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Feedback: The Death of Film Music Innovation

Compiled by Jason Comerford

I'd like to thank everyone who responded to the "Has Film Music Innovation Died?" article from last week. Your thoughts are extremely appreciated to a fledgling film music critic. One good thing: no one got mad at me.

From Ellen Edgerton,

    It's a lot easier to talk about that which is New than it is to talk about that which is Good. Because New-ness is basically a no-brainer. It's easier to comment on someone walking down the street in a shocking pink suit than it is to comment on someone who is wearing a suit that fits really well. The same is true of film music or any other art. I read quite a bit about how some composer employs a bit of neato keen orchestration (forty electric egg beaters, or an unusual selection of brass instruments, or 12-tone composition, or some similar gee-whiz thing), but not a lot about people's opinions on why this might be really good music. *Why* does it work? This is of course not to suggest that it can't be good because it's obviously new and different, but very often it seems that we're so dazzled by the new-and-different that sometimes it's worshiped for its own sake.

I admit that while film music should not necessarily clobber you over the head with cleverness all the time, it does need to remain focused on the objective at hand. That objective, if you will, is to support the film it's being composed for. Does, for instance, John Frizzel's Dante's Peak work for the film? Sure, it does. It's a big, loud, overkill synth/orchestra score that doesn't say anything about the people, or, God forbid, the volcano; it just buttresses the film's loud THX soundtrack and goes along with its mechanical thrills and special effects. But asking, as Ellen says, "Why does XYZ score work for the film?" tends to happen less and less. It's the chicken and the egg paradox that plagues us: should a film score stand alone, or should it remain with the film without fail? Worshipping music for its own sake does less for the craft and more for the politics.

    Jason points out a few composers by name as good examples of having an individual "style," but also bemoans that they aren't "changing their style enough." Unfortunately, I think Jason is confusing "style" with "voice." A good composer can change their style to suit whatever a director asks them to do -- ragtime, more "contemporary," more "period," comically upbeat, or James Bond/John Barrylike, etc. But they can't change their voices -- the subtle habits and points of view in their music that make them distinctive and recognizably unique. I think (although the specific names he mentioned have not been around that long) that over time you do definitely hear changes in composers' voices, but it happens on a subtle level, as that is the way that real life and real personalities change. Why would anyone want to wish for some artificial "newness" to be forced on them?

This is a good point. I stand corrected. The examples I threw out in the article were ones that I thought of off the top of my head. I do agree that a composer's voice is his or her own, and that to ask them to turn on a dime and do something absolutely different than anything they've ever done before is an unreasonable request. But at the same time, I think the voice needs to be flexible, to be able to adapt, subtly but in a manner that can be pointed out by laypeople like me.

    About the only thing composers can do to consciously push themselves, is to be selective about the films they work on. Some composers are more conscientious about this than others. Again, Jason mentions a group of composers who seem to me to be particularly selective and varied in their projects, so I'm not quite sure what he is expecting!

Selectivity, it seems to me, has had such an adverse effect on the output of composers. Thomas Newman keeps doing Shawshank Redemption over and over again, what with Phenomenon, How to Make an American Quilt, what have you. I wish he'd get back to doing the quirky, odd, oddly fitting music for films like Flesh and Bone. It seems that his output is poisoned by the films he composes for. The People Vs. Larry Flynt was a step in the right direction because he balanced both his strange, experimental side and his smooth, lyrical side. This is what I'm getting at; that trying everything at once doesn't always work, but sometimes it can, and it should all build from there.


From Jeremy Moniz,

    Hans Zimmer will never sound anything like Laurence Rosenthal, and I'm glad. What we don't need are so many composers protege-ing others, but we do and they all seem to want to emulate Hans Zimmer. Why? His music is rock-based, easy to do with synthesizers, so we have Mark Mancina, Harry Gregson-Williams, Trevor Rabin, Nick Glennie-Smith to name a few.

    In all fairness Zimmer's music is excellent, Crimson Tide in particular. Broken Arrow was also a good score though away from the film it really displays the intelligence level of the story... fairly nil. Here Zimmer relied on a techno style and Duane Eddy blues styled theme. Synthesized chorus is annoying in general but its the composition and execution that makes the score stand out, and it does quite well. The movie IS stupid but intense... Zimmer score fits it. And Zimmer was trained by classical composer Stanley Myers and in comparison to the protege works Zimmer's work has a classier sound. Mancina also can do this but he integrates themes in a different way which is why Speed is his masterwork and has made him Hans Zimmer II so to speak.

