Music documentary

An eye and ear opening experience

Often confused with soundtracks, which primarily contain source material (songs with lyrics), a score is instrumental music composed and performed for a specific film. For some people, the only thing they will listen to is movie soundtracks, and many insiders believe this is the most interesting genre in music today overall.

Funded entirely by a Kickstarter campaign, former CBS TV reporter-turned-director Matt Schrader’s first and, to date, only feature film, “Score: A Film Music Documentary” (SAFMD) is not a comprehensive overview of ‘a vastly underestimated and overlooked facet of filmmaking, but he’s as thorough as he can be with his sharp approach.

“Silent”, not really

The first clue we get that Schrader knows his subject nears the beginning, with the crucial role played by music in the success of “silent” films. The role of musicians playing Wurlitzer organs (the first de facto synthesizers) in individual theaters across the country – often via improvisation – was, in some ways, more integrated into the overall cinematic experience than it might be. is nowadays.

Composer Hans Zimmer was featured in “Score: A Film Music Documentary.” (Epicleff Media)

Perhaps not the first film score, but easily the most recognized, came in 1933 with “King Kong”. Composed by 24-time Oscar nominee Max Steiner, the music for “King Kong” transformed what was a kind of B-horror movie into a cultural and artistic landmark. The music accompanying the Empire State Building scene in this film’s finale set the stage and the bar for the next two decades of film music. Steiner then scored, among others, “Casablanca”, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Searchers”.

Transition from Symphonic to Jazz

The music contained in most of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” films adheres closely to Steiner’s classical orchestral scheme; some began to reflect the non-cinematic musical tastes of the day – mostly a mix of traditional strings and big band. With “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), composer Alex North (“Cleopatra”, “Spartacus”) brought modern jazz into the mix and film music in general to the fore, especially in “black” productions “American and European. It would be another quarter of a century before orchestral scores enjoyed a resurgence.

With the advent of spy films and the American New Wave in the 1960s, sheet music underwent a drastic change in tone and approach. Everything was up for grabs and nothing was off limits. John Barry’s wild hybrid of surf, brass and strings has become the staple of every James Bond movie. Folk/bluegrass dominated ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and with ‘Planet of the Apes’ Jerry Goldsmith relied mostly on percussion to phenomenal effect. Goldsmith went on to score seminal works such as “Chinatown”, “Alien” and “LA Confidential” which laid the foundation for all future mixed genre endeavors.

Williams changed the game

Whether you love him, hate him, or are indifferent, it’s hard to argue that John Williams has had the greatest success and impact as a film composer. Beginning as a session pianist (“West Side Story” (1961)), Williams had his big break with “Jaws” (1975), directed by the relatively unknown Steven Spielberg. Since then, Spielberg and Williams have collaborated on more than 20 films.

Second only to Walt Disney for lifetime Oscar nominations (54), Williams has won five, his most recent achievement being the final (?) “Star Wars” trilogy. To say he no longer dominates the sheet music landscape would be true, but few people before or since have wielded greater influence.

Epoch Times Photo
Film composer John Williams leads the Boston Pops in 2018. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Newmans

The early 20th century saw the emergence of a dozen relatively younger composers, including Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer, Jonny Greenwood, Rachel Portman, John Dabney, collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and first cousins ​​Randy and Thomas. New man. Although Randy had been scoring since the 1970s, his film career didn’t hit full swing until his long partnership with Disney’s animated wing beginning in the late 1990s.

As with so many recent documentaries, “SAFMD” would make an ideal miniseries. Given the limited running time (93 minutes), it would have been impossible to fully cover the story and scope of the material in this format. That way someone could dedicate an entire episode to the Newman family.

Set to two phrases lasting less than 10 seconds, Randy falls short of receiving the attention given to Thomas and his uncle Alfred (also the songwriter of the Fox Studio marching band). Randy has two other uncles and four cousins ​​who also work or have worked as film composers. Alfred, Thomas and Randy have a combined record of 76 Oscar nominations and 12 wins, more than any other blood-related family in movie history. That’s pretty impressive DNA.

Schrader devotes the last 30 minutes to a part of the musical process that everyone knows exists, but few are fully aware of the details. Among the first to see the work printed in finished films, the composers then supply their works to the transcribers who orchestrate the parts and present them to the conductors. The music is then recorded and a final mix is ​​made. It may sound simple, but sometimes it involves hundreds of people combining thousands of hours of work before the finished product is made.

The most successful scores are those that either give a foreground primary accent to the visuals (a specialty of Williams) or, in the case of more recent productions, remain in the background and fringe in the form of ambient electronic punctuation. . They should always complement the visuals and rarely, if ever, take center stage.

Promotional advertisement for ‘Score: A Film Score Documentary’. (Epicleff Media)

“SAFMD” is a rare bird indeed. It can be enjoyed by the casual viewer as well as those who previously thought they knew everything about what shapes movies. Once you see it, you’ll never hear movies the same way again.

“Score: A Documentary on Film Music”
Director: Matt Schrader
With: Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
Duration: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
Release date: June 16, 2017
Rating: 4 out of 5