Composers focus on enhancing stories

If the most successful narrative feature music underscores a film’s drama without hitting the viewer over the head with its intent, then a documentary score presents a trickier balance: supporting the facts without manipulating their meaning.

“The music in a documentary has the opportunity to be more complex than in a mainstream movie,” explains composer Earl Rose. “It gives the composer more freedom to try some harmonic language that might not be appropriate for certain feature films.”

Rose recently scored “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times,” a two-hour documentary that airs Oct. 5 on PBS about the Chandler family dynasty and the history of the Los Angeles Times, which the family founded.

Written by filmmaker Peter Jones, who co-directed with Mark Catalena, the film spans four generations of the Chandlers, from the mid-1880s through the 1980s.

Faced with such a vast timeline, Rose narrowed down his inspiration for the score into one factor that tied those decades together.

“Its focus is on the people, these characters who brought this newspaper to life,” he says. “To me, it was a human story, so I focused my score on the human narrative that was taking place.”

The film uses smaller clips of source music to set the tone for specific moments in time, but Rose’s score, mostly geared for a full string orchestra, unifies the individual pieces.

Rose is no stranger to documentary scores. He previously worked on “Stardust: The Bette Davis Story” with Jones, and has scored numerous specials for the History Channel and A&E.

If Rose’s approach to nonfiction filmmaking is any indication, editorial restraint is key.

“In (the Chandlers) film, for example, when the major participants are speaking, I don’t have any music playing,” he says. “I’m out of their way; they don’t need any help from me.”

Rose’s loyalty to the tale being told is apparent, especially to the film’s director. “Earl never overwhelms a film,” says Jones. “He enhances the story being told. I’ll always work with someone who puts the story first.”

That seems to be a common thread among composers, whether handling the score for a doc about the birth of the Los Angeles Times or the history of Disney animation.

After graduating from USC’s scoring program in 2005, composer Chris Bacon worked under prolific film composer James Newton Howard. His first major motion picture score was for 2008’s CG-animated “Space Chimps,” and he recently finished mixing the score for “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” a documentary about the history of Disney’s modern age of animation that will hit the fest circuit in the fall.

Directed by Don Hahn, the documentary outlines the studio’s animation history from the mid-’70s through the mid-’90s. Because Disney is almost synonymous with animation, Bacon had to create a score around some very well-known and extremely catchy pre-existing material.

Those two decades of Disney animation feature the work of tunesmiths Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Elton John, causing Bacon’s score to weave itself around clips of songs like “Be Our Guest” and “Hakuna Matata.”

Bacon’s approach to pre-existing music? Leave it alone.

“That music tells a different story,” Bacon explains. “The music I was writing wasn’t trying to be that music, it wasn’t trying to surpass it or imitate it. My work needed to have its own voice in the movie, not be a part of a previously existing score.”

He found composing around the film’s dialogue more of a challenge.

“The film is mostly dialogue, so the story needed a motor in certain parts to move it along,” says Bacon. “I started by writing motors and associating them with different players and time periods, trying not to be as dramatic with them as I would on an animated or narrative movie.”

He admits it wasn’t always an easy task. “The music had to support the dialogue, but also be out of the way enough that it wasn’t competing for sonic space.”

Having worked with Bacon on Disney’s feature-length doc “Earth,” Hahn knew exactly what the composer would bring to the table.

“Music is really everything to me,” explains Hahn. “In terms of storytelling, I feel it’s one of the biggest tools we have. And Chris writes emotions more than he writes music.”

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