Film music is dead
The title is a gross exaggeration, to be sure. Sometimes, though, that’s just what it feels like.
Right out of the gate, allow me to supply you with the one argument you need to write me off quickly and summarily: I am old. I was a kid in the eighties, brought to film music by Alan Silvestri’s rousing Back To The Future. When I first stepped into it, the film scoring field was pretty much dominated by the three J’s: John (Williams), Jerry (Goldsmith) and, to a lesser degree, James (Horner). Even at the dawn of the nineties, Hans Zimmer had barely left Germany and was working with Stanley Myers on such obscure fare as Castaway.
Yep, I’m that old.
I recently picked up a dirt cheap sales-bin DVD copy of Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire. Not surprisingly, I found Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score to embody everything I love about film music - and everything I miss about it these days. If you think a 2013 Zimmer score is the second best thing to dying and going to heaven, feel free to pass this article up. If not, please read here my attempts to regurgitate a few rules from the classic scoring guidebook and set them off against today’s scoring practices.
The film composer is perpetually torn between two worlds: he is both a movie dramatist and a musician. (In that order, as far as I am concerned.) Although the two identities intersect at some point, it makes sense to distinguish between them for the time being.
As a dramatist, the film composer uses music as a tool as much as an editor uses the Avid (or the Moviola, for readers of my generation). Film music serves to tell or advance a story and reveal the intricacies of human drama. In Jerry Goldsmith’s own words: “A film composer is a tunesmith” – emphasis on the artisan rather than the artist. This is the only area where a non-musical director and his film composer can discuss and battle on equal terms. For instance, they may concern themselves with the pacing of a scene. When director Joe Johnston was hacking away at the opening scene of Rocketeer, James Horner told him to stop editing the scene down until he was done with scoring. Of course, Johnston realized that Horner’s shimmering music gave the scene exactly the kind of flow he had been trying to find so desperately through trimming and editing.
This article will use Under Fire as an example of Goldsmith’s scoring methodology. (The following is based on the score as it appears in the film, not on the standalone listening experience that the composer derived from it for the superb soundtrack release.) Roger Spottiswoode’s well-received 1983 film works from a superb Ron Shelton script about a love triangle set against the backdrop of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution. US-backed dictator Somoza’s brutal reign inspires a large rebel movement led by the elusive Rafael. Working in the war-torn streets of Nicaraguan cities are the film’s three protagonists: war photographer Russel Price (Nick Nolte), his boss Alex Grazier (Gene Hackman) and radio journalist Claire (Joanna Cassidy), whom we meet just as she ends her relationship with Alex. Advancing the story are ruthless bounty hunter Oates (Ed Harris) and shifty gentleman spy Marcel Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The story’s main arc is Price’s transformation from a neutral photographer to an involved human rights activist.
Under Fire belongs toan era when movies could still be spotted sparsely. (Spotting refers to decisions as to which scenes should have music and when exactly a music cue should start and stop.) Jerry Goldsmith had a few basic rules which he respected faithfully.
One: if it doesn’t need music, don’t score it.
How it used to be done: Famously, the first music cue in Goldsmith’s Coma score occurs around the 45-minute mark. Similarly, apart from the brief mood-setter that underscores Under Fire’s stark opening credits, Goldsmith holds back until well past the half-hour mark. The reason is simple: if the characters are solid – and in Under Fire, they definitely are – good composers take their cue from them and allow the arc of the score to mirror the arc of the protagonist. Since the three-act structure dictates that character drama should only really kick in around the end of the first act, there is little need for music in the film’s first third (apart perhaps from some musical colouring for the world in which the characters evolve). Sparse spotting makes sense because it ensures maximum impact when the music does come into play.
How it’s done now: these days, every scene is passed of as a new climax and the music is forced to follow suit. (Clearly, the attention span of the common fifteen-year-old cannot be trusted anymore.) Of course, it does not take long before the climaxes cancel each other out and the movie becomes, well, boring. Film composers choose (or are asked to) score “wall to wall” and “white on white”, meaning 1) every new cue sounds as if the planet needed to be saved from some cataclysmic event, and 2) unless (or even if) the composer manages to add a layer of meaning not present in the visuals, the music ends up buried under sound effects. Moreover, so much attention is directed towards individual setpieces these days that many composers completely lose sight of the bigger picture. In fact, most good film scores tell a story, a story which starts out small and is allowed to grow and build over the film’s duration. Pulling out all the stops right from the start forces the composer to work overtime for the rest of the movie. Variety magazine will typically dismiss the score as obtrusive and that’s usually the end of it.
