Why film scores can reel you in faster than the movies them­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANN HORNADAY

Adapted from her book “Talk­ing Pic­tures: How to Watch Movies.”

On July 21, film com­poser Hans Zim­mer will ap­pear at Mer­ri­weather Post Pav­il­ion to per­form — with or­ches­tra and cho­rus — mu­sic from sev­eral movies he has scored, in­clud­ing “Gla­di­a­tor,” “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight” and “In­cep­tion.”

Al­though it’s not un­com­mon for film mu­sic to be per­formed live — in fact, it’s an an­nual sta­ple at the Mid­dle­burg Film Festival, where a film com­poser is hon­ored ev­ery Oc­to­ber — the prac­tice in­vites a com­mon ques­tion: Should a score ex­ist only as an el­e­ment of the on-screen ex­pe­ri­ence, or is it valu­able in and of it­self?

Un­like nearly ev­ery other craft area of film­mak­ing, a film’s score has the po­ten­tial to ex­ist as a sep­a­rate aes­thetic prod­uct, as a piece of mu­sic that can be en­joyed in and of it­self with­out the at­ten­dant im­ages. Al­though it’s grat­i­fy­ing when movie mu­sic as­pires to and achieves this kind of great­ness, it’s not re­quired; the com­poser’s first re­spon­si­bil­ity is not to write some­thing that can be

per­formed later, but to serve and sup­port the story un­fold­ing on-screen. Like a well-mean­ing friend, mu­sic should help that story in any way it can, with­out in­trud­ing, barg­ing in at in­op­por­tune mo­ments or over­stay­ing its wel­come.

Mu­sic af­fects view­ers so strongly and cre­ates such a po­tent emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence that its im­por­tance to a film can’t be over­stated. To con­sider some of the great com­poser-di­rec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tions through film his­tory — En­nio Mor­ri­cone and Ser­gio Leone; Mau­rice Jarre and David Lean; John Wil­liams and George Lu­cas and Steven Spiel­berg; Bernard Her­rmann and Al­fred Hitch­cock; Carter Bur­well and the Coen broth­ers; Ter­ence Blan­chard and Spike Lee, Zim­mer and Christo­pher Nolan — is to un­der­stand the es­sen­tial role mu­sic plays in help­ing build a con­vinc­ingly im­mer­sive imag­i­nary world.

Ide­ally, mu­sic shouldn’t merely re­peat or am­plify story el­e­ments and feel­ings that are al­ready be­ing com­mu­ni­cated vis­ually or through dia­logue. It should be ad­di­tive, never mim­ick­ing the ac­tion or putting quote marks around it, but giv­ing it more depth and mean­ing, usu­ally en­tirely sub­con­sciously. Per­haps most cru­cially, mu­sic should be used spar­ingly so that the film al­lows view­ers to make their own as­so­ci­a­tions and con­nec­tions, rather than con­tin­u­ally prod­ding and pok­ing them to­ward a par­tic­u­lar feel­ing. The best score watches the movie with the view­ers, not for them; it’s baked into the film, rather than be­ing slathered on top like too much sugar ic­ing.

Point of view

We can all name snip­pets of film scores that have be­come as beloved as the movies them­selves: Mor­ri­cone’s lone­some, coy­ote-like flute notes in Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The trans­port­ing strains of Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” through­out “Doc­tor Zhivago.” Wil­liams’s tri­umphal­ist an­them at the begin­ning of “Star Wars.” Nino Rota’s ro­man­tic, melan­choly theme for “The God­fa­ther.” Mag­nif­i­cent scores, all of them, demon­strat­ing how mu­sic can both work for the film it’s in and tran­scend that role to be­come iconic in its own right. (Thomas New­man’s xy­lo­phone riff for “Amer­i­can Beauty” might have even in­spired a ring­tone.)

Not ev­ery film score has to be as in­stantly rec­og­niz­able as those com­po­si­tions to suc­ceed. In fact, some of the strong­est film mu­sic doesn’t stick with the au­di­ence af­ter they leave the theater but nonethe­less adds ex­po­nen­tially to their ex­pe­ri­ence while they are in it. Al­though an ap­peal­ing, af­fect­ing melody is al­ways nice, film scores don’t have to be “pretty.” The sad, ro­man­tic theme that Bur­well wrote for the Coens’ “Miller’s Cross­ing” is one of the most beautiful pieces of film mu­sic ever writ­ten. (For a while, it was the go-to score that movie com­pa­nies would use on their trail­ers for stir­ring ro­man­tic and his­tor­i­cal dra­mas.) Jonny Green­wood’s min­i­mal­ist elec­tronic score for “There Will Be Blood,” as a coun­terex­am­ple, is for­bid­ding and dis­so­nant. Both work per­fectly for the sto­ries they’re telling.

