Original movie music returns to spotlight as Oscar recognizes today's best film composers 

The big chill is thawing in the film world, where for the first time in decades, directors are focusing on original music rather than compilations of often overexposed pop songs.

Todd Haynes has now remade this feature, or one could say he uses it as a jumping off point to express the real concerns of the fifties that Sirk couldn’t touch with a ten-foot rake, concerns that are dishearteningly still relevant today.

Evidence can be found in stirring Oscar-nominated scores for “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Hours,” “Road to Perdition,” “Frida” and “Far From Heaven.” Each soundtrack consists of eloquent compositions designed to underscore the filmmakers’ vision in terms of mood, emotion and color.

It’s an opportunity few veteran Hollywood composers expected to see again. For ages, directors generally turned to licensed pop tunes to act as emotional shorthand for characters, situations or the period portrayed on celluloid. In 1973, for example, “American Graffiti” used 1950s and 1960s rock and doo-wop jukebox hits complete with DJ chatter to sustain the mood of a 1962 summer’s night in suburban California.

But many of the most acclaimed film projects last year took an alternate route and leaned toward creative collaborations with composers. It was an unforeseen throwback to a golden era when Max Steiner’s themes dramatized “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca,” Bernard Herrmann labored over resonant symphonic cues for Hitchcock thrillers like “North by Northwest,” and Nino Rota brilliantly combined jazz, pop and classical elements for his timeless Fellini music, not to mention “The Godfather.”

Emotional echoes
Veteran film/TV composer Elmer Bernstein, 80, whose melancholy underscore for “Far From Heaven” has been singled out for praise and an Oscar nod, said the move toward smaller stories dealing with emotions rather than explosions requires deeper musical accompaniment.

“The whole nature of things has changed,” he observed. “Things like ‘The Hours,’ ‘Road to Perdition’ and ‘About Schmidt’ are modest kinds of films — the kinds of films we haven’t seen for a while, with more adult themes that need emotional support from the music. I think we’re seeing directors making films where they’re projecting emotions rather than events. And music is the one art that’s purely about emotions.”

Thomas Newman, among the most influential modern film composers and a second-generation member of Hollywood’s pre-eminent musical dynasty, views Hollywood’s new mood as a step toward a less dictatorial atmosphere.

“I’m able to encourage my musicians to improvise,” said the five-time Oscar hopeful whose nominated “Road to Perdition” is just the latest in a long reel of highly regarded film work. “When you work with an intimate ensemble, you work almost as a sound effects person would. But I think the main thing directors are looking for is music that deepens the dramatic experience rather than comments on it.”

Newman’s is arguably the most ubiquitous sound in current cinema. His compelling and strangely persuasive African music-tinged trademark has enhanced such features as “White Oleander,” “American Beauty,” “The Salton Sea” and “In the Bedroom,” along with the Emmy Award-winning “Six Feet Under” theme for HBO.

Instrumental honesty
“He’s part of a movement of environmental composers,” said Los Angeles film composer Starr Parodi. “The music can make you feel like this story could be happening to you. He’s very influential and often copied. His use of marimbas, (the stringed) balaton and angular- sounding piano, coldly played, is extremely original. A lot of people who try to re-create his style use synthesizers, but it’s much more effective to do what Newman does and use a close ensemble playing the instruments.”

Since Steiner’s day and earlier, the twin forces shaping screen cues remain the desire to target a specific audience and the question of who has final cut. When marketing pressures don’t tip a filmmaker’s hand and a popular song or two aren’t obligatory, the function of an original score is to compliment and reinforce plot.

“We expect music to be the emotional point of view of a film—images are surprising neutral,” said composer Philip Glass, who collected an Oscar nod for his turbulent “Hours’ cues. Glass is one of the few composers who successfully straddles the relatively free world of contemporary classical music and the often restrictive studio system.

As Newman’s observation about a new informality in major movie composing suggests, imaginative musical thinking is being sought from within or without the mainstream.

New and notable
The last few years has seen the electronics-friendly names Craig Armstrong (“The Quiet American”), Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy (“About a Boy”) and Cliff Martinez (“Narc”) on screen as end credits roll.

Armstrong, the Scottish composer and arranger whose credits include Bjork, U2, Massive Attack and a Golden Globe trophy last year for work on “Moulin Rouge,” was brought into the “Quiet American” remake at the insistence of the film’s star, Michael Caine.

“I was sent little bits of the film and started realizing this was a chance to do a score almost in the traditional Hollywood way,” Armstrong said. “The film was poetic and so beautiful that I decided to go back to the old way of creating a theme for each main character. I love Hollywood scores like Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock, where the characters were very tied into the themes. For ‘Quiet American,’ it was refreshing to try and write some beautiful East-West melodies for the orchestra.”

Other thoughtful musicians have long found support at the studios. From the jazz fringe, trumpeter and onetime Van Morrison sideman Mark Isham (“Moonlight Mile”) and trumpeter Terence Blanchard (“25th Hour”) were lured to Hollywood many years ago. From pop came Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman (“Spider-Man”) and the Police’s Stewart Copeland (“Rumble Fish”). Glass (“Koyaanisqatsi”) has been at the top of a very short list for around 30 years.

Authentic blend
A slightly more traditional approach can also pay dividends. Elliot Goldenthal, who won a Golden Globe for his Oscar-nominated “Frida” score and is also a contender for an original song trophy for the film’s end-title song, “Burn It Blue,” mirrored the Mexican heritage of painter Frida Kahlo in a refreshingly melodic soundtrack that combined original music with mariachi tunes and romantic boleros beloved by the film’s subject.

“It wasn’t a big budget thing,” Goldenthal said. “We thought of the project as something to do out of artistry. An important part of the score is song. Song is everywhere in Mexico—you are sung to and you are expected to sing. I wanted the music to become another character in the movie.”

Predictably, instrumental scores don’t often translate into major sales no matter how good they are, apart from Howard Shore’s best-selling “Lord of the Rings” albums and John Williams’ platinum “Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace.” The biggest soundtrack money-spinners in recent days include the musical “Chicago,” “8 Mile,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Disney’s Lilo & Stitch” and “A Walk to Remember.”

But even with minor sales, music will always be a carefully considered element in any film production. Its importance is magnified each year in Oscar’s two music categories—original score and song (winners are announced March 23 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre).

Just the mere fact that instrumental scores are again finding a home in Hollywood is heartening to musicians like Armstrong, who predicts other entertainment options will provide even more work for composers and arrangers.

“The fact that movie composers are writing music for films and getting work is good,” he observed. “But I think we’ll be seeing even more original music in other areas, be it songs or atmospheric sounds, in computer games where people are looking for a fast hit—viscerally or literally. But the reward of scoring a film for a composer is infinite.

“You really have to dig deep—and that’s worth everything.”

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