Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I’m a child of the late 1970s so I grew up in that wonderful era for young cinema enthusiasts when Hollywood was making all those films for kids through the late 70s and then the 1980s – which featured memorable music. The Star Wars trilogy, ET, Gremlins, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, the early Star Trek movies – these are the films I grew up on, and if they don’t turn you into a film music lover then nothing will. It wasn’t until I went to university that it really turned into more than a casual appreciation, because by sheer coincidence when I turned up on my first day I discovered that the guy staying three doors down from me was an even bigger fan of film music than I was. He was Tom Daish who went on to run the (sadly now departed) Soundtrack Express website for a number of years and it was a joy first discovering great film music from him that I hadn’t previously known about, then discovering new ones together.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
I’ve always loved writing and I always wanted to be a journalist or a novelist but I’m too shy to be the former and not brave (or, in all probability, good) enough to be the latter. So I ended up doing maths at university and to satisfy my craving for writing I started writing what I loosely termed “reviews” of soundtracks on the free webspace provided by my university, which much to my amazement people somehow found (this was pre-Google!) and even sent me some feedback on. I began taking it more seriously and my Movie Wave website just grew and grew; and is still going today, nearly twenty years later. Of course, you basically lounge around all day at university not doing anything (at least, I did), so there’s lots of time for listening to and writing about film music, and that’s not the case afterwards; and as first a wife and then a daughter have come along, along with an ever-more-pressured real job, there’s been less and less time available for doing it – but I still love it.
I’ve never pretended to be anything other than what I am – an enthusiastic amateur – but I do take it seriously, I do remember that I’m writing about something that a number of people have toiled over for a great length of time, I’ve upset a few people over the years but for every email I’ve had off a composer telling me I’m an idiot there have been dozens from people telling me they only discovered Ennio Morricone or Alex North or Georges Delerue because they read one of my reviews, and those moments have made it feel like I might have done something important after all. I do try to do pieces of critical writing, I do try to explain why I do or don’t like something – I generally favour brevity and try to get my thoughts across as concisely as possible, because I know in 2015 people aren’t very likely to spend their time browsing through 5,000 words unless they’re really, really good words; and the sacrifice I’ve made to compensate for having less time for writing these days is to try to put down a thousand words (sometimes far fewer) and still get my point across. It’s probably forced me into being a better writer. (But then I’ve always thought I was better than I used to be, and then a year later I re-read something I wrote and wonder what idiot pills I’d taken that day.)
I had a brief diversion into writing some liner notes for Prometheus Records 15 years ago which I absolutely loved and really wish I could have done more of – but nobody’s ever asked, so I guess that’s the most pertinent review this reviewer will ever get! And as a direct result of having the website I’ve met some of my musical heroes, got to shake their hands, even interviewed a few of them in what now feels like the distant past. The first was with Michael Kamen, who wasn’t just a gifted composer, he was a warm and helpful and quite wonderful man.
As the owner of one of the oldest and most popular English-language film music review sites in the world, how have you seen film music criticism change since you first started in 1996?
The most obvious change is the move from print to the internet, which was still in relative infancy back then. There were several print magazines devoted to film music at the time and while I don’t think there was much of a difference between the better print critics and the better internet ones (in truth they were virtually all enthusiastic amateurs) there was certainly a difference in external perception, with the print magazines generally taken more seriously. I’ve always had the website for my reviews but I did enjoy also writing for the three main magazines while they were still running. Of course, the world moves on and the magazines have sadly disappeared but there are more online film music review websites than ever. They have come and gone over the nearly twenty years since I started doing it and vary greatly in quality but there are some really good ones (not surprisingly including the couple that have been around as long as mine has, but some of the newer ones are impressive too), and some I have to say are not so good. I’m not a fan of the “stream of consciousness” style approach that some people favour (some of the reviews look like they’re being written as the writer hears the album for the very first time) but obviously some people do. I do get the impression that some people race to get their reviews out as early as possible and would benefit from a more considered approach, but there’s a market for everything and I’m acutely aware what they say about people in glass houses.
