You might not expect a comedy starring Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and a cast of (seemingly) hundreds of other comic actors to have a score filled with epic symphonic music. But, as composer Henry Jackman points out, that’s just the point with This is the End. The highbrow music makes the lowbrow humor stand out even more.
“What we found was that,” he says, “because of the apocalyptic element of the movie, the comedy’s actually funnier the more the score commits to how serious the sinkholes and the demons and the purgatory and all the Biblical references and everything are. The more full-on the score is and the more committed and serious it is, the funnier Seth and Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson and Jay Baruchel and all the rest of them are. It’s a mistake for the score to try and be as funny as the guys. It’s like, I’m the straight guy, as if it was a two-man comedy act. I’m the straight guy, and the film is the comedy.”
In just a few short years since he turned his attention to film scoring, Jackman has created quite a body of work, contributing music to blockbusters like Monsters vs. Aliens, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Puss in Boots, and Wreck-It Ralph, among many others. And he’s working on the score for the new Captain America movie. But even with Jackman at the helm, probably none of them have track titles as entertaining as the ones for This is The End, which boasts themes like “Rapture on Melrose,” “Demonic Chase Sequence,” “Lights Out, Jay’s Got a Plan,” “The Rapture of Seth and Jay,” and best of all, the delightful “The Devil Rapes Jonah.”
“Actually,” says Jackman, “we’ve got a long-running tradition in all the movies that I’ve done where names of cues are as ridiculous as humanly possible. Some of them are completely unrepeatable, actually. Because traditionally when you’re recording the score the conductor will go, ‘Okay ladies and gentlemen, can we please get out ‘3M26 The Demon Rises.’ We started coming up with really ridiculous names so someone would have to read them out to an orchestra. And the thing about the cue, ‘The Devil Rapes Jonah,’ is if you watch the film, I mean the devil does rape Jonah. I mean, what can I say? If you see the scene—I mean we could have called it more graphic things than that if you watch the movie. It could have been a lot worse.”
It’s safe to say that Jackman’s poor grandfather never could have pictured his grandson turning out like this. Bill Jackman was an accomplished and respected English jazz clarinetist. “My grandfather’s grandfather was a household servant,” he says. “But my grandfather heard Benny Goodman on BBC World Service and just said, ‘I am going to play the clarinet because I’ve just heard Benny Goodman, and I’m not going to do what every other working class person does in North London. I’m gonna learn the clarinet.’ My grandfather came from an era when you would show up to the BBC live studios, you presented with about two hours worth of Big Band music, you had half an hour to look through the parts, and the red light goes on live to the nation and you play damn music for two hours without a single mistake. And you get your two shillings and sixpence and go home ready to have a cup of tea and a bit of fish and chips when you get home.”
So it is perhaps understandable that Bill Jackman was a bit unimpressed with the floppy-haired rock band that hired him to play the saxophone on one of their new songs—called “All You Need is Love.” “When he got to the studio,” Jackman recounts, “he was expecting: ‘Okay, great, so we’re gonna blow through a whole lot of music.’ And he spent the entire day at the studio, and he said one of these guys had some funny round glasses and he hadn’t even written out the sax parts and he didn’t quite know what the sax was supposed to be doing. And I’m like, ‘Hang on, the funny little man with glasses, I think you’re talking about John Lennon, so uh…’”
But the senior Jackman didn’t share the awe of his grandson: “He was totally unimpressed; he said, ‘Well I was late for my tea. And we only did one song, and it took hours because no one knew what they were doing. The whole thing was completely disorganized. And I was late for my tea.’ And you know, because you’re talking about a about a guy who’d used to been playing two—he would have played three albums worth of Beatles music live on the radio in the time it took to go: fam fah nah nah. He thought they were monkeys. And, you know, he just didn’t get it. ‘And it’s really loud and distorted and they’re only using about four chords.’ I think in time, as the music moved on, he came to understand and respect that music does have to move on, and in terms of rock ’n’ roll, the Beatles were definitely on the more explorative side—and you’d be hard pressed to say that the Beatles didn’t write good songs. But you know, it’s just where he came from musically.”
