Top-notch film music is difficult to make. A good soundtrack will serve functionally as a collection of notes to provide an enhancing touch to the images it plays along with; a great soundtrack will transcend its cinematic origins and stand out as a piece of music that can be listened to in its own right. The challenge of writing a piece of music that fits the latter is formidable for multiple reasons, not least of which is that by becoming too domineering or too entrancing, a score could threaten to overtake the movie it’s being used for. The balance that needs to be struck between aiding the movie and being individually distinct is difficult, and with composers being asked to score multiple films over the course of the year, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of rough looking for the diamonds.
No matter how classically trained (John Williams) or pop-minded (Hans Zimmer) a composer might be, the skill set required for making great movie music is unlike any other form of composition. Likewise, being able to tell what exactly constitutes a great score can be equally daunting. In the theatre, the booming horns and sweeping strings may sound appealing when paired with compelling celluloid, but much like listening to a Broadway soundtrack after seeing the real thing live, the music can seem flat without its intended companion.
These reasons (along with several others) are why, I suspect, there’s such a dearth of coverage of film music in most popular mainstream music publications. Save for when a pop musician takes to scoring a movie, such as Jonny Greenwood’s work on The Master and There Will Be Blood or Daft Punk’s popular Tron Legacy soundtrack, music writers don’t usually consider film scores. There are some great writers on the web who solely devote their time to scores and soundtracks; sadly, these voices don’t get the attention they should.
Analyzing and reviewing this type of music requires an attentiveness that, say, a pop or indie album doesn’t, and admittedly the categorization “film music” places these records in a unique class, given that the music has a directive that “regular” music does not. Whatever reasons there may be to explain this undercoverage, one thing is clear: scores and soundtracks are a powerful medium for musicians and composers to make great music, and they deserve our attention—even after we’ve left our movie theatre seats.
With “Notes on Celluloid”, PopMatters’ new monthly column about all things related to music for screen, I plan on creating a space where this wonderful intersection in art can be explored in detail. I have many plans for this column; in the coming months, “Notes on Celluloid” will feature interviews with composers, looks at the hottest scores in Hollywood, and pieces examining emergent trends in the genre. The scope of this column will include scores (music composed specifically for films) and soundtracks (compilations of previously released tracks that were used in a movie), though special attention will be given to the latter. A handful of the greatest composers of our time (Clint Mansell comes to mind) are alive and thriving right now, and they’re making some of the best music out there—of any stripe.
This inaugural edition of “Notes on Celluloid” highlights the biggest scores of summer 2013, a collection of albums that’s surprisingly diverse given the appeal of generic blockbusters that hits a peak during this sweltry season. Spanning pulsating horror, twee indie, thunderous action, and old-school blues, these summer months have churned out scores that do fit the generic molds they were assigned to, but for every mélange of the habitual there’s a gem that proves film music is still a vital art form.
Only God Forgives: Noir in Neon
Only God Forgives marks Cliff Martinez’ second collaboration with the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whom he previously joined up with to create the nouvelle vauge-in-LA noir Drive. As brilliantly understated Martinez’ electronics-driven score for that movie is, for a good swath of people the album is better known as a gateway into the music of Kavinsky, whose “Nightcall” picked up quite a bit of popularity following the film’s release—not to mention a well-placed Childish Gambino sample.
The score to Only God Forgives, however, proves that Martinez, a former drummer with experience in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart, is a bona fide composer, one poised to break bigger and bigger with future projects, especially if he sticks to adventurous directors like Refn. Even after having scored indie classics like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Martinez doesn’t yet have the stature of the genre’s greats, but that probably isn’t going to last much longer. As is the case with composers like Hans Zimmer and Clint Mansell, Martinez’ background in pop and rock music provides him with a bevy of insights that a more formally trained composer might miss—though, of course, this isn’t to say that this isn’t highly refined music.
After opening with the teasing title cut, the reverie “Ask Him Why He Killed My Brother” starts things off with a Danny Elfman-esque trance, though there’s something else going on. Whereas Drive’s visual flair is informed by the streetlights glowing in the Los Angeles night, Only God Forgives is awash with the neon seediness of Thailand’s darkest corners, an aesthetic that’s marvelously captured by Martinez. This score is frequently tense, but overall its sonic captures that malicious yet alluring quality that defines the best film noirs—that feeling of being allured by the dark even as you inch closer to its unseen evils.
The noir style manifests quite obviously in places, particularly on the vocal collaborations “Can’t Forget” and “You’re My Dream”, both sung in Thai. The former’s sultriness and the latter’s wistful melancholy mix perfectly with Martinez’ nocturnal compositions. There are even some curveballs here: the penultimate “Wanna Fight” takes a Daft Punk-inspired synth and juxtaposes it with an epic church organ, rounding out this captivating collection with a true feast for the ears. Diverse in arrangement yet unified in mood, Only God Forgives is undoubtedly the finest score of summer 2013, to say nothing of the year as a whole.
