I have a hard time pinpointing a precise moment, because I think I was already crazy about film music before I realized what film music meant as a concept. I know that as a very young child, certain movie themes would get stuck in my head for weeks on end. The first piece of film music per se I remember affecting me is probably a touchstone that nobody else remembers. The 1977 Dr. Seuss television special, Halloween is Grinch-Night, climaxed with an insane “Night on Bald Mountain”-esque orchestral cue by Joe Raposo, and I spent the countless hours replaying that music on a mental loop while I played with my toys. And as a child of the late 80s/early 90s, the main title music from movies like Batman and Back to the Future had a huge impact on my 7-year old imagination (and I gather that is the case for more than a few film music nerds of my generation). Film music suggested an extension of those cinematic fantasies; stripped of the visuals, the music almost functioned as an opening into limitless imaginary worlds that the films themselves only suggested.
But the first film score that actually made me sit up and realize, “huh, a person wrote this music,” was Danny Elfman’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. I was 10 when the movie came out, and something about its juxtaposition of freewheeling Seuss-inspired craziness and aching loneliness completely enthralled me. I became obsessed with the film, particularly its moody, piercingly personal music. And perhaps because this was long before the film attracted the goth Hot Topic crowd, it never occurred to me to express my love of the film by painting my nails black or wearing eyeliner; rather, I just wanted to learn everything I could learn about the film and the people who made it (in the pre-internet days, most of this happened via the mammoth Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever). Learning that Danny Elfman was the person behind all of the film’s music led to learning that he was also responsible for the music I’d loved in all of those other Tim Burton movies – and it did not escape me that all of this music was clearly cut from the same stylistic cloth. I started looking up composers from other films I liked, and found similar trends. The guy who wrote the Back to the Future music indeed wrote the stylistically similar music from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The guy who did all that Star Wars music indeed wrote the music to … more or less every other film from my childhood. I started to follow film composers the way my friends were starting to follow bands – as distinct artists with clear stylistic traits that carried over and developed from film to film.
Finally one day as a complete whim, I went to the mall’s Sam Goody just to see if I could actually find any of these film scores on CD. If I tried that today, I’d have been laughed out of the store (if I somehow managed to find a mall with a Sam Goody in the first place). In the mid-1990s, however, soundtrack albums to moderate 80s hits were stilll easy to find at your average mall music store. Batman and Beetlejuice became my first score CDs, and I listened to them compulsively. From that point on, my fledgling interest in film music became a full-fledged obsession. It embarrasses me in retrospect, but for pretty much the entire duration of high school and college, I listened almost exclusively to film music. My interests more or less spread like a rhizome from Elfman. I knew he cited Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota as influences, so I ate up all of the Herrmann and Rota I could find, then proceeded to explore other Golden Age composers. I of course also geeked out to all of the big action and fantasy scores that were still in vogue at the turn of the century, and I was equally in love with Goldenthal, Goldsmith, Williams, and all of the other fan favorites. And as the internet became more commonplace, I discovered all of the message boards, review websites, and fan pages. Bit by bit, I started turned myself into an amateur film music buff.
Up until a few years ago, all of this was still only a hobby. I majored in English in college, and I continued on to graduate school with a mind to becoming an American Literature professor. While part of my planned dissertation involved examining the cinema’s influence on the literary trends throughout the 20th century, I was still preparing for a traditional literature dissertation. However, midway through my comps exam (the exam you pass to advance to candidacy), my committee essentially told me that while they could see I knew my subject well, I was also clearly more passionate about film sound than I was in literature. With their encouragement, I redirected my dissertation towards film studies. My still-in-progress project now looks at the relationship between film sound/music and childhood. I study films made for ostensibly adult audiences that draw on sound and music tropes commonly associated with childhood, and I explore ways in which those films give their audiences access to long-forgotten emotions and desires. I suspect these questions have long since been at the back of my interest in film music, and it’s extremely fulfilling to find my nerdy hobby at the center of my own academic work.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
Honestly, I can thank my wife, Rachel, who encouraged me to stop funneling my energy into furious Facebook posts or message board comments and to instead channel that energy into a blog. I had written reviews for Ryan Keaveney’s Cinemusic back in early aughts, but when that site gradually faded away, I found myself missing an immediate outlet for writing about film music. I started Movie Music Musings to occupy a somewhat nebulous space between my strictly academic work and my less formal thoughts on cinema and its music. Though I take occasional diversions, my blog typically features hybrid reviews where I analyze both films and their scores. As such, my blog isn’t quite the same as most other film music review sites, which tend to review score albums first and foremost as standalone listening experiences. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for people who review scores as albums, I tend to be more interested in music as it plays against the picture. I also treat the reviews this way because the blog is written for a general audience as much as it is for film score fans. My hope is for Movie Music Musings to connect with people who wouldn’t otherwise think to notice the score when they go to the movies; I want to encourage moviegoers who rarely notice the music to take stock of the way music is constantly impacting their emotional response to cinema.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
I don’t know that I can answer this as an absolute; for any baseline standard I try to set, I’m sure I’ll be able to think of countless great scores that completely break that rule. I guess the closest I can come is to say that a great film score needs to bring some distinct dimension to the film that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Often, that means this means supporting the drama, letting the music turn into a near-organic extension of the emotions searing through the characters. These are probably the easiest scores to love, because they’re so emotionally direct. Done poorly, music like this can come across as sappy or redundant, particularly when the music only tries to overemphasize things that are already pointedly obvious from the images. But at their best, an emotionally direct score finds truths that the audience might not otherwise think to notice. Think of the way Danny Elfman’s lullaby melodies in Edward Scissorhands reveal the innocent purity underneath the title character’s monstrous form, or the way the writhing dissonances in Alex North’s Cleopatra unearth the agonizing despair seething beneath Marc Antony’s stoic demeanor. These scores enable us to empathize with characters in situations where empathy might otherwise have been difficult – they’re often the difference between a movie leaving us cold or leaving us choked up.
