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