Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Thoughts on film soundtracks

It would seem that corner-cutting is everywhere. Sitting here watching television, I see a film released within the last five years, prominently featuring the iconic of another, far better film released not more that two years earlier. And featuring the same main actor. Now explain the logic of this to me...

The importance of a great film score is so easily overlooked until you suffer from a lackluster score or uninspired soundtrack. Fifty years ago, there was a small economy built on studio musicians' work, supplying original music for countless films during the golden-age of hollywood. And like the iconic actors and actresses of those films, the music leant a specific identity and feel to those films.

Perhaps I can only mention this problem because while there are some cheap routes being taken with certain films, other films have done a fantastic job in selecting great musical numbers, which only points out the deficiencies of the rest all the more clearly.

Some examples of the good and noteworthy:
Napoleon Dynamite features a thoughtful selection of numbers from varying artists as wide as the White Stripes to Jamiroquai to Alphaville. Not limited to mainstream pop music, however, the soundtrack also includes instrumental tracks from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the theme from the A-team.
Garden State's soundtrack was practically a handbook for a populace of America yearning for something beyond the Top 40 airplay. Including songs by bands like the Shins, Iron and Wine, Thievery Corporation and Zero 7. All of the songs are intentionally melancholic singer-songwriting fare, which complements and blends easily into the movie's story.
On the instrumental-only front, the Lord of the Rings trilogy featured great classic orchestral writing. It's melodies became extremely popular and recognizable, which is far more uncommon for orchestral scores, and it's themes are forever attached to the images and characters of the films.
Also the film score for The Road to Perdition is one of the most beautiful I have heard in recent years. (Also if we ever have a talk on cinematography, this film must be mentioned again.)
The Life Aquatic features some scenes that seemed to be built around certain pieces of music, such is the score's importance to the scene. Director Wes Anderson always does a remarkable job selecting music for his films, always unique, always provoking. His music in earlier film the Royal Tenenbaums is equally good. Case in point: who would think of having a David Bowie sung accoustically in French? Not very many people.
And on an ethnic front, in trying to conjure up images of other countries and nationalities in film, it is essential to try and capture the feel of a more indiginous music. Black Hawk Down does this really well, for while representing the American forces by such artists as Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix, the scenes played out in Somalian villages employ traditional african songs and chants. The other film that does this well (also a war film) is Three Kings, which criss-crosses early 90's popular music with Arabic-tinged instrumental numbers.

Examples of the less than exemplary:
The last film I saw, Lord of War featured a soundtrack that was so contrived and obvious it was painful. What better song to play during a scene when the main characters are snorting cocaine? Why, Eric Clapton's Cocaine, of course! The songs selected for the film played out like an exhausted jukebox of what-was. Either the drirector of the film was uninspired on his choices, or the choices were never his, leaving some third party to decide which tunes to slip into the film.
Equally bad to the film which samples prerecorded artists poorly, are the films that rip of instrumental and orchestral music from other films and superimpose them onto another film, hoping that no one will notice.
This is especially sad when a film comes along with a great musical identity (example, American Beauty) that featured a unique instrumental motif that recurrs during the film. Such a success was the film in all artistic senses that other films began to try and imitate this effect, to the point where the same track is used in the opening sequences of another Kevin Spacey film, Pay it Forward.
Another musical identity that has been duplicated numerously is the tribal-esque cantoring from The Insider which used the disturbing, haunting musical styles to heighten the stress upon both the characters and the audiences. Soon after this film was released, this effect was being mimicked in numerous other films.
Perhaps the most blatant example of stealing music is the note-for-note use of a song in numerous movies. The soundtrack for Gladiator features moments (that sound like they were ripped from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky cantata) of music that have been filed away in the "pretty good" shelf in some music library and is dusted off and put into any number of other films and movie trailers. Sad, but true.

I don't know if it's that people are any less observant today than yesteryear, or if the studios are betting that we won't notice, but thankfully with enough young film directors making careful selections for their films, it helps point out the lesser accomplishments. And from an orchestral perspective, at least for now, big-budget epic films still know the importance and selling point of a grand new orchestral score by the likes of Williams, Elfman, Zimmerman or Horner.

Until next time, just listen carefully,


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