Memorable music can make or break any movie, but especially one with superheroes. If a superhero movie has the right music, it can live on forever. If it doesn’t, even a great movie might not feel as important. Which category Black Adam falls into is still up for debate, but the music does its job, and then some. You’ll be humming it when you exit the theater with a 100% chance it’ll appear again in future DC films.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise, The Shallows), the latest DC film is in theaters this weekend and tells the story of a former slave (Dwayne Johnson) who is bestowed with amazing powers and reawakens in modern times. This, of course, is Black Adam. A character so powerful it takes not one, not two, but four superheroes to try and take him down. In this case, it’s the Justice Society, which opens up a whole new corner of the DC Universe.
Lorne Balfe is responsible for setting music to all of that. The composer, who has also worked on Mission: Impossible - Fallout, The Lego Batman Movie, Black Widow, and Top Gun: Maverick, not only had to write a theme powerful enough to represent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson playing someone with the powers of Superman, but an entirely new superhero team. Speaking with io9 over video chat, Balfe talked about those challenges, Johnson’s involvement, and working with Marvel vs. DC, as well as his next film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. We also talked to him about a musical choice made in the highly anticipated end-credit scene that has some fans up in arms.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and is best experienced by pressing play below before scrolling down.
Germain Lussier, io9: I was listening to your score in preparation for this interview and I can’t get that Black Adam theme out of my head. It’s so good [Note: Listen above, it really kicks in at 1 minute.]. How much did you know about the character before you got the film? Because it’s something the Rock has been pushing for a long time but not a hugely well-known character.
Lorne Balfe: No, not at all. I’ve really got to try to remember. Did I know about Black Adam before the Rock or not? Because I’ve always heard the Rock talking about it. So the answer is no. I knew about the Justice Society before, but with his character, I didn’t know really much about it. Then when we started talking about working on it, I did the usual deep dive. And you start going into things and looking at the original comics and the storyline and everything. And you saw that he was born to play this character. My goodness. If there is ever casting, that’s appropriate. It’s him.
io9: Yeah, absolutely. So once you got hired, what was your starting process for something like this? With composers that always fascinates me because you have such an infinite blank slate. With directors or writers, they know they’re making Black Adam so there are certain pieces in place. That’s not the case for the music. Anything goes. So tell me a little bit about where specifically you started this.
Balfe: I had to take a lot of inspiration from the Rock. That persona. What he brings to the way he enters a room. The way his character is. So that is part of the theme no matter what. Which you don’t normally do with some people’s themes. [Usually] you simply look at who is in front of you. And that started leading me to how I started writing the theme. My original idea in my head was a football team band. The brass bands that plays. And that was kind of what I started thinking about when doing that main theme. That attitude. And then you read the script, and you start working on ideas. But it was really watching the film, the whole attitude and the power of the track... it’s difficult saying these things when you’ve written it yourself. [Laughs] But I wanted to try to be majestic about it. And powerful too. So that when you heard it you clearly see that character that you see on the screen. And we changed it, modified it. Originally, it was a much longer theme, and it kind of overcomplicated things, I think. So we kind of narrowed it down to a more kind of commercial pop sensibility structure.
The Justice Society is another story...I really wanted to try to make a theme for them that you felt was very nostalgic. [Like it] had been part of a TV show in the 1950s, for example. So it was very, very old-fashioned. It’s that pomp and circumstance, fanfare, very [Johannes] Brahms and [Edward] Elgar, but with a contemporary beat to it, so that the audience felt, “Oh, well, we know these characters” even though a lot won’t. But you feel connected to it. So that was the objective. Was it achieved? Who knows. But that was the plan. [Note: Listen to that theme below.]
io9: Did you think about the two themes in concert, no pun intended? Like how they should co-exist? Obviously, the characters are very different but did you ever think about how they play against each other?
Balfe: No, there are actually two themes. There’s the father and son theme for Black Adam and his son. So there’s that theme that is slightly related to the Black Adam theme. But the Justice Society, I did start off trying to give everybody individual themes. And then I think watching it back, it was becoming a bit overwhelming. These are new characters. We’re trying to learn about them, relate to them, and that can be the next adventure. But it was trying to look at it as a bigger, broad arch to “They are a team.” It’s a collective effort instead of kind of trying to kind of give everybody their own approach.
io9: Sure, that makes sense. So when exactly did you come onto the production?
Balfe: Halfway through. Sometimes you’re able to, with [Black Adam director] Jaume [Collet-Serra]’s new film, he doesn’t start filming yet for his next film. [But] I read the script and I started writing for that. So those situations are luxuries when you’re able to kind of start [early]. Then also sometimes people aren’t ready for composers. They don’t fully know what the bigger picture is going to be. So [I came on] roughly halfway through.
io9: Once you came on, I know you said you had this brass band idea in your head originally which then evolved. But what kind of sound did Jaume explain to you that he wanted?
