Film music as lens: another way to study cinema

It’s the same for Episode VIII as in IV, V, VI, as it was in I, II, III and more recently in VII. No this isn’t a spoiler. No I won’t give anything away.

I just saw the most recent Star Wars film. They may have lost Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia, they may have killed off assorted characters, but the franchise is alive and well so long as they have their MVC: Most Valuable Composer.

John Williams continues to deepen the complex text he began with Star Wars aka Episode IV: A New Hope that first appeared in 1977. With each new episode, it may be true that there were lots of characters and incidents, but there weren’t that many new themes. Instead, we heard themes we’d heard before but in subtler versions, transformed. So where Darth Vader’s theme was originally the big loud imperial march, it continues to rear its head subtly, like a bad dream. There are themes for The Force, for Princess Leia, and more recently, a theme for the Rebellion against The Empire.

I’m not a big fan of the series. Other than Episode V, I didn’t like any of the other films: until now that is. The newest episode is the first one that has the same depths as The Empire Strikes Back. I won’t say anything more about it, other than to observe that the best moments in both films are helped by Williams.

That’s pretty amazing when you consider that he’s been writing these scores for literally 40 years. Eight films, and that’s just the Star Wars series. He’s been in on other franchises such as the Indiana Joneses, the Homes Alone, the Parks Jurassic, Oliver Stone’s president movies (JFK and Nixon), the first of the Harry Potter films, and lots more individual films.

Before any of those, came something much smaller and might be William’s trademark.

Two notes.

They might be the simplest tune ever written. Can we even call it a tune? “Melody” is usually understood as something pretty, beautiful rather than something scary.
But most people can hum the tune, even though the film is over 40 years old. Even without the visuals, the music is a powerful evocation of the film.

John Williams wrote the music for Jaws (1975). Nowadays when the music is played—as it was at a Toronto Symphony concert full of Williams’s film scores —the audiences burst into nervous laughter. But back then it wasn’t quite so funny. I remember people being afraid underwater: even in swimming pools! I know what you’re thinking, sharks aren’t usually found in chlorinated water.

It was a kind of mass hysteria.

In March, the Toronto Symphony will present Jaws with live orchestral accompaniment: three times. It’s a thrilling experience, seeing a film with an orchestra playing the soundtrack live in a big hall such as Roy Thomson Hall. What I find especially wonderful is that the TSO are calling it “Jaws In Concert”. In fact that’s arguably what all sound cinema is, right? A big loud orchestral soundtrack that accompanies a film illustrates and amplifies the emotional arc of the story. If you can’t already tell from the images or dialogue when to be afraid, when to be sad, or when to be elated, the orchestra tells you. It’s what Wagner used to do in his operas, and is the essence of the average film-score.

Done live in a concert hall, it’s that much more powerful.

And it has become a regular thing. Each year the TSO does more and more of these presentations, and the audiences are growing steadily. People seem to have noticed that one of the most exciting thing about film is the music.

Music and Film is the title of a course I teach at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, beginning Wednesday January 17th. It’s normal to study a medium through its artists, right? We study painting by looking at painters, acting by paying close attention to actors, ballet through its dancers.

What about cinema? It’s been usual to focus on directors or star actors, even though there are many different artists in different disciplines who are responsible for a feature film.  It’s just a figure of speech when I speak of “film music as a lens”. The picture that’s brought into focus is cinema and its history, illuminated for us by attention to the music, in much the same way we’d do it with actors or directors. In fact we’re just doing the usual sort of thing, but it’s still a relatively new area of study. The best theoretical books are still relatively recent, and there’s still lots to learn and to discuss.

And as a new subject it can surprise people with its insights.

And whether or not you notice the film’s score, the industry took notice a very long time ago. It’s usually far more lucrative to score a feature film you’d see in a theatre than a symphony that you’d encounter in the concert hall: although the concert hall is now becoming a place to find film music too.

Sometimes the song or symphonic poem was already created and well-known before the film was created.

Sometimes it’s a new composition just for the story being told.  Jaws in Concert will be presented March 21, 22 and 23 by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.

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