The history of film music = the history of film

cinematicA friend of mine asked me to suggest a way to begin studying film music, knowing that I teach a course at the Royal Conservatory called Cinematic Music: How We Hear Film.  The course begins later in March.

As a kind of preamble, I come back to a simple thought: that the history of film music is really the history of film.   When you study the cinema, one of the first things you should be discovering is how collaborative this art form actually is, how many different visions and skills are combined in the final work.  Some people prefer to organize their thoughts around the different directors that they love even though it’s fallacious to behave as though the director is the one who made the film, not when there are so many others who contribute as well.  It’s also natural to focus on a favourite actor, to explore their body of work.  Yet each of these (direction or acting) is only part of the full story, and we do the same when we choose to focus upon any aspect of the cinematic art such as the editing, the screenplay, the cinematography, the art direction…to name the most prominent.  Film music then becomes your lens –one of many possible lenses –through which to view the history of the collaborative medium.

So in other words a good place to start is to list the films that you think are the best, and/or the ones you like.   Talking a bit about my favourites is meant to be a natural departure point for anyone to think about what films they prefer, and whether the reason for that preference might begin with the score.

  • Vertigo
    Every few years I find that my favourite changes. Currently it’s Hitchcock’s study of obsession.  Getting to see Bernard Herrmann’s score played live, accompanying the film projected onto a big screen at Roy Thomson Hall last fall as part of tiff was a big thrill.   Would this film be nearly as powerful without its score?  Surely not.  I will combine Hitchcock’s trilogy with Herrmann into one selection, as at times North by Northwest or Psycho has been able to displace Vertigo from the top of the list.  I wonder if there’s any scene in these films that doesn’t depend at least partially on Herrmann. I am especially mindful of the shower scene, that gains so much from Herrmann’s strings.  But i will let you think of the best moments in these films.
  • Star Wars: episode 5 The Empire Strikes Back
    Count me among the disappointed in the latest release in the series. For all the social media talk about avoiding spoilers, I wish someone had warned me not to bother with episode 7.
    Of the seven so far only episode #5 really works for me. In this sequence you see how the music by John Williams for once very subtle and understated, gradually insinuates itself into the action.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey I adored this film when I first saw it even if it perplexed me somewhat. Kubrick may have put some noses out of joint (something at which he was skilled come to think of it) in his choice of music, but half a century later there’s no argument, as this film gradually drifts to the top of lists of the best of all time. And this is the context for my response to Star Wars.
  • Citizen Kane The movie that used to perennially sit atop lists of the greatest films of all time is a triumph of great direction and script-writing, yes.  But it also draws a great deal of strength from the first film-score by Bernard Herrmann: not bad for a first effort.
  • Gone With the Wind.  The top film of 1939 and one of the greatest films of all time –still the box office champ when you adjust for inflation—employs Max Steiner, both in the composition of original music and in the arrangement of pre-existing tunes in the score.  One of the emotional highlights of the film – a triumph of art direction and cinematography is scored as a perfectly timed medley of Southern tunes – as the camera pans back to reveal the scores of wounded in the Atlanta train yard concluding with a view of the tattered Confederate Flag to frame the scene.
  • Metropolis. Listing a silent film, it might surprise you that I pick this one with a score in mind, but there was an “original” live score played by a large orchestra when Fritz Lang premiered the film in Germany in 1927, by the composer  Gottfried Huppertz.   There are several versions (that is, there have been many different scores), making this a very useful exercise to compare.
  • Across the Universe is a film directed by Julie Taymor. The story is rather loosely assembled out of a series of situations that serve as pretexts for Beatles songs.  Like Mamma Mia –a film that it resembles—it’s less an attempt to tell an important story than an excuse to make a film out of some of the most popular music you could use for such a purpose.  Some of the adaptations of the tunes are better than others .
  • A couple of weeks ago Ennio Morricone won an academy award for his original score for Tarentino’s Hateful Eight.  Listen to what he did more than a half a century ago, in A Fistful of Dollars, the first of a series of films he did with/for Sergio Leone.  The titles music creates an epic space for the battles to come in three minutes.
  • Does music have to always underscore some heroic action? How about something more mundane such as baby-sitting?  Uncle Buck is John Hughes’ painting character dynamics with the help of tiny snippets of music from composers Michael Ross and Matt Dike.  It doesn’t take long to make a point.
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