Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Night Relaxer: The perfect theme

Generally I find that having music on while working or writing at night is the best way for me to get in a zone to bang out some words. It's a habit developed over the last 20 odd years where just writing in silence doesn't seem to produce a productive output.

When I was younger I would mostly listen to music with lyrics - now I find instrumental is best.Sometimes it'll be classical, but mostly I find it is movie themes.

There;s something about a great theme that just elevates a film . There is a story recounted in Peter Biskand's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Chinatown first had a horrible score that Polanski for some reason thought was genius. Thankfully he was convinced otherwise and Jerry Goldsmith was commissioned to write an absolutely stunning score that captures the mood of the film absolutely perfectly. It is inconceivable to think of seeing the film without that score now.

And that is the mark of the great score - it becomes so indelibly linked to the film that some scores actually take over the film. Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission is much better than the film, and now probably better known.

In 2005, the American Film Institute came up with its top 25 scores of all time (US films of course). Here;'s the list:

1 Star Wars, John Williams
2 Gone with the Wind, Max Steiner
3 Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre
4 Psycho, Bernard Herrmann
5 The Godfather, Nino Rota
6 Jaws, John Williams
7 Laura, David Raksin
8 The Magnificent Seven, Elmer Bernstein
9 Chinatown, Jerry Goldsmith
10 High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin
11 The Adventures of Robin Hood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
12 Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
13 King Kong, Max Steiner
14 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, John Williams
15 Out of Africa, John Barry
16 Sunset Blvd., Franz Waxman
17 To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein
18 Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith
19 A Streetcar Named Desire, Alex North
20 The Pink Panther, Henry Mancini
21 Ben-Hur, Miklós Rózsa
22 On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein
23 The Mission, Ennio Morricone
24 On Golden Pond, Dave Grusin
25 How the West Was Won, Alfred Newman

Now it's a good list, but I'd take issue with a few of them. I prefer Elmer Bernstein's score for The Great Escape to The Magnificent Seven, and I'd go for Jarre's score for Doctor Zhivago over the Lawrence of Arabia one.
And Star Wars the best ever? Sorry not even in my top 10.
What also strikes when you see the list is that there is a lot of common names - Williams, Bernstein, Steiner, Goldsmith. These guys knew (know) how to write music that fits perfectly with a story, and they're also very much of their times. Max Steiner's scores often were full of bombast and melodrama but they seem right for The bombast and melodrama of Gone with the Wind, in a way that a more subtle score would not.
In keeping with the commonality of musicians, two scores that I would have included in the list are both by Ennio Morricone. I have written elsewhere about my love of Once Upon a Time in the West.
But I would also argue Once Upon a Time in America is just as good, and if we're talking indelible sounds, his The Good the Bad and the Ugly is up there with Jaws as being instantly recognisable (and hummable by people who haven't even seen the film).
Of recent film scores, I'd put in Philip Glass's brilliant work for Powaqqatsi - so good Peter Weir used it for The Truman Show.
I also like Maurice Jarre's work in Dead Poet's Society - Peter Weir films as a rule have great scores - the theme of Master and Commander by Iva Davies (!), Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti is an underrated favourite of mine.
Carter Burwell is one composer whose work also is generally top drawer. He is the Coen Brothers go to guy, and his score for Miller's Crossing is my favourite of his:

Of the last decade (or so) Thomas Newmann has done some amazing work for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, Wall E, Cinderella Man and Revolutionary Road. Little wonder he has been nominated for an Oscar 10 times... hasn't won one yet, not that that means much, Elmer Bernstein was nominated 14 times and only one once (not for The Magnificent Seven of course!). Bernard Herrmann didn't even get nominated for his Psycho score!
There are so many films I could keep going for an age, but I'll leave you with a score that I have only rediscovered in the last few months. It is by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto for the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. I haven't seen the film since it came out (when I was rather disappointed to find it was not much like Bridge on the River Kwai at all). I don't have much desire to watch it again, but the score? Magnificent.

Have a good weekend.


Anonymous said...

I could only study physics with "War of the Worlds" drowning out the sitcoms from the front room.
Great choices. Ta.

Anonymous said...

I like Michael Nyman's scores for Greenaway's films as well as Campion's 'The Piano'

Emma said...

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Miller's Crossing are certainly two of my favourite movie themes. The MC,ML one has haunted me for years - immediate shivers up my spine. Outshines the movie, however, so does that make it a fail as a theme? Thanks for pulling these wonders out of the vault.