Bill Jackman was either a forgiving man, or a forgetful one, because he went back to work with those floppy-haired slackers a few years later, contributing the iconic clarinet part to “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Meanwhile, he passed along his love of music to his offspring. As Henry Jackman puts it in a beautifully English phrase, “the music carried down.” His uncle Jeremy was in the King’s Singers and conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His uncle Gregg is a recording engineer and mixer who has worked with Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Prince and many others. And his father Andrew was a composer and a member of a band called The Syn, which eventually became the band Yes (he was asked to join Yes but declined).
And as for young Henry, he was sent to a boarding school to study music. “I was shipped off to an incredibly old-fashioned boarding school that was borderline Harry Potter-style, you know, when I was eight years old. I went off to boarding school where you saw your parents for two hours every two weeks. And it was like a throwback to an era that doesn’t exist anymore, but what was awesome about it was the choir. The school only has 38 kids in it, and the thirty-eight kids were the choir. The reason it only had 38 people is that those 38 people were the boys for the choir in St. Paul’s Cathedral. So I was spending four hours a day in St. Paul’s Cathedral, probably in Europe’s top five pieces of religious architecture—or ever constructed by man—and singing 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th-century church music. I was part of something that was world-class and professional. I mean it wasn’t professional like we were being paid, but it was like being part of the Barcelona soccer team, at only age eight. I’m sitting in St. Paul’s Cathedral with some huge congregation singing Benjamen Britten’s War Requiem. You know, the kind of thing you would be doing if you were in the London Symphony. But I didn’t think anything of it because when you’re nine you just think that’s what most people do. But of course they don’t.”
One day in particular stands out in Jackman’s memory. “I was I think maybe 10 or 11, and I’m singing away in the cathedral, and there’s this really big memorial service after Britain had had a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. There was a memorial service for those soldiers who had fallen in battle and it was really full-on, like it was a state occasion. And I’m singing away and I look to my left—I mean I’m supposed to be concentrating on the choirmaster—I look to my left, and not 20 feet from where I’m standing, in a row, is the Queen of England, the Duke of Edinburgh, Lady Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, simply all standing in a row. And I’m thinking, ‘If somebody had a gun right now, you could just take down the monarch of Great Britain, the leader of the free world, the guy who’s slowly collapsing Communism and the woman who’s kind of revolutionizing the British economic milieu.’ I probably didn’t have exactly that thought in that way when I was 10, but I mean there they were standing in a row. Now that’s not normally what happens when you go to school.”
But once Jackman got out of school, the highbrow-lowbrow seesaw tipped again, and he discovered a whole new kind of music. “This whole rave thing had started to kick off in England. Late ’80s, early ’90s was like the summer of love, and everyone was taking ecstasy and hanging out in clubs till six in the morning listening to house music from like Detroit and Chicago, and it was all kicking off in London. And I was like, ‘You know what? Screw classical music. There’s a whole new thing going on out there.’ And I just totally abandoned all of the last 16 years of all this sort of posh education and ran around in T-shirts and, you know, massive trainers with no laces, bopping around till like six in the morning listening to rave music. And then I was like too cool for school and didn’t want anyone to know that actually I could play like Brahms’ Rhapsodies and sort of Gershwin’s Piano Concertos, and I kept all that all very secret and inside, like ‘No, I’m a DJ innit, you know what I’m sayin’?’ I’m sure my mother was mortified.”
That experience turned out to be a crucial corrective of sorts for his classical upbringing. “There are all sorts of things you have to unlearn,” he muses, “from being overly classically educated. And there might be something important to getting involved in music in a way that is less deliberate, less educated. Now that sounds really snobby, but I don’t mean it to sound snobby. I mean that there are all sorts of techniques to learn things that work really well in music that don’t come from the traditional classic Western music, I mean everyone knows that. Imagine a world where they didn’t have bands in it. Bands and pop songs don’t come from the DNA of classical concert or the music of the court. Pop music, the real DNA, you follow the lineage of popular music, it comes out of folk music. And classical music comes from the court or the academy or from the educated classes. But pop music comes from folk music, and folk music is a natural expression of people who, you know, back in the day would have been in pubs or taverns, or just people fucking lighting—excuse my French—people lighting a fire and just singing. It’s just, it’s popular culture where people make music which means something to one another in a simpler and lyrically important way so it means something to the community.”