What’s missing now that used to be in the magazines is the writing about film music other than reviews of albums. Jon Burlingame does it for Variety, there’s FSM Online, but there’s precious little else. There are a few people doing good interviews with composers but there are also some embarrassing puff pieces that really aren’t worth reading. What I really miss is detailed analysis of how music works in the film – you get this when the better liner note writers do it for albums, but you used to get it in all the magazines too, about contemporary scores and not just vintage ones. I wish there was a bit more of it going on today because it’s very distinctive from album reviews.
But the big, big thing that’s changed since 1996 is the availability of music and the impact that has on the purpose of the writing. Back then, if you wanted a film score album, you walked into a music shop and if they had the one you wanted, you bought it. Consulting reviews was a good way of knowing which ones to set your sights on, so the people writing reviews (like me) knew that what they were doing was a piece of writing designed to help someone decide if they would like something or not. These days, you can try everything before you buy, you can listen to things on Spotify or Youtube for free – so the review is less about helping someone make a purchasing decision, it’s less important to be descriptive at length – you don’t need to tell someone that the flute comes in after 16 bars and plays the love theme because anyone who cares will already know that. You’re writing about something that most readers will already have heard. So I think it’s even more important now to have something genuinely interesting to say, to try to find some insight and offer some thoughts on why the composer’s doing what he or she is doing with the music. And there’s no doubt, that’s harder to do well.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
It’s a funny thing, liking film music away from films. When people ask me what sort of music I like, I usually get a puzzled reaction when I say film music. So what draws us towards it? I’ve always thought there are two types of people who like film music. The first group are those people who really like film and the soundtrack albums are a by-product they want as a kind of souvenir of the films. When I see on messageboards people moaning that twelve seconds of a cue has the cymbal crashes dialled up louder in the mix than it did in the film, I’m always just absolutely perplexed that anyone notices it. I mean, OK, if it’s Star Wars or something; but how do people get so familiar with Not Without My Daughter or something that they would ever notice that? And that’s how I know that I am absolutely not in that group.
The others, which is where I firmly sit, are those who like film music because they like it as music. There’s something in it that I think pulls people in because the best film composers write music of great dramatic structure – film music is descriptive music almost by necessity, it’s emotional music (though an increasing number of filmmakers seem to want it not to be) – and when it’s really good film music, you don’t need to know anything about the film to enjoy it.
Of course, what I’m talking about there is good film music on albums. Within the film I think it’s really hard to write a truly bad film score – they are few and far between, if truth be told. And I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all rule for what makes a good film score – it may be an obvious thing to say, but it depends on the film. Star Wars has a score that basically tells the story of the film through the music – when the film does X, the music does X. There are no hidden depths to it, John Williams isn’t telling you anything more than you can see on the screen – but it’s one of the greatest film scores. Then you contrast that with something like Patton where Jerry Goldsmith is doing the opposite (some of the time, at least) – he’s going so deep most people watching the film won’t even realise he’s gone there, but he’s influencing them, influencing their response to the character and to the film way beyond anything they are getting visually from it even if they don’t realise it.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today?
I think it went through the doldrums a bit after the turn of the century, with blockbuster after blockbuster being scored in the same way; nuance was lost as film music became wallpaper, filmmakers apparently wanting the paradoxical state of wall-to-wall music but making sure it stayed out of the way. One size really doesn’t fit all. As the albums became longer, the limitations of that style were exposed even more away from the films – when you score every scene as if it’s the biggest scene in the movie, you’re guaranteeing that nothing has any impact. But slowly the tide starting turning back again and in the last couple of years we’ve seen a real resurgence. I absolutely loved Interstellar last year – big and bold music, but with its subtleties too. A lot of thought went into it and it showed; I think it’s probably the best thing Hans Zimmer’s ever done. It’s what film music should be all about and I wish all the people copying Hans Zimmer would look at the way he approached that film and learn something from that, rather than just taking the notes he wrote and trying to write them again when they’re being encouraged to ape him.
