You would think that working with the music is most of what you do when you have a film music CD label. It’s maybe a third. There’s also the business side—that’s another third. The final third is dealing with the packaging…and it can be the most exhausting of all. At least it was for me.
I can say this now because I no longer have a label: I hate liner notes. I almost never read them. Like a lot of things, they are easy to do poorly, and hard to do well. The writer needs a knowledge of film, of music, of film music (not the same thing), the ability to write clearly, an understanding that it’s a commercial product (no trashing the movie), and a willingness to do research and check facts—like looking up the years of the movies and not just pulling them from memory (Jeff Bond!). Unless it’s a handful of writers I respect, or seems to be newly researched (quotes from a vintage or new interview with the composer or director), I just don’t care to read some half-baked ramblings that don’t tell me anything I actually want to know. Rant over.
I wrote the following in 2008 and I don’t remember why. It seems like an instruction manual for our writers, yet I don’t remember circulating it. Maybe it was for FSM Online, but that doesn't seem quite right either. Most likely, I wrote it just to blow off some steam—I spent so much time on our liner notes, along with copyeditors/writers/fixers Jeff Eldridge and Frank DeWald, and along with a lot of other things it burned me out to the point where I no longer wanted to have a label.
I just came across the below while organizing hard drives, and now that I am safely no longer running a label—here it is. (There was no introduction or conclusion.)
Honest, but not negative. This is a licensed commercial product and we can’t insult the product or instill negative feelings about it. Journalism thrives off of the interesting conflicts behind-the-scenes but liner notes have to put the best face on everything. Now, we don’t have to whitewash history...we can report historical reception or critical consensus about a score, a movie or aspects thereof if it’s relevant—whether it was glowing, negative, indifferent, whatever. But we shouldn’t go looking for trouble. This isn’t Vanity Fair—more like the network news. The tone must be neutral and informative.
Structure. The typical format is to start with discussion of the movie, then go to discussion of the score, then do the track by track. This format can be broken if the need arises (ask me first).
How Long? Each movie ends up being 3000-4000 words—at most 5000. Of that, half will be the essay, half the track-by-track descriptions. If the CD has two or more scores, better to make each film’s notes shorter, but not at the expense of cutting important material. It really comes down to how much there is to say—I tell people, it should be as long as it needs to be. We’ll size the booklet appropriately. The liner notes to Star Wars would be long, the liner notes to The Chapman Report (to name one that I did myself where it ended up being short) need not be.
No dangling prepositional phrases to start. I don’t even know if that is what it is called. What I mean is, do not start your liner notes like this: “With a cast of thousands and a score that is legendary, The Ten Commandments blah blah blah...” Instead you would write “The Ten Commandments had a cast of thousands and a score that is legendary...”
How to start, then? Don’t start with the plot summary. In fact don’t feel obliged to give a plot summary and certainly not a blow-by-blow one. Please start with—I guess this is the only way to put it—what you would imagine an encyclopedia entry to be on that movie and score. You have to pretend people have never heard of it, without being completely repetitive and boring. If you want to see a good example of where I think the FSM team did this, see the Superman liner notes. I think we introduced Superman, and then Superman: The Movie, in a way that framed them simply and in an interesting way without being wacky or anything. This was the first graph of the intro:
"Superman is one of the world’s most popular and enduring characters, embodying the irresistible myth of a god-like character whose physical abilities are matched only by the warmth and goodness of his heart. Created during the American Depression by a pair of Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman debuted in magazine form in 1938 and has starred in numerous comic books, newspaper strips, television programs and animated productions, becoming an American and global icon."
And this was the first graph of the Superman: The Movie section:
'Superman: The Movie started as a flight of fancy, became a blockbuster, and is today regarded as a classic. Produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the picture was directed by Richard Donner, a former television helmer faced with the then-impossible task of making believable the fact that “a man can fly.” Donner and his colleagues not only accomplished this feat, they captivated audiences with a marvelous combination of humor, heart, myth and drama."
