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The Power of Film Music

Marco Lanzagorta

The 10 soundtracks discussed in this installment of Surround Sound reflect a variety of styles, genres and approaches to film music. But in the end, all of them are similar in the way they try to enhance our viewing experience.

James Newton Howard
King Kong

US: 13 December 2005
UK: 12 December 2005

Harry Gregson-Williams
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

US: 13 December 2005
UK: 5 December 2005

John Williams

US: 27 December 2005
UK: 30 January 2005

Mychael Danna

US: 17 January 2006
UK: Available as import

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
The Proposition

US: 21 February 2006
UK: 6 March 2006

Various Artists
The Color Purple

US: 24 January 2006
UK: Available as import

Various Artists
High School Musical

US: 10 January 2006
UK: Available as import

Various Artists
The L-Word: The Third Season

(Tommy Boy)
US: 31 January 2006
UK: 6 February 2006

Various Artists
Grandma's Boy

US: 3 January 2006
UK: Available as import

Various Artists
The Matador

US: 10 January 2006
UK: 16 January 2006

Music is, without a doubt, a crucial element of any film. An almost ethereal entity, movie music can make us cheer for the heroes, cry at the drama, or grab onto our seats in unbearable suspense. But still, it remains a severely misunderstood cinematographical craft. While acting, photography, and special effects take most of the "wows" from the audience, the public at large usually fails to appreciate the instrumental score that emphasizes the action in the film. Case in point, while we have heard countless comments about the dazzling special effects featured in King Kong and Narnia, it is not common to hear about their gorgeous and energetic soundtracks.

Such deafness is perhaps symptomatic of the modern Hollywood film structure, which mainly concerns itself with the seductive power of the visual image. Generally speaking, audiences go to the cinema to watch exciting moving pictures, not to listen to music. But nevertheless, for those of us who belong to the subculture of soundtrack fans, we look forward to the larger-than-life blockbusters because of the grandiose music that accompanies them.

In this Surround Sound, we will applaud the electrifying music from the two most recent epic fantasies to reach the screen, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We will also feel our emotions rise through the mournful scores of Munich, Capote, and The Proposition. On the other hand, two new musicals, Oprah Winfrey's The Color Purple and Disney's High School Musical, may cheer us up a bit. Finally, we will wonder as to the value of compilation soundtrack albums such as The Matador, Grandma's Boy, and the third season of The L-Word.

Giant Apes and Talking Lions

Peter Jackson's ambitious remake of the 1933 horror classic was perhaps the most eagerly awaited film of 2005. And it was not a surprise that Howard Shore, who provided the Oscar-winning score for Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, was the assigned composer to this modern epic. However, merely weeks before the scheduled theatrical opening of King Kong, it was announced that James Newton Howard was replacing Shore. While we may never know the reasons for such a sudden change at the very last hour, it is truly admirable that Howard came up with a powerful score in that short amount of time.

Truth be told, some passages in the King Kong score echo the composer's previous work from such films as Outbreak, Signs, Waterworld, Dinosaur, and /i>Dreamcatcher. But nevertheless, these elements are well integrated into the new compositions, avoiding obvious instances of rehashing or self-plagiarism. As a matter of fact, composed for a large orchestra and chorus, Howard's score for King Kong features quite unique musical ideas where harmony and melody balance each other in the midst of dense orchestrations.

With over 70 minutes of music, the King Kong soundtrack has a generous amount of Howard's dynamic score. Featuring bass rumblings, the opening main theme of King Kong includes a tribal motif reminiscent of Max Steiner's score for the original film. This theme, which is subsequently used to underscore the strength and otherness of the big ape, plays simultaneously ascending and descending lines for low brass with emphasis on chords. At the same time, the main theme develops a secondary pattern, which provides an expressive line that emphasizes rich harmonies, and it is used to accentuate the love and tragedy of this tale.

Because of their breathless, pounding action and emotive melodies, the final five tracks of the disc ("Beauty Killed the Beast Parts I to V") are the true highlight of the entire score. Played consecutively, these five tracks form a 16-minute suite of uninterrupted music, which underscore Kong's climbing the Empire State Building, his battle with the planes, and his ultimate demise. Accompanied by militaristic timpani, the battle sequence is exciting and relentless. The death of the giant ape uses impressive choral chants that accentuate the drama, leading to an elegiac adagio closed by the lonely voice of a boy soloist. By any means, Howard's thrilling score for King Kong is one of the best soundtracks of the year.

