A conversation with composer Blake Neely, the man behind the scores of Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow.
The CW has become home for an ever expanding DC Universe starting with Arrow and quickly adding The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow to the lineup with Supergirl joining this fall.
While the tone and feel of each show is distinct, the music is one of the many elements that ties each show within the universe together. The cohesive feel of these shows is thanks to the same creative team behind them—particularly composer Blake Neely.
Neely was brought into the fold thanks to his previous relationship with mega producer Greg Berlanti who first worked with Neely the family dramas Everwood and Brothers and Sisters.
Neely’s experience composing for these complex characters made him the perfect choice to bring Arrow to life in a more serialized version of a television show.
Bringing Arrow to the small screen was no small feat and crafting the music for the series was a daunting proposition. Neely explains, “They weren’t at all silent that they wanted to try and follow the tone Christopher Nolan established with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight series for Arrow and make it about a human being with some – not really supernatural, superhuman powers. Like Batman, Arrow is a normal guy who happens to be a superhero.”
The human element of Oliver Queen is where Neely’s previous experience composing for any array of different characters came into play. Oliver is many things, but the most important is keeping him a person audiences can relate to.
As Neely explains, “They wanted to keep the show grounded, but dark – always emotional, always about his journey. So it was always going to be a dark sounding world, but grounded in emotion and the human struggle. Which is always at the epicenter of a Berlanti show – it’s always about the human emotion.”
The composer of Everwood may not seem like the obvious choice to help compose the sound of a world full of superheroes and villains, but it was that experience which helped Neely create a world that was never too otherworldly that it alienated the audience. Neely says, “I like to joke that even with The Flash, and Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow – they’re really just family dramas that are hidden under the characters wearing costumes. They’re no different than Brothers and Sisters or Eli Stone that Greg created. It’s really about family and heart and emotion. We just have it on this grand stage like gods and monsters and villains and superheroes.”
Music can be a subtle element in a show, but for shows like these with such a rabid fan base, no element goes unnoticed. Neely works hard to make sure all the shows sound like they belong to a connected universe, but realizing how closely fans pay attention to the details surprised even him, noting, “I like being that guy that can provide that sort of hidden, subliminal thread that manipulates the emotion and ties things together. I always liked that music wasn’t that noticed, but then came along these shows and the fans are so into everything, they know everything about the music too! You think they’re not paying attention, but they’ll say, ‘Oh you used this theme in this episode and that came back in this episode’ and I’m like, ‘WOW! You guys are crazy into this.’”
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Having fans pay extra attention to every detail certainly turns up the pressure, but Neely says bringing these comic books to life is enough pressure in and of itself, explaining, “With comic books there is such a mythology that you have to keep sacred that you can’t confuse them, you can’t put the wrong villain’s theme on the wrong villain because years from now when we’re all gone, über fans will dig through and say, “No no – they messed up the mythology.” So I consider myself just another writer on the show. And I think the writers have a hell of a time these days with the four shows and keeping everything straight and true to how the comic books were and the story that unfolds – especially now that we’re into time travel and bending those rules. It’s getting very complex.”
With Supergirl now a part of this ever growing universe, the advent of the strong female lead is more prevalent now than ever before. When it comes to composing for the female leads, Neely makes it clear that it does not matter what gender a character happens to be, it is the music’s job to make a character relatable, but feel larger than life when need be.
“I never try to say, ‘Oh it’s female superhero so she’s not going to have French horns, she’s going to have oboes or clarinet, something that’s light and feminine’ – I don’t approach it that way because they are such strong characters and in the comic books they are equally as strong as the men – sometimes more so. You have to give them the power – you just have to say it’s another human being.”
The difference in instrumentation on these shows does not depend on gender, it comes down to the human element of a character versus their superhero alter egos. “On Supergirl when it’s more just Kara as a person, it’s a clarinet sound, but when she puts on the cape you’ve got drums that are way bigger than anything under Oliver Queen. And then when Oliver’s having a moment to himself, you’ve got this soft piano. It’s shades of feminine and masculine for all these characters which keeps it fun for me.”
Using the music to add complexity and layers to each of these characters is what makes the each show so dynamic. Neely’s deep understanding of the differences and similarities between each character is also what makes the crossover episodes some of his favorites, saying, “Those are definitely the most fun episodes each year – the crossovers. It’s, “Okay I can use the strings from this character, the drums from this character, the clarinet from this character” and you get this mashup.” And, as Neely wisely adds, crossovers are not only fun to watch, they are fun to make because, “Anytime you have that many superheroes on screen at once – how can you not have fun with it?”
The key to keeping the music fresh and unexpected comes from Neely keeping himself in the dark as much as the fans watching the show. “ I like to score these shows how the audience is watching them. So I’m a little more reactive than proactive. And by that I mean I tell the writers from day one – don’t tell me what’s going to happen.”
This approach also keeps Neely from unintentionally giving away key plot points through the music, remembering, “This year we opened Arrow with Oliver at someone’s grave. I knew it was going to be a main character, but if they told me who was in the grave, then each time we go to the cemetery I might hint at it musically – to the point where I give it away. So I like to tell the writers, ‘Please don’t tell me what’s happening, I’ll do it as it comes,’ and then I get to be just as surprised as all the viewers – I just get to be surprised a couple weeks in advance.”
Staying in the dark also has its drawbacks as Neely remembers a moment when a plot twist hit him at the same time as the fans. “I was sitting at ComiCon last year and they announced that our big bad on The Flash this year was going to be Zoom and I sat in Hall H with all the other fans thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god—I have no idea what I’m going to do for that character.’”
At the end of the day, the biggest, ongoing challenge on all the shows is living up to the expectations of the DC Universe. “Looking back on all four shows, the two most challenging moments were coming up with The Flash’s theme because there is a legacy of music – Danny Elfman had a great theme for The Flash in the ‘90s so there’s that legacy. And the other intimidation is Supergirl because Jerry Goldsmith’s Supergirl theme, John Williams’ Superman theme, Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel. You don’t want to throw the viewers and give them kazoos and electric guitars, but at the same time, you ask yourself, ‘How do I do something new?’ DC Comics is handing a huge responsibility saying, ‘Here’s a character that we’ve cared about way before you were born – now give him a new musically identity. Good luck!’ Those are some intimidating points in my career.”
But when you get it right, you become a part of music history and a part of an epic universe that will live on through time and generations of fans. The problem with trying to compose iconic music to live up to this history is only time can tell you if something is iconic.
For Neely, the moment he realized his music was going to carry on beyond him was an unexpected one. “My son was playing the Lego Batman video game and he said, ‘Dad come upstairs I want you to see something – I opened a new level’ so I came up to see and shows me he’s opened the Green Arrow level and out comes my theme for Arrow as the character comes out and I thought, ‘Alright – that’s a very cool, through the wall moment.’ Years later they’ve said, ‘Okay this is this character’s theme from now on.’ I just thought, ‘That’s fantastic – that’s what it’s all about.’”