Post by Dinora
Are there any film scores, of the past, but more importantly
some newer ones, that you'd say have a higher quality than
the usual Hollywood fare? Equal in value as some classical
The Hollywood film score has suffered a terrible decline over the past 20
years. The basic problem is that composers are largely writing "all music,
all the time" scores, with 75% or more of the running time musically backed.
This isn't new; that grand master of excess scoring, Max Steiner, was
criticized for it during his life. * The first movie I remember with "too
much" music was "Conehead the Barbiturate", scored by Basil Pouledoris. As I
walked out of the theater, a woman's comment to her boyfriend mirrored my
own thoughts -- "I've never seen a movie with so much music."
The question is... Why?
Bernard Herrmann laid down a number of rules about film scoring. Only one of
them is invalid -- "The music should make an emotional connection between
the audience and what's happening on the screen." -- but it helps us
understand the current musical excess.
In my view, there are two broad schools of directing -- American and
European. American directing has traditionally been in-your-face, with
intense involvement with the story and characters. European directing has
usually been cooler, with less-explicit involvement. ** For reasons I don't
understand, American directing has been moving in the direction of European,
with an increasingly cool and even "detached" approach. Martin Scorsese's
work gives a good example: "The Departed" is a much less immediately
involving film than "GoodFellas" (to the extent that Jack Nicholson's
typically emphatic performance looks quite out of place), though they're
separated by only 16 years.
As films have gotten increasingly "distant" and even "affectless" (at least
compared to the way they used to be made), film composers appear to have
been "filling in the blanks" by trying to enhance the weaker emotions of the
films. An emotionally intense movie -- especially a drama -- doesn't need a
lot of music.
"Lord of the Rings" is an excellent example. The story has little dramatic
content or thrust. So is it much of a surprise that Howard Shore
(over)loaded it with music? These films are nearly buried under the weight
of their spectacle and special effects; Howard had to do /something/ --
though he might have done it better with less and more-intense music. (I've
wondered why he created his own Ring motive, when he could have stolen from
Contrariwise, consider the 1974 TV movie, "The Execution of Private Slovik".
Other than source music, it has no score whatever. It doesn't need it. It's
so well-written, directed, and acted, that the connection between the screen
and the audience is made /without/ a composer's intervention.
Once upon a time, music was present because it was needed for some good
reason. The almost steady "drone" of modern scores reveals how unimportant
they are. Herrmann used to sit in on the final mix and raise the faders to
increase the level of his music! (Really. I don't know he got away with it.)
One cannot imagine any current composer doing that, as there is so rarely
anything in the music worth drawing the viewer's attention to.
Bernard Herrmann remains the emperor of film scoring. Other composers have
matched him with particular films (Goldsmith and Elfman come to mind), but
no composer has come remotely close to the consistent high quality of his
scores. *** More than any other composer, Herrmann's scores are repeatedly
praised for /greatly/ enhancing their films. For many of Herrmann's scores,
it is impossible to /imagine/ the film without his score. To cite one
example... Robert Wise, who knew Herrmann when both worked on "Citizen
Kane", wanted Herrmann to score "The Day the Earth Stood Still", because he
knew it would be good. He later said he had no idea just /how/ good it would
be. Herrmann's music "makes" this film; one cannot imagine the film without
It would be reasonable to say that the best film scores can stand comparison
with good classical music. (And God knows, enough film composers --
including Herrmann -- have stolen from classical composers. The "Mad House"
theme in "Psycho" is lifted directly from Bartok's "Music for Strings,
Percussion, & Celeste".) If film music achieves its intended effect --
usually of enhancing the audience's emotional reaction to the film, and in
some cases creating it outright -- then it can be considered "good" music.
(Before someone objects "You don't like program music!", I will say that
film scoring is closer to opera.)
It's easy to write bad film scores. Frank De Vol's for "What Ever Happened
to Baby Jane?" should be a warning to anyone who thinks Mickey-Mousing is a
good way to write a score. Amazingly, his terrible score doesn't seem to
hurt the film -- but one wonders what it might have been like with a
Goldsmith or Herrmann score. And then there's Hans Salter's loud, noisy,
raucous, noisy, stupid, noisy, idiotic -- did I say noisy? -- score for
"Ghost of Frankenstein". (It's particularly ironic, as the previous film in
the series, "Bride of Frankenstein", has one of the all-time-great scores,
from Franz Waxman. Still a classic.)
