Monday, 8 June 2009

The Death of the Film Score?

As is obvious from both my site and those who know me, I'm a big advocate of film music, one of the most important yet consistently overlooked aspects of moviemaking (think back to the kids adventure/fantasy films you grew up with - you may not know the composer but its guaranteed the music had an effect). With this in mind, I have to get something off my chest...

In the 1970s, composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith can be credited for making the large scale symphonic film score fashionable again. With films of the late 60s and early 70s increasingly capitalising on youth culture and hippy rebellion (Easy Rider), films were experimenting with pop music, electronics and sometimes no score at all (see Klute). However with the advent of lush sounds in films such as Chinatown (beautifully smoky jazz), Jaws with its urgent chopping rhythms and most significantly the blaring, exciting brass of much of Williams' action work (Star Wars, the Indy Trilogy, Superman), orchestrals were back in fashion. The sound was to reverberate well into the 90s, influencing composers like Alan Silvestri, James Horner and Michael Kamen.

Which brings me to today. Being of the opinion that 2008 was a great year for movies, one nagging thorn in the side remains: the scores for a lot of them were either lousy to mediocre, or altogether non-existent, with a few exceptions. Are we heading back to the mood of the 60s, where original film music is deemed increasingly unneccesary and intrusive? I hope not, because like it or not the film score is one of the determining aspects of how we enjoy movies. Of course not all movies use them, and not all movies are meant to use them; an orchestral score in a documentary will likely seem inappropriate and out of place. But in big budget crowd pleasers especially, the presence of an engaging, immersive soundtrack is key to pulling viewers into the world of fantasy and make believe.

Which brings me to Iron Man. A hugely enjoyable comic book movie (especially in the way there is none of the tiresome 'nuance' existing between good and evil; good is good and evil is evil), it's bolstered by an excellent cast of adult actorscand some marvellous special effects that demonstrate how computers should be used in service of the story. However, the one crucial misstep that director Jon Favreau made was the decision to omit a bold, memorable theme, one that could have helped seal Iron Man in musical terms as the new Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, in favour of some tedious, electric guitar fuelled noise courtesy of Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. It adds nothing to the film, no emotion, no depth and definitely no why bother including it? There might as well have been no music at all.

Similarly Zimmer and James Newton Howard's effort for The Dark Knight is undeniably a superb techical achievement (the droning for The Joker is brilliant in context) but completely hollow, despite some excellent moments. Aside from Newton Howard's moving theme for Harvey Two Face, it fails to engage the listener with the world of the film, with the rich, involving characters, with the layers of morality on display. All of these areas were roundly praised by critics, even in some cases the score why can't the music be more, well, musical? I'm all for darkness in film scores but not noise for the sake of noise. Of course the criticism here can be directed as much at director Christopher Nolan who favours textural, ambient music in his films.

Of course, this isn't to dismiss all the scores in 2008 out of hand. John Williams made an excellent comeback with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, proving he can still write punchy, energetic action music with the best of them. James Horner wrote in anguished, considered tones (despite his continued self-plagiarism) for the acclaimed Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. And Alexandre Desplat continues his hypnotic, haunting work with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. At the other end of the melodic scale was Johnny Greenwood's avant garde effort for There Will Be Blood, demonstrating to The Dark Knight's composers how to write in abrasive tones that are memorable as well as experimental. Danny Elfman also had his best year in ages, scoring Standard Operating Procedure, Wanted and Hellboy II and clinching an Oscar nom for Milk.

But such gems are becoming increasingly few and far between. It seems as if we have got to such a state of uncomfortable awareness that both filmmakers and audiences are afraid to have music reminding them about how to feel. But Beethoven with his 9th symphony did exactly the same thing, as did all the classical composers! Only in 2004 Gabriel Yared's effort for Wolfgang Petersen's Troy was chucked out, after a year of hard work and research on the part of the composer, for being too 'old fashioned', the dreaded test audience apparently having more than a helping hand in the decision. With every disrespect intended to those involved at that test screening, it was not their decision to make. How can music for a movie set in the Greek ages be 'old fashioned'?

Of course it's well within our rights to criticise the role of the score on a subjective level once the film has been released. But to have such an influence that the score is thrown out? That's not right. Like it or not, Yared's score was an integral part of the film; for better or worse, he was the composer originally chosen to score the film, and Warner Brothers should have stuck with the decision, rather than get cold feet. Audiences are demanding increasingly that scores are commentators on the action, rather than an integral part of it.

But, again, maybe the role of the film score has again gone back the other way, back to the increasingly minimalist role it played at the end of the 60s. This could be seen as a great pity or just another amble along the convoluted history of music in film. Who knows? Maybe in another 10 to 20 years the successor to the Iron Mans and Dark Knights will have a soundtrack to call their own.

1 comment:

  1. Hitchcock was perhaps one of the greatest directors. He new the value of a great score. Scores by Bernard Hermann, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza were characters in his films.

    As Classical Music declined in popularity over the last century, and jazz in the latter half, film music rose to fill a new popular appreciation for sophisticated music. Television and the Internet diffuse the impact of films, but provide even more opportunity and outlet for even more divers music. One wonders whether the large scale musical production can continue to find the kind of financial support it has had in this complex environment.

    Composers are still out there but will they have the opportunities for real success like our predecessors had. How many names will the next century produce like the ones you list and Max Steiner , Maruice Jarre, John Barry, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Elmer Bernstein, Dimitri Tiomkin, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Leonard Rosenman, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Dennis McCarthy....

    Heros all.

    Albert Syeles