If you don’t know who Henry Jackman is, you’ve definitely heard him before. A composer, conductor, arranger, and musician, he’s responsible for film scores like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: Secret Service, Kick-Ass, Big Hero 6, and much more. He’s worked closely with Hans Zimmer and you might even have heard his work in video games like Just Cause 3 and Uncharted 4. We had the chance to speak with Jackman about his latest work on Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a natural and welcome extension of his past Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) work.
Even as a new father, Jackman’s passion for his work shines through in our Zoom interview. He carries a deep love of both music and cinema, and a healthy measure of superhero appreciation, which are so often the subjects of the films he scores. Basically, he’s a total nerd and it was an absolute pleasure to chat with him.
Jackman did not plan to be where he is right now, at a nexus of superhero universes and film music.
“Was it John Lennon who said: ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans?’ I fell into film music sort of accidentally out of the record industry just by having had a very classical education,” he says. “I had no strategic thinking about how to get into film music, or indeed what kind of films to do.”
His first foray into superhero scoring was in 2010 for Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass.
“I said, ‘Look Matthew, I’ll write you a superhero tune on a rainy Sunday afternoon. If you like it, we’ll start talking. If you don’t like it, forget I ever wrote it.’ Then as a result of Kick Ass, then Matthew Vaughn did X-men: First Class, so he was loyal enough to ask me to come back.”
It turns out that as a teenager and young adult, Jackman was unconsciously building the perfect resume for the most famous films he’d eventually be involved with.
“In my teenage years when I was really strictly classical, I studied a lot the orchestral works of Richard Strauss and Wagner,” he said. “But at the time, I was too cool for school. I wanted to make rave music and couldn’t be bothered with all this straight-laced orchestral music, but I did secretly love all these massive epic rousing themes.”
He explains, “If you really want to break it down, the symphonic tradition of where giant, orchestral, thematic, climactic music comes from, it comes out of all that late Austro-German—you know after Beethoven, you start getting these huge tone poems by Richard Strauss like “Ein Heldenleben”, which actually means ‘The Hero.’”
Another big inspiration was Italian composer Ottorino Respighi and his tone poem, “Pines of Rome”.
“Trust me, if you like superhero music, the last movement of “Pines of Rome”—it starts off with this bass drum. It’s like the Romans marching down the Appian Way, and it turns into the most massive brass fanfare you have ever heard in your life,” he effuses. “If you listen to that last movement, it’s the most epic brass heroic build you’re ever going to hear in your life.”
Combine this classical music upbringing with Jackman’s record industry background, and you get soundtracks like that of X-Men: First Class.
“If you listen to the end credit track I did, sometimes I mix it, so you get some groove elements and some modern elements and then you also get this big symphonic thing in a kind of mashed up hybrid. For somebody who works in the record industry, you know I always want to fiddle around with a few bits of production and groove and tricks and whatnot, and then the other half of me is this person who was classically trained in big symphonic music, so I guess unbeknownst to me, I was secretly getting the ultimate education.”
Jackman brings this same mixed-genre style to his work with Marvel, particularly in Disney+’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier show. He recalls the musical themes and foundation he set out in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, where we first met the titular characters of the TV show. Moving his laptop where we were chatting on Zoom from an office to his piano, Jackman showed me exactly how he developed things like the Falcon’s theme (portrayed by Anthony Mackie).
“Because the show comes out of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Falcon was already a character. I really had a lot of faith in that, for it was only a little fanfare.” He hums the motif. “That already was the beginning of a Falcon idea, so I took that and extended it. I could have just done a pretty straight up version of that where you get a bit of a snare and a timp roll, and then big orchestration comes in but I said well hold on, let’s not do that because we’ve got to reflect Sam as well. Sam Wilson, and his background and Louisiana.”
Expanding on his process of writing the show’s main theme song, he explained “Let’s make a soup out of Louisiana blues and also superhero theme plus orchestration. And you better nail it because if you get that kind of soup wrong, it’s going to be so cheesy.”
Luckily, Jackman took the risk, giving us the bluesy, epic “Louisiana Hero.”
Fans of the MCU may recognize other musical callbacks in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Episode two opens with a funky marching band remix of “Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger. Though it wasn’t Jackman’s idea to incorporate this song into the script, he was responsible for punching up the new arrangement.