But the very worst score I've yet heard comes from John Williams' declining
years (which started ca. 1980). His music for "Jurassic Park" ignores
another Herrmann dictum, that music should supply what the director cannot
or will not show on the screen. Spielberg gave Williams the perfect
opportunity, with a PG-13 film that should have been gory enough to garner
an R. Instead, we get a lot of brass fanfares and uninspired "cookie cutter"
filler that does little to enhance the visuals. In short, Williams had the
opportunity to terrorize the audience, but did nothing, instead churning out
a score he could have written in his sleep (and probably did).
Perhaps I should add that my least-favorite composer is Miklos Rosza. Most
of his film scores sound like a bunch of notes jumbled together, without
motive (in both senses of the word) or direction. He reminds me of Max
RegeR, whose music seems to have no apparent "polarity" -- is it being
played forwards or backwards? And at least one of Rosza's scores -- "King of
Kings" -- verges on the theatrically campy.
What comprises a good score is difficult to say. Unquestionably, the best
scores raise their films to a higher artistic level. Royal S. Brown, who
used to review film scores for "Fanfare", feels that a good score has to be
able to stand on its own, separate from the film. I'm not sure I agree, but
the best film composers are able to achieve both goals.
As for recent good scores, I can't think of many, because I don't go to the
movies much. Danny Elfman has been a major letdown, never living up to his
original promise ("Pee-Wee's Big Adventure", "Beetlejuice", "Batman"). As
with too many composers, he's fallen back on what he's done before. I've
seen the trailer for "Alice in Wonderland", and maybe, just maybe, Elfman
has gotten his groove back. There is no excuse for his not turning in a
really great score for a fantasy film of this sort.
The best score of the last five years is probably Gustavo Santaolalla's for
"Brokeback Mountain", precisely because there's so little of it. Most of the
music is atmosphere, not directly connected with the characters or their
situations. The guitar theme, which represents Ennis and Jack's emotionally
unconsummated relationship, is used sparingly. This is a fine example of a
film that /doesn't need/ music, because the actors say it all. Any attempt
to "play up" the drama with music would have only weakened the film, and
possibly have ruined it. Santaolalla had the good sense not to mess up a
One reason dramas should be scored lightly (or not at all) is that the
music, contrary to Herrmann's view, /does not/ connect us with the emotion,
but dilutes or even obscures it. When the /music/ is telling us what to
feel, and how to feel it, we are /not/ directly experiencing it. ****
Of course, it's sometimes useful for the music to set the tone. I recently
got the Blu-ray of that great guilty pleasure, "Gremlins". Joe Dante tells
how, when Jerry Goldsmith played the "gremlin rag", he didn't know what to
think (apparently because he had not fully arrived at the understanding that
the film -- which had not started shooting -- would, however black, be a
comedy). Then he thought "This is Jerry Goldsmith! He knows what he's
doing." And he did. The humor of his score both complements and enhances the
film's nasty edge.
* Steiner was not only a believer in Leitmotivs (it's hard to write a film
score /without/ using them), but in Mickey-Mousing the screen action -- that
is, having the orchestra mimic or comment on what's happening. This worked
extremely well in Steiner's "King Kong" -- the first great film score for a
talkie -- but can be annoying if overused and/or not done well. At the end
of "Dark Victory", Bette Davis walks up a flight of stairs to die. She
commented: "Either I will walk up those stairs, or Mr. Steiner will walk up
those stairs, but not both of us." Unfortunately, Jack Warner paid no
attention to Ms. Davis's threat, and we are forced to hear the orchestra
follow Ms. Davis. It's fairly obvious that this moment would be far more
effective experienced in silence. To which point I will return later.
** Take, for example, "The Bicycle Thieves" (the correct translation of the
title). An American director would have really hit the audience hard,
perhaps even leaning in the direction of extreme sentimentality.
*** It should be noted that Herrmann wrote in the way Haydn recommended to
Beethoven -- small motivic chunks that are easily manipulated. Herrmann
could write long melodies, but they were not the bread and butter of his
**** I'm working on a script for Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall. In the
unlikely event it's ever produced, I will ask that it have no scoring