American films drown in music

Stateside studios create their 'walls of noise'

In certain Hollywood dens — say, various composers’ studios and producers’ inner sanctums — it may be heretical to ask, but doesn’t it seem that American movies are drowning in music? To stretch the metaphor, rather than sprinkling the finished dish with just the right dashes of orchestration to enhance the drama, is music simply being poured all over the plate, like so much Alfredo sauce?

Any keenly attentive ear knows that running times for music composed for a soundtrack have gone up. Way up. Composers’ routine complaint these days isn’t that their work is being trimmed, but rather that they’re being asked to deliver a huge chunk of scoring — often exceeding an hour — in greatly compressed deadline windows at the tail end of post-production.

It isn’t as if wall-to-wall music is new to the movies. Silent film from its infancy depended on music to support every turn and swing of a scene or sequence. But most contacted for this article — including filmmakers James Toback (most recently, “Tyson”) and Lance Hammer (“Ballast”), Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern and U. of Wisconsin film music historian Jeff Smith — generally agree that when it comes to music in today’s movies, less is more.

But when did the current trend start?

Toback dates it to George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” “Both films used a lot of songs, really good choices,” explains the writer-director. “But the uses of music came out of an insecurity of young directors early in their careers, and the soundtracks provided them with comfort cushions. The reason I’m able to analyze Scorsese and Lucas in this way is that I fell under the same tendency.”

“I think this is a stylistic thing in American movies,” says Hammer, whose “Ballast” stands out from even other American independent films for its pronounced absence of music. “It’s probably because of silent film music and the unions developed for musicians creating a lot of work. Americans aren’t the subtlest of creatures when it comes to the popular arts, and music’s ability to manipulate emotions makes it an easy filmmaking trick. Because of those factors, I think, we just have way too much of it in our movies.”

Smith, author of “The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music,” cites another factor: “Bernard Herrmann once famously noted that a film composer can animate a corpse. So the increase in music cues on a soundtrack, which has been the dominant trend for a couple of decades at least, is probably the result of directors and producers wanting to convey something that’s missing from a scene or sequence. That makes sense, but there’s an irony in this as well, because for all of the music we have hitting us as filmgoers today, a lot of it isn’t terribly memorable.”

And speaking of Herrmann, Toback observes that “he wrote much less music for Hitchcock than many other directors, since the dialogue was so much better. For dialogue that’s crisp, strong and witty, music can be distracting. But many movies today have such disposable dialogue that music has to be depended on to deliver a scene.”

“The studios have turned movie music into a marketing tool,” notes Morgenstern, who adds while “it’s long been commonplace that you can hear the studio notes in the dialogue, it’s now true that you can hear them in the (musical) notes. Phil Spector had his Wall of Sound, now the studios have their walls of noise.”

And it’s not just Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action films that tend toward sonic bombast. Craig Armstrong’s blaring score for the costume epic “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007) was the target of more than a few brickbats. Even a more intimate, contemporary drama like last year’s “Seven Pounds” suffered from, as Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, its “literally incessant, button-pushing score” (by Angelo Milli).

On the other hand, Carter Burwell’s score for the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” benefited from the kind of restraint more characteristic of art films. As Peter Travers of Rolling Stone described it, “Burwell’s insinuating score finds a way to nail every nuance without underlining a single one of them.” And Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum went one step further, saying that “the leading character in this reverberating movie is silence…”

We may be in for a prolonged period when composers will be tasked to deliver those massive walls of scoring that have become so commonplace. The reason? “The sheer amount of music in Hollywood movies,” Smith says, “is part of what gives them an edge in the global marketplace, by adding to that sense in the audience that they’re experiencing high production values. Today’s Hollywood scoring provides a big part of the bombast for the kind of spectacle people line up for.”

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