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, email@example.com
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
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, DeviantMan@aol.com:
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
From ELFMANIAC, firstname.lastname@example.org:
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, email@example.com:
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! MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com