That said, I’m just as impressed by scores that challenge our understanding of the drama, scores that take a counter-intuitive approach. These are scores that thwart easy identification with the characters, and they don’t clarify so much as they transform our understanding of their respective films. I think of Carter Burwell’s serene pastoral music that plays in response to the nihilistic carnage in Miller’s Crossing, or Henry Mancini’s sexy big-band theme music that plays over a decidedly un-sexy strangling sequence in Touch of Evil, or Michael Nyman’s chilling choral requiem juxtaposed against a mobster’s grotesque depravity in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. These scores aren’t clearly responding to any of the characters’ points of view, and they don’t seem to gel with anything we see onscreen. Yet the cognitive dissonance they spark can lead us to profound places. When we’re forced to carry these conflicting emotions simultaneously, we’re forced to become more actively involved in interpreting what we’re experiencing. Music in these instances doesn’t determine the film’s meaning for us; rather it compels us to itself to participate in the act of meaning-making ourselves.
Those are still only two broad categories, of course, and I’m sure there are still plenty of great film scores that don’t fit into either side of this arbitrary binary (academic film music theory often refers to binary as parallelism versus counterpoint, though I’m not entirely sold on those terms). The most important thing, I suppose, is that the score has a vital justification for its presence in the film. I have little patience with anonymous film music that’s only present because filmmakers are afraid of silence, and I have even less patience for generic music that’s only present because a marketing department wants to mimic a different film’s success. For me, the ideal film score becomes such a vital part of the experience that the film would seem genuinely incomplete without it.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today?
Less than great, which has unfortunately been the case for just about a decade now. Of course interesting music always finds a way through somehow, but the overall onslaught of simplistic factory-made conformity is pretty dispiriting. I don’t have a problem with the Hans Zimmer/Remote Control aesthetic in its own right, but it becomes a huge problem when studios apply that template indiscriminately to 80% of their tentpole features. There’s nothing wrong with simple music, and there’s nothing wrong with power anthems or pop chord progressions in their own right. However, it becomes a big problem when the same simple chord progressions appear as the foundation in every other big studio production. This sort of music isn’t flexible or varied enough to adapt to each film’s unique dramatic needs, and as a consequence we’ve had an onslaught of film scores that don’t even try and say anything meaningful about the drama. They’re reduced to marking time and signaling generic emotional moods in the broadest and most obvious terms possible.
What’s perhaps scariest about the trend is that it doesn’t seem connected to the commercial success of the films themselves. Plenty of films that follow the Remote Control formula bomb (see this past year’s Robocop or The Edge of Tomorrow), and plenty that don’t still find box office success (see Skyfall or this past year’s Godzilla). But every time something original gets through, the studios seem to treat it as an anomaly, and they immediately rush to make sure that the next big picture goes right back to the familiar formula. I get the sinking sensation that ubiquity of the Remote Control idiom is less related to its reliable commercial success and more related to the fact that its so easy to control. Studios don’t have to worry that something new or threatening will emerge if they make sure that each composer follows the same factory model. It’s as though the studios have grown so reliant on having a comfortable formula that they’ve lost sight of whether that formula is actually making them money.