Two: don’t have the score telephone in every story twist.
How it used to be done: dramatic strategy inspired Goldsmith to split the long sequence of Alex’s murder up into three distinct parts. The composer then decided to score only the lead-up and the aftermath, leaving the brutal murder itself unscored. It is both an intelligent and a respectful move. Intelligent, because it allows the murder scene to hit the audience in the face instead of being unnecessarily announced. Respectful, because good drama is never about sensationalism. Lest we forget, film music is nearly always an emotional statement. Not having music in a highly-charged emotional environment is often a prerequisite for dramatic integrity. Under Fire’s action scenes make a similar point: Goldsmith refrains from scoring any of the early action and waits for the characters to actually have a stake in the action. After Alex’s death, Nolte is pursued by Somoza’s army. Only then does the action music erupt. Remember how Jerry Goldsmith was widely regarded as the master of action music? Well, he used to score action only when it actually mattered to the characters and the story. Later on, of course, Goldsmith fell prey to studio involvement as much as the next guy. Occasionally, he managed to get away with a fleeting moment of intelligence. On The Sum Of All Fears, he and director Phil Alden Robinson agreed that it would be ludicrous to score each and every fight scene, but of course the execs disagreed. Famously, during the recording sessions, Robinson got a phone call and immediately after shouted over to the stage: “Jerry, good news! We don’t have to score this fight!”
How it’s done now: since audiences have hit new lows of stupidity (or so studio executives think), every subtle character change needs to be driven home and pounded out by emphatic string orgasms. Moreover, all action is scored indiscriminately - movement these days seems to be enough for a scene to qualify as an action setpiece. Remember the opening scenes of Spider-Man 2 and I, Robot? Peter Parker delivers pizzas and Will Smith pursues a robot that rushes out to deliver a purse to an old lady who forgot it leaving her home. In both cases, the music screams Action! even when the latter turns out to be a red herring and the former is technically not even an action scene, since it has not the least bit of conflict driving it.
Themes and melodies lie at the crossroads of the film composer’s dual identities: the dramatist and the musician, the artisan and the artist. The quality of the themes and their musical integration are a showcase for the artistry of the musician, the placing of the themes within the broader framework of the picture reveals the talents of the dramatist.
How it used to be done: ideally, Goldsmith composed one thematic building stone and derived everything else from it. Compositionally, this kind of “nucleic writing” (for lack of a better word) ensured total musical integration, since every melody and every motif sprang from one central idea. Evidently, Goldsmith didn’t always assemble his scores this rigorously, nor is it absolutely necessary. Rather, it shows how much effort this composer routinely put into crafting a score that had focus and direction. In Under Fire, Goldsmith the dramatist places his themes judiciously. The story tells of two loves, one that ends (Alex-Claire) and one that starts (Russel-Claire). Quite understandably, Goldsmith reserved his love theme for the Russel-Claire relationship. When Claire learns of Alex’s eventual death, director Spottiswoode mounts the scene very carefully and meaningfully: the news is brought to Claire by a televised news report. Since all three characters are journalists, the television element infuses the scene with a subtext and ultimately a poignancy that would otherwise not have been possible. Since Claire is overwhelmed by Alex’s death, Goldsmith could not afford to stay out of the scene. His response was to bring into play the harmonic environment in which the love theme usually appears, but without the actual love theme itself. It is a meaningful move that comments subtly but effectively on where the characters stand. Want another example? In Project X, about a grounded pilot (Matthew Broderick) who joins a top-secret military programme to replace nuclear bomber pilots by monkeys, James Horner has different themes for the monkeys and Broderick’s pilot (among others). The pilot never gets to fly a plane again in the film, but when the time has come to stand up against animal cruelty, the monkeys seize an actual plane, take the stick and fly to freedom to a soaring statement of the pilot’s theme. That’s Horner’s way of saying Broderick’s efforts have not been in vain, and the victory is as much his as it is the monkeys’. Judicious placement of themes can add new meanings to a scene, and keeps the score from painting white paint on a white wall.
Goldsmith the musician came up with four themes for Under Fire (an average by both his own standards and those of the day): the aforementioned love theme, a theme for Alex, a line for rebel leader Rafael and the rebel march that made the score famous. Not only is the march idiom appropriate for the movie’s theme of resistance, Goldmith goes out of his way to make it musically interesting by adding to it all kinds of organic and synthetic colours. The result is a march that also celebrates the beautiful Nicaraguan landscape (even if the pan flute is not geographically correct, something Goldsmith did not fail to point out to the filmmakers early on.)
