Lush mu­sic marked the films of the golden age of Hol­ly­wood, in sharp con­trast to to­day’s un­der­stated sound­tracks, writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

OOK at the most pop­u­lar Aus­tralian films of the past 20 years and it’s strik­ing how many owe a large part of their success to their in­spired use of mu­sic. We need only think of the ABBA of Muriel’s Wed­ding and Priscilla; Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ball­room and Moulin Rouge; or Bran Nue Dae and last year’s The Sap­phires.

Since some of th­ese were mu­si­cals, by def­i­ni­tion they had prom­i­nent sound­tracks, gen­er­ally old hit songs. But go­ing back to ear­lier decades you find Ge­orge Miller’s first two Mad Max films used mu­sic in a dif­fer­ent but no less im­por­tant way, with Brian May’s orig­i­nal scores prov­ing highly ef­fec­tive in un­der­scor­ing the ac­tion. Peter Weir’s Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine with­out the sound of Ghe­o­rghe Zam­fir’s breathy wind­pipes, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily bold, even risky use of ‘‘ found’’ (or pre-ex­ist­ing) mu­sic that added hugely to the film’s haunt­ing at­mos­phere. Paul Cox’s de­ploy­ment of Donizetti’s Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor in Man of Flow­ers was that film’s mas­ter­stroke.

Yet Guy Gross, pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Guild of Screen Com­posers, feels lo­cal film­mak­ers have of­ten been slow to re­alise the po­ten­tial power of mu­sic, with many direc­tors hold­ing back just when they should be push­ing for­ward, al­most as if they’re em­bar­rassed by the dis­play of emo­tion in­volved.

‘‘ The crux is: how much do we want to ma­nip­u­late the au­di­ence?’’ asks Gross, whose com­pos­ing cred­its in­clude The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and tele­series Farscape. He shoots home al­most all the blame to direc­tors. ‘‘ I’ve had them in my stu­dio lit­er­ally say­ing, ‘ I don’t want to ma­nip­u­late the au­di­ence’, to which my re­sponse is, wait a minute, you’ve stuck a cam­era in front of an ac­tor and you’ve put in lights, you’re ma­nip­u­lat­ing. If you don’t want to ma­nip­u­late the au­di­ence, give ’ em the script.’’

The dif­fi­cult part for com­posers, Gross says, is the di­rec­tor ‘‘ who wants you to score their film with­out ma­nip­u­lat­ing. So you end up with a ter­ri­bly min­i­mal score with few notes — I call it the one-fin­ger score some­times — and it’s al­most paint­ing by num­bers.

‘‘ I’ve lit­er­ally had direc­tors say, ‘ No, no, too many notes, can we take that one out?’ and we’re left with three or four notes mov­ing in a small scale pas­sage — that’s not mu­sic!

‘‘ To me it’s just a shame that we don’t take that ex­tra step and tell the au­di­ence what we are try­ing to ex­press emo­tion­ally.’’

He’s not alone in won­der­ing if the Aus­tralian

Lpsy­che is to blame. Martin Ar­miger, head of screen mu­sic at the Aus­tralian Film Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio School, re­calls an Amer­i­can edit­ing teacher at the school telling him Aus­tralian direc­tors would al­ways be re­luc­tant to go for the emo­tional moment, and that he could never work it out. ‘‘ It was al­most as if it was un­manly.’’

Ar­miger has had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences him­self. ‘‘ Teach­ing screen mu­sic, talk­ing to direc­tors about what they want to do, it is a cu­ri­ous area,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are no rules, but it’s funny what peo­ple want. They’ll ei­ther as­sume it’ll have mu­sic be­cause films tend to have mu­sic, or they will have a par­tic­u­lar piece of mu­sic they like that they want to put in their film. Which is valid. But there’s no rigour about it, which is why we al­ways ask, ‘ What do you want the mu­sic to do?’ ’’ In sound mix­ing the­atres, Ar­miger has of­ten been amazed at the way direc­tors will ‘‘ priv­i­lege the sound de­sign, which doesn’t have emo­tional con­tent, over the mu­sic. The sound of a V8 en­gine will get them ex­cited, whereas a bit of mu­sic will make them em­bar­rassed. They’d really not want to go there.’’

But maybe this is not just down to Aus­tralian ret­i­cence. Per­haps the phe­nom­e­non is in­ter­na­tional? Paul Grabowsky, whose many orig­i­nal scores in­clude Fred Schep­isi’s The Eye of the Storm and Last Or­ders, points to just how much things have changed since the end of Hol­ly­wood’s golden age (1927-60). Suc­cess­ful Hol­ly­wood com­posers of the early sound pe­riod such as Franz Wax­man and Max Steiner tended to be Jewish refugees, trained in the mu­sic of the ro­man­tic era in the acad­e­mies of the old world, with a huge debt to Wag­ner. ‘‘ The mu­sic had huge emo­tional up­lift and the movies were like that too,’’ Grabowsky says. ‘‘ I’d ar­gue we’re liv­ing in a very dif­fer­ent world now, and that film­mak­ers don’t want to live in that height­ened emo­tional land­scape. We live in a more cyn­i­cal era.’’ With irony and quo­ta­tion now more im­por­tant, he says, ‘‘ mu­sic has a cooler tem­per­a­ture, the ex­cep­tion be­ing the ac­tion­ad­ven­ture movie, where it’s so loud that it’s al­most like go­ing to a rock con­cert, you’ve got a bar­rage of sound’’.

Mu­sic is the one spe­cial­ist area that tends to fall out­side of direc­tors’ area of ex­per­tise, so they can feel in­tim­i­dated by it, he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ They like to be in con­trol of all the el­e­ments and can some­times feel out of their depth.’’ He misses from to­day’s cin­ema the movie driven by mu­sic, such as Hitch­cock’s Ver­tigo, where Bernard Her­rmann’s mys­te­ri­ous score drives long se­quences with­out di­a­logue ‘‘ and does an in­cred­i­ble job of draw­ing us into that world’’.

The main dif­fer­ence be­tween Hol­ly­wood and Aus­tralian scores is bud­getary, Grabowsky be­lieves. ‘‘ Most films are what the government agen­cies call low-bud­get, so it’s very un­usual for a com­poser to get the bud­get that al­lows them to

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