‘The Great Wall’

Original Music by: Ramin Djawadi

Few big-budget films have gone into opening weekend with as many question marks as The Great Wall. Boasting a purported budget of $150,000,000, Yimou Zhang’s (HeroHouse Of Flying Daggers) action-epic is the most expensive movie ever produced in China. When it finally hits theaters this Friday, The Great Wall will try to put to rest months of ‘white-washing’ allegations surrounding the casting of Matt Damon. If that wasn’t enough, it now faces the potential issue of being a film a bout a giant wall built to keep out enemies. That might prove to be a touchy subject in the current political climate. And, well, the film’s mid-February release isn’t exactly prime-time for the ‘action-epic’ set. Whatever your feelings about walls or casting, The Great Wall looks to be another stylized feast from one of cinema’s great visual stylists. But the folks at Universal are likely to be worried about its opening weekend numbers.

The film stars Matt Damon as the leader of a group of European mercenaries out to make their fortune on China’s famous ‘Silk Road’. When a stop at The Great Wall ends with their imprisonment, the band of thieves are enlisted to help defend the wall from endless horde of monsters. Like real monsters. With scales and tails and teeth. Hence, not Mongolians. I know, it sounds a bit bonkers. Judging from the trailer, it will be. Yimou Zhang has undeniably put his own unique stamp on the film’s visual palette. Composer Ramin Djawadi (Game Of ThronesWestworld) matches the director’s epic vision with an action-packed original score of his own.

Of course, epic is what Djawadi does best. The Composer’s work on Game Of Thrones has transcended both its small-screen origins and the fantasy genre itself to become something of a pop-culture phenomenon. To the point that one cannot even think about the show without humming its intro music. Djawadi’s music for The Great Wall may not reach quite the same zenith, but it’s still a big, bold entry into the composer’s growing oeuvre.

But the opening moments of Djawadi’s The Great Wall score are anything but epic. ‘Nameless Order’ opens with the hushed chant of a choir before yielding to a stir of strings and woodwinds. The song meanders peacefully, casting a quiet spell until it gives way to the pulsing percussion and grande orchestration that Djawadi is known for. Once it gives way, there’s no looking back.

The 19 tracks that follow are veritable masterclass in action movie opulence. Drums thunder, horns wail and strings swell through pulse-pounding numbers like ‘The Great Wall’ and ‘First Battle’. They bring a subtle sense of intrigue to ‘A Clean Start’ and the slow-burn bluster of ‘Fog & Fire’. They build a striking sense of danger and adventure behind ‘Fools and Thieves’ and ‘Tower Tactics’.

That sweeping sense of bombast makes for a thrilling listen in its own right. But Djawadi has always set himself apart from other action composers with his ability to build alternative instrumentation into his compositions. That skill is the reason that no two sections of Westeros have ever sounded the same. And his take on ancient China doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard. In the realm of music, ancient China brings a cache of new sounds to Djawadi’s arsenal.

The composer makes bold use of that arsenal, often beginning tracks with that traditional Chinese sound before breaking off into more classic orchestral territory. But those instruments are never far away. A second or third listen through ‘Prologue’ and you’ll start to single out the sound of Chinese wind instruments. You’ll hear similar, subtle touches of stringed instrumentation and vocal chant throughout his compositions as well.

That chanting is often front and center. And subtlety is not always the goal. The percussive ‘At The Border’ comes with a vocal that’s riveting in its authenticity and ‘We Are Not The Same’ is a stirring tribute to the complex simplicity of traditional Chinese music viewed through the prism of modern composition. It’s in these moments that Djawadi’s music truly soars. It feels bigger than the world it populates. It sounds more like a bridge than a wall. There’s a savage beauty in it that I can’t quite explain in words. You have to hear it to understand.

The Great Wall hits theaters this Friday (Feb. 17). This one could go either way, but I’m not really holding my breathe for greatness. There’s no breathe-holding required for Ramin Djawadi’s music. It’s pretty damn fantastic. The fine folks at Milan Records will release that action-packed score via CD and digital download the same day as the movie. Yes, there is a vinyl release in the works. But you’ll have to wait until March for that. So keep your eyes peeled.

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Patrick Phillips is a contributing writer for CutPrintFilm and geekinsider.com. When not critiquing the work of others, he spends his time drinking coffee, buying records, writing fiction and wondering why he never started a band. Follow him on Twitter at Patrick Phillips @savagedetectiv