Too Much and Not Enough | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Too Much and Not Enough

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By Edwin Black

In the late 60s and early 70s I spent many a Saturday morning at Rose Records on Wabash, thumbing through the bins of movie music and trading film-score gossip with the clerks. It was for the most part a solitary enjoyment. But once in a while another customer would come in and ask about sound tracks, another person who actually went to the movies not to see the film but to listen to the music. Back then Rose stocked the most extensive sound-track selection in Chicago and one of the best in the nation. Its collection was almost single-handedly championed and nurtured by Dennis Peterson, who began as a sound-track enthusiast, graduated to store volunteer, and ultimately became a paid buyer, doing his best to bring every possible film score--be it a Japanese import or a bootleg from who knows where--to the fledgling Chicago market. We film-music buffs were desperate, and Dennis was our only source of relief.

Sound-track lovers understood that film music was perhaps America's most valuable font of serious orchestral composition. Europe had yielded virtually all the masters American music lovers cherished, with well-known exceptions such as Copland, Hanson, Barber, Bernstein, and Ives. The original film-music maestros were all classically trained: Alfred Newman, who scored or supervised more than 100 films and created the famous 20th Century-Fox fanfare, studied with Schoenberg. Elmer Bernstein (The Ten Commandments, Hawaii), Henry Mancini (Charade, Days of Wine and Roses), and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) were all graduates of Juilliard. Because they weren't writing for conservative concertgoers, film scorers could introduce radical European ideas like dissonance and 12-note composition in the name of dramatic effect. But they also turned to American popular music for inspiration, as Bernstein did in Man With the Golden Arm, incorporating improvisational jazz into a film score for the first time.

Sound tracks also brought classical music to the common man and created a continuing need for original composition in America. Movie and TV music have given us some of our most recognizable cultural cues: Psycho's shrieking violins, Dragnet's dum de dum dum, The Twilight Zone's far-out guitar flutter, James Bond's swaggering motifs, Chariots of Fire's electronic staccato--all instantly define a mood or situation for millions who have never even seen those works on the screen.

Yet film composers toiled in magnificent obscurity. Classical composers had the privilege of writing only when they thought they had something musical to say, something that might advance the art form. Those who wrote for the movies, however, were compelled to come up with extended musical statements on command, often 10 or 20 times a year. (Alan Silvestri, who scored Contact and Forrest Gump, told a film-music conference in Hollywood that demanding production deadlines create the necessary "voltage" for him to become creative.) And where classical composers, particularly the Romantics, labored to impart story lines without the benefit of words or images, a movie already had a story. When I interviewed Copland (whose accomplishments include the scores to Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony) on the subject some years ago, he complained that the music must always come second to the action--but added that any composer unable to accept this "should stay home and write symphonies."

I'm not bragging when I say I used to know the title and composer of every available score. It wasn't too tough: in my record-store-haunting days very few sound tracks were actually released, and only one or two would be added every month or so. Unfortunately, there was no way to predict what you would find--no advance notice, no advertising, no consistent relation to a film's popularity or quality. Sometimes the movie would be wildly popular, like The Magnificent Seven, but the music would never be released. Sometimes an obscure title, like John Barry's score for The Chase, would crop up. Sometimes I left with a record, more often with a determination to try again next week.

Eventually, though, the entertainment industry realized that the popularity of a film made its sound track a valuable commodity. In the late 60s United Artists, in one giant release, issued more than a dozen so-called collector's items, including the scores to Burn!, by Ennio Morricone, and The Return of the Magnificent Seven, by Elmer Bernstein (his original Magnificent Seven music was apparently irretrievable, so its reworking for the sequel had to suffice). By the late 70s, the more popular sound tracks could be purchased at just about any record store.

Today movie scores are a phenomenon. Last year 439 new sound tracks and reissues were released, and in 1998 more than 500 will be. What was once an obscure form appreciated by a band of diehards has recently been plastered across the cover of Entertainment Weekly and the pages of the New Yorker, thanks to Titanic. The emotional but profoundly derivative score, winner of twin Golden Globes and twin Oscars, has become a global number-one best-seller and in the process has rocketed sound tracks into the consciousness of the average music lover. More significant, the public is beginning to identify the music by its composer, James Horner, and is now flocking to the stores to buy his other scores, which include Aliens, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

The movie industry is now demanding more original music than ever before--not just 20 minutes or a few cues for dramatic moments but often more than an hour of music. And sound tracks are generally released not at some mysterious time months after the movie disappears from the theaters but beforehand, as part and parcel of premiere hype. So, lots more music demanded by Hollywood equals lots more sound tracks released and available in the stores equals seventh heaven for film-music buffs, right?

Well, not really. As Hollywood has become an ever more efficient moneymaking machine, the sound track has been reduced to just another of its cogs. There are of course notable exceptions, but the pressures of modern film production make them more and more notable all the time.