In the same year, we had James Newton Howard writing arguably the best thing he’s ever done as well in Maleficent, we had Alexandre Desplat scoring an action blockbuster (Godzilla) – we’re getting to the point where we’re finding the best film music in the big blockbusters again, which I think is great. And this year we’ve had James Horner’s magnificent Wolf Totem (OK, not a big blockbuster, but it’s a magnificent piece of music), I loved Harry Gregson-Williams’s The Martian, Thomas Newman’s done a few really impressive scores, Michael Giacchino’s had a banner year – and we’ve still got a new Star Wars score by John Williams to come. Yes, I think film music’s in a pretty good place.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you
Jerry Goldsmith could do anything. So innovative, challenging himself and growing over such a long part of his career, incredibly prolific and yet never lazy, never just dialling it in even on those movies which were obviously not worthy of having a man of his calibre. When you look at something like The Omen trilogy – what other composer would write an Oscar-winning score, score the far less good sequel a couple of years later and write something different – and then score the even-worse third part of the trilogy shortly after that and write something not just completely different, but absolutely breathtakingly brilliant? Anyone else in his position would have just rehashed the first one for both sequels. It was funny, I listened to The Final Conflict on album dozens of times before I ever saw the awful film. I was waiting for the scene for which he wrote “The Second Coming” – imagining some dizzying visual spectacular. What else could have inspired such a rapturous piece of music? And then the scene came and it was literally just a couple of people looking at a little dot moving across a computer screen. Seriously, the fact that he could be inspired to write “The Second Coming” – a piece that more than lives up to its name – it’s jaw-dropping. And if and when the second coming does ever happen, I guarantee it won’t be accompanied by such good music. He’s the best there’s ever been in Hollywood and probably the best there ever will be.
There was a purple patch in the 1950s and 60s when all so many truly great film composers were active. The great masters of the golden age were still in their prime – Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann. All so different, all so good. Hugo Friedhofer I think was astonishingly good. Of that group of contemporaries, my favourite has always been Alex North. He was genuinely different – providing lavish, complex, challenging music sometimes in even the most mainstream movies. But alongside that, he could write a melody – some of the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful that anyone’s ever written for film.
At the same time as those guys were still active, a new group of film music superstars was emerging. Along with Goldsmith there was Elmer Bernstein and slightly later John Williams in America, in the UK John Barry was making his indelible mark, in France was Georges Delerue, in Italy Ennio Morricone. Amazing to think of that group all emerging around the same sort of time – they would all go on to have unbelievable careers. Morricone was (and is) something special, I think – I think he’s the one true genius that film music has produced. I’m no composer myself, but I can come to terms with how these guys work – I can imagine how training, hard work and no small degree of talent can result in them sitting coming up with this music. With Morricone, some of the stuff he’s done is so astonishingly creative, I just can’t imagine how he could have done it. And he’s done it all while sitting at a desk – never a piano. The Leone films are I think film and music coming together in about as perfect a way as could ever be, but he’s done so much wonderful work elsewhere, too. At times brilliantly witty, at times fiercely intellectual and challenging, at times jaw-droppingly beautiful, the man’s music is simply extraordinary. I’m not convinced Hollywood ever quite got him – he wrote some great music for American films but it sometimes felt like he had one hand tied behind his back. Fortunately there are all those hundreds of European movies he did, the vast majority of which I’ll probably never see but whose soundtrack albums I will forever cherish.
I think the only guy to have emerged after that who genuinely belongs to be mentioned in the same conversation as the great titans I have mentioned is James Horner. He didn’t write film music like anyone else – favouring lengthy through-composed music, always looking for (and always finding) the emotional heart. It was horrible to see him go so far out of fashion in the 2000s as filmmakers seemed, bizarrely, to want music that did anything other than seek an emotional heart; and he was obviously hugely fed up with it all. Tragic then, just as he seemed to be having a renaissance, enjoying composing again, being enjoyed by filmmakers again – that his life should be cut short. I think his body of work stands up with the very best and was horribly under-appreciated when he was alive.
Of the current group of film composers, I think Thomas Newman stands apart. There seems to be genuine class in everything he does – whether it’s the big melody Americana or the quirky and unique side he does so well, his music is always interesting, always thoughtful. He seemed about as unlikely a James Bond composer as there could be, but knocked that out of the park too. Then there’s Alexandre Desplat, John Powell, Michael Giacchino, Christopher Young.
Read James’s reviews at Movie Wave, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter at @MovieWaveDotNet