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Six Things I've Realized About Film Music: 2002 in Review

By Jason Comerford

From FSM Vol. 8, No. 1, On sale now...

To begin with, I must make a confession: I don't listen to much film music anymore. It takes an exceptional piece of music to make me sit up and actually start to pay attention. I rarely even pay attention to it anymore. I'm a traitor to the cause and a disgrace to the fine pedigree of FSM, I know, but even still, the limitations of the form are becoming increasingly apparent, particularly in these times of committee moviemaking.

It's a subject I harp about with much frequency, and it's also a subject that, short of a cultural revolution, will always be there to argue about. But I hear it everywhere; the bigger and more expensive the studio picture, the more obvious it becomes. The state of pop music itself is as bad as it has ever been, and the effect of that lack of quality has started to worm its way into film music. Film scoring is an exceptional art form with the unlimited potential to encompass any style of composition, and yet why is it that so much of it is so interchangeable? It's the apathy, that's why, the apathy of the mainstream music fans who've come to believe that Creed, Britney Spears, J. Lo (or whatever she's calling herself this week), Linkin Park and whomever else is topping the charts represent the ne plus ultra of what music can accomplish. Sure, there are tons of bands and musicians out there doing exceptional work, but only a select few are lucky enough to be branded "cool" by the MTV intelligista. Challenging and innovative music does exist -- and it always will -- but hunting it out is harder than ever.

So I present to you six things I've realized about film music in the last year, in no particular order. In a nutshell: It ain't dead yet, but it's sure starting to smell funky.

1. Star Wars is officially dead. And it's not John Williams' fault. I bring this subject up first for two reasons: a) to get it out of the way straight off, and b) to show how big orchestral scores just aren't enough anymore. I heard the score for Attack of the Clones before I saw the movie, and what with all the advance press, I actually began to believe that the film might be worthwhile. The score was itself a great piece of music -- the action cues were the best of the year, the love theme was stunningly gorgeous, and the finale, with the appearance of the Imperial March and the bold segue into the love theme, made my hair stand up. But then George Lucas got his mitts on it, and it all went to hell. I hate to say it, folks, but the first two Star Wars films are looking more and more like flukes every day. When a film comes out that's as ice-cold and mechanized as Attack of the Clones, one starts to understand that perhaps giving a director final cut is not always the best idea. I'd go on a long rant about how inept and embarrassing the film was, but I'll shave it down to this: When the best moment in the film (one word: Yoda) is, when you think about it, a tired cash-in on a recent movie trend, it's time to pack your bags and switch your allegiances to the filmmakers who are showing everyone how it's really done.

2. Hey, hey, rock and roll will never die. By now the scheme is obvious: Whatever style sells records on the Billboard charts, you can guarantee it will pop up in a movie soon. Big orchestral music isn't, at the moment, sexy enough to move the units at Best Buy. So the theory becomes, jam some backbeats in there and call it a score. Some of these scores that feature rock and techno stylings can be pretty good; John Powell's score for The Bourne Identity wasn't bad, and I give John Debney props for trying to elevate an otherwise pedestrian score for The Scorpion King by tossing in some headbanger metal solos. I'm all for fusing styles and genres, but sometimes it gets a little out of hand. Creating a deliberately schizoid musical tapestry can work really well -- check out Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn's deliciously gonzo score for Ravenous if you don't believe me -- but when scores like The Scorpion King come along, the first thing I think is that it was written by music executives who're trying to create chart-toppers in the most unlikely of places. David Arnold continues to fuse orchestra with techno stylings with his scores for the James Bond films; Die Another Day was nothing new in that respect, and although I have no doubt that Arnold was just doing his job I wonder if he's starting to run out of ideas. And with the proliferation of pop and rock musicians who have moved into film composition -- Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Cliff Martinez (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the aforementioned Albarn (Blur and Gorillaz), among many, many others -- the trends are likely to pop up again and again. Then there's always Danny Elfman, which leads me to...