They both restate what we all know anyway, but hopefully in a somewhat elegant and appropriate way, and then we get past it very quickly. Boom boom boom, that’s the point—you are focusing the reader and refreshing his memory with things he already knows, but probably does not know exactly how to articulate it. That’s YOUR job.
What we wouldn’t want to do is say “On the far off planet Krypton, a baby is born. His father is played by Marlon Brando. Then he goes to Kansas. He was based on a comic book. The comic book is really about immigrants.” Because the reader is begging by this point to get into the good stuff and wondering how far he has to skip ahead.
A few style points:
No First Person. This extends to “we next hear the trumpets” and things like that. It’s a personal preference of mine, thanks.
Yes to complete sentences. Especially in the track lists it’s easy to want to write, “The first music we hear in the movie.” Please make everything a complete sentence—write it all out. Also just a thing I have. (Obviously not in memos though.)
Should I give the composer’s entire bio? In general, no—we’ve done many CDs for most of these guys and we don’t need to hear again that Jerry Goldsmith was born on such and such a date in 1929 in Los Angeles and was educated at so and so (unless it’s directly relevant to the score). The exception is if this is an oddball score by a composer we haven’t done yet—for example, in Eye of the Devil, it was important to explain who Gary McFarland was. Usually, it’s enough to say that, for example, Planet of the Apes came at a very fertile time for Jerry Goldsmith and continued his relationship with the director from something else, and then jump into it.
Drop Caps/Sections Please. We like to break up the notes every 4-5-6 paragraphs with a new section, most often using a drop cap. It’s usually pretty obvious—where the discussion changes to a new thought, then we have a series of graphs about the next thing, be it the composer, the production, etc. It helps us for you to write with these in mind. Indicate the section breaks with an extra return (blank line).
In general, remember:
Positive, but not propangda.
Honest, but not negative.
Have personality, but no snark, please. If you are writing a parenthetical about how the actor was a notorious lecher, and this has nothing to do with the rest of the project, either you delete it or I will. Thanks!
How to do the track by track
The track by track commentary is not the complete story of the movie. It is only the story of the movie inasmuch as it relates to the music on the CD. Do not kill yourself to convey every plot point, cool line, etc. It just has to be comprehensible to the reader while said reader is listening to the music. (A word of advice from someone who has been there: don’t skip through the movie just to find the music cues you are discussing! Watch it all the way, in real time. If you don’t, you will find yourself needing to refresh your memory as to a plot point and then searching for it later. Although we are NOT telling the entire story of the movie, you never know when a specific story point—from a line to a character name to a setting—is the important thing you should reference in your notes. This stuff has to be accurate and it’s so much better to be specific than to try to fudge it because you don’t want to watch a half hour stretch of the movie to find out which character said something about where they were going. Absorb the exposition—then throw most of it out, but what remains must be exact!)
In general, the purpose of your notes is to help the listener understand what he is listening to. For example, from Wait Until Dark:
2. Main Title Opening credits play over location footage of Lisa traveling with the doll from Montréal to New York. Upon arriving at JFK airport, she gives the doll to a fellow traveler, Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist Jr.), after she spies a mysterious man in a trenchcoat waiting for her. Mancini’s main title passes the “Theme for Three” from whistler doubled with piccolo, to electric harpsichord, electric guitar, and sitar, before closing with piccolo and whistler. The accompaniment for two pianos, Novachord, sho and strings (minus violins) adds a sinister sense of gloom to the proceedings, as does the wintry weather. The sequence is virtually free of dialogue, allowing Mancini a wide berth to establish mood and retain musical cohesion.
Basically every track description comes down to three things: (1) What is happening on-screen. (2) What the music is doing for it. (3) Anything interesting thereabout. The above graph is actually on the long side as it’s the main title; here’s one from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao:
Philosopher Lao appears and speaks to Ed as a serous, philosophical Chinese gentleman—with a perfect mastery of English. A pensive version of Lao’s theme leads to a a new sequence in 3/4 time as Lao describes himself as “a major mystery” and asks Ed to trust and believe in him. This new melodic material (for guitar, ocarina and bass) is haunting but brief, and does not return after this cue.