“They had a basic version of it already in the cut of the film, but then the fun thing was I added to it. There’s the original track and it’s got a sneaky added layer, a bit of extra guitar and a bit of extra bars, some extra orchestration. It’s just been brought up a couple of levels in the in the arrangement.”
Fans of the show might notice the return of the distinct sound of the Winter Soldier. First introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the character is inseparable from his chilling metallic theme.
“The reason I went for that twisted screaming sound is because my adversary was a tortured soul trapped in a high-tech body like a Robocop gone wrong, which got the opportunity for me to use all those crazy textures,” said Jackman of the process for scoring movie.
Jackman explained how he created such a menacing sound caught somewhere between man and machine.
“There’s a very talented musician and composer called Dominic Lewis,” said Jackman. “I just knew that the way to get something really eerie, I wanted to have a sound where you hardly needed anything and you would just hear this one iconic thing and everyone would know. Uh oh, it’s the Winter Soldier. And I knew it needed to be a combination of the human voice, but sufficiently damaged that it doesn’t sound at all natural.”
Listening to the track, you’d be hard-pressed to believe any human could make that sound.
“Funny enough, Dom’s actually a really good singer. He’s not used to making hysterical noises,” Jackman continues. “He started singing and it sounded really good, like a good singer. I was like ‘No, no, no, no, no , no. Dom, it’s almost like, imagine you can hardly even get the note out because there’s some sort of metal structure around it.’”
Jackman chuckles. “And suddenly, he hit this kind of acting moment where he stopped being the very talented singer he is. I was like oh my God, that’s the sound of the Winter Soldier. And then I spent like a week, two weeks, three weeks processing it, fiddling with it, stretching it, and mangling it. But the original recording source that that sound came from, was poor old Dom being tortured on the microphone for at least half an hour.”
Jackman’s work in the MCU has lent characters like the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and Zemo a great deal of musical continuity. They have distinct sounds that are transformed and reshaped to help tell the story. However, in the greater MCU, which spans 23 films and a variety of different directors and composers, such tight continuity is a gargantuan, perhaps impossible task.
“I do understand that people moan about continuity across all of the films, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Jackman. “If the whole of the Marvel universe had been directed by say, one man, one woman, and there had been two composers, I reckon you’d have a lot of continuity, but you’d also get very bored. There’d be a tonal lack of variation.”
Taking the Captain America films as an example, Jackman notes “The First Avenger is tonally completely different from Winter Soldier. So [Alan Silvestri’s] themes for the first Captain America movie are totally awesome, and they’re so perfect for that…But it’s like a period piece set in that era of American history where there’s no political ambiguity. America is a strong, a nation of moral uprightness and the Nazis are the bad guys and everyone knows where they stand.”
By contrast in Winter Soldier, Jackman says, “Cap’s a fish out of water in a world he doesn’t understand. Everything’s shady, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know who to trust. If you picked up those things in the first one and try to put them in Winter Soldier, it just doesn’t work. And conversely, if you picked up some of the stuff from Winter Soldier and tried to shove it in The First Avenger, it’d be like ‘What are you doing, this is awful, this doesn’t work at all.’”
Jackman reflects on the colorful and expansive symphonic universe he’s helped create with the MCU.
“If the whole Marvel universe had been micromanaged, in terms of it only being a couple of directors and a couple of composers, sure. Okay, you get this consistency, but I think it would be—instead of a beautiful garden with all sorts of different flowers, it would be a bit monochrome with like, three, two sets of flowers in neat orderly rows.”
The ideal balance is somewhere in between, he notes. “You want just enough consistency and callback to get some intellectual satisfaction from seeing the same characters and music that can identify with them, but you don’t want so much consistency you start strangling the diversity that necessarily comes from fighting all sorts of different people into the process.”
A composer who straddles two worlds of music, the symphonic and the electronic, Jackman has brought this same balanced but boundary-pushing mindset to all his work, especially within the MCU. We can’t wait to hear him in many more big films, shows, and video games in the coming years. In the meantime, you can hear his work on Falcon and the Winter Soldier, currently streaming on Disney+.