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Score – A Film Music Documentary (2016)

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We can make you feel anything we want you to feel. Matt Schrader’s documentary about film composers is a compelling and immersive odyssey which tracks the evolution of the music score from its heyday in classical Hollywood through the present day. Alex North’s debut score for A Streetcar Named Desire featuring jazz stylings is named as the first truly modern score, marking a break from the nineteenth century symphonic style that had dominated to that point. It’s actually revolutionary, say this assemblage of composers, film directors and critics. Then John Barry is cited, the James Bond theme (which he adapted from Monty Norman’s signature) inextricably linked with the spy genre. An array of composers describe and exhibit their collections of instruments, with Mark Mothersbaugh wondering what happened to the toy piano he picked up in the Beverly Center for sixty bucks – he used it to compose the Rugrats theme then returned it and got his money back. Bernard Herrmann was an original, demonstrating that anything was possible:  as the shower scene from Psycho is shown without music, you suddenly see the edits. The emotional effects of film composition are discussed through physiology and eye movement – that’s the science. Jerry Goldsmith’s work is the next signpost to modernity – his work on Planet of the Apes even used kitchen utensils to achieve its particular affect. When writing a new score for Chinatown (after the original had been written, recorded and dumped) he demanded four harps, four pianos, strings, percussion and a solo trumpet:  instant film classic. John Williams dominates because he was chosen by Steven Spielberg, who thought after seeing The Reivers with its pastoral theme he was an old guy:  far from it, he was a hep young jazz cat. When he presented the filmmaker with two notes for Jaws, Spielberg thought it was a joke. Of course those notes triggered a major work, but he was nervous. Then came Star Wars. And E.T., where the gaps are left to ultimately bring the story to a fanfare that is oriented to Elliott’s point of view in an epic story of unique intimacy. Some iconic London recording studios are visited – Air (discovered by George Martin, who converted it from a church building) and where David Arnold has worked for a quarter of a century;  and Abbey Road, also inhabited by Martin with the Beatles but latterly better known as a soundtrack centre with some intriguing engineering and choral setups explored. Danny Elfman was picked to compose for Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure because he liked his work with synth band Oingo Boingo and a new, dark universe of music was begun from scratch. With Thomas Newman, son of the great Hollywood composer Alfred, the emotive solo piano comes to the fore:  inimitable, as we recognise in Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Hans Zimmer, also part of an Eighties synth group, Buggles, is practically a genre unto himself, Led Zeppelin with an orchestra. As he sits in his Santa Monica studio saying his music exposes him, he reminds us that if it weren’t for film composers a lot of orchestras would be going out of business. And suddenly we swerve into contemporary composition:  experimental work by rock musicians starting with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on The Social Network. Thus is a new era born, constantly reinventing itself with technology and innovations. The poignant conclusion is a loop back to the ideas presented at the start of the film – that directors generally cannot articulate what they want from a score. James Cameron misunderstood a recording sent to him by the late James Horner for Titanic: Horner described it as ‘a sketch’. It was a musical sketch, for piano, but Cameron thought it was literally for the actual sketching scene when Di Caprio draws Winslet, posing nude. He edited the scene to the music and called Horner. Horner protested it was a sketch. Cameron said it was perfect, he should see it. Horner said he could get the best pianist in the world to play it. Cameron kept it as it was. It’s perfect. All your other work in a film could come to nothing if you don’t get the music right

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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