3. Danny Elfman just keeps getting better and better. I'm like every other film-music geek that went nuts over Batman when it first came out, and Elfman continues to be a musician whose trajectory fascinates me. He seemed to get a lot of static from the fan community by branching off into more abstract directions for scores like A Civil Action and Good Will Hunting; I never disliked the new direction he was taking so much as I wondered where he was going with it. Sometimes the approach worked beautifully, and sometimes it just seemed like a bunch of noodling with percussion patterns and synth patches. Elfman, at the very least, had the brass balls to deliberately move away from a form of musical composition that made him a rich man and try something new and different, regardless of whether or not it worked. I did my civic duty and saw Spider-Man, opening night and all, and the music evaporated from my head the second the film was over -- the only music I can recall with any clarity was the old TV theme that Sam Raimi snuck into the end credits. I started to wonder, and then I saw Red Dragon and thought, "Yes! He's back!" The film itself is about what you'd expect: slick and well-crafted enough, but with just enough big-studio pandering that it was instantly forgettable. Elfman, however, took one look at the film and seemed to realize the inherent silliness of it all, and went all out; his over-the-top score is probably one of the better scores of his career, slyly satirical in its approach, with themes that stick in your head. It's not a breakthrough piece of music in any respect, but if you're going to go full throttle, that's the way it should be done.

4. Minimalism is in, baby. It's been gaining momentum for years -- the first instance I can remember of the style popping up is in John Williams' "Schindler's Workforce" cue from Schindler's List -- but these days it's really picking up steam. Noted minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Michael Nyman have been doing excellent film work for years, but Don Davis probably did the style the best service by transposing large chunks of John Adams' Harmonielehre into his score for The Matrix. This year, minimalistic scores like Cliff Martinez's Solaris (one of the year's best) and Glass' score for The Hours have gone a long way in developing the style into a distinctively filmic one. (Williams also gave the style a good workout with Minority Report, an otherwise forgettable film that many critics inexplicably went ga-ga over.) I've always been a fan of minimalistic techniques in film music -- very often they can glue a film solidly together -- and this is one trend that I'm pleased to see developing. Rock bands like Tortoise and the Swans have also done excellent work by incorporating ideas from Adams, Glass, Nyman and Steve Reich; another indication of a trend that's developing and evolving in fascinating ways.

5. Big orchestral music continues its downward decline.... Throw a rock and hit 10 or 15 large-scale orchestral scores (Ice Age, Reign of Fire, XXX, TheTime Machine, et cetera, et cetera); only one or two of them are actually worth listening to. Of the many that were written this year, there were in fact a several standouts. David Julyan's moody score for Insomnia is an undiscovered gem, despite the fact that Varese Sarabande's otherwise comprehensive CD is missing the terrific log-chase cue. I enjoyed the take-no-prisoners approach of James Newton Howard's score for Signs -- the main title, at least. The rest of it was typical of Howard in that it was all exceptionally well-composed and orchestrated, but the self-important film it was attached to brought it down a notch or two. Tomandandy's ethereal score for Mark Pellington's underrated The Mothman Prophecies deserves to see a release someday, but that seems unlikely. Other scores that I thoroughly enjoyed included Jon Brion's Punch-Drunk Love and Ryuichi Sakamoto's tongue-in-cheek Ravel-inspired music for Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale.

6. ...But Howard Shore continues to show us how it's really done. Okay, it's probably old hat by now to gush over Shore's scores for The Lord of the Rings, but I'll mention it again anyway. Suffice to say that Shore, with The Two Towers, took the astonishing first part of Peter Jackson's thunderous epic and developed it in fascinating new directions, particularly in the stirring accompaniment for the tortured character Gollum. Shore treated the all-CGI character as 100% flesh and blood, and the seamless emotional currents of his music really sold the experience. There's really not much more to say other than, it's going to be an awfully long wait until The Return of the King.

So there you have it -- recollections on a year of film music by a fallen enthusiast. Budget and location prevent me from seeing many of the films I'd really like to see -- you're no more likely to see Y Tu Mama Tambien or City of God theatrically in South Carolina than you are of seeing a gay pride parade at Bob Jones University -- but I get by. Perhaps next year will bring some more nice surprises.

Check out FSM Vol. 8, No. 1 for the rest of the "Best Of" columns...

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