Monday, 21 September 2009

Hollywood's Unsung Elite: The Silver Screen's Overlooked Film Composers

Ask someone on the street to name a famous film composer and chances are the name John Williams will spring to their lips. Or if they're into their hip 'n quirky cinema, Danny Elfman. None of this is without reason: Williams' hard work in crafting some of the big screen's most iconic yet accessible themes is unsurpassed in Hollywood, his repertoire including the Star Wars trilogies, Jaws, ET, the Indy flicks and the first two Jurassic Parks. Becoming Stephen Spielberg's composer of choice certainly didn't do any harm.

There are others high on the list, including the four 'J's': Jerry Goldsmith, James' Horner and Newton Howard and John Barry. But what about those that slave (or did slave) away at the bottom of the ladder, generating popcorn thrills without getting a fraction of the attention Williams gets? Film scoring is a vast collage of musicians and styles and it's inevitable some composers get lost in the mix.

Take the late Michael Kamen for example. When he sadly passed away in 2003, film music had lost what was arguably one of its most original voices. Kamen, in the late 1980s, had the great fortune (or misfortune) to become attached to some of the greatest action movies ever made, including the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series', Licence to Kill and Road House, hard-edged, violent, contemporary fare that simply didn't call for the operatics of a Williams or a Horner. As a result Kamen's contribution to the above movies is overlooked...when it is in fact one of their key attributes.

Forgoing OTT tendencies, in Die Hard, Kamen chose instead to accentuate much of the suspense, with careful 'micky-mousing' (all plucked strings and nervy brass) accompanying Bruce Willis' John McClane through every air shaft and narrow corridor. The flipside is the grand integration of Beethoven's 9th Symphony as a leitmotif for Alan Rickman's classically educated baddie, Hans Gruber, highlighting beautifully the dapper, elegant side of the ruthless terrorist who could recognise a John Phillips suit from a mile off. It's an incredibly intellectual and witty way to score an action picture, Kamen's music blending chameleon-like into the very fabric of the film.

This of course means his score gets ignored in the wider scheme of things. There's no Raiders March here although when the composer pulls out the action stops, he's up there with the best of them (the SWAT assault on the tower in Die Hard and Mel Gibson's frantic on-foot pursuit of Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon being notable examples). On the subject of Lethal Weapon, Kamen also demonstrates how successfully a score can cross over into the pop domain, with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn providing their own themes for Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. It's an example of how a consummate composer is egoless enough to hand over the reins to other musicians in order to create the perfect musical tapestry for the film. Kamen's pop skills have also been broadcast elsewhere in his concert work with Metallica.

Another composer who rose to prominence in the 80s was Basil Poledouris (who also recently passed away) and whose effort for Conan the Barbarian is one of the finest fantasy scores ever written. Yet it's unlikely anyone could hum themes from it because, again, it's been overlooked in favour of other scores unveiled in the same year (1982 saw the certain John Williams flavoured picture ET soar through multiplexes). Recent works like Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings also command more attention through their sheer bombast and astonishing variety of themes.

Poledouris' work shamefully wasn't even nominated for an Oscar but it's better than any of Shore's trilogy works simply because it's more important to the film itself. Instead of acting as underscore, the music fills the gaps between the (hilariously wooden) acting and dialogue, becoming a narrative mechanism in its own right, almost akin to an opera. From the thunderous opening Anvil of Crom to the chanting choir for the Riders of Doom to the screeching, grinding Wheel of Pain, Poledouris is always there, accentuating every emotion with careful orchestration and lush themes. Theme writing is a strength of this composer and it's a pity that so much of his work, including Big Wednesday, The Blue Lagoon, Robocop and Starship Troopers, remains an undiscovered treasure trove.

Replicating the sound of John Williams in the 80s but with entirely his own voice was Bruce Broughton who burst onto the stage with scores for Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado and Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes, both in 1985. The latter is noteworthy as one of the finest scores ever written composed for a family adventure film, with executive producer Stephen Spielberg's influence evident on both film and music. However this isn't to suggest that Broughton's work is a mere pastiche of Williams'. Far from it. Broughton's central theme for Holmes himself is a delightful scherzo but it's in the incidental music that he really shines, crafting moments of terror in the blowpipe hallucination sequences, a chilling choral chant for the sacrificial cult of the Rametep (what is it with 80s kids films and human sacrifice?) and some breathtaking action pieces (the conclusive Ehtar's Final Battle, for those who can track the all-too-rare music down, is one of the most ferocious pieces of action music ever composed).

So where is Broughton now? Disgracefully he is languishing in the bargain basement of inferior TV dramas and animation like Bambi 2. Just imagine what he could have done with Iron Man instead of the hideous noise peddled by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi (sensibly, director John Favreau is returning to his usual collaborator, John Debney, for the sequel). One unfortunate by-product of Broughton's brief career in the spotlight was that he simply familiar films that weren't especially good or high profile from Baby's Day Out to Honey I Blew Up The Kid to the remake of Narrow Margin. True it is that Star Wars is hardly the best film ever made but it was a global phenomemon and made pots of money, shooting John Williams into the stratosphere. Who, by contrast, has heard of The Presidio (scored by Broughton)? Me neither.

So where does that leave the consumer? With an absurd assortment of riches! The net, especially Spotify, Youtube and Ebay is primed for everyone to seek out these neglected artists and other composers who haven't warranted a mention. As for all the brouhaha over who's going to score the next Harry Potter (Nicholas Hooper has jumped ship)...give it to Bruce Broughton!

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