Once upon a time, the composer was given a free artistic hand, and his work was honored as art--if not by the serious music world, then at least by those paying his wage. Television contracts with Henry Mancini specified that no voice-overs could be added during the end credits to Mr. Lucky and Peter Gunn. No expense was spared in assembling full orchestras for multiple sessions. Now time and money, not tempo and motif, are the deciding factors.

The problem with sound tracks is inextricable from the problem with big-budget movies: the stakes have risen so high that almost no one wants to take a risk. Directors and producers follow safe, proven formulas, and will go to great lengths not to deviate from them. For example, the producers of Tomorrow Never Dies wanted the score to reflect John Barry's franchised James Bond music. Barry had scored numerous Bond flicks, beginning with Dr. No in 1962, and gave each its own distinctive identity within the genre he himself established. But when contract negotiations with Barry broke down, reportedly over compensation, the producers of Tomorrow Never Dies turned to David Arnold (Stargate, Independence Day) and simply asked him to re-create the Barry sound. That's exactly what Arnold did. This stifling practice also accounts for the incongruously Celtic quality of Titanic's score: director James Cameron told James Horner that he thought Horner's Braveheart was the best film music he had ever heard. And sure enough, Horner gave him more Braveheart, bagpipes and all.

An even more invasive manifestation of this problem is the temp track--the temporary music selected to accompany a film during focus groups and screen tests. These tests have enormous value to the studios. A high rating may convince the studio to commit greater postproduction resources and marketing support to the film. Conversely, a poor rating can turn a perfectly good film into an orphan or, worse, a pot that's been stirred by too many cooks. And according to Daniel Schweiger, a Hollywood music editor who has temp-tracked dozens of films, "When a film tests badly, the temp track is the first thing to be blamed."

Temp tracks are usually selected from previously published movie music by a small group of editors and consultants who aren't necessarily trained in music composition or performance. They see a patch of raw footage and say, "I think Backdraft would work."

Jerry Goldsmith, one of America's most creative composers, was tapped in 1979 to score Alien. The film was temp-tracked with the music he wrote for Freud in 1962, and Freud music creeps into Alien. Titanic was reportedly temp-tracked with Enya's "Book of Days," which was used in Far and Away. Lo and behold, themes from Horner's award-winning score bear great resemblance to Enya's "Book of Days." Schweiger says, "It takes a very confident director to set aside the temp track and allow the composer to create something new. And a very assertive composer. Unfortunately I only see that about 50 percent of the time." Few composers want to risk losing what can be upwards of a million dollars by not giving the client what he wants. Even the biggest names aren't immune. Barry's exquisite music for The Prince of Tides was rejected; he later sold it to the 3-D Imax film Across the Sea of Time.

Too often temp-tracking works against the individuality and innovation that were the hallmark of the sound-track business when such great, recognizable scores as Magnificent Seven, Psycho, Goldfinger, Fistful of Dollars, and even Star Wars were created. Some of the best composers fight back by insisting that the films at least be temp-tracked with their own earlier works. The forthcoming Mighty Joe Young, which Horner is scoring, has been temp-tracked with his Legends of the Fall. And some refuse to even listen to the temp track: Good Will Hunting was temp-tracked with Bernard Herrmann's Fahrenheit 451 and Thomas Newman and Diane Warren's Up Close and Personal, but Danny Elfman (Batman, Edward Scissorhands) started from scratch and produced an elegant score worthy of its Oscar nomination.

Another damper on sound-track innovation is what I call museffex--the use of music in place of or to boost sound effects. With musseffex, instead of thoughtful reflection on violence and action, we get boom-boom. You can hear it in many blockbusters, and the score for Speed, a creation of Hans Zimmer's music collective, Media Ventures, is a prime example. Its opposite is The Peacemaker, in which Zimmer created a brilliant bit of music entitled "Sarajevo." Only in this single cue does his music take full possession of the serious dramatic themes and conflicts in the film. It gives us cause for weeping, for pity, maybe even a primal understanding of the crazed and disconsolate mind that wants to explode a nuclear bomb at the United Nations. Zimmer says producer Steven Spielberg called to comment on the beauty of the score, but noted how sympathetic the villain's music was. That was independent musical thought working within a framework of filmmaking creativity. That is the magic of sound tracks.

I discussed museffex with Zimmer recently, and he acknowledged that it was a problem. In fact, Media Ventures is now trying to generate both the sound effects and the musical score in one harmonious fabric; this sounds to me like it will merely pit the effects creator directly against the composer. The first test will be Dreamworks' forthcoming Endurance, a film about Ethiopian long-distance runners.

If the courage and independence of directors and composers do not prevail, then film music will continue to devolve into movie Muzak--offensively inoffensive pandering to the lowest common denominator. Too much of that has already happened. Unfortunately, given the direction Hollywood seems to be headed, neither the composer nor the film-score enthusiast may have much choice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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