What I Listened to (+ Watched & Played) in 2020 | Entry II (Dissecting The Grand Tour)

Can we pretend that me forgetting that I did indeed watch Wonder Woman: 1984 in 2020 and not including it in Entry I is a point made on just how…disposable it ended up being? No? Alright, I will be taking this up to my editor, whoever, wherever, whatever he is.

Wonder Woman: 1984 (A Forgettable Film With an Unforgettable Soundtrack)

Let’s begin with the positives (don’t worry, I’ll probably spend a while on this before we get into the bad): Hans Zimmer.

Now, as my origin story for film music, Zimmer’s music always had a special place in my mind palace, and like many of his appreciators, I generally agree that his most consistently legendary output came during the late 90s and into the 2000s, capping it off with his sea-faring magnum opus, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Zimmer’s career is often attributed to a series of self reinventions, where he will completely uproot himself stylistically, both to stay current on Hollywood trends (often of his own making, unwittingly or not) and to experiment in his gadgetry wizard’s tower. One may generally talk about his symphonic/rock hybrids during the 90s, the power anthems of the 2000s, and finally the infamous foghorns of Inception and the ostinatos of Dark Knight. While Hans Zimmer’s popularity and ability to capture the hearts of filmgoers and producers has stayed consistent throughout his style ‘eras’, the more niche film music fanbase have held out on his golden years of Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, The Last Samurai and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End as him being at his best; when he let the melodies be king.

Modern Zimmer seemed less interested in that, and instead preferred to lean into soundscapes, electronic sound design and modern music making that tries to be ‘abstract’ in context and intent. No doubt there are many who appreciated such efforts, however, I know my tastes, and I know which Zimmer I still put on the stereo every so often.

There were of course, glimmers of yesteryear that confirmed that Zimmer hadn’t lost his ear for catchy tunes and sentimentality: his boundlessly inventive (but tragically short-lived) tango with Spider-Man showcased a rather interesting fusion of old-school and new, Interstellar was a masterful lesson of meaningful minimalism backed by maximalist execution, where giant pipe organs and orchestra performed Zimmer’s simple yet impactful sketches with the kind of cosmic scope that matched the film’s thesis.

Fast forward to 2020, and Zimmer delivered perhaps the first project in a while that fully embraces the old-school way of doing things. Fitting, for a supposedly retro-homage project.

Everything is here: proud and heroic, romantic and sentimental, primal and badass. All the loudness and high-reaching bravado that defines a composer who’s having fun, and wants the audience to head-bop along with him. The already iconic Wonder Woman war cry of a theme that Zimmer introduced 4 years ago was given a makeover that scapes over the raw power, but infuses it with the intensely old-school heroic call to action that only a major scale brass section blasting on full volume could do. This is the Hans Zimmer I fell in love with. He was never gone, but I appreciate this reminder from the man all the same.

…Oh right. The film itself.

Look, I perhaps didn’t dislike the film as much as my half-sarcastic jabs at it thus far may’ve indicated, but I can boil down my thoughts thusly: there are many aspects of the film that would’ve worked so much better if it leaned more into the retro homage: more hamminess, more cheese, more vomits of sheer technicolor and multi-coloured smoke machines that Birds of Prey managed. What we got instead was a crippled imitation. (I mean…even the posters and album art got the message!)

Virtual Tourism with The Grand Tour

Cars. After spending the majority of my childhood, teenhood and adult life utterly disinterested in them (going as far as not bothering to drive in any meaningful capacity even now), and remaining mystified by people who hang posters of cars, flaunt desktop wallpaper of cars and display toy models of cars they will never afford, I stumbled upon perhaps the only opportunity where this drug may finally catch up to me: this mythification of the automobile.

2020 wasn’t a travel-friendly year. And perhaps it was a particularly loud protest on my brain’s part one day, that I felt the need to…experience travel, somehow.

Watching some BBC nature documentary felt too…exotic, and YouTube vlogs never seem to vibe with me. I needed something cinematic but not exotic, digestible junk food entertainment, but not…YouTube personalities. Enter TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. Thought I’d never have to deal with these types ever again in my lifetime, after I’ve almost completely severed any connection or awareness to legacy television.

