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Thoughts on Film Score Unity

A Reaction to Gladiator by Dan Hobgood

I finally caved in and went reluctantly to see Gladiator last Sunday evening (Of course, when I left the theater it was well into what I would define as Sunday night!). I say "reluctantly," because I had not heard or read many positive comments about the picture. I also try to avoid supporting Ridley Scott and his career monetarily because I think that, despite a promising display of talent early on, he has proven to be a rather inept filmmaker over time as regards film music. When a friend decided that she would rather see the Russell Crowe vehicle as opposed to Dinosaur, I was hoping that the production values of Gladiator would indicate a blossoming maturity in judgment on Scott's part and Hans Zimmer's capability for epic scoring.

Almost needless to say, my hopes were futilely cast. With no intention of stealing Andy Dursin's job around here, the picture showed promise in its look and gritty feel -- but ultimately the story was much too simply and insignificantly presented for one that has been told a dozen times before and better. While the film was entertaining and enjoyable to watch, the resulting score was nothing short of a disaster. The music had its moments in its own right (I thought some of the music was downright wonderful, if not daring or extraordinary), but it was almost as if Mr. Zimmer forgot that his music was intending to underscore a film and link it together sonically.

What Gladiator's score lacked -- and, indeed, what most lesser scores over the last few years have lacked or lacked more than anything else -- is a sense of coherence, of flow between and within the different cues. Zimmer's score (with Lisa Gerrard -- and enlisting the services of two composers is part of the problem) is not a step backwards, but an outright giant leap. The last time (if ever) that musical scores were so predominantly inconsistent was during the silent era before the rise to prominence of Max Steiner (whose own scores were by no means textbook examples in unity and coherence). Somehow up-and-coming film composers are neglecting to learn, or to be taught, that, writing film music is not the same as just writing music first and foremost for music's sake. This is something of which they should remind themselves before writing another note of score.

By contrast, the lack of coherence in Gladiator's musical palette led me to recall a couple of relatively recent epic scores that truly deserve to labeled as ideal instances of when a composer has written excellent, coherent scores: Jerry Goldsmith's The Ghost and the Darkness and The 13th Warrior.

Both examples are each marked by themes (as, to a certain extent, all film scores should be). In both of these cases, there is at least occasionally dizzying variation and, yet, at the same time, something that I can only verbalize well at this moment as "musical cooperation." The two works are strongly bridged together by the development of themes from other themes, musical extensions or permutations of themes for desired effect, and original statements in the foreground of the composition for which the background is something familiar. It is perhaps better to cite an example of what I try to describe without terrible success. In The 13th Warrior cue "The Fire Dragon," a unique statement in the score dominates the foreground of the composition; but the listener can hear how it is developed from the major theme of the score. One can subsequently identify a permutation of that major theme appearing throughout the cue to supplement and support the described unique musical statement.

There is no such identifiable cooperation to be found in the score for Gladiator. Themes abound, but that is part of the problem here. There are no relationships linking the themes to one another, and there are non-thematic elements that, from what I could tell, were unrelated to the thematic components of the score. (If these elements were thematic, then they were not accessible enough for my friend -- one knowledgeable enough to be able to tell -- and I to hear the connections, which, summons another aspect of criticism entirely.)

On a less theoretical note, scores like Gladiator usually win loads of admirers that feel that "Theme and Variation" film composers (the few that there really are) like Goldsmith "don't try hard enough" when their scores are dominated by, for instance, one or two related themes. On the contrary, I would argue the opposite. I think it is much more difficult for an artist and true student of film music such as Mr. Goldsmith to develop a score from a flexible base than it is for a composer to write a haphazard series of cues. (And just think about Goldsmith doing this kind of a job year in and year out over the years, under-appreciated all the while!) Individual cues may fit the scenes for which they are intended to support, but the music does not lend itself to the telling of a story, like puzzle pieces that fail to fit together.

And that's what the "score" (quotations seem appropriate at this point) to Gladiator is exactly like -- a puzzle that's pieces do not fit together. Epic scores like The 13th Warrior and The Ghost and the Darkness put it to shame. I do believe that, while film music can be appreciated apart from the film, it deserved to be judged solely upon its contribution to pictures themselves, each with their own unique demands shaping the character of the music. Nevertheless, a near-constant demand upon film composers -- regardless of the type of film or genre -- is musical unity. Perhaps it is the most important component in a good score. For a score to be effective the cues and themes need to be related. Simply, a score needs to be coherent. Unity in film scores, above all else, contributes to music's capability to tell the story in its universal language and link the characters, settings, emotions, etc. together.

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