Growing up as I did in the UK, the comic book adventures of Captain America didn't mean very much to me. I was aware of the character, of course, and vaguely remember seeing the 1990 film starring Matt Salinger, but beyond that my knowledge of the comics, and the hoopla surrounding him was nonexistent. It turns out that he's actually something of an icon; since his first appearance in print in 1941 - when he was depicted landing a right slug on Hitler's jaw - he has grown to become a true all-American hero beloved by millions, with a large fan base that endures to this day.
This new version of the Captain America story - the last of the series of Avengers prequels that also includes Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk - stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, an ambitious and brave wannabe soldier in 1940s America who is continually turned down for military service due to his scrawny build. After impressing scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) with his determination, Rogers is selected to take part in a top-secret science experiment that intends to breed a genetically enhanced battalion of super soldiers that will help turn the fortunes of World War II in the favor of the Allies. Having now been enhanced through medicine, Rogers - now nicknamed Captain America - finds himself teaming up with beautiful British soldier Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and a genius engineer and inventor named Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to thwart the world domination plans of Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer who, having been horribly deformed after being subjected to too much of the serum which successfully transformed Rogers, has gone renegade from the Nazi party and started a terrorist organization, known as HYDRA.
The film is directed by Joe Johnston, who previously tackled similar wartime heroic escapism in The Rocketeer in 1991, and has a rousing, old fashioned score by Alan Silvestri. Despite initial fears that the powers-that-be would want a score which married with the other scores from the Marvel Universe films, Johnston thankfully asked Silvestri to eschew the Ramin Djawadi route and write a score which had an actual, memorable theme which cinema-goers would leave the theater whistling. Silvestri delivered in spades; not only is the Captain America theme one of the most instantly memorable and catchy main themes in years, it's also Silvestri's best work of any kind since 2004 when he hit us with the one-two double whammy of Van Helsing and The Polar Express. Banishing the tuneless rumbling of scores like The A-Team and GI Joe, Silvestri's Captain America is a rousing, patriotic, vigorously entertaining action score of the highest order, anchored by a magnificent central theme.
The centerpieces of the score are the action sequences, of which there are quite a lot, and which frequently reference other great Silvestri action scores like Predator, Judge Dredd, The Mummy Returns and even Back to the Future. Silvestri is such a distinctive composer, in the way he combines certain instruments, in the way he phrases his brass, in the way he uses percussion in layers of sound (listen for those crazy xylophones!), in the way he uses his strings to perform churning staccato rhythms, that these allusions are not criticisms - it's simply the way Silvestri writes. That warm blanket of genial familiarity is one of Captain America's most appealing aspects, earmarking it as a Silvestri score through and through.
Cues such as "Kruger Chase", "Hydra Train" and "Motorcycle Mayhem" have a sense of unremitting forward motion that occasionally recalls the exciting action material from The Polar Express. The breathlessly anticipatory "VitaRays", the dark and intimidating "Factory Inferno", and the magnificent conclusive pair "Invasion" and "Fight on the Flight Deck" are simply relentless, containing an overwhelming energy and urgency that is palpable. Elsewhere, the nerve-shredding "Troop Liberation" contains one of the score's most prominent uses of synthetic elements, a subtle-yet-noticeable set of electronic pulses and industrial scrapes which add to the tension of the piece. When the strings explode into frantic runs at around the 3:00 mark, the cue really shines. These cues, some of which are interspersed with fanfare-style blasts of the Captain America theme, represent some of the best action material Silvestri has written in years, and are filled to the brim with the ticking snare riffs, the low brass clusters and the surging string writing that has made Silvestri an action favorite for nigh on 30 years.
But the score is not all bombast; there is a great deal of string-led emotion and pathos in cues such as "Farewell to Bucky" and especially "This Is My Choice", as well as a lovely and unexpectedly tender duet for strings and harp in "Passage of Time". The Red Skull, Johann Schmidt's terrible alter-ego, gets a menacing little motif of his own, heard in "Frozen Wasteland", "Schmidt's Treasure", the elaborate and sinister "Hydra Lab", "Schmidt's Story" and "Hostage on the Pier". The Skull's theme plays sort of like a flipped-around version of the Captain America march, the ying to Rodgers's yang. You can hear it rumbling around in the depths of cues such as the aforementioned "Factory Inferno" and "Fight on the Flight Deck", as the Captain and the Skull go mano-a-mano on each other in HYDRA's secret headquarters and later in the cockpit of a prototype plane, and it cleverly echoes the unfortunate similarities between the pair: under different circumstances, Schmidt could have had Rodgers's powers without the unfortunate side effects.
Another thing I like greatly is the way the CD is structured; Captain America's grand theme, although hinted at in several of the opening cues (as a simple brass fanfare in the "Main Titles", with a light, breezy, almost tongue-in-cheek attitude in "Training the Supersoldier") does not appear fully until the ninth cue, "Captain America - We Did It!" By the time we get to "Triumphant Return" the theme has become bolder and more assertive, and by the finale, in cues such as "Captain America" and the "Captain America March", it's virtually impossible not to feel an enormous smile spreading across your face as you listen. The bold brass theme, the martial snare drum licks, the trilling woodwind scales, the cymbal clashes, and the accompanying orchestral flourishes come straight from the John Williams book of rousing finishes, and that is definitely intended as a compliment. This progression of the theme through the score mirrors that of Steve Rogers progression through the film, beginning with his aspirations to become an all-American hero, and not receiving a full performance of the theme until he actually becomes one.
Speaking of the "Captain America March", this is the astonishingly wonderful piece that plays over the first section of the end credits, and is a bonus cue not found on the regular CD release - it is only available as a digital download. While leaving off the best cue on the score off the album entirely is an absolute travesty, I'm going to ignore the fact that it is a horrible marketing gimmick, and instead just recommend that everyone goes out and downloads it anyway, because you won't be disappointed.
The song, "Star Spangled Man", was actually written by Alan Menken and David Zippel for a humorous montage sequence in which Captain America is used as a propaganda tool to raise morale for troops. The intentionally cheesy melody, hilariously sincere lyrics and flighty orchestrations are straight from Irving Berlin's 1940s songbook, and fit perfectly with the slightly camp and over-the-top theatrics of the sequence. It creates a slightly jarring effect when listened to as part of the full CD listening experience because the tone of the piece is so different from everything that preceded it, but I truly hope it picks up an Academy Award nomination next year, for no other reason than I want to see a stage full of red, white and blue chorus girls singing the line "who'll hang a noose on the goose-stepping goons from Berlin".
Captain America is one of the most enjoyable scores of the summer for one single reason - it's fun. There's nothing pretentious about it, nothing hidden, no deeper meanings. Much like the film it accompanies it wears its heart on it's sleeve and has a simple intent: to excite you, entertain you, and leave the experience smiling. Sometimes you just need a score like that, filled with basic pleasures, and Silvestri's work here succeeds on that mark with aplomb.