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