Monday, January 23, 2012

Original Scores - A Return to Classicism

I've been a huge fan of movie music for more than 40 years, as my first experiences were with the marvelous scores of Jerry Goldsmith; his music for Patton was the first great original score I remember when I saw this film in theaters in 1970 when I was 14 years of age. Goldsmith was following in the footsteps of classically-oriented composers before him who wrote outstanding scores for Hollywood films of the 1930, '40', '50s and '60s; the composers included Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Bernard Herrmann and Alex North to name only a few.

Goldsmith, along with John Williams and Ennio Morricone in Italy carried on the glories of the film score written for a full symphony and it has been those three without question that have been the finest composers in Hollywood since the mid-1960s. Goldsmith, who composed such memorable scores as Chinatown, The Wind and the Lion, Poltergeist and L.A. Confidential, passed away in 2004, while Williams, who will turn 80 years old in February, is still composing; his body of work, for films such as Star Wars, Superman, Schindler's List and dozens of others is known to every film fan. Morricone, truly one of the most gifted composers in film history, has delighted film goers with his beautifully melodic themes to such films as Days of HeavenThe Mission and Cinema Paradiso, to name only a few.

There have been others who have treated us with memorably melodic scores over the past few decades; Randy Newman's score for The Natural stands out, while Rachel Portman (Emma, Chocolat), Dario Marianelli (Atonement, Jane Eyre) and Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up) have also turned in some  lovely compositions in recent years.

Yet more and more, we are experiencing a shift away from lush, romantic scores toward those dominated by electronics. Last year when the score for The Social Network composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Academy Award as the year's best, it marked a seismic shift in film music; electronic scores had been with us for years, but here was a minimal work that was accepted as one of high quality, a decision that I completely disagreed with, given the unremarkable nature of this work.

I have nothing against electronic scores per se; indeed Goldsmith started experimenting with electronics to add another sound to his work back in the 1960s and some of his best work such as Hoosiers and Gremlins are famous for their use of synthesizers. But Goldsmith utilized electronics in conjunction with the full sound of a symphony; he did not write any full electronic scores, as with Reznor and Ross. Their scores, while moderately effective (their latest score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a better opus than The Social Network in my opinion, although it still isn't