Whether roaring fanfares, scything murderous strings or tear-jerking themes, film music is explored in Matt Schrader’s new documentary Score, boasting a wealth of contemporary interviews with jobbing composers as well as a history of Hollywood film music.
The movies were never silent. From the first experiments of the Lumiere brothers in 1895 and the Nickelodeons that sprouted up throughout the subsequent years, pianos and Wurlitzer organs were employed to add drama, sound effects and, perhaps most importantly, to cover the noise of the clattering projectors. As Hollywood took hold composers such as Max Steiner – who scored the 1933 King Kong before going on to such landmarks as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca – began to define an orchestral sound of both grandiosity and sweeping romanticism. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the 20th Century Fox fanfare scored by Alfred Newman. Remarkably, the theme was initially written for Samuel Goldwyn, but was rejected.
After the Second World War, Alex North, in his 1951 score for A Streetcar Named Desire, introduced jazz influences which would be taken up by such maestros as Henry Mancini and Yorkshire’s very own John Barry, who made a club band beat jazz the pulsating kiss-kiss bang-bang soundtrack of a certain secret agent code-named 007 before developing his own lush orchestral work for Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa. Bernard Hermann’s shower shredding moment raised the stakes for dramatic music but was perhaps matched when John Williams played two notes on the piano to a bemused Steven Spielberg and said, “That’s the shark”, for Jaws.
Matt Schrader’s history lesson is interspersed with a multitude of interviewers with working composers such as Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Marco Beltrami and Howard Shore. We see them working in the studio, experimenting with strange instruments and sounds, conducting in the studio or mixing at the desk. Some of this is a bit dizzying – the field is crowded – and the intervention of a psychologist to ultimately muse as to whether music was explainable could perhaps have been dispensed with.
In fact, with such a comprehensive crowd of interviewees, some of the film’s gaps are baffling. The focus is tightly on Hollywood with Ennio Morricone, one of the few non-US composers briefly mentioned. When Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are being lauded for introducing electronic music into soundtracks such as The Social Network, you can’t help but wonder at the omission of Giorgio Moroder work in the eighties or the Greek composer Vangelis, who won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire and whose Blade Runner was massively influential. A less swooning look at the work might also have included some of the meatier controversies of plagiarism which have been levelled at the likes of Williams.
In fact, the magpie tendencies of soundtracks to filch from contemporary music would in itself make for an interesting study – a revenge for which came when Stanley Kubrick ditched Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey for the temp soundtrack he’d been using of his favourite pieces to edit by. However, Schrader’s Score offers a solid introduction to the subject, and a panoramic overview. Having watched the film, it would take someone with ears of cloth and a heart of stone not to start fishing out some of the old soundtracks to enjoy them anew.
Score: A Film Music Documentary is released on DVD and on demand on 2 April. amzn.eu/bVxM6vA
John Bleasdale | @drjonty