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Has Film Music Innovation Died?

Opinion by Jason Comerford

On listening to the recent release of Jerry Goldsmith's The Edge, the end-credits lounge-music version of the score's majestic main theme got me to wondering if compositional innovation is so far gone in contemporary film scoring that turning a blood-pumping psychodrama piece like The Edge into watered-down jazz is what passes for creative vision anymore. I haven't seen the film, so I can't attest to the criticism that my fellow Film Score Daily columnist Doug Adams set forth in his recent article about the score. The Edge isn't really what's concerning me, the apparent strangeness of the cumulative cue notwithstanding. Rather, it's the unrelenting sameness of the output of composers today.

Rest assured, I've heard all the arguments. A composer is hired to do a job, and what it all boils down to is that the composer must respect the director and/or producer's wishes and do the job that the composer is hired for. This is Elementary Film Music Criticism 101: Sympathize with the subject. And then you can proceed to tear their works apart. Having been born near the tail end of the period which is generally considered the most revolutionary in film music history, the late sixties, roughly, to the early eighties, I can't comment on what then-contemporary film critics (or, for that matter, film music critics) had to say about what we now consider innovative. I don't know enough about the nuts-and-bolts process of music composition to make any educated arguments for or against compositional stratagems. But what I can offer is an outlook based upon what is commonplace today. And it seems to be, with some pertinent exceptions sprinkled here and there, cookie-cutter mayhem.

Why is it that we film music fans feel compelled to complain, constantly? It has been my experience that we typically stick to our favorite composers, using them as our deified, exempt-from-the-trash examples to prove that film music has taken a drastic nose-dive. ("Peacemaker? Bah! Goldsmith did it better in Air Force One!", or something to that effect.) There seems to be no end. Looking to even our favorite composers for constant relief is exhausting for everyone. It's as if every time Hans Zimmer (or whoever it is that he's apprenticing today) writes a score, the rest of the composers in Hollywood have to raise their standards, to please both the film music fans and themselves at the same times.

But what is most disturbing is that what the score enthusiasts see as trash, the most popular (i.e. the most financially successful) filmmakers clamor for the same scores like they can't get enough of them. (It's truly unsettling to read that Crimson Tide is Steven Spielberg's favorite recent soundtrack.) Which begs the question: during that Golden Time of Innovation, did both the filmmakers and composers realize that they were doing something different, and made the best of their situations.

It's safe to think so. I'll go out on a limb and make a generalization that film music, from its conception up until the sixties, was earmarked by unrelenting bombast. (Max Steiner, as smart as he was, seems to have given film music an eternally bad rep.) The melodies and thematic ideas may have been top-notch, but the damned volume of the music itself was so deafening, audiences couldn't really grasp the ideas behind the compositions. Then, during the Golden Age (as I'll refer to it for the purposes of this column), when composers were allowed rein to quiet down, the ideas became clearer, more focused. Jerry Goldsmith's Chinatown, for instance, is marked by such bare-bones thinking. Film noir dramas until that point were scored wall-to-wall, with a lot of brooding themes and general gloom-and-doom portent. Regardless of the ideas behind them, everything sounds like so much wallpaper that it takes a lot of patience to sort through all the soupy orchestrations. Chinatown, on the other hand, consists of a jazz love motif/main theme that's used more to color the overall atmosphere of the film, rather than to comment on the film itself. The score's stripped-down structure doesn't allow for much empathy; it's minimalism at its zenith. Goldsmith's emphasis on strident, dissonant passages for strings and piano makes a night-and-day comparison with a typical 1940s noir score.

This of course could be one of the primary ideas behind the whole scheme of things. The film itself is noir in structure and pretense, but its themes of corruption and pure evil reaches far deeper than other films of its type had ever attempted before. But I'm getting back to my main point: that in this Golden Age, radical filmmaking was in vogue. With the filmmakers getting more and more experimental, the composers followed in tandem.

This brings me to today's filmmaking environment. There have been endless complaints of late about how popular filmmaking has stopped to crass sensationalism, how the process of making money has become so demeaning, so snarling in its utter contempt for popular intelligence that audiences don't go to films to be entertained anymore; they go to get their brainpans fried. (One of my instructors at film school, a line producer, has summed this mindset up with one line that has stuck in my head, something that could be called his mission statement: "I couldn't give a shit about the art.") Film music has followed this sad path. If you can get ten orchestrators and a brand-name composer like James Newton Howard or Hans Zimmer, you've got the recipe for a serviceable music score and thus, the recipe for a film that will make enough money to pay the talent and guarantee a sequel.

But there's not much a humble film music fan/film school student like myself can do to change everything. We can raise holy hell, but the quest for making money has far outweighed the quest for the art. Whether or not the situation will change, it's anybody's guess. There are enough interesting glimmers here and there to suggest that innovation and imagination is becoming more prevalent; look at the works of Graeme Revell, Elliot Goldenthal, Patrick Doyle, or Thomas Newman. But even these composers are stuck in ruts from time to time, ruts of no change in their styles. They're being sucked into the money machine, and there seems to be no escape. Monsters begetting monsters--what a wide, wonderful world we live in.

I'm sure someone disagrees. E-mail with ideas, complaints, theories.

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