The Place Beyond the Pines: The Solitude of a Perfect Place
Chameleonic in a way few musicians are or ever have been, Mike Patton only recently took to film music, but the result, which includes four soundtracks since 2008, has been as intriguing as any of his work under the likes of Mr. Bungle or Faith No More. His latest, the sonic backdrop to Derek Cianfrance’s crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines, is a collection that unifies the tonal qualities of two of his celluloid companions: 2008’s jazzy noir A Perfect Place and 2010’s mathematically-minded The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Taking the former’s dark alley-evoking guitar lines and the former’s gorgeous string and choral arrangements, Patton creates a mood that’s really only describable as “Pattonesque”. (He even brings back “The Snow Angel”, a piece from Prime Numbers that fits in with ease.) It’s one of the remarkable things about the man’s illustrious career that no matter what style or genre he decides to play in, he’s always innovating in a way that astounds. The ability of critics like me to pigeonhole his work is near impossible.
In contrast to an emphasis on strings, the predominant scoring stylistic still today, it’s the choir that’s front and center on The Place Beyond the Pines. The voices on opener “Schenectady” weave in and out of a suave guitar riff backed by textural strings, but then become the dominant voice on the angelic “Family Trees”, In addition to Patton’s compositions, this soundtrack includes an assortment of pieces used for the film by other artists, one of which is a rendition of the traditional Catholic piece “Miserere Mei”, here performed by the Osnabruck Youth Choir, which is the kind of choral piece that many a Quentin Tarantino or John Woo imitator will inevitably use to back a slow-mo shoot-out scene.
These additional tracks complement Patton’s stuff nicely for the most part, save for the curveball inclusion of Bon Iver’s “The Wolves”, which in its rustic simplicity serves as something of a palate cleanser from the album’s unique sonic, but at the same time comes off as a wobbly bookend. Minor slumps aside, Patton strikes again with his inimitable touch for The Place Beyond the Pines, a noteworthy addition to his unclassifiable catalogue.
The Conjuring: The Possessed’s Cloak
Anyone making horror soundtracks in 2013 has quite a bar to vault; but, curiously enough, the bar wasn’t set by another film score. In late April of this year, London musician/producer Bobby Krlic released an album called Excavation, under the moniker The Haxan Cloak. Undulating and bone chilling, Excavation is the uncontested heavyweight for the title of “Scariest Album of 2013”, and in another life it probably would have been the best horror score around. Stiff competition is an understatement, and when listening to Joseph Bishara’s score for The Conjuring, the latest demon possession flick du jour, Krlic’s music isn’t far off in memory. A lot of the fundamental songwriting approaches to each LP overlap in obvious ways: almost inaudible pulses giving away to shrieks and wails of distortion, passages of sharp dissonance—all of the tremor-inducing buttons are being pushed, and while Bishara’s score pales in comparison to The Haxan Cloak’s ode to death, it’s hard not to feel spooked by its monster-in-the-closet approach to composition.
It’s worth noting that the promotional copy of The Conjuring that I received was provided as a single, unbroken track of the 46 minute score, which undoubtedly altered how I experienced the music. Long, tense passages of mostly silence, buoyed by the occasional thump of a bass note, are the most prominent feature when one listens to the entire recording in one sitting, which has effects both positive and negative. On one hand, it’s the anticipation during those moments of relative quiet that make the bursts and squalls of noise all the more powerful; on the other, these calm passages often run so long that they lull the listener away from the album, only to jolt her back when the demons in the music get loose. Naturally, this is part of what makes a horror film successful—how the movie lulls you into complacency only to be terrified at the most unexpected moment—but here that stylistic feels in some part like a crutch. Sharp loud/soft dynamics are a basic component of the composer’s bag of tricks, and though Bishara does get the spookiness of The Conjuring well with his score, in the end it’s more functionally than memorably scary.
After Earth: The Follies of Working with Shyamalan
Even as M. Night Shyamalan’s career slips to a near Uwe Boll level of universal revilement, James Newton Howard hasn’t broken stride at all. The contrite, “twist”-loaded scripts of Shyamalan (excepting the utterly joyless and surpriseless The Last Airbender) do nothing to hold back Newton Howard’s fine skills with the conductor’s baton; his work on 2004’s The Village is still heralded as one of the finest scores of the past few decades, earning both an Oscar nomination and a spot on the long list for the American Film Institute’s best film scores. That he is able to escape Shyamalan’s waning ability to make anything entertaining is impressive, but with his work for After Earth, Shyamalan’s attempt to cash in on the already overdrawn post-apocalypse craze, he’s made a score that, while not bad, lacks that deft hand that’s made his strongest material able to rise above the generic fray of the filmmaker he’s attached to.
One of the clearest points of reference here is James Horner’s score for the Pocahontas-with-blue-people epic Avatar, which, like the movie it’s contained in, does exactly what it’s supposed to do, but unfortunately what it’s supposed to do isn’t all that entertaining. Save for some wonderful piano melodies scattered throughout (“The History of Man” and “Ghosting” especially), Newton Howard has to dive straight into the landscape panorama type fare, with grandiose string arrangements front and center. It doesn’t help that the LP’s twenty-eight tracks are broken up into tiny pieces—many running less than a minute—which makes it difficult to get into some of the recurring motifs. Newton Howard is, without a doubt, one of the cinematic world’s most valuable treasures; it’s just a shame that being involved with every single one of Shyamalan’s films since The Sixth Sense has meant that his music has to be restrained by sub-par filmmaking.