At The Movies

They don’t make movie soundtracks like they used to…

I’m not sure why, although certainly there is more than a single reason. I suspect some contributing causes are producers’ business decisions to put together a soundtrack that will also serve as a pop music compilation they can package and sell. This goes all the way back to Tim Burton’s Batman movie, which had Danny Elfman’s score and diegetic songs from Prince- easily the worst music of his career but commercially successful. There has been a turn towards the “indie” sound in pop music for soundtrack material, a normal reflection of the zeitgeist, but as that music can be bland and faceless, so are the soundtracks.

From the inside there has been a homogenization of tools that have come out of the use of samplers—I regularly get notices for new packages of sounds that promise things like “cinematic effects,” and “cinematic strings.” A lot of composers use these and a lot of what they produce has the same occluded sound, which is thick, mostly uses the bass register, with ersatz timbres.

Even in this context there still have been excellent soundtracks from Cliff Martinez—his electro-acoustic music for the remake of Solaris—and Tindersticks’ music for Claire Denis’ movies. But the practice has been a lot of dull, lazy music, that works with a handful of dull, lazy, new clichés, like pounding tribal drums and a repeated theme with, if you’re lucky, an occasional meter change to make it sound like someone is thinking (see Ramin Djawadi’s tedious theme for Game of Thrones).

What you hear in Game of Thrones is far less than a score, it’s more of a sonic brand. Are there any actual cues in the show, bits of music that enhance what’s on screen? That I can’t remember any tells me that if there are, they’re forgettable.

I didn’t like The Last Jedi much, and John William’s score is over-written, but man at least it was written. It has a theme, it has different cues for different moments, it’s orchestrated for actual instruments and things that they can do. That last is probably more important in film music than in classical, and can only be learned through study, not samples.

Scores by composers who wield the craft of notated composition still hold up, like John Corigliano’s for Altered States, and especially Jerry Goldsmith, in my opinion the last great film composer who could craft excellent and dramatically different music depending on the film, and whose work has been quietly but pervasively influential. Compare the scores for Chinatown and Alien, and you’ll hear what I mean (The Burton/Elfman partnership also ushered in this era where a composer’s current soundtrack is essentially a repeat of his previous one, no matter how different the movies might be. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock and a long partnership, and Herrmann’s music was always full of variety and supported the specific needs of each film and scene).

Of the movies I’ve seen over the last eighteen months, these soundtracks have impressed me:

Arrival: From the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, the music stands on its own as an evocative and satisfying listen. As a soundtrack, it captures the mysterious feeling of the movie, the sense of putting together a fascinating, and slightly frightening, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Annihilation: This movie is a stunning, and at times terrifying, adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, a kind of ecologically based weird fiction. The soundtrack is extremely effective in creating an involving experience, and then in the climatic scene, the track “The Alien” reaches out and takes control of the listener. In the theater it was one of the most visceral movie experiences I’ve had, and the tremendous sound design takes the simplest descending bass line—that sounds descended from Atoms For Peace—and turns it into a complex listen. What this clip doesn’t convey is how for most of the movie the score is at a gentle volume, then it this scene it turns up to 11.

Isle of Dogs: I’m impressed with Desplat’s work on this movie. The soundtrack combines needle-drops from the soundtrack to The Seven Samurai, a couple fascinating songs from the obscure West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, an arrangement of music from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kija Suite, by the old Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and Desplat’s original composing. He succeeds two-fold, in making good, effective music for the film and integrating with the Seven Samurai music via adapting some of that older music’s instrumentation and ideas.

And here’s a playlist with selections from 80 years of Oscar winning soundtracks in two hours. There’s an interesting change right around Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where pop music becomes more common, then it really explodes, for good and ill, after Giorgio Moroder was awarded for his Midnight Express music. Enjoy.

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

“Anyone who can write with insight and authority about Alas No Axis, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello…Missy Mazzoli and William Britelle, and…Mahler…is okay in my book.”

Darcy James Argue

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