Joel P West’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings opens with a well-styled and rather memorable main theme, it’s just a bit of a shame that (for the most part anyway) the rest of the score doesn’t quite live up to the high bar that cue sets.
The score begins with Xu Shang-Chi, the boppy main theme for the titular character. The cue opens with a rumble of drums before bursts of enthusiastic brass then rapidly take centre stage, backed by loudly emphatic percussion and proudly heroic strings which together then introduce the short yet rather catchy six-note main motif. It then plays several times over the course of the track’s three minute runtime, and (in my opinion anyway) not only encapsulates Shang-Chi as a character pretty well, but is also quite a memorable theme all on its own – though I do believe a lot of the memorability work is done by the particularly enjoyable compositional style. And speaking of which, I have to say – Joel P West’s orchestral style here is rather superb; while the brass takes a traditional superhero-y sound for much of the piece, the strings and percussion in the background help to not only evoke quite an exquisite-sounding orchestral sound, but also firmly ground the score in Asian-esque musical territory, which overall really helps to stand it apart from the ever-growing number of superhero soundtracks nowadays. All-in then, Xu Shang-Chi is a pretty damned solid opener for a brand new MCU score, and sets up a lot of potential for the remainder of the album.
Things get a little sinister in Your Father, with slow, rather mysterious strings opening the piece before a quietly solemn rendition of the main theme then sounds through on low-pitched brass. Here the strings then start to swirl and the rather ominous nature of the music starts to amplify, with the main theme re-appearing a few seconds later for several increasingly worrisome playthroughs until a crash of percussion then brings the cue to a rapid close a few seconds later. The Bamboo Spring then echoes a few notes from the opening of Xu Shang-Chi, with ethereal vocals and gentle woodwinds evoking a similarly Asian-esque tone for much of the track’s just over three minute runtime. Things then quieten considerably for Your Mother, where tranquil strings and a gentle piano take centre stage with a few notes of the main theme scattered throughout. Hints toward action start to stir up in Training, with strings turning ominous and percussion starting to build in the background until a loud burst of brass then suddenly closes out the cue.
Brother And Sister picks up where Training leaves off, with loud, dramatic percussion leading the charge for two minutes of rather ferocious action score. After a brief, gentle break in Three Days (where some rather ethereal Asian-esque woodwinds provide a gently tranquil interlude) the action then returns in full force with Don’t Look Down, the album’s first major action setpiece. The track opens rather menacingly, with low-pitched brass and tense percussion then building to a short crescendo in the opening minute. It’s here though that the music then really starts to get going, with composer West bringing together some dramatically villainous brass and emphatically worrisome strings for several minutes of tensely exciting and genuinely well-written score, featuring several short yet dramatically edge-of-your-seat renditions of the main Shang-Chi theme to boot. This all then comes to a rather dramatic close at the four minute mark, with the percussion giving one last emphatic crash before the piece then ends.
Short bursts of loud percussion open the sub-two minute Revenge, with rapid strings and worrisome brass continually elevating the tension until everything then comes to a near-deafeningly dramatic crescendo a few seconds later. The pace then slows considerably in My Son Is Home, with gentle strings opening the piece followed by a slow, methodical rendition of the main theme on low-pitched, pensive brass notes. Things do then get a little sinister in the back half, with brass and ominous percussion rising in intensity until right at the end of the cue. Gentle, Asian-esque strings then take the forefront in Zhe Zhi for three minutes of quietly hopeful atmosphere, before Together Soon then amplifies this mood tenfold with increasingly morose strings. The pace then starts to quicken again in Stay In The Pocket, with loud brass and frantic strings evoking a similarly menacing tone to that of Don’t Look Down, though unlike said cue however this iteration doesn’t last for long with the music fading out at just over the ninety second mark.
The Waterfall brings us back to the main theme, with the opening notes of the motif sounding through on optimistic strings, with heroic brass then swelling in the background to bring back some much missed hope to the album. Ancestors then continues with this building optimism, with light strings once again evoking a rather Asian-esque tone together with some cheerful percussion for four minutes of quiet yet enjoyably upbeat score. A rumble of drums then opens Who You Are, with strings and whistling woodwinds weaving in and out every so often before percussion takes the reins in the back half of the piece, hinting briefly toward action and then coming to a dramatic crescendo finish.
The six-minute A Blood Debt opens rather pensively, with quiet, wistful strings playing the opening notes of the main theme in a curiously morose manner. The mood however then slowly turns sinister as the cue continues, with low brass notes and almost horror-like strings slowly starting to appear in the background, which then all builds mup over the course of the next few minutes until imposing percussion joins the fray, and a dramatically villainous crescendo is then reached a minute or so before the track then comes to a quietly solemn close. Grief then continues where A Blood Debt leaves off, with strings and gentle brass evoking a particularly sorrowful tone throughout the just over two minute runtime. Sinister brass then returns in Is This What You Wanted, with ominous strings and echoes of percussion pulling the piece up into tense action territory for the back half, briefly hinting toward the main theme at various intervals before the track then fades away.
The Deep opens quietly, with Asian-esque strings and hopeful brass then slowly building in the background until several loudly upbeat notes from the main theme finally sound through in proudly epic form, hinting briefly toward future action which then arrives immediately afterward in Inheritance; part one of the score’s dramatic action finale. Brass opens the piece at a brisk pace, with rapid strings and increasingly tense percussion leading the musical charge for the next two minutes until things then slow right back down again with the melancholic strings from earlier returning in pensive form. This doesn’t last for long though as the track then segues into the edge-of-your-seat I Won’t Leave You Again, where the strings turn frantic and the brass almost villainous for the opening few minutes. This all then comes to a head at the three minute mark, where the music becomes rather worrisome and starts to lose hope, with the action also fading as if completely defeated. It’s here though that things then get interesting, as The Light And The Dark then finally unleashes the main theme in all its heroic glory, harkening back to the bombastic main theme cue with enthusiastic brass and strings accompanied by dramatic percussion. As the action then quietens to a victorious finish Qingming Jie and Family bring the album to a gentle close, with the former utilising peaceful, Asian-esque strings and the latter hinting back toward the main theme for one last hopeful playthrough.
Overall, Joel P West’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is good, but not without its problems. The six-note main theme introduced in opening cue Xu Shang-Chi is heroic, fits the main character and is genuinely quite memorable, but it sadly doesn’t really get utilised all that much across the album – the only time other than the opening cue where I really noticed its presence was right at the end in The Light And The Dark, and even then it didn’t stick around for very long. The action music in particular could’ve done with a thematic boost or two as it did feel a bit lackluster at times, particularly in the back half where the score also felt like it was starting to meander a bit (though I must say, Don’t Look Down is an exception to this as it was very nearly the standout cue!). I also felt that the album could have benefitted from another few themes (I was hard pressed to pick out a villain piece for example which would’ve helped to musically counterpoint the main one). On a more positive note though, the orchestral style for Shang-Chi is quite enjoyable, with composer West blending traditional superhero-styled orchestra with Asian-esque string and woodwind elements to genuinely great effect, which then goes hand-in-hand with the main theme in the opening standout cue.
In essence, the main theme track sets quite a high stylistic and thematic bar right at the start of the album, but it’s one that sadly the rest of the score simply just doesn’t live up to. All-in, I did enjoy Shang-Chi, it’s just a bit of a shame that it didn’t quite live up to its own potential.
Standout Cue: 1. Xu Shang-Chi
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