Film composers are required to be extremely thoughtful and versatile artists. Strictly speaking films are two dimensional; vision + sound. The director has a lot of tools in the tool box when it comes to visuals; light, color, movement, pacing, costume, editing, etc. Sound has a much more limited palette; voice, sound effects and music. Therefore, the composer has the potential to command as much influence on the audience as almost anyone else who is working on the project. Great composers go where the story is trying to go. They are able to bring out a character’s feelings, foreshadow the plot, or paint the overall emotional canvas of the story in music. They usually don’t have much time to write and record the music, as the window between a rough cut and final mix is often quite short.
As a cinema enthusiast and a music fan, I pay close attention to the music in films. I’ve been collecting soundtracks for over 30 years and have developed a connection with many composers. I seem to gravitate to the more somber styles that go deep into the psyche of a character’s motivation. The film experience is a solitary one for the viewer. There is great power to be had if one can help the viewer identify with the on-screen character. For me, the score succeeds when it becomes the connective tissue between character and viewer. It doesn’t matter if it gets the viewer to love or hate or understand or sympathize with the character. Success is measured in the degree it was able to accomplish any connection.
Here’s a sampling of tracks from films that have won my appreciation. In some cases the film is superb, in others. average. I rate the music of a film on how effective it was in advancing the story, explaining characterization and establishing the mood for me, the viewer. As you listen to these tracks you will hear a sameness. They have quietness in them, the dominance of one instrument, a build towards climax, and are singular to the point of being lonely. But when you overlay the visuals of the film on the music they are strikingly different. Have a listen. If you haven’t seen the film, well, there’s Netflix.
Alone in A Crowd from Pollock (2000) – Jeff Beal
Last Dance from Last Dance (1996) – Mark Isham
Main Titles from Grand Canyon (1991) – James Newton Howard
Rather Lonely Thing from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Theme from Taxi Driver from Taxi Driver (1976) – Bernard Herrman
Angels in America (Main Title) from Angels in America (2003) – James Newman
Midnight Cowboy from Midnight Cowboy (1969) – John Barry
Casting Presbyterian Style from A River Runs Through It (1992) – Mark Isham
U-Turn from U-Turn (1997) – Ennio Morricone
This year’s Academy Award nominee list for achievement in music written for a motion picture is diverse. It ranges from the animated love story Wall-E, to the pounding realism of Slumdog Millionaire, to the big picture score written for Defiance. We’ll see who’s picked. In the meantime, enjoy the movies and maybe now you’ll pay a little more attention to the music in them.
Audio clips remain the property of their original owners.