There’s definitely not a shortage of concert footage floating around. From esteemed directors to random people waving an iPhone in everyone’s face, there’s a ton of material to shift through, but, now that watching your favorite band live from behind a screen is so easy, there’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what separates someone capturing a night when a band is on fire from a great concert documentary? Because there is a difference. And what bridges the gap is an underlying storyline. Some sort of innovative, emotional, or humanitarian connection that changes the way we think about, talk about, or listen to one or multiple performers. Something that makes it feel cinematic. Or stranger than fiction.
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Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a film that’s easy to get lost in. It’s presented with nonlinear storytelling, montages of seemingly unrelated spring breaking, and repeated lines of dialogue, all in a wash of neon colors and excess. The music helps the audience remain grounded in reality and stabilizes the chaotic world we’re immersed in.
But it’s not just the audience that needs grounding. The film follows four young college students (portrayed by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) on their adventures to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break. The girls desperately want a break from their monotonous reality and see the vacation as a chance for them to find themselves, let loose, and have fun. Once they arrive, the young girls get involved in some heavy partying, and then, facilitated by their new leader, Alien (James Franco), a fair amount of crime. It is a world of fantasy for them, as it is for us. To them, it is world where their responsibilities disappear and they are free to party. They tell each other to “act like it’s a videogame” before they rob a local eatery to get the money needed for the trip. But given the non-linear editing effects, use of slow motion, and the aggressive soundtrack, complete with loud gunshot noises for scene changes, one begins to question whether the events of the story are meant to be taken as fantasy entirely.
From his inception, Batman has always been a very cinematic character. Though borne of and forever linked to the comic book medium, his early exploits drew liberally from filmic inspirations ranging from noir to German Expressionism to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, cribbing their odd camera angles and generous shadows to convey, drama, dread, and excitement on the four-color page. So it should be no surprise that more than any of his superhero peers, Batman has become an icon on both the big and small screens, one who has starred in everything from low-budget serials to summer blockbusters to stylized animated adventures.
As the masked vigilante is poised to conquer movie screens worldwide once again this week with the release of the much-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, Sound Affects would like to shine a Bat-Signal on one particularly essential component of any Batman film or TV series—the music. Be it strum und drang orchestrations or the latest pop sounds, the music that accompanies the Caped Crusader’s extra-comic exploits has always played a key role in crafting the right atmosphere, upping the stakes, and punctuating the narrative developments—not to mention the on-screen fisticuffs. Quibble all you want with the make-up of the final list (Hans Zimmer’s formless and indistinct score for the Christopher Nolan films is nowhere in sight, and Shirley Walker’s character motifs for Batman: The Animated Series would assuredly have numbers 11 and up all sewn up if this article was doubled in size). But if you are going to take anything away from this countdown, it should be confirmation that Batman, perhaps more than any modern fictional hero, has proven to be a steady source of inspiration for a wildly divergent array of great theme music for well over half a century.
The 2000s were a fine decade for film, and correspondingly a great decade for musical scores. Certain trends in film soundtracks became quite popular, notably Zach Braff’s indie mixtape formula so perfected in the music for Garden State and The Last Kiss (though most tout the former as his best, I prefer the latter). While mixtape soundtracks grew in prominence, certain composers rose to legendary status, notably Hans Zimmer, who by the decade’s conclusion had a prodigious body of work. In a world of increasing musical diversity, much is available to filmmakers in creating sonic backgrounds to their moving pictures.
The following list represents what I found to be the best in cinematic scores over the past decade. I’ve decided to narrow down my list specifically to scores, as comparing a soundtrack comprised of multiple songs by various artists to a body of music composed by one artist specifically for a film wouldn’t make for a fair list. Some of these soundtracks do feature a song that wasn’t written specifically for the movie, but all of the scores represented here are analyzed for their merit as pieces of music composed specifically for film.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Bruce Springsteen’s predicament back in 1977. Two years earlier, Springsteen and the E Street Band released the epic Born to Run, arguably the greatest rock album of all time. The record had everything: great hooks on every track, lyrical beauty, and in its two cornerstone pieces, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland”, a sweeping operatic majesty. The album was mythic urban romance writ large. But after that big noise, silence. A lawsuit from the band’s manager, Mike Appel, prevented Springsteen from recording for close to three years, an eternity in the ‘70s music industry. By 1978, Springsteen was the invisible man in American music.
The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town is a documentary of Springsteen and the E-Street Band recording their 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, the crucial follow-up to Born to Run (for brevity and clarity, I’ll refer to the documentary as The Promise and the album as simply Darkness). The stakes are remarkably high and the film is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Let It Be, as we glimpse a band under the pressure of expectations. Darkness is a flawed album, and The Promise reveals why. Back in the studio after years of exile, Springsteen is determined to make an album that reflects the betrayal and disappointment of the last three years. The documentary shows Springsteen and the E-Street band in the studio, banging out song after song, take after take. It’s fascinating to see Springsteen and his band mates at the zenith of their powers.
// Notes from the Road
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