One of the chief roles of a mu­si­cal score is, to quote the great com­poser Elmer Bern­stein, to “get be­hind and in­side” a movie’s char­ac­ters, es­pe­cially when they’re too ret­i­cent, iso­lated or emo­tion­ally blocked to ex­press them­selves fully. Just as sound ef­fects help es­tab­lish a movie’s point of view, so does mu­sic.

Bern­stein’s score for “To Kill a Mockingbird” ex­em­pli­fies this prin­ci­ple with lyri­cal el­e­gance, both in his sim­ple, child­like theme for the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, Scout, and the more mys­te­ri­ous, melan­choly or­ches­tral theme for Boo Radley. In “The French Con­nec­tion,” jazz mu­si­cian Don El­lis cre­ated a slash­ing, ag­gres­sive mu­si­cal en­vi­ron­ment that matched the seedy, trash-strewn New York City where the story was set, con­vey­ing the sim­mer­ing rage that mo­ti­vated the film’s pug­na­cious an­ti­hero, Pop­eye Doyle, played by Gene Hack­man.

More re­cently, Trent Reznor cre­ated a bril­liant mu­si­cal cue to help the au­di­ence un­der­stand his char­ac­ters in “The So­cial Net­work.” We’re first in­tro­duced to Mark Zucker­berg in a prickly, rapid-fire con­ver­sa­tion he’s hav­ing with a girl he wants to date in a Cam­bridge, Mass., pub; nine min­utes later, the re­buffed Zucker­berg runs back to his Har­vard dorm, hurt and an­gry — and Reznor’s mu­sic kicks in, a plain­tive pi­ano melody with a slightly dis­so­nant string ar­range­ment un­der­neath that grows more pro­nounced as he hur­ries home. Within two min­utes, the mu­sic has helped es­tab­lish Zucker­berg as some­one’s who’s deeply wounded and lonely but in whom ag­gres­sion and re­sent­ment are welling up, to quote di­rec­tor David Fincher, like “a rip­tide.”

Mood mu­sic

Think of those play­ful xy­lo­phone tones of the “Amer­i­can Beauty” theme, at first work­ing in a darkly funny duet with Kevin Spacey’s sar­cas­tic voice-over, then even­tu­ally giv­ing way to a more in­tro­spec­tive, un­apolo­get­i­cally emo­tional string ar­range­ment when the story takes a gen­uinely tragic turn. Or think of Bur­well’s boom­ing tim­pani in the stark open­ing se­quence of “Fargo,” lend­ing moral grav­i­tas to the bleak comedy that will un­fold, or the way his barely there mu­sic for “No Coun­try for Old Men” — more a col­lec­tion of tonal tex­tures than con­ven­tional notes — merges al­most com­pletely with the film’s qui­etly watch­ful sound de­sign. As Bur­well him­self noted, to have placed con­ven­tional mu­sic into the film at any junc­ture would have com­pletely de­stroyed the val­ues that made it such a tour de force of raw­boned real­ism and anx­i­ety.

Mu­sic can ac­cen­tu­ate mood or iron­i­cally play against it: Earl Scruggs’s jaunty banjo mu­sic for 1967’s “Bon­nie and Clyde” might re­flect the duo’s idea of them­selves as rak­ish, Robin Hood-like celebri­ties, but it’s com­pletely at odds with the de­struc­tive path they’re cut­ting through De­pres­sion-era Texas. By the time the movie ends in a shat­ter­ing, bloody shootout, the score has taken on a deeply trou­bling sense of irony. Sim­i­larly, Zim­mer’s mag­nif­i­cent cello-and-vi­o­lin score for “12 Years a Slave” — which never sounded ex­actly “on pe­riod” in terms of 19th-cen­tury clas­si­cal and folk mu­sic — lent the story a con­tem­po­rary, even avant-garde res­o­nance that helped the film tran­scend its spe­cific time and place.