An equally breathtaking orchestral score for another popular fantasy film is Harry Gregson-Williams' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Based on Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis' beloved books, this film presents the adventures of a group of siblings entering the enchanted world of Narnia through a magical wardrobe. Perhaps not as impressive as Howard's Kong, Narnia features numerous themes and motifs, which range from the mystical and dramatic, to the melancholic and heroic. Considering that Gregson-Williams belongs to the Hans Zimmer School of Overblown Musical Underscoring, it is not surprising that dense orchestral colors, evocative choirs, and dynamic rhythms characterize the music for Narnia.

The Narnia score begins with an impressive piece that emphasizes the destruction of London during World War II. The ensuing chaos and devastation produced by the German attacks is accompanied by a fierce, dissonant theme, which becomes contrapuntal to the juvenile fantasy themes that follow once the kids enter the magical wardrobe. It appears as if such a drastic disparity is used to balance the score, using music to further contrast the difference between the harsh realities of war and the magical world of Narnia.

Equally remarkable is the music for the final battle, which purposely avoids the chaotic cacophonies found at the beginning of the film. Instead, Gregson-Williams mixes orchestra and choruses over a rhythmic riffing, complemented by the several themes and motifs previously developed. This music climaxes with a magnificent and triumphal crescendo. Overall, Narnia's score feels fresh and compelling, and grows more interesting with repeated listenings.

Tales of Revenge, Abandon, and Sorrow

For those who still doubt it, 2005 may be the year that proves beyond any question that John Williams is a true musical genius. So far, Williams has been nominated for no less than 45 Academy Awards, winning five. And this year, with Munich, Memoirs of a Geisha, and War of the Worlds, Williams composed three impressive scores for completely different types of films, earning Oscar nominations for the first two. While it is difficult to choose which may be his best effort of the year, Munich is certainly one of his most multi-layered and complex scores to date.

For Spielberg's tale of terrorism and revenge, Williams orchestrates his score with a large ensemble of strings, woodwinds, keyboards, French horns, trombones, and tubas, while nearly eliminating trumpets. By keeping the piano and the woodwinds in lower register, the entire score feels dense and dark in timbre. A second, subtler musical layer adds guitars, harpsichords, and other ethnic instruments. The result is an atmospheric score with brooding, reflective, and grim tonalities.

Williams anchors the Munich score with two dominant, but distinctive, main themes. The first one, which is identified with the tragedy of the massacre, features a minor key melody with ethnic colors and a mournful female voice over a thin layer of strings. The music features exotic Middle Eastern sounds that reflect on the conflict between the Arab and Israeli cultures. A particularly haunting variation of this theme, using an oboe, is found in the track "Avner and Daphna".

The second theme, associated with Avner (played by Eric Bana), remains in minor key but relies on a large number of strings and at times ventures into major sonorities. A hymn-like variation of this theme played with strings is found in the track "A Prayer for Peace", which could well be the highlight of the entire score. In the soundtrack notes, Spielberg recommends this track as "the quintessential movement of John's score".

Keeping these two main thematic ideas throughout the score, Williams avoids scoring the scenes of violent retribution with the traditional cues characteristic of the action genre. Instead, the composer relies on a rumbling piano, surging orchestral crescendos, agitated harp and woodwinds, and string tremolos to enhance the bleakness of the story. At least in spirit, Munich is reminiscent of Williams' own score for Spielberg's The Schindler's List.

Equally somber and restrained is Mychael Danna's score for Capote (Full PopMatters review). In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's non-fiction book on which the film is loosely based, tells the tale of a family murdered in a small Kansas town in the 1950s. Quite unfortunately, the CD barely features 16 minutes of score, and nearly 60 minutes of Truman Capote reading excerpts of his book. While this may be a treasure for Capote's enthusiasts, soundtrack fans will feel gravely cheated and extremely disappointed.