Jackman found that same spirit, he says, in the electronic music of the era. “I know it sounds really pretentious,” he says, “but all of that rave stuff was also something, you know, a lot of it was incredibly unsophisticated harmonically and even really unsophisticated production-wise, some of that early stuff. But it meant something. There was a reason why loads and loads of young people just kept wanting to be meeting up in their thousands and mess around till six in the morning and just get together and have some banging loud music they could all get into and identify with. That’s not meaningless, that’s meaningful. So I actually learnt a load of things without even realizing, just by being immersed in it. You know, if I’d stayed on a really classical trajectory, there’s a lot of things in that music that I would have considered quote-unquote wrong or like incorrect because it’s not, you know, especially the way the chords get used. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that. Because it’s like, you know, if you’re on a diatonic scale, you can’t go C minor, F minor, B-flat minor. That should be a D. It’s only because you sampled the chord. You idiots have no idea what you’re doing!’ But actually there’s all sorts of really valuable musical language that’s not come from the tradition of classical music.”
The combination of the two was the ideal preparation for a life of film scoring. “Retrospectively, now that I look at it,” he explains, “now I’m doing film music, I’m so happy that, first of all, I got an incredibly disciplined classical education, and then I got 10 years of nothing of the sort. Because you need both. I mean, unless you want to do scores that only sound like Harry Potter or symphonic classical scores, you need the rest of the vocabulary. It’s part of meaningful contemporary musical language, and if you just have no idea about bands or pop music or electronic music or club music, then, quite frankly, you are missing a large and legitimate part of the musical language that ordinary people, when they go see a movie, expect to hear. And you should be able to describe—otherwise you’re like a poet who’s only speaking like 19th-century language. Like, you know, it’s the 21st century. You should know what rap is, you should know what hip hop is. And you should know why it’s good. And you should know some of the production techniques. It’s all part of how it works.”
Then Jackman fell in with legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, who would become a mentor of sorts to him. “So I’ve got all of these things going on, I’ve got like all of this classical background, I’ve been composing music, you know, some of which sounds like Bach and Wagner and some of which sounds like banging rave music, and then being in the record industry and working with Trevor Horn. It’s all bubbling away but hasn’t necessarily found the right output for all this influence to land properly. And I bump into Hans, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing in the record industry? What a complete waste of time! Why aren’t you doing film music?’ Which, amazingly, when I look back on it, I had never thought about. I don’t know why. And I was always moaning about like, ‘the record industry A) is collapsing and B) like musically restricted and blah blah blah.’ Hans is like, ‘Well then, you know, everything you’re moaning about is meaningless because film music is all of the above. Film music can be anything from, you know, a 15th-century choral piece to a sort of German bass tune. Stop moaning and get involved!’”
Zimmer also inspired Jackman with a whole way of approaching composition for film. “He said, ‘Well, of course Henry, you know that film music has nothing to do with music,’” Jackman remembers. “I’m like, ‘Uhhh, right.’ He says, ‘Do you want to know what the most important thing about writing film music is?’ I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, that would be useful information.’ And he goes: ‘When you’re a film composer the number-one question is not ‘Can you write music?’ It’s, ‘Can you tell a story?’’ And that was such a profoundly different—I mean, and that’s not a conversation about musical style or like, ‘Ooh, let me show you some musical techniques,’ something like that. The primary task of being a film composer isn’t going ‘Oooh, look at this piece of music I’ve written that has 17 consecutive key changes in a sort of massive octatonic scale which I’ve reverted o itself with a blah blah blah, and aren’t I really clever?’ The question is, ‘Okay, play me the scene, and play me the cue and let me see what it does.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve completely fucked the scene up with your meaningless, interfering, invasive cue that’s gonna do nothing whatsoever for the story or the characters other than slightly show off your piece of music. If anything, it’s slightly distracting and you fundamentally misunderstood what this scene is about.’ And that’s one of the biggest lessons I learnt offhand: that a good film composer is almost like a director. You’re doing the film. You’re basically having another pass at the film like a director, only you’re using sound as your medium and you’re telling story all over again, just like the director did.”
Highbrow meets lowbrow, and all in the service of storytelling. It’s almost as if Jackman had planned his life all along, just to get to this point. Funny how things work out.