18 February 2010

Music: Film's Endangered Species

by Tyler Weaver.  Follow me on Twitter.

When I was a young, impressionable lad, I fell in love with film scores.  It was, in fact, the interaction and counterpoint of image and music that made me want to be a filmmaker (a ten year detour ensued, wherein I thought a film composer was the path for me... not quite).

I remember distinctly the first time I saw Tim Burton's Batman, with its Danny Elfman (one of the first (and last) great scores he did) "Batman March," gliding along the ridges of the Bat-symbol.  I remember, mouth agape, the first time I saw Jurassic Park, and experienced for the first time, along with the protagonists, the splendour of the island, as John Williams' music soared over it (again, one of his last great scores).

I remember fondly Eliot Goldenthal's score for Heat, its experimental percussive rhythms running parallel to the cops and robbers action (particularly striking was the music for the main heist).  And of course, I remember the sixty some odd years of film magic, the scores of Herrmann, of Korngold.  Of Morricone, of Steiner.

Oh yes, Morricone.  Below, from my favorite film of all time, Once Upon a Time in the West.  That's what I want movies to be.

Not what we have now.

Where is the film score in the 21st century?  From what I've seen, an endangered species.  With the notable exceptions of Terrence Blanchard's 25th Hour, Michael Giacchino's scores for Star Trek, Up, and Cloverfield (Roar! over the end credits) and  Clint Mansell's Requiem for a Dream & The Fountain, and maybe Hans Zimmer's score to Sherlock Holmes, there is a disturbing lack of individuality or interest in the modern film score.  Not one of the Oscar winners  for Best Original Score have remotely inspired me.

What happened to the hummable theme? Must everything go Garden State or a rejected Pro Tools attempt by a "composition" student?  Is the alt/rock/pop/"indie (grr)" music scene where all the new music in film will come from, relegating film to merely extended music videos for undiscovered artists, old favorites, or the latest bastard child of Celine Dion and American Idol?

Where is our spirit of imagination, of escape, of majesty? Of QUALITY?

As a composer, and as a percussionist especially, I'm used to being the red-headed step child of the orchestra.  But what did film music do to anyone to deserve the same fate as an orchestral percussionist?  To be relegated to the background, counting beats, waiting for one thing that has to be there?  

Perhaps I've lost a bit of the idealism of my youth, of the willingness to be inspired, but I don't think so.  The problem is that not only has the great classical tradition of film composition died a slow death, but filmmakers have become lazy, complacent with music "just working."

Film music should elevate, not accompany.  It should be an equal partner to the image - its silences just as important as its explosions of sound.

A film is only as great as the sum of its parts.  Why have we merely settled for something that works in this decade? Where is the artistry? The respect for the film composer?

Slowly going the way of the dodo.

Tyler Weaver is a filmmaker and unrelenting multi-hyphenate, a regular contributor to the pulptone.com website, and is the founder and EIC of Multi-Hyphenate... which you're reading right now.  He's currently making new things...


Steve Saragossi said...

Yes, I cant help but agree with you’ve written. Film music has gone into sharp decline after the resurgence it enjoyed in the late 70s when John Williams brought Korngold back to the masses with Star Wars. The 80s were fairly awful in terms of music with only the first half dozen James Horner scores and the rise of Hans Zimmer to relive the synth craptacular. The 90s were interesting with a distinct two-pronged movement emerging. Zimmer went into a kind of bombastic factory production line type of scoring with a one-style fits all cookie cutter approach with basically the same music being slathered over The Rock and Pirates of the Caribbean with nary an orchestral nuance difference between them.

Running parallel to that were the rise of the smaller, more heartfelt score, as exemplified by the likes of Thomas Newman and Carter Burwell. These composers seemed to understand the old rules about supporting and augmenting a narrative rather than 110-decibel mickey-mousing.

Michael Giacchino (who came to prominence through his work in video games – a pointer of a wider emerging trend?) has the ability to create memorable themes, whilst scoring highly empathetic underscore, and catchy melody lines. His score to The Incredibles was – incredible. He captured the Bond sound perfectly without slavishly copying it, and made it uniquely his own – David Arnold should watch his back!

But above all, I find little to latch onto in today’s scores, and like you, find myself returning again and again to the Golden and Silver age composers of my youth, not just out of some rose tinted nostalgic trip, but because the music written back then had so much more substance, depth, beauty, sweep, and imagination.

Tyler Weaver said...

Steve -

Many thanks for your comment. Before switching to filmmaking, I had considered going into video game scoring - the score to HALO, in particular was quite incredible.

Giacchino's move from video games to film makes sense - the scores there are meant to rev up a player, putting them into the interactive storyworld of the game. He succeeds extremely well in porting (pardon the VG term) that aesthetic over to film. And I agree - Giacchino's score for "The Incredibles" was, well, incredible.

A recent score that I failed to mention was Nathan Johnson's score to brother Rian Johnson's "The Brother's Bloom." Definitely imaginative, and fit the film perfectly.

Tyler Weaver said...

And Steve -

Re: The Bond comment -

I could swear I saw an interview with either Brad Bird of Giacchino himself where he mentioned that he was inspired by John Barry's score to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (by far my favorite Bond score) while writing the score for "The Incredibles."

Steve Saragossi said...

Quite possibly, they used the music from OHMSS in the teasers.

endmike said...

While I agree with a lot that you mentioned, I happen to be a fan of Thomas Newman's stuff over the last decade. I love how he uses a wide variety of instruments in his scores. Wall-e was a stand out. Jon Brion has also racked up some great scores in ESOTSM and Synechdoche, NY. Alexandre Desplat also has been impressive, his Fatastic Mr. Fox score is really great. But lack of a great theme is true, no Raiders March quality stuff. It seems like composers take the minamalist approach today.

Tyler Weaver said...

Mike -

Newman is indeed great - perhaps I hold something against him because as a marimba player (I majored in music comp, but before I majored in percussion performance), I have the sting of "American Beauty" and everyone wanting me to play marimba on their "American Beauty" rip-off score.

That said, Wall*E was quite a good score -but I haven't heard a bad score from a Pixar movie yet - just not memorable (except Giacchino's for "Up," "Ratatouille," and of course, "The Incredibles."

Chris said...

Thought provoking little piece here, Tyler. I still find scores I like, but it is mostly for background music while I write (most recent was the score to Red Cliff, a movie I really enjoyed).

What I find annoying with scores, and this probably goes back quite a number of years, is the overwhelming tendency for music to be used to try and force-feed a mood to the viewer, when sometimes I think a scene would be best served just using the actual sounds of the event. There are lots of examples, but one that comes immediately to mind is in Children of Men. The scene where the firefight outside the tenement building is going on, and the baby starts crying. The music stops, and for some moments we just have the quiet of the scene, with some random gunfire in the background, and the wonder on the faces of everyone. Then this sappy music starts to swell and ruin it.

That irritates me. I recently re-watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and was so sick of that main title theme by the end that I wanted to gouge my ears out. And that is a great movie with a memorable theme. Just overdone.

Anyway, good article. Thanks!

Tyler Weaver said...

Chris -

Thanks for reading!

A big issue with film music is that so few directors use it well. They push the balance between elevation and force-feeding.

Spielberg and Williams have always skirted that line, bordering on the old days of "Mickey-Mousing" the film to music.

Too much of a good thing is always too much.

Thanks again!

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