Scoring docs a tricky balancing act

This year's rich crop of docs boast impressive scores

Documentaries have long been viewed as the poor, overly earnest relatives of big, sexy feature films. And with their low budgets and common elements — lots of narration and images both moving and static — the music can often sound like an afterthought. But this year’s rich crop of documentaries that boast original scores challenge the conventional wisdom that the medium works just fine with generic library selections and bland, aural wallpaper.

“Waiting for Superman” (with music by Christophe Beck), “Inside Job” (Alex Heffes), “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (David Robbins), “The Pat Tillman Story” (Philip Sheppard) and “Countdown to Zero” (Peter Golub) all benefit from imaginative, incisive scores by composers more often associated with feature work.

“Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s critical examination of public education, was Beck’s first documentary. “The most striking difference to me was just how manipulative it all felt,” says Beck, whose feature credits include “The Hangover,” “Date Night” and “Under The Tuscan Sun.” “A composer’s job is manipulative by definition, but it’s one thing to do it for a fictional story and quite another for real people.”

The writing experience quickly convinced Beck that “the music has even more power to shape the story than in a regular feature.”

To further emphasize director Guggenheim’s “emotional, heartfelt” approach, Beck aimed for a “very simple aesthetic, using a lot of solo piano and solo acoustic guitar, to make the kids’ stories as affecting as possible.”

For Heffes, the difference in scoring non-fiction versus fiction “depends on the filmmaker.” As a frequent collaborator with Kevin Macdonald in both formats (he scored the director’s “The Last King of Scotland” as well as “One Day in September” and “Touching the Void”), he notes that Macdonald has always approached docs “as if they were feature films and dramas — and I think that’s why audiences get so engrossed in them.”

In turn, Heffes scores such documentaries as “September” and “Void” “as if they were features,” while other projects, such as “The Bridge,” which he scored for Eric Steel, “are much more essay-type pieces, and have to be scored differently and in a supportive rather than a dramatic way.”

Heffes characterizes Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” as “a bit of both. It’s a very dense, complex topic, with a lot of narration and content, so the music needs to provide space for that. At the same time, it’s very dramatic.”

Taking his cue from the title, Heffes’ aesthetic approach was to emphasize the story’s momentum and pace, “even if they didn’t understand all the complicated terminology. Bottom line, it’s a bit like the biggest bank robbery in the world. We all want to know whodunit, and Charles wanted drama and pacing to the music.”

Golub has scored many documentaries (“Wordplay,” “Barbershop Punk,” “Stolen”) and agrees that music plays “a crucial role” in setting the tone: “For instance, ‘Countdown’ is a very serious and depressing film about the nuclear arms race, and the problem was that the music could easily get too grim — to the point of turning off audiences.”

To counteract this, Golub aimed for a score that “also entertains — and luckily we had a big enough budget to do a full orchestral score, that also balanced the weight of the subject matter.”

For Robbins, who scored Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack,” the trick is “to key in on the right emotion and rhythm to play with. It’s quite different from acting and the drama of a feature, which is easier to pinpoint.” A documentary “typically also needs a lot more music, so it can mean a lot more work.”

In the case of “Casino,” about disgraced D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Robbins had three weeks to create 45 minutes of music from scratch. “So apart from the challenge of the workload, you’re always trying to write music that avoids formula and that supports the images on screen.”

Ultimately, Robbins’ score jumps from jazz to orchestral to rock ‘n’ roll. “That helped define scenes and what was being discussed.” He cites a scene talking about Russian mobsters where Gibney wanted “a spy feel — so I wrote a Bond-type score for that bit.”

Although Beck and Heffes never set out to score docs, they embrace the challenge of a medium that can be densely informational.

“Documentaries have so much narrative and voiceover that it’s easy to over-populate the film with music,” says Beck. “It’s a fine line to tread.”

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