One has to at least respect the camaraderie the Top Gear trio shares, even if the birth of Amazon’s The Grand Tour came from rather unseemly circumstances. Jeremy Clarkson, having already raked up multiple warnings from BBC due to his questionable conduct in the past, was finally taken off the air after he was involved in physical assault of one of the Top Gear producers. Hammond and May decided to leave as well.

Certainly, the backstage isn’t one of total utopia; and I seldom find myself agreeing with what Clarkson has to say about much of anything. But I also have to keep in mind the business of being a public commentator, and the sometimes undeniable subjectivity of separation when it comes to entertainment and media. An army made The Grand Tour, and we are here to talk about its successes.

Let us begin at the beginning. The Grand Tour’s first episode starts with a snide jab at BBC, as if gloating “see what you are missing now that you fired us?” The decades of Clarkson, Hammond and May immortalised by cinematic road trip symbolism, as they arrive at their new thrones, flanked by a Mad Max fleet of vehicles.

Let us face it: this is a perfect opening act, and undeniably holds up the kind of automobile myth-building that exemplifies car culture.

As I’ve stated before: I watch this show not for the cars, but for the road. The formula of a road trip TV show that drops larger than life personalities in new locations, and follow them into new lands and cultures is something that is tailor-made for Clarkson, Hammond and May (although granted, their commentary on their surroundings are hardly of substance considering what their show is really about), whose on-screen chemistry is honed, refined and perfected through hundreds of episodes, car reviews, races, traded insults and injuries. Which brings us to the so-called ‘Specials’.

With a format that – from my recent digs into the Top Gear archives indicate – barely changed with the transition to The Grand Tour, one of the mainstays of the trio were these extended episodes where instead of having multiple segments of short challenges, car reviews, conversation and celebrity cameos that centred around the three men talk over each other in front of an live audience, the Specials are feature-length ordeals, with their own internal narratives and is driven by a single producer-delivered, car-related challenge. Usually, this challenge revolves around setting the trio up with contrasting vehicles, and they were to navigate across a vast, foreign, difficult terrain with nothing but their wits, teamwork and a lumbering camera crew. Unsurprisingly, these have become the cream and butter of my continued patronage of the show.

The virtual tourism of these Specials serves as little more than backdrop for the predictably scripted but still organically performed conflicts and arguments of three ageing British men, as they bicker over every possible thing, abandon each other to certain doom (ironically, of course) and tease each other about their taste in cars. But boy can this backdrop be a lavish one. From the deserts of Africa, the rainforests and volcanos of Columbia to the vast human-free frontiers of Mongolia, the gear-studded camera crew that tails the trio document the challenges and the thousand-mile journeys with an eye for glamour candy and scenery porn. The plight of the three presenters; while no doubt partially staged, were certainly real enough. The men are filmed wading their vehicles through very unforgiving ground, and the cameras not shy in showcasing their suffering for our enjoyment.

The format of thousand-mile voyages through vast, larger-than life vistas, in exotic cars that are either decades old, hilariously ill-suited for the task, or glamorous supercars that push the boundaries of both science and reason for existence, are all fine ingredients that uphold the myth. To the so-called Petrol-heads, cars are like loved family pets, entities to be groomed, loved and understood through companionship. This… endearment, this religion, is something that I may have finally came to an understanding of, upon watching a more recent Special, where Clarkson, Hammond and May took a car that they’ve assembled themselves across Mongolia.

Affectionately christened John, and in perhaps one of the most genuinely entertaining feature-length specials in the series, the format was somewhat altered: instead of three cars that were to compete with one another, the trio was forced to deal with each other and one single car for the entire journey. In stripping away some aspects of the formula that would’ve kept focus on the cars, such as the bickering over who made better modifications for the journey, and keeping the three men in one space instead of their own vehicles, the episode was almost entirely devoted to the team and their journey. John, somehow, ended up becoming one of the most endearing things I’ve ever had watched on television, man or machine.

So. After spending a decent amount of words stumbling around for reasons on why I enjoy watching a show about cars, I hope some of my points came across intact.

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