The bright spot, for me, has the been the recent surge of interesting film music from the independent scene. This is not a development I would have anticipated 10-15 years ago. Back in the late ‘90s, loving both film and film music put you in a dicey position. You knew that if you wanted to see a “good” movie – an avant garde art film, and indie drama, a foreign language film, etc – you probably had to resign yourself to a film scored with generic ambient nothingness. If you went to a studio blockbuster, the movie would likely be terrible, but there was a good chance that you’d hear an audaciously complex orchestral score by somebody like Jerry Goldsmith or Elliot Goldenthal. But as big studios have grown more terrified of original music, independent filmmakers seem to have finally gotten interested in film music that takes a prominent role in the production. True, these filmmakers are often not interested in the same traditional orchestral music that many film score fans usually want – you’re more likely to find scores written by indie bands or art music composers than anything by Bruce Broughton or John Williams. But regardless of the aesthetic, these are films that actually willing to use music in progressive, daring ways. And perhaps become so many of these alternative and indie rock composers are used to playing in ensembles, they often have a more deliberate grasp on orchestration – on the timbral and textural capabilities of each individual instrument – than the more “professional” film composers who have been conditioned to make 100-piece ensembles sound like single keyboards.
I find myself gravitating more to these less conventional scores of late, more so even than I am to the handful of traditional thematic orchestral scores that occasionally pop up. This often puts me at odds with my fellow film music fans, but at this point I’d rather be surprised or challenged by a film score than listen to a lesser variation on something I loved 15 years ago.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
Historically, I would probably say Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith. More than anyone else, these two were willing to throw themselves into every film they approached, to fully reinvent themselves every time the picture demanded it. North, even more so than Bernard Herrmann I’d argue, pioneered a form of psychological scoring that dug underneath tortured characters and found ways to let music embody their struggles. He made monsters seem human, ancient music seem fresh and alive, and history’s political struggles feel urgent as today’s headlines. His style was fiercely complex and modernistic, but his music never drew attention to itself – it was always firmly part and parcel with the film’s world. Goldsmith was just as good, and several dozen times more prolific. His ability to constantly adapt his style to the changing industry trends without ever betraying his own identity as a composer is staggering, and his willingness to treat each film he approached – no matter how trashy or awful – with the same level of sincerity and sensitivity has never been equaled.
In terms of composers working regularly today, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, and Patrick Doyle are probably the three composers I trust the most. They’re all in their 60s, but they’re seemingly more interested in challenging themselves and pushing their music in new directions then composers half of their age. Howard Shore’s score for Cosmopolis, to cite one example, is somehow more in touch with current trends in electronica than any of the dated “trendy” music that’s constantly pumped out for the Transformers or Marvel franchises. Moreover, Elfman, Shore, and Doyle are the most consistently sensitive composers still working. They know how to support the drama beat by beat without overwhelming it, and they know when to the challenge the audience with something surprising. Even when I don’t 100% love an Elfman score on album, I’m almost always blown away by his intuition once I see the score against the picture. Something as seemingly disposable as his gentle pop music for Silver Linings Playbook becomes vital once I witness it subtly underlining the characters’ vulnerabilities in the film.
Otherwise, most of my favorite composers work so sporadically for film that I can’t in good conscience call them film composers. I’m always interested when people with more of an art music background get involved, because they’re often unencumbered by standard conventions. Elliot Goldenthal rarely scores films anymore, but every time he does its something brilliantly outrageous – he often sounds like he’s somehow viciously satirizing films even as he’s providing them with sincere dramatic support (it’s mind-blowing to me that he was once given free reign over studio schlock like Demolition Man and Batman Forever). Philip Glass and Michael Nyman only score films sporadically, but when they do the results are often transcendent, challenging our assumptions about the role film music is supposed to perform. Veterans like Ennio Morricone and John Williams are much mellower now than they were in their heyday, but they’re still writing substantial and moving film music in their autumn years. And as I indicated earlier, I’m excited by the voices from alternative and indie music that have been joining the conversation. Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood have written some of the most fascinating film scores of the new century, and I’m excited by the new perspectives that people Alex Ebert, Win Butler, Owen Pallett, and Mica Levi are bringing to the conversation.
If I’m revealing a slight inclination away from traditional film music and towards less conventional approaches, this is no doubt in part a result of my own shifting music tastes. I no longer listen to film music exclusively, and at this point I’m usually more excited to hear the latest albums from bands like The National or St. Vincent than I am most new film scores. But I’m still enthralled by the magic that sparks every time fresh and vital music finds new ways of interacting with images and stories on-screen. That magic is the same for me whether the music comes from a symphony orchestra or a 8-piece rock ensemble. And I suspect that regardless of where my personal music tastes end up migrating in the future, I will always be transfixed by the affectively immersive thrill of great film music.
Read Paul’s reviews at Movie Music Musings, or follow him on Twitter at @Paul_The_Cote.