Andrew Elder said...

I agree with Emma. The book which became 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' was one of my favourites as a teenager. Bowie is underrated as an actor but he was terrible in that film (but he'd do a mean film theme if he put his mind to it).

Trung said...

Well, my personal favorite is Jerry Goldsmith beautiful score for Star Trek First Contact.

Then again I am a Trekkie and I like it mostly for nostalgic reasons.

Also, you may disagree with Star Wars theme song being number 1. However you have to admit, it's arguably the most memorable and widely recognised movie theme. I don't think I met a single person who wouldn't recognise the Star wars theme.

Trung said...

Also I quite like this Inception film music with Johnny Marr (from the Smiths) as well.

Greg Jericho said...

Emma, Andrew - some scores are far better than the film MC,ML is certainly one.

Interesting bit about Psycho - Hitchcock wanted the shower scene to be silent - with no music at all. Herrmann came up with something a tad better.

Hillbilly Skeleton said...

I have a different modus operandi when composing my blogs. I find music interferes with 'the flow' when I am coming up with the words. TV on with mute works for me so I can look distractedly up at it when I come to a mental block. Maybe this is because I write my blog out longhand first, then type it up in an Open Office doc second. THAT'S when the music comes in handy. I open up Grooveshark, up comes my personal playlist, which I add to constantly, put it on shuffle, and away I go!
BTW, the only soundtracks that I have time for are those by Angelo Baddalamenti for the David Lynch movies.

Bill said...

Trung, thank you for that. Johnny Marr is a hero of mine, and I might have to see the film on the strength of that clip.

I think Star Wars was ranked top just for being recognisable. It is a brilliant score, and wonderful music in its own right, but it's not life-changing the way The Mission is.

Bob said...

Dear Grog, lovely post; tonic from the canberra dungeons..

I've always been big on Herrmann and Morricone, who bridged Mittel european and modern; and Barry and Schifrin who took to the postwar with verve.

Many People say Psycho, but I'd like to nominate his original score for Cape Fear. eler Bernstein, who adapted it in 1991 said of it brilliantly observed: "people who say it's too simple ought to consider the four notes in Beethoven's Fifth"

As for Modern Hollywood.. I find far too many of them rehash Copland James Horner being guilty of this often

also amongst my greats are Masaru Satō's score for Yojimbo and Michel Legrand's 1968 Thomas Crown Affair.

Bushfire Bill said...

To my mind, film music, much of it still fully orchestral, is the natural successor to concert music of the 19th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

As Grog suggests, it's impossible to imagine some films without the music that was written for them. The best film music complements the visuals and gives them extra dimension. ET would be just another story about a bunch of kids and a rubber alien without Williams' enchanting score. Likewise Jerry Goldsmith's Patton march enhances the action (especially the intermission music, which builds on the theme of the opening credits). I think Star Wars is there on the list for the stunning effect it had on audiences at the time in 1977, when that huge screen opened and turned from black and silent to "11" on the volume dial in one beat. We'd never seen anything like that before, even if we've gotten used to it by now. I'd add another Williams project, Close Encounters, to the list of films that would have been lesser events without the score (with a similar shock start, telegraphed by the ominous first half a minute of discordant strings but no less stunning for that when it came).

Much of contemporary concert music, "20th century" music is discordant (my ex-wife used to call it "scratch music", as in the sound of fingernails on a blackboard). It's hard to sit in an auditorium and patiently listen to it on its own... there's no form (which is often the intention, I know) and to many sets of ears, it all sounds the same. I once heard some of the Ligeti music from 2001 at the Opera House. The audience was so bored they started fidgeting and coughing. One patron in the expensive seats ostentatiously read the SMH from cover to cover during it, theatrically turning the broadsheet pages to show his disgust. He was waiting for the Tchaikovsky Pathetique (as most of us were), to be performed after the interval. But married with the film visuals, in a darkened theatre depicting black outer space, the music took on a whole new aspect. It was as if the composer foresaw that his score might be used for a film one day.

Discordance and lack of melody is difficult (at least for me) to listen to from purely aural perspective, but is easily digestable when supplementing images on-screen. I think the movies have saved 20th century "contemporary" music from itself, as far as mass audiences are concerned.

What then do we makes of the great, lush themes of Williams, Newman, Goldsmith, Jarre, Morricone, and even (at his best, when he's not quoting and re-quoting himself from other films) James Horner? They can uplift the spirit and sweep you up in the screen goings on, more than the visuals ever could. The last sequence of Cinema Paradiso where Salvatore watches, enchanted and then in tears, the contraband reel of forbidden clips he'd been forced to cut out of films he'd shown by the village priest is a beautiful case in point. The action is minimal, the music is beautiful, the combination is unforgettable.

The very best film composers combine cacophony and melody in perfect counterpoint, allowing them to be both "contemporary" and "romantic". The very best of it you can actually sit down and listen to purely as music, a la Williams' Star Wars suite, but its main purpose is to turn visual images into cherished memories, serendipitously keeping orchestral music still accessible to the wider public, most of whom would go near a classical orchestral music concert in a month of Sundays.

P.S. AS for the list, the best composers are there, but I'm not sure of the particular choice of projects, and I'm definiely not sure of the ordering.

P.P.S. Anything Philip Glass writes has me running for the EJECT button immediately. I can't see what others see in his music. So repetitive (in a boring way), as if he only uses the white keys on the piano when he's composing it. But that's a matter of taste.

Bushfire Bill said...

Link to the last scene from Paradiso. Try and stop the tears...

rf said...

I'd go for the soundtrack to 'Jules et Jim' by Georges Delerue or the soundtrack to 'Jean De Florette' or even 'Betty Blue' - but then they are all a bit too French for that list I guess. Star Wars? Dreadful!

Greg Jericho said...

BB - Cinema Paradiso is a truly brilliant score - Morricone didn;t even get nominated for an Oscar for it.(The Little Mermaid won that year)

rf - Jules et Jim is brilliant for so many reasons, and the score is certainly one of them. Love the song "Le Tourbillon".

Rowan said...

Love Miller's Crossing and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (and Ennio Morricone in general) good choices there.

I think The Piano and O Brother Where Art Though are both brilliant, and are also the only film soundtracks I ever purchased. They certainly fit the film, but I think they both stand on their own as great music, esp The Piano.

I am rather fond of the Star Wars score when watching the movie---the quiet woodwind segment ALWAYS makes me think of outer space to the extent that it sometimes runs through my head if I look up at the sky at night! As a complement to the action it's great, however, it's not particularly listenable to on its own. I could be biased though, as my dad got the CD for free when he got his new stereo system in 1983. CDs were pretty expensive back then so he didn't have many others, and I got to hear it rather a lot when I was growing up...

Roy G Biv said...

"Dead Man" (film by Jim Jarmusch, music by Neil Young).

I'm not sure that Neil Young jamming away on the growliest guitar I've ever heard counts as a "score". The story is that they played the film in the studio and Young just played along, so it wasn't "composed" as such. Nevertheless, it's certainly the best film music I've ever heard.

brett coster said...

The score from Ghost in the Shell (Kenji Kawai) is one of my favourites, and also Princess Mononoke (Joe Hisaishi).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Tan Dun), Pan's Labyrinth (Javier Narravette) and Kingdom of Heaven (Harry Gregson-Williams)all get a lot of airtime on my mp3.

Also agree about Peter Weir's films all having great soundtracks.

Diogenes said...

I see Michael Nyman has been mentioned and his work with Greenaway is sublime, one of the reasons I named my son Michael. Greenaway also had a wonderful collaboration with Wim Mehrten's in Belly of an Architect.

Although it wasn't written for it, Godspeed You Black Emperor's East Hastings is haunting in 28 Days Later. Of course GYBE didn't allow it on the CD of the soundtrack.

But this is my winner, Twin Peaks

allanr44 said...

I had a friend who would refer to The Mission as that Morricone movie

David McLoughlin said...

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was made in New Zealand purely because at the time, speculators had discovered they could rip of huge amounts of tax rebates by "funding" films, even total duds.

It was a few years before the most blatant loopholes were closed.

D said...

Sakamoto did a lovely vocal version of the title music called "Forbidden Colours".

Notus said...

The really clever bit in Jaws was how Spielberg associated the shark theme with the imminent appearance of the white pointer. This was repeated to produce Pavlovian or respondent conditioning in the audience; and then the shark pounced without the theme - very scary. To this day I still feel a sense of menace when I hear those notes. This is using a movie sound track to its maximum potential.

Greg Jericho said...

Dio - Twin Peaks is brilliant - right up the top.

Roy G Biv - I can't believe I forgot to mention Dead Man - an amazing score by the genius of Neil Young

Anonymous said...

I've always pictured Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor as the opening music of a movie starring Cate Blanchett.