I’m not saying that every score should be stuffed with themes and melodies. In fact, David Raksin composed the ultimate monothematic score for the 1944 film Laura, whose titular character is so obsessively present in the life of the protagonist that a monothematic score was the only sensible one.
How it’s done now: I watched Billy Bob Thornton’s All The Pretty Horses the other day. Composer Marty Stuart introduces a fantastic outdoors theme for an early river crossing scene. The theme is backed by full orchestra, there is rhythm, there is harmony, there is melody, the performance soars, great! Except of course the theme doesn’t return, or rather it does, but only for solo guitar and only a couple of times, now doubling as the love theme. So basically, there’s just one theme, it’s attributed indiscriminately to different story elements and it shines just once - too early in the movie. (Those clever DVD people predictably took that one grand thematic statement and looped it all over the disc’s main menu.) But at least All The Pretty Horses had a theme! Let’s compare Under Fire with Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, two political thrillers that confronted their composers with roughly the same challenge. Goldsmith worked with four themes. Gone in Clint Mansell’s score is even the semblance of a theme. Instead, a soothing harmonic blur is all the composer brings (or was allowed to bring) to the strong character drama. Robert Redford is old enough to realize the ramifications of these scoring decisions – conceivably, he never concerned himself with the score in the first place. The music just sits there, doing absolutely nothing and taking the notion of unobtrusiveness to a whole new level.
Reputedly, the great Christopher Nolan is not big on themes. For his pet project Inception, he asked Hans Zimmer to compose a score based solely on the screenplay. Zimmer delivered a suite of ideas that Nolan went on to cut and fit to the timings of his scenes. This is by no definition a traditionally designed film score, and it is a questionable approach at best: not only is the composer as a dramatist removed from the filmmaking process, the composer as a musician is forced to create music without seeing the movie it is meant to support. Moreover, I cannot remember a single theme from the score – if there was one, it was unmemorable or it slipped under my radar. (My radar may not be reliable.) The point I’m trying to make is this: if a film score is going to be remembered, if film composers are going to make music for the ages, it has always been through the use of themes and melodies. I honestly do not understand how and why it became cool to replace them by murky harmonic blandness and uninspired synthetic pounding, although if anyone wants to plead extenuating circumstances, I can think of two.
One: newsrooms all over the world have started to underscore their own news reports, often with pre-existing film music – everything needs to be marketed these days, even a hurricane raging over the Philippines. Perhaps today’s filmmakers want to buck this disturbing trend and are growing suspicious of composers wearing their hearts on their sleeves (like Goldsmith did when he felt really comfortable with the material) and are reverting to a kind of score that could never ever be construed as emotionally manipulative. But then again, all film music is emotional manipulation – it is the ways in which the audience’s feelings are manipulated that set the artist apart from the fake.
Two: television has become the new cinema. True, television drama like Breaking Bad is infinitely more subtle and layered than much of what rips and roars through movie theaters these days. But even the best of today’s television is talking heads to one degree or another, the prime examples of visual and cinematic language still belonging to the darkened theatre - Alfonso Cuaron’s mind-blowing Gravity is 2013’s best example. Director Brian De Palma has confessed that the long form of television drama lends itself better to the intricate examination of the human soul, but he has no interest in making television because the medium is more verbal than visual. Where on the small screen have you ever seen anything like the Grand Central chase from Carlito’s Way or the Eisenstein-inspired station shoot-out from The Untouchables? Quite apart from the verbal nature of today’s television, its scores are just as bland and meandering as the ones in today’s movies; at best, you get a decent tune. And while it is true that most television drama needs subtle music rather than symphonic outbursts, that does not preclude intelligent thematic manipulation and careful musical composition. Of course, impossible deadlines don’t help, but that didn’t keep talented and seasoned film composers from delivering great film music back in the day.
I do realize that good themes are still being crafted and I do not deny that good scores are still being made (I particularly liked Abel Korzeniowski’s replacement score for Romeo and Juliet and everything Howard Shore does for Middle Earth is fantastic), but really good scores are increasingly few and far between. A closer look at Jerry Goldsmith’s Under Fire reveals a carefully composed and thematically dense score by a master dramatist. It’s the kind of film music I have come to miss.
Film music may not be dead, but sometimes it feels like a dying art.