I'll be frank and go on record, and say that I think Zimmer and all his deviates are completely ruining the face of contemporary film music. I think that Zimmer, regardless of his training or whatever, has good ideas here and there; Broken Arrow in particular made some good use of some repeating phrases or themes as character identification. BUT, the music has no variation and no letup. He's like a boxer in the ring, bang-bang-bang. His music doesn't say anything about the film, doesn't tell the story, doesn't present an interesting voice or personality. You can rearrange any three cues from Crimson Tide, The Rock, Peacemaker, whatever, and put them together, and unless you've heard them a thousand times each you simply cannot tell them apart. True story: a friend of mine once had Crimson Tide playing, and I guessed Backdraft, The Rock, and Twister before I finally got it. To me, that's bad film music. If it can't find an identity with the film, then it's a total waste of time.

[Note from Lukas: See the new issue of FSM for an interview with Zimmer where he addresses these topics. He's really cool about it! You gotta subscribe!]



    Of the films I've seen this past year, the only score I can emphasize as being different from the rest would be Men in Black. Don't take this as my obligatory reference to Danny Elfman. Pre-dated innovation can be found last year in Mission: Impossible and Freeway. So there is at least one composer who has written something truly different - but failed to make it into Jason Comerford's column... Mysteriously.

Well, this is the Elfman Question. We don't see Danny Elfman doing comedies anymore. Why not? Maybe because he's been pigeonholed by his style, and that the work he is offered tends to suit his voice at the same time. I for one would really like to see Elfman get back to what he started out doing. [He's doing Flubber now. -LK] Elfman is one of my favorite composers, yes, but sometimes I think he's really too smart for me to fully understand. When he starts talking about varying orchestrations and sound schemes, I can't get a grip on his manner of thinking.


From James Southall,

    I think that, in the last twenty years, you'll find a far greater variety of styles of film music to choose from than in all the time that went before. I'd say that there's more variety in three Jerry Goldsmith scores like, say, The Omen, The Russia House and Medicine Man than in everything Erich Korngold ever wrote. Perhaps it's *because* of all the variety that's on offer at the moment that we argue so much. You can have your Eric Serra, your Hans Zimmer, your Patrick Doyle, whatever - so many different styles, all impressive in their own way.

    I caught a few minutes of King's Row on the BBC the other day; there was a scene of just straight dialogue, nothing overtly dramatic happening, between Ronald Reagan and some bird, and yet Korngold's music was blasting away, coming out of the screen, in a way that would just be laughed at if done today. Yeah, sure, without Korngold, Newman et al there would be no John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, but on the other hand, without the 8086 there would be no Pentium - that doesn't make the 8086 better, though.

    Come on, people: the intellectual snobs out there who complain bitterly when people draw up "top five" lists and include nothing over 20 years old, be thankful that the younger generation enjoys modern film music so much, and for God's sake stop trying to make yourselves look clever just because you like stuff that's 60 years old (or more).

This was the part of my column that I wasn't quite clear on. I in no way meant to demean older scores. I think that there was a tremendous amount of stylish, wonderfully done film music being composed. And newer composers have to have a start point. Who do you think John Williams takes his inspirations for Star Wars? Why, Korngold's King's Row, which James pointed out as being laughable.

My point is that people either a) tend not to listen to any classic scores at all, and sniff down their noses at them because they all sound the same, or b) hold EVERYTHING written before 1960 on a pedestal and say, "Film music today sucks. THIS is the good stuff." There are elements to both arguments that I agree with, and elements to both that I disagree with. Once you get past all the soupiness of many of said "old" scores, there is an enormous amount of fantastic musical ideas out there, just waiting to be discovered. Charles Gerhardt's RCA Victor recordings of various old scores I highly recommend, for their superb performance and sound quality, and because in most cases the brilliance of the original works are magnified. Miklos Rozsa's score to Spellbound is probably one of my favorite scores, not because of the fact that it was extremely innovative for its time, but because it works so damn well in the film. I love Rozsa's themes and how he throws them around so deftly within the framework of the film, and it all clicks so well.

The argument that "intellectual snobs" hold everything on pedestals and try to make themselves sound more clever seems to be rather nearsighted. I don't see myself an intellectual about much at all, but I can at least understand and appreciate the fine music that has been written before the contemporary era(s) of film music. A line from Lonesome Dove keeps popping into my head: "The older the violin, the sweeter the music." I think that holds true, always.

Take the comedy of Charlie Chaplin. People tend to think that he's old, hopelessly outdated, and that current comedy, from the out-of-control Jim Carrey type to the smart Chris Rock type, has beaten it out. But if you go back and watch something like Modern Times or City Lights, you're absolutely stunned at how seamless and brilliant his comedy is, how everything works in a smooth, flowing combination of motion and pure visceral storytelling. Old stuff may seem hopeless and outdated, but once you give it a chance, you'll realize that it's always still the best.


Note from Lukas: Well, is there anyone who didn't get insulted in this column? Let's see, we blew through Zimmer, Elfman, and all music written before 1960. If you have opinions to add, write us!

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