Balfe: [His] initial ideas were “What you see is what you hear.” You’re hearing a machine of a character with a purpose and it’s relentless and it’s this passion and power. If it hadn’t been during the holidays, I would have got a marching band. But all of the marching bands, no one was around. We [still] ended up with a humungous brass section: 12 French horns, 12 trombones, four tubas, four trumpets, we did our own version of a marching band. But with that father and son theme, it’s about trying to make sure that there’s a sense of heritage there. A sense of the past. So we experimented with the electric cello and the like. It was trying to, with [Black Adam’s] theme, build ourselves up to it. So it’s constantly teasing. But then the full power of it with those kinds of contemporary beats really comes closer to the end because we looked at it and said this is now fully “Black Adam.”
io9: Yes, that tracks. So you came in halfway through the process, but, the Rock has been trying to get this made for over a decade. I know actors usually don’t have anything to do with music but since he’s a producer on the film, was hands-on with casting, marketing, and everything, was he hands-on with you? Did he have input on your work?
Balfe: Oh, very much so. First thing, he was at our recording sessions. The orchestra loved that. We kept it a secret. So that was fantastic. Him being able to be there and then playing his theme, it was something...This is [his] baby. And there’s a lot of pressure on you to try and write something that’s so important to somebody. So, he was very involved and also Beau [Flynn] and Hiram [Garcia] from the production. It was interesting because, again, we spend more time talking about these characters rather than writing. It’s really delving deep to try to get the essence of them.
io9: In addition to your music, the film has a bunch of pop and rock music needle drops. Do you have to worry about balancing that or is that a purely choice of the director?
Balfe: So it depends. Jaume had a clear idea of what songs he wanted where, and sometimes I’d have a go at seeing maybe... like the first song that happens. Just before that I did a kind of an orchestral version of it teasing the melody so when the song comes in, it feels connected to it. The songs also bring relief sonically sometimes, I think, which can be a good thing. But that build-up to the song there was difficult because we just wanted to make sure you’ve got a hint of what you’re about to experience.
[Note: The next question is a spoiler about Black Adam’s end-credit scene. Jump below the next image to get back into spoiler-free territory].
io9: That’s so cool. All right. I don’t know how much you could actually speak to this, but obviously, the Rock has been hinting that Superman shows up at the end, which he does and we get a hint of the John Williams Superman theme in the scene. What kind of discussions happened around that and why use Williams over the Hans Zimmer Man of Steel stuff?
Balfe: [Long sigh] That is such a difficult conversation because it’s dividing so many people. The way I look at it is that there was a lot of thought put into why that theme got chosen. It wasn’t just a random thought. So it’s very difficult. Thought went into it and why and there’s a relevance to it and I think that you’ll find that there’s... I just didn’t realize it was going to be such [a reaction]. And it’s a minority voice, but it’s just a kind of a venomous, point of view regarding it.
io9: And I didn’t even mean it to stoke that fire. I honestly was just more curious if you as the composer had anything to do with it since it’s going to exist alongside your music in the film.
Balfe: Yeah. I think everybody that had to do with [that scene] spent a long time debating which theme should go there the same way as everybody spent a long time debating the color of his suit. So there is reasonings to it. There is reasonings for what can happen.
io9: Okay, I understand. A few years before Black Adam, you did the score for Black Widow. What, if any, differences did you find working for Marvel and DC?
Balfe: What’re the differences? Gosh. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve experienced any. It’s been led with passion. Everybody working in both camps is passionate and want to do the best for the fans. So I see a lot of similarities. Especially with Kevin [Feige] at Marvel. He’s heavily involved with the music and the whole creative process. So everything is done for a reason and with DC when making this film Warner Bros. were heavily involved with it and also with the music and the tone of it. So I see a lot of similarities because everybody’s fully invested in it. It’s very much talking about what the fans are asking for.
io9: Last thing, I know you are doing the score for the Dungeons & Dragons movie, which we’re all very curious about. What are you going for with that film and what kind of responsibility do you feel to fans of that franchise?
Balfe: Oh, well, firstly, I used to play it, so I started writing that the day I got the script. So having been a player, it’s a big responsibility. We’ve had a lot of fun with that and also making an experience out of it. The concept of tavern songs and the like for the fans to have. There are lots of Easter eggs in there. But musically, the film is like what we used to watch when we were younger. It’s of those genres like The Goonies and adventure films. Musically it had to be in that spirit of kind of epicness and fun. So it’s been good. And also writing drinking songs, things that would be playing whilst being in a tavern and eating a potato. All of the things to do with dungeons.
Black Adam is now in theaters.
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