As fas­ci­nat­ing as these coun­ter­in­tu­itive scores were, some­times old-fash­ioned, onthe-nose emo­tion can be just as wel­come, such as Michael Gi­acchino’s com­po­si­tions for Pixar an­i­mated movies. (Gi­acchino is also re­spon­si­ble for two of this sum­mer’s best mu­sic scores, for “Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.”) Work­ing with live or­ches­tras and lush, of­ten un­apolo­get­i­cally sen­ti­men­tal ar­range­ments, Gi­acchino has per­fected the art of giv­ing the au­di­ence valu­able emo­tional cues with­out mak­ing us feel pa­tron­ized. His mu­sic adds lay­ers to what’s on-screen, rather than sim­ply am­pli­fy­ing or re­gur­gi­tat­ing; that three-tis­sue pro­logue to “Up,” so eco­nom­i­cal in its sto­ry­telling, wouldn’t have been half as heart-rend­ing were it not for Gi­acchino’s mov­ing ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

Stan­dards have changed dra­mat­i­cally as to what au­di­ences will ac­cept when it comes to out­right ma­nip­u­la­tion. A Bette Davis melo­drama from the 1940s fea­tured lots of dra­matic un­der­scor­ing — wherein the or­ches­tra played al­most con­stantly, un­der the ac­tors’ dia­logue — but to­day’s con­tem­po­rary dra­mas tend to be sparer and more se­lec­tive in their use of mu­si­cal cues.

One ex­cep­tion lies in the gen­res of ac­tion thrillers and comic-book movies, in which oth­er­wise fine movie scores are overused as part of non­stop, wall-to-wall sound de­sign — a symp­tom, no doubt, of Hol­ly­wood’s in­creas­ing de­pen­dence on the for­eign mar­ket for box-of­fice sales and the stu­dios’ ner­vous­ness about non-English-speak­ing au­di­ences “get­ting” ev­ery emo­tional beat and nu­ance.

The re­sult is a knock-down, drag-out fight be­tween mu­sic, sound ef­fects and dia­logue that is likely to leave view­ers feel­ing like the losers (and just as bat­tered and bruised). Fun­da­men­tally, over­scor­ing in films be­trays both a lack of trust in the au­di­ence and a lack of con­fi­dence on the part of film­mak­ers who con­tin­u­ally tell their view­ers what to feel rather than al­low­ing the story and per­form­ers to do so.

Of­ten, this kind of in­se­cu­rity is re­flected in one of my fa­vorite pieces of film-busi­ness jar­gon: “mickey-mous­ing,” which com­posers use de­ri­sively to de­scribe mu­sic that slav­ishly fol­lows the ac­tion un­fold­ing on­screen. (It’s too bad the term has be­come a pe­jo­ra­tive, be­cause the car­toon mu­sic to which it refers was so bril­liantly writ­ten and pro­duced.) Cer­tainly, fa­mil­iar riffs and key changes can pro­vide help­ful cues to the au­di­ence in terms of a movie’s tone and emo­tional tem­per­a­ture. But one sure sign of hack­work in a film’s score is when it con­sis­tently re­verts to cliche — testos­terone-fu­eled drums thun­der­ing un­der a car chase, for ex­am­ple, or a string riff I call “syn­co­pated pizzi­cato” dur­ing a play­ful mo­ment in a comedy. Cliched mu­sic pro­vides re­dun­dant com­men­tary on the vis­ual ac­tion rather than a coun­ter­point.

Even at its most hack­neyed, mu­sic is a cru­cial el­e­ment of movie sound, which is com­posed of so many el­e­ments that it’s usu­ally im­pos­si­ble to tease out what’s work­ing and what’s not dur­ing the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence The ques­tion is, did we hear what we needed to hear to un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing on-screen? We know whether we feel ad­dled and over­whelmed upon leav­ing the theater, or re­freshed from hav­ing a gen­uinely novel, emo­tion­ally po­tent ex­pe­ri­ence. We might al­ready be hum­ming the score, we might not; what counts is that the mu­sic con­trib­uted to the con­struc­tion of a com­plete sonic world.

“Talk­ing Pic­tures: How to Watch Movies” by Ann Hornaday. Copy­right 2017. Avail­able from Ba­sic Books, an im­print of Perseus Books, a divi­sion of PBG Pub­lish­ing, LLC, a sub­sidiary of Ha­chette Book Group, Inc.

Ann Hornaday will be at Pol­i­tics & Prose, 5015 Con­necti­cut Ave. NW, on July 29 at 3:30 p.m. Free and open to the pub­lic.


Film com­poser Hans Zim­mer, above, pic­tured in his stu­dio in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., in Jan­uary 2011, won an Os­car for best orig­i­nal score for “The Lion King.”

In her book “Talk­ing Pic­tures: How to Watch Movies,” Wash­ing­ton Post film critic Ann Hornaday re­veals how mu­sic has the power to ac­cen­tu­ate a mood or even play against it.

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