See? Short, simple, precise. I hope.
Please split up the cues. If you have a track called “Escape/Getaway,” you’ll do first:
Escape blah blah blah
Getaway blah blah blah
HOWEVER, this is not set in stone. Sometimes the musical sequence is best discussed like so, from Eye of the Devil:
Children on Parapet/Catherine and Odile on Parapet/Children on Steeple A lengthy musical set piece plays out over a sequence on the roof of the château: Odile allows Jacques and Antoinette to play dangerously close to the edge, and when Catherine arrives, the furious mother reprimands Odile—but Odile hypnotizes Catherine to the point where Catherine almost steps off the roof to her death. This is delightfully captured in McFarland’s score, from delicate, dancing woodwinds (for the children’s play) to a reprise of “Odile and Children” (for Odile’s spell), the pulse exquisitely accentuated by harp as Catherine gradually succumbs. The sequence concludes with a hunting-horn call performed by Christian (as source music) from a château tower.
In general, we like the cues discussed separately, but if you can’t even tell where one cue starts and the other ends, OK to do it all together.
Basically you are becoming a storyteller. It is up to you to decide what the composer is doing in a score and in each scene—does music play against the visuals, does it play with them, or have some other purpose? Don’t kill yourself to reinvent the wheel: you can say that the love theme is reprised under dialogue between character A and B as they discuss their future—no need to get into what the dialogue is, unless it’s something really noteworthy. People know what a “chase cue” is—you can just say the music becomes a chase cue as the pursuit unfolds.
Actor Names: A convention of ours is to state the actor names in the essay section, and then again in the track by track the first time each character is mentioned again. It’s just to help the reader suss out who is new. Lord knows these things are sometimes confusing if you are reading about a movie with characters named Bill, Joe, Betty, Phil, Mike, etc.—who the heck are these people?
What Order Should It Be In? Actually not a dumb question. Our CDs are typically presented in film sequence. However, when reissuing LPs, we often have to use the LP sequence which might be out of film order. There are two approaches to take. One is to simply write about the cues in film order and put the tracks out of the order in which they appear on the CD. We’ve done this on many occasions, even if it makes it look like:
7. Main Title
3. Love Theme
11. First Chase
And so forth. It’s OK, people can find what they want to read. The other approach is to keep the tracks in the record order, and carefully explain the jumping chronology. (You will have to do this if the record combined music from different parts of the film in various tracks.) If you take this approach, it is important to frame everything so the reader knows we are moving about: “This track features an action sequence early in the film in which so and so...” or “returning to the climax of the film, this cue appears after ‘The Chase’ (track 12) as Betty and Joe have escaped the dragon...”
Remember, the most important question you always have to answer is, WHAT THE HECK AM I LISTENING TO? The reader should be able to pick up the booklet, flip to the track, and very quickly go, OK, this is the chase sequence from the end and that’s the bandits’ theme, and oh, how interesting, I didn’t know that that’s a special drum that the composer ordered from Africa.
Oh yeah, GET A QUOTE. As in quotation from the movie. (Each movie if there are two or more on the collection.) We always run one on the back tray card. Quote can be anything you want—best to be something especially iconic or emblematic of the movie—and it must be EXACTLY transcribed. That’s our rule. You can start and end it wherever you want, but no abridging anything in the middle. If the line has some “ums,” slang (“gonna”) and stutters, use your best judgment how literal to be. OK to give us (me) a few choices if you aren’t confident in your choice. When you’re running the movie, trust me, you’ll hear a line where you’ll go, that’s a good quote to use.
That last section was for one of the unique features of FSM’s back tray cards, the dialogue quote, which I thought would be cool and ultimately became a big pain in the ass.
That's it! I hope this is food for thought and not just me being grouchy. We can continue the discussion in the comments thread.