Thursday, June 01, 2006

What's next, hip hop?

First they lamented the death of classical music. Now Scott Eyman is concerned that film music is looking rather ill.
"I'm so sick of music where there's nothing to it," says George Feltenstein, a Warner Bros. vice president. "What we're hearing represents a continuing cultural wearing away of the arts in society in general. This is a culture where Andrew Lloyd Webber is taken seriously as a composer, so it shouldn't be any surprise that we're gradually losing musical theater or good film scores."
The article does make the good point that today's composers need to be very versatile in musical genres, more so than in the 40s through 70s. And the blogging fun comes from a list included with the article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel of twelve noteworthy scores:
1. "Gone With the Wind" (1939): Max Steiner didn't do subtle, but producer David O. Selznick's epic film doesn't need subtle, it needs some great themes that add a level of characterization that the characters might not have otherwise. A score that works, both with the film, and on its own.

2. "The Sea Hawk "(1940): Pomp and heraldry, and there's even a choral number. The film usually cited as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's masterpiece is "The Adventures of Robin Hood," but he pushes himself further with "The Sea Hawk."

3. "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1946): Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous evocation of the sea and doomed love.

4. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950): Franz Waxman's turbulent but melodic and - at the end - authentically tragic score gets closer to the essence of the operatic tragedy that is Norma Desmond than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's anachronistic heavings.

5. "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951): Along with Franz Waxman, Alex North was probably the most consistently underrated of all film composers - director John Huston said that North "could break your heart with eight notes." This was North's first movie score, and it captures all the surging, blues-based sensuality and sad poetry of Elia Kazan's film.

6. "Vertigo" (1958): In which Bernard Herrmann first used the odd, tenuously appropriate Spanish rhythms that also enlivened "North by Northwest," another movie that's a concert with attached visuals.

7. "The Magnificent Seven" (1960): Elmer Bernstein's propulsive score pumps up what is actually a rather deliberate Western and convinces the viewers that they're watching a hell-bent-for-leather action-fest.

8. "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968): A far more romantic score than Ennio Morricone's audacious rattlesnake janglings and wailings from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," but they constitute a complete re-imagining of the art of the film score.

9. "Patton" (1970): Not great music, but a great sound gimmick - Jerry Goldsmith's fading trumpet calls signaled Patton's brilliantly archaic mind-set as much as the opening speech.

10. "Jaws" (1975): John Williams' music brilliantly gives an aural impression of a psychological state of fear. The bruuuump, bruuump of the ominous chords denoting the shark give way to spacious, beautiful writing about the open sea.

11. "Ragtime" (1981): Randy Newman in his nostalgic/lyrical mode, beautifully capturing Gilded Age America.

12. "Henry V" (1989): Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Branagh's re-imagining of Shakespeare was in the heroic mold but not afraid of recognizing the cognitive dissonance of the grimy visuals butting up against the splendid declamatory language.
And now, commenters, start your snarking of this list. Let me start with Patton. Was it because he felt a need to include Goldsmith? So many better war scores, including Glory or A Bridge Too Far.

(Machicotage, nice music history term just used as a spelling bee championship word)


Peter (the other) said...

I suppose those are "noteworthy" scores. I agree with you about Patton's inclusion. Maybe he didn't know what to say about Chinatown?

I think the major problem in that critique of contemporary film music, is a lack of asking whether filmmaking has changed in any other ways that might be the chicken that laid this egg (shooting, editing and sound design styles). It is also worth asking about how film is consumed today (everywhere,at anytime, often repeatedly), as opposed to years ago (once in a church called a theatre).One might ask, why, in a world filled with music designed for listening (how much "world music" was available in 1940?) does film music need to provide more?

Michael J. West said...

I'm frankly tired of hearing about the "gradual wearing away of the arts." Perhaps it's merely that the grand orchestral sweep of the old film composers is passe. How often did those types of cues go with an older, more epic style of filmmaking--something that really doesn't exist anymore?

Elfman, even if he's much quirkier and (frequently) darker than conventional film music, is steadily approaching mastery. And what is this thing in the Palm Beach Post that "he seems only to work for Tim Burton"? He's scored both Spiderman movies, both Men in Black movies, and the themes from the Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.

For that matter, there's James Horner, who's frequently underrated, and Terence Blanchard, whose music particularly for Spike Lee's films is haunting and subtle and often breathtaking.

It's all a part of the "things were better in my day" mentality, because it's easier and more comforting to insist that aesthetics are decaying than it is to admit that they are merely changing in ways that are harder to understand.

And come on. "This is a culture where Andrew Lloyd Webber is taken seriously as a composer, so it shouldn't be any surprise that we're gradually losing musical theater or good film scores." As if society didn't make stars out of derivative hacks in previous periods.

End rant.

Jamie Bowden said...

I love Ragtime. I had no idea randy Newman scored that. I didn't know he worked for anyone other than Disney (to borrow a theme).

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Peter, not only is it how film is consumed, but how music is consumed. Music has become ubiquitous, losing the sense of specialness that the concert hall granted.

Michael, good rant.

Jamie, Randy has done some good movies like The Natural and Maverick before he hooked up with Pixar.

Hucbald said...

What list of great film scores could leave out Bridge on the River Kwai? Malcom Arnold did a masterful job with that score.

I'd have to say I like Elfman most of the current crop. I loved the music for the first Spiderman so much I got the soundtrack, which was a first for me. His use of driving percussion and his mastery of ominous bombast is quite impressive, IMO.

Hope Persen said...

I don't give a damn about popularity, haute snobbery, or people who have jobs critiquing popular culture and in so doing, harsh on it to make themselves feel superior. The greatest film score of all time is still Star Wars. John Williams is a brilliant composer. He's created the same kind of hook that made Mozart popular with the lowest, as well as the highest, kinds of musical connoisseurs. And I agree with the earlier comment about Danny Elfman. I sing along to Elfman tunes and hum along to John Williams. Isn't a key to brilliance the *enduring* popularity of the work? Shakespeare was a filthy-minded lowlife, and Alexandre Dumas wrote about nothing but sex, drugs, and rock and roll. THAT is why we still read them! Same goes with music.