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The Future of Film Music

By Jason Foster

1M1: 11/8/99

As the 20th Century comes to a close, there have been and continue to be various retrospectives on everything that came to pass in the last one hundred years. Since film music's history has already been well documented, perhaps it's time to take a look forward rather than back.

But first, a tad bit of reflection may be in order.

Over the past decade, film music has arguably become more varied than at any other time in its history. There is no longer a set way of scoring any type of genre and the strictly orchestral score is no longer the mainstay it used to be. We now have synthesizers having a bigger presence than ever before -- complete with computer/MIDI programs that make it almost easy for anyone who can dabble at a keyboard to churn out a score for any film. There are more and more "rockers" who have turned to film scoring as a part-time job. Sometimes they have formal musical training, but most times they don't. The pressure for studios to have hit soundtrack albums is greater than ever before. Thus, more and more films are looking to the music of pop stars to sustain the emotion and drama. So, what does all of this mean?

It's not a new argument, but the future of film music as we've come to know and love it may be in trouble. But not everyone shares this opinion. For better or worse, many more people than ever before are becoming film music fans. Not only that, but they're getting younger and younger. Instead of being introduced to film music through complex scores like PSYCHO, PATTON, or STAR WARS, newer fans are getting pulled into the hobby by "rock anthem" scores like ARMAGEDDON and THE ROCK. True, the quality of a particular film score depends on one's opinion. But the shift in the way films are being scored and the kinds of scores that are being consider "the best" is troubling to some.

At the base of the problem is the fact that composers, as a group, don't seem to be nearly as creative as they once were. There are the exceptions like Thomas Newman and Elliot Goldenthal, among a few others. But for the most part, scores in almost every genre have become predictable in both style and execution. However, it's entirely possible and, in fact, probable that the composers are only partly to blame. Their creativity seems to be limited and/or squashed in part by ignorant or timid producers and directors. Again, not a new argument, but worth discussing. Last January I had the fortunate opportunity of interviewing Oscar-winning composer David Shire. During the interview, the subject of composer creativity came up. Shire stated that he feels that composer creativity has become less prevalent due to the risk factor.

"It's become such a money game and there are so many scores thrown out," Shire said. "I think a lot of people are gun shy -- that if they let a composer experiment and it doesn't work, then they've blown a million dollars."

With the number of people making movies at an all-time high -- and with the demand for by-the-numbers/cut-and-paste plots designed to sell tickets -- it seems unlikely that we'll see, for example, a sci-fi film with a score as inventive or powerful as ALIEN or PLANET OF THE APES. But that might only be a small part of the problem, as the number of composers who actually have the musical knowledge to be creative is getting smaller. Again, nowadays if you know a guy who knows the producer, and you have even a primitive MIDI setup, you can score a film.

As many people already know, Randy Newman also recently took a shot at the current state of film music -- calling it the worst period of film music he's ever seen. His reasons were very close to the opinions of many fans, as well as some of the reason listed here. The entire process is undergoing a metamorphosis into an ugly beast and the future is looking bleak because of it.

Perhaps, like many other things, film music is simply evolving into another form. But if this is true, fans of the elements that have made the industry great thus far may be forced into accepting something totally different. Because after all, some kind of film music is still better than none, right?

In all actuality, it's kind of doubtful that the traditional elements of film music will ever become extinct. But that's not to say that they won't be extremely rare. As MIDI programs become more advanced, chances are that they will eventually be able to mimic orchestral sounds to the point where it's hard to tell them apart from the actual instruments. This will limit the need for musicians, thus making the scoring process a lot cheaper, and in turn, more attractive to filmmakers.

The next five years will likely be a very pivotal time for film music. And sadly, the kind of film music we get in the near future will probably be determined by which films are successful. Instead of having John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith on a film, you might see rockers like Billy Corgan (STIGMATA) and R.E.M. (MAN ON THE MOON) as part of the next "new wave" in film music. Sure, it's completely possible that these people could create interesting, or at least different, scores. But whether the trend as a whole will have a positive effect is yet to be seen. I just have a bad feeling that the traditional film composers and scoring styles will soon be seen as old fashioned, as movies will feel more pressure than ever before to be "hip."

I feel as if I could say a lot more, as these things could be seen as only the tip of the iceburg. But I'll let it rest for now. Keep in mind, though -- none of this will matter to you if you like where film music is headed. But for those of us who are somewhat disturbed by the goings on in recent years, film music as we know it may be on it's way out.

Feedback: jgfoster@ix.netcom.com

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