The orchestral music composed by Danna avoids complex orchestrations and feels more like a set of atmospheric textures, rather than melodies. Consider for instance the opening track, "Out There", which neatly represents the structure of Danna's score. Lasting less than a minute, the cue features a melancholic piano, which is eventually accompanied by the delicate sounds from a quivering violin. Even though subsequent tracks add brass dirges, the score is ominous and, at times, unnerving. "Epigraph" is the only track with a more lyrical quality, featuring a sad melody with a piano and a cello.

In the same somber and bleak, non-melodic style is the score for The Proposition, which was composed and performed by internationally acclaimed singer and composer Nick Cave in collaboration with Warren Ellis. Taking place in a violent rural town in 1880s Australia, The Proposition tells the story of a couple of outlaw brothers who must kill a member of their family to save their own necks. Using sparse string and piano instrumentations, this outstanding score features intense bursts of energy, followed by moments of lyrical melancholy. Incorporating richly textured, ghostly soundscapes and barely audible lamentations intoned by Cave himself, the score is relentless in its mourning ambiance.

Singing a Lung Away

In strong contrast to these bleak and somber scores is the music from Oprah Winfrey's The Color Purple and Disney's High School Musical. Based on the Pulitzer Prize wining novel and the groundbreaking Steven Spielberg film of the same name, The Color Purple is a new musical co-produced by Oprah Winfrey. The music for this show is a seamless blend of styles -- gospel, jazz, ragtime, and blues -- creating an upbeat atmosphere appropriate for the story of a courageous woman who finds the strength to triumph over misfortune. Similarly, Disney's High School Musical uses cheerful and optimistic music and lyrics to tell the story of a group of students who go against the school's status quo when they audition for a role in a musical. The soundtrack also includes a song by the R&B group B5.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

One could argue that the success of scores such as King Kong and Munich lie in the complex musical structure of their compositions, which are nourished by centuries of orchestral-based classical music. However, a less traditional way to score a film is by bringing together a bunch of popular songs featuring a wide range of composers, musicians, and styles. In the few instances when this scoring approach is properly done, the results have been fantastic and memorable. But in most cases, the resulting score is a messy combination of disparate musical ideas, completely disconnected from the narrative they are supposed to underscore.

Such is the case of the soundtracks for the third season of the popular TV series The L-Word, and the film Grandma's Boy. The soundtrack for The L-Word has no less than 24 songs across two CDs, while the Grandma's Boy disc has 14 songs. Akin to the show, the CDs for The L-Word incorporate songs by lesbian and lesbian-friendly artists in diverse genres that range from folk and country to soul and pop. Similarly, the songs for Grandma's Boy come from a mix of alternative bands, classic acts, and hip-hop artists.

Unfortunately, the musical pieces in these two releases do not add up to anything of interest. Featuring unfamiliar songs performed by obscure performers, these soundtracks lack coherence. As stand alone songs, these may have some artistic value, but as part of a soundtrack, they are of little interest for serious film music fans.

Faring much better is the compilation for The Matador, which provides a nice underscore for this film about a retired hit man who vacations at a sunny Mexican resort. The three original compositions by Rolfe Kent, featuring ethnic tonalities and upbeat rhythms, reflect on the exotic locales and comedic aspects of the film. A mariachi piece, as well as popular hits such as "A Town Called Malice" by The Jam, "In the Heat of the Moment" by Asia, and "It's Not Unusual" by Las Vegas favorite Tom Jones, rounds up a nice collection of songs that emphasize the cheerful spirit of the film.

Still, the true highlights of this CD are the two instrumental pieces composed by Daniel Indart, "Bahia Blanca" (White Bay) and "A Mi Guitarra" (To My Guitar). Both pieces are similar: they feature lovely melodies by a trio of guitars, and they are played in the traditional style of Mexican romantic music known as "Bolero" (one guitar playing the main tune, accompanied by rhythmic tonalities produced by the other two). The main melody of "Bahia Blanca" is performed by guitar virtuoso Ramon Stagnaro (recently featured in Andrea Bocelli's outstanding album of romantic music Amore), while Indart himself plays "A Mi Guitarra". Inspired by romantic Mexican music rarely heard in American films, these two pieces bring sensuality and exoticism to the soundtrack.


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