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Justin and the Knights of Valour (Ilan Eshkeri)

September 12, 2013

cover_justinknightsJustin and the Knights of Valour

Ilan Eshkeri, 2013, Sony Music
22 tracks, 57:24

After the magnificent “Austenland“, fans of Ilan Eshkeri will welcome another release from the composer. “Justin and the Knights of Valour” follows closely in the footsteps of “Stardust”, but can it live up to that immensely fun score?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

“Justin and the Knights of Valour” is an animation by Spanish director Manuel Sicilia for whom this is only his second film after “The Missing Lynx” from 2008! His latest film tells the tale of young man Justin who wants to become a knight (of Valour), but his father would rather have he became a lawyer instead. I’m sure all sorts of misadventures and shenanigans lie ahead in this PG-rated film, which has received absolutely dreadful reviews. Freddie Highmore lends his voice to Justin, with Antonia Banderas, Charles Dance, David Walliams and Julie Walters also present. Music is by Ilan Eshkeri who gets to relive “Stardust” and “Back to Gaya”… perhaps a little too literally.

What does it sound like?

I could sum this up in one word: “Stardust”. It would be terrible disservice to a talented composer like Eshkeri for me to leave it at that, but the simple truth is that “Justin” musically owes a huge amount to “Stardust” and especially the “Coronation” cue. If you like that track you’re in for a treat because it’s practically become the main theme for this new film. It also owes a fair bit to “Back to Gaya”, Michael Kamen’s last score for which Eshkeri did much additional work. I can only assume that the film’s director suffered terribly from ‘temp-track love’.

The soundtrack is off to a shaky start I hate to admit and not until track 10 does it really come to live.  Many of the early tracks are simply too slow, too mickey-mousy and simply not engaging enough. Eshkeri tries not to be too obvious with the mickey-mousing, but the music is continuously forced to stop and start (“Sota’s Prison Break” is a good example). Not only does this interrupt any flow the music may have going; it also means you (the listener) are acutely aware of that fact that this is film music. Too often it feels like an exercise in scoring techniques.

“Justin” presents the character’s theme. It is quite lovely, but very modest and I struggled to recognise it during most of the score. “The Quest Begins” is not nearly as big as you’d want a track with such a title to be. Most importantly it introduces a see-sawing motif (heard here on flutes and therefore resembling the echoing ‘time’ motif from “Alien” a little) which re-appears in many guises throughout the album. I will assume (perhaps incorrectly, as I have not seen the film) that this is a ‘journey’ theme. “Talia & Melquiades” tries to offer drama (as well as comedy by way of a theremin-like sound) but fails to lift off. “Justin’s Journey” manages to generate a bit of awe towards its end, but still does so at a painfully slow pace. “Training begins and Heraclio’s Army” starts off with a promising rhythm for the string section, but you just want to give it a kick up the bum. It drags along at around 100 bpm, as does most of the score, and you just want to turn it up a few notches.

“Sir Clorex” is arguably the first true highlight of the album, as the composer offers a tango-like version of the main theme. It features a virtuoso solo violin and trumpet; and when the full orchestral backing comes in the track really comes to live. “Training Ends” manages to keep the momentum going, but “Hall of Heroes” stops it dead in its tracks. Though the latter is in itself a decent cue full of awe and wonder. “Heraclio’s Army Trains” tries to convey a sense of menace through rhythmic toms, low brass chords and tremelo strings.

Racing strings and numerous flute runs occupy “Gustav (Enter the Dragon)”. Certain rhythmic devices (primarily on strings), the use of dissonant brass and the heroic moments actually remind me of Eshkeri’s additional work on “Back to Gaya”. (A long time ago Eshkeri’s site featured a “Back to Gaya” suite, but unfortunately it is no longer available.)

“Lara’s Party” is a very lively cue with a little bit of big band, some action, as well as a striking solo violin. The latter is carried through into “Lara and Clorex”, where the tango from “Sir Clorex” is reprised. “Sat Nav” sounds quite appropriate really, especially seeing my personal experiences with them… as it goes through a series of dramatic chords, with the see-sawing journey making one of many appearances. “The Battle” continues with plenty of drama and various stabby chords, but yet again the slow pace and micky-mousing drain it from any genuine excitement.

“Justin vs Heraclio” is definitely off to an exciting start with rising chords and arpeggiating strings, but the stop-start style that hinders most of the score also cripples this cue. There’s a bit of a hint of ‘what could have been’ at 1:30, but it lasts for mere seconds. Heralding brass quadruplets open “Justin Knighted”, which continues with a poignant rendition for strings and choir of that “Stardust” theme. There’s a wonderful theme for horn that I hadn’t recognised before, accompanied by falling strings and bells. The cue ends with a trumpet call of Justin’s theme, ensuring the album ends a whole lot better than it began.

Three additional tracks follow the score. “Heroes (film mix)” is an anthemic pop-song featuring Rebecca Ferguson. Her striking soulful voice made her a runner-up in 2010’s UK X-Factor. It’s a good song actually and perhaps more convincing than the score. Two celtic, medieval-sounding songs features flutes and harp close the album. They come courtesy of Liam Byrne, James Akers and Emily Baines.

Is it any good?

Well, “yes, but…”. Whilst written and orchestrated in a similar idiom to “Back to Gaya” and “Stardust” (even copying its “Coronation” theme – surely through the director’s case of temp-track love), it unfortunately lacks the magic of either score. All the right ingredients are here; and Eshkeri’s writing and orchestrating is as meticulous as ever. I think it uses a smaller orchestra, but it is all incredibly well done, nicely performed and technically can’t be faulted. However, the music moves at a snail’s pace and there appears to be a fair amount of mickey-mousing going on, which forces the music to continuously stop and start. Eshkeri clearly tried to do this subtlely as possible, but it nonetheless prevents the score from building any real momentum. Even away from the picture you can just hear the score moving from one hit-point to the next. It works very hard to do all that it needs to do and you can empathetically feel Eshkeri doing his best for what he’s been given; but without the accompanying images it is difficult to fully engage with the music – and as a fan of Eshkeri it pains me to say this. There is nothing inherently wrong with the music and it has plenty of good moments, but as a whole it is sadly lacking sparks. With the film itself receiving damning reviews, maybe the score’s lack of enthusiam can be forgiven.

Rating [2,5/5]

Tracklisting

1. Justin (0:32)
2. The Quest Begins (5:03)
3. Lara & Justin (1:38)
4. Sota’s Prison Break (2:46)
5. Talia & Melquiades (3:26)
6. Justin’s Journey (2:24)
7. The Kinight’s Game (1:18)
8. Training Begins and Heraclio’s Army (2:34)
9. Sir Clorex (1:36)
10. Training Ends (1:50)
11. The Hall of Heroes (3:27)
12. Heraclio’s Army Trains (1:08)
13. Gustav (Enter the Dragon) (6:31)
14. Lara’s Party (2:18)
15. Lara & Clorex (1:17)
16. Sat Nav (2:31)
17. The Battle (2:50)
18. Justin Vs Heraclio (5:02)
19. Justin Knighted (3:24)
20. Heroes (Film Mix) – Rebecca Ferguson (3:52)
21. Kung Fu (Medieval Mix) – Liam Byrne, Broken Eagle Band, James Akers, Emily Baines (1:01)
22. At the Dance – Liam Byrne, Broken Eagle Band, James Akers, Emily Baines (0:56)

Availability

Available digitally and on CD.

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