How do you strike the correct musical tone when a piece of storytelling rides the line between comedy and drama? For many composers working in the limited series and television movie formats this year, the cues were taken directly from
the scripts, but elements including choral music, jazz and even a detuned piano offered additional creative solutions.
In Amazon’s “Good Omens,” the mood shifts from scene to scene, as an angel (Michael Sheen) and a demon (David
Tennant) work together to try and stop the coming apocalypse, to the consternation of their colleagues in heaven and hell. English composer David Arnold (“Sherlock”) says he doesn’t believe one should “ever try and be funny with music,” though.
“If it’s funny, it’s funny, and your job [as composer] is to get out of the way and support the humor. The opening title music is a kind of wicked, slightly devilish, Mephistophelean waltz — it has a feeling of twirling, out-of-control-ness.”
Adding a touch of religioso credibility to this faux-biblical madness is a 40-voice choir whose work throughout the six hours of the series ranged from, as Arnold describes it, “sadistic grunting and screaming to angelic wailing and hooting,” wild takeoffs on traditional movie sounds for heaven and hell.
Meanwhile, composing brothers Harry Gregson-Williams (“The Martian”) and Rupert Gregson-Williams (“Wonder Woman”) collaborated for the first time on “Catch-22,” Hulu’s six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satiric novel about a nonconformist bombardier who tries everything to get out of World War II.
The duo wrote the music together, in Harry’s L.A. studio, then Rupert returned to London to produce the jazz tracks. They worked closely with producer-directors George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
“Finding the right tone was probably our biggest challenge,” says Harry. “It takes you from the depths of despair to joy and triumph, then back to the depths of despair again.”
Adds Rupert: “The music is an integral part of how things change, from traumatic to comedic, on the turn of a frame. We started off with the emotion, and the next thing we went for was some jazz steps, as Yossarian is starting to lose another thread of sanity.”
The music “is quite an emotional, angular, internal Yossarian thought,” says Harry, “but when George heard it turned into something with a Glenn Miller beat, he started hopping all over the sofa.”
Lifetime’s “The Bad Seed” — a modern remake of the ’50s classic about an evil little girl (played by Mckenna Grace) — could easily have tripped into camp territory, given the subject matter and the stream of murders she very obviously commits. But L.A. composer Leanna Primiani treated it seriously, upping the suspense quotient as the child’s father (Rob Lowe, who also directed) slowly faces the truth.
Lowe requested “something very lush and scary, like ‘Out of Africa’ meets ‘The Shining,’” Primiani recalls. She developed a melodic theme, a melancholy piece for strings that hints at the malevolence but might be more mood-setting than finger-pointing at the killer.
Primiani augmented her 25-piece orchestra (strings, horns and clarinets) with an out-of-tune piano. “Every little girl plays the piano, but there is something so off about her, that the piano had to be off, too,” she says.
Then she added synthesizers and electronically processed some of the music.
“I knew that would add to the quality and the surreal-ness of this lovely little girl going bonkers.”