×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film composers lose luster

They play second fiddle to filmmakers, budget concerns

Fifty or 60 years ago, it was not unusual to see the name of the composer right up next to that of the producer or director in a movie’s opening credits — Max Steiner on “Casablanca,” for example, or Erich Wolfgang Korngold on “Kings Row.”

Those prestige spots reflected the value filmmakers placed on music in that era. The contributions good music can make to a film — from eliciting an emotional response from the audience to helping add atmosphere, establish setting or pace the drama — were seen as critical to the process.

Producers sometimes hired a composer to enhance the prestige factor of a movie — Leonard Bernstein for “On the Waterfront,” Aaron Copland for “The Red Pony,” even Isaac Hayes for “Shaft.” But nowadays, such a notion seems positively quaint.

One major Hollywood filmmaker recently showed up at a composer’s studio to preview the music (based on synthesizer mockups of what was to eventually be recorded by an orchestra), listened for a few seconds and declared, “Hate it! What else ya got?”

James Horner, a double Oscar winner for “Titanic” and composer on this year’s “Avatar,” says that a decade or more ago, “the composer was always at least equal in rank to picture editor.” Now, he thinks, music “has slipped closer to the level of sound effects” for many of the directors with whom he’s worked.

“Avatar” is a rare exception to the rule. Horner worked exclusively on James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza for more than a year. Many of his sought-after colleagues, especially those with long histories with directors, get better-than-average treatment. John Williams has already begun writing music for Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” even though the film won’t be out for two more years.

But for the average composer, it’s a different story.

Fees are declining, schedules shrinking, credits are buried — three reasons that there is a movement now to unionize composers for the first time since the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America failed back in the 1970s, the result of the studios’ refusal to negotiate music-ownership rights.

Technology is partly to blame, says Emmy-winning composer Richard Bellis, author of “The Emerging Film Composer” and leader of ASCAP’s annual film-scoring workshop. Twenty or 30 years ago, he says, “the person who composed the music had to be knowledgeable about live scoring, had to be able to write music, conduct music, create music from whole cloth rather than ‘selecting’ music,” as often happens today with the availability of such tools as Band-in-a-Box, Cinescore or generic library music.

“Today’s filmmaker is more inclined to think ‘I need a composer because I’m just too busy to do it myself’ and there are literally hundreds of kids out there who will do it for next to nothing,” Bellis says.

What they’re missing, say many on the music side of the biz, are the dramatic instincts and creative spark of the trained, experienced composer. Agent Richard Kraft, who represented film-scoring giants Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, says, “We are in a period where the thought that film music is an artistic expression is at an all-time low.”

No one is immune to the cavalier treatment of music. In recent weeks, leading American classical composer John Corigliano (an Oscar winner for “The Red Violin”) had his music for “Edge of Darkness” tossed out, and Danny Elfman’s reportedly lush, moody music for “The Wolfman” was dumped.

Rejected scores are nothing new. Alex North wrote music for “2001: A Space Odyssey” that Stanley Kubrick hated, preferring classical music from his record collection. Goldsmith’s lavish, orchestral and choral score for “Legend” was replaced by a rock-tinged, electronic effort by technopop group Tangerine Dream. Even England’s William Walton wasn’t immune, losing nearly all of his “Battle of Britain” score because of studio politics in 1969.

Most of the time, say music insiders, scores are tossed because the film isn’t working and, beyond the usual recutting, there’s little else left to try during the final weeks of post-production. Music becomes an easy, and increasingly common, scapegoat. Goldsmith’s “Chinatown” was a rare instance of a last-minute replacement score that wound up with an Oscar nomination and became a classic.

When, in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock asked Bernard Herrmann what he thought the music for “Psycho” should be, Herrmann came up with a unique all-strings ensemble (“a black-and-white sound,” he said, to complement the black-and-white cinematography), a wildly original approach that helped to define the film and make it a success.

“That’s about artistic choices,” Kraft says. Today, he adds, “Psycho” would be “temped” (prescored with temporary music consisting of pre-existing cues that the editor likes), thus setting the style, direction and amount of music even before the composer is hired.

Adds Horner: “No one just says, ‘What do you think of my picture? I want you to write what’s in your heart.’ I haven’t heard that in years. That simple concept does not exist anymore.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Todd Phillips Joker Movie

    Box Office: 'Joker' Becomes First R-Rated Movie to Hit $1 Billion

    Warner Bros.’ “Joker” will on Friday become the first R-rated movie in history to earn over $1 billion at the global box office. Joaquin Phoenix’s twisted take on the Batman villain marks the seventh movie this year (and first that’s not from Disney or Marvel) to join the elusive billion-dollar club. Among Warner Bros.’ movies, [...]

  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Al PacinoKirk

    Martin Scorsese Saluted by Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino at Santa Barbara Film Fest Gala

    Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino saluted Martin Scorsese‘s dedication and risk-taking at his Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute, while the filmmaker spoke about the importance of “individual artistic expression.” More than 300 people attended the black-tie gala on Thursday night in Scorsese’s honor at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara, where festival exec director [...]

  • amazon-studios

    John Lynch Out as Head of Production at Amazon Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

    John Lynch is leaving Amazon Studios, the streaming service where he served as head of production and operations, Variety has learned. Rumors began swirling earlier this week that Lynch was out at the company. Lynch has been with Amazon since 2012, according to his LinkedIn profile. Lynch notified staff of his departure on Friday. It’s [...]

  • 'Angelfish' Review: An Attractive But Underwritten

    Film Review: 'Angelfish'

    Destiny Frasqueri (better known to her Generation Z fans as Nuyorican rapper Princess Nokia) makes a winning, delicate screen debut in “Angelfish,” a low-key Bronx romance that proves a surprisingly muted vehicle for her outsize performing charisma. As Eva, a hard-up, lovelorn daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, torn between familial responsibilities and a more creative, [...]

  • Roger Deakins 1917 Movie Cinematography

    'Midway,' '1917' DPs on Unique Challenges War Movies Present

    Cinematographers who set out to shoot war films like “1917” and “Midway” face a bigger challenge than navigating explosions or running alongside the actors in the midst of a special effects battlefield. They have to find a way to tell the combat story that will captivate audiences that have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content