Debating whether or not films are worse than they were last year or last decade or ever is a perennially popular sport, but there is rarely comment on a point that I believe is all but certifiably true: Hollywood film scoring today is more aggressive, assaultive, overbearing, overblown, obvious and obnoxious than it ever has been.
When did you last see a film that you know would not have had nearly the impact it did without its score, films such as “Gone With the Wind,” “The Third Man,” “Psycho,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Godfather” and “Chariots of Fire”? I’m not talking here about out-and-out musicals or pictures plastered with “music supervised” patchwork rock music soundtracks, but pictures with legitimate composed and arranged scores designed to complement the dramatic action onscreen.
Classic film scores were typically graced with memorable, even haunting main themes, but they also managed not just to support but to amplify the action in unquantifiable ways. Producer David Puttnam admitted doubt that “Chariots of Fire” would have won the Oscar without Vangelis’ famous and highly anachronistic theme music. Just for fun, try watching “Psycho” sometime without the music, particularly the stretch in which Janet Leigh is driving at night looking for a motel, just to realize how much extra tension Bernard Herrmann added to what Hitchcock achieved visually.
Probably the worse tendency today is the seeming compulsion of composers, directors, producers or studios (whoever is calling the shots) to underline every dramatic or comedic moment, as if for fear that someone in the audience might not get something. There’s the sense that the filmmakers, through the music, want to tell the audience how to feel every minute, or when to laugh: In “Sweet Home Alabama,” the score functioned as a substitute laugh track, indicating when the guffaws and chuckles were supposed to come.
This approach, condescending and insulting to the viewer, inevitably leads to overly busy scoring that becomes oppressive and desensitizing. Although the makers of “Harry Potter” displayed pretty good judgment in their various production decisions (sets, costumes, casting, et al.) on the first film last year, for some reason they lost it when it came to the musical score and permitted the estimable John Williams to compose the single most bombastic score of his entire career.
Despite having unaccountably been nominated for an Academy Award for it (competing against his genuinely resourceful work for “A.I.”), Williams himself must have recognized the error of his ways, so much more subdued is his scoring of the current follow-up.
One traditional school of thought holds that the ideal musical accompaniment for films is that which supports the story so effectively that you don’t even notice it. While some of the best film music functions this way, I don’t fundamentally agree with this most conservative interpretation of a soundtrack’s possibilities.
Many of the most memorable scores — those by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for “The Sea Hawk” and “Anthony Adverse”; Franz Waxman’s for “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Place in the Sun”; Elmer Bernstein’s for “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “The Magnificent Seven”; Jerome Moross’ for “The Big Country” and “The Cardinal”; Miklos Rozsa’s for “Ben-Hur,” “El Cid” and “King of Kings”; Nino Rota’s for “The Leopard” and the Fellini films; Michel Legrand’s for Jacques Demy; Ennio Morricone’s for Sergio Leone; John Barry’s for the early Bonds and almost everything else he did in the ’60s; Herrmann’s for Hitchcock; Georges Delerue’s for “Contempt” and several Truffaut films; John Williams’ for “E.T.”; Ryuichi Sakamoto’s for “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”; Henry Mancini’s for “Hatari!” and so many others — both enrich the drama and create pleasure in their own right.
I have dozens of soundtrack recordings for movies made through the ’60s and into the ’70s, but from then on, hardly any, except for some of the great pop/archival music compilations such as “Trainspotting,” “The Last Days of Disco” and the bestselling “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
What happened is complex, having to do with changing musical tastes, the surge in rock tunes and source music, the dying off of the great Hollywood studio era composers and other factors, but what seems indisputable is that film scoring no longer places a priority on memorable melodies and themes devoted to individual characters and story strands. Over the past 25 years or so, traditional orchestral scores have become more concerned with making sure they could be heard over the increasingly noisy action of the stories, with hammering home everything that was already obvious without it.
For recent example of seriously overdone scores that I, for one, couldn’t imagine listening to all the way through on a CD, there’s James Horner’s work on “The Four Feathers” “and “Windtalkers”; John Debney’s “louder is better” efforts on “The Scorpion King,” “Dragonfly,” “The Tuxedo” and “Spy Kids 2”; Klaus Badalt’s overindustriousness on behalf of “The Time Machine” and “K-19: Widowmaker”; and numerous Jerry Bruckheimer productions (“The Rock,” “Gone in 60 Seconds”), which tend to be the loudest in the business. When the music for a film on the screen next door resonates into the multiplex house you’re in, the odds are it’s too loud to begin with.
Another problem is that, whereas Rozsa, Waxman, Herrmann, Korngold, Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Alex North, Ernest Gold, Victor Young, Richard Hageman, Herbert Stothart, Morris Stoloff, Werner Janssen, Hugo Friedhofer, Bronislau Kaper, David Raksin and all the other classically trained greats of old Hollywood would regularly take inspiration from Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms and Beethoven, for starters, the contemporary soundtrack specialists are more likely to channel other film composers, to predictable second-and-third generation-copy returns.
Not that some fine work isn’t being done. Gabriel Yared’s scores for “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” can hold their own with the first-rate dramatic soundtracks of any era. Thomas Newman, Elliot Goldenthal and Danny Elfman reliably supply creative music to interesting films, and Howard Shore, on “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” worked as successfully in the classical tradition as any composer has in some time.
Angelo Badalamenti, best known for his evocative electronic work for David Lynch, provided distinctive backgrounding for “Auto Focus,” Brian Tyler supplied unusual shadings for “Frailty,” and Alberto Iglesias did outstanding work on John Malkovich’s upcoming “The Dancer Upstairs.” And Bernstein’s score plays a vital role in the success of “Far From Heaven,” although there is an irony here in that Bernstein’s best known work from the late-’50s era of the picture — his pungent, often jazzy scores for “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Walk on the Wild Side” — represent the antithesis of his latest score’s lush romanticism.
These days, then, while I still may harbor the lingering hope of being musically swept away when I go to a movie, I more fully expect to be audibly hammered.