One of the most interesting things about a movie is that the aspects we really notice – the performance of the actor, the action going on in front of us – are often the pointy end of a whole range of arts we barely recognise.
We’ve all heard special effects technicians talk about how they’ve only really done their job if nobody notices their work, because if you notice a special effect it yanks you out of the experience. It’s only when we truly believe there’s an alien ship landing, a giant shark attacking or a man in a cape flying through the air that effects have done their work.
As “Score: A Film Music Documentary” reminds us, the same can be said about the music in a film. There are examples where the music is so distinctive (or just so loud) that it threatens to overshadow the action. Though they danced at the edge of being simply too big and bombastic for the movies they accompanied, Hans Zimmer’s scores for “Inception” and “Interstellar” are classic examples.
But in most cases, the music is an invisible part of the whole tapestry that makes up the cinematic experience, and it’s the art of the score that’s celebrated in “Score: A Film Music Documentary”.
There’s a rough chronology about trends and movements in movie music. From the earliest days of cinema when the music was there as much so the experience wasn’t completely silent as it was a tool to help tell the story, ambient movie music has gone through periods of innovation where popular rock music, jazz and even artfully crafted silence have all made their mark.
When we hear the familiar blast of John Williams’ wind and percussion sections and the Star Wars Logo explodes into and then recedes away from view, it’s easy to forget how comparatively recently orchestral music has made a comeback on movie screens. Although it’s part of the branding of a movie to have a score by Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh or Trent Reznor, the musical language of the modern blockbuster wouldn’t be what it is without the work of Williams, Bernard Hermann, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith or a handful of others.
But “Score” might make its most important point unwittingly. A lot of the composers and writers are interviewed for the film and as they talk about their tools, techniques and influences, there comes a point where the language used to describe both what they do and what effect they want it to have falls down. Just like we all do when we’re talking about art and where it hits us, they reach a point where they stumble a bit, their words falter and they use words like ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘feel’ or ‘texture’.
It’s a beautiful metaphor for art itself, not just music. We use words that don’t really mean what we’re trying to say because there isn’t really a word to describe what a piece of music – or the movie it’s part of – does to you. In explaining what they’re trying to capture, these composers and filmmakers (James Cameron, Garry Marshall and others make appearances) can’t really articulate it succinctly – we all just know.
You’d think that even though John Williams doesn’t feature except in archive footage “Score” would be a lesser film – like talking about horror stories without having input from Stephen King or early musicals without mentioning Busby Berkeley. But there are so many other talking heads whose work has made modern cinema what it is you’ll realise what a breadth of talent there is in an art form you don’t think about very much.
You also wouldn’t believe a documentary about movie music would make you cry (apart from when it shows us clips that made us cry first time around), but it ends off with a funny and lovely tribute to James Horner, who died in 2015.
James Cameron tells the story of a short piano interlude Horner played and sent him on a CD for Titanic, labelled ‘sketch’. Cameron realised it indeed fit perfectly into the scene of Jack (Leo DiCaprio) drawing Rose (Kate Winslet) and called the composer excitedly to share the news, only then for Horner to tell him the word ‘sketch’ was just a rough term for a piece of music there wasn’t a place for yet.
When Cameron comes to realise his error but assures Horner he wants it in the drawing scene, the composer – then just as excited – starts talking about hiring one of the greats to perform the final soundtrack version, but Cameron is so in love with what Horner’s already recorded he wants to use it in the final cut, speaking the final words in the film as he told Horner that day; ‘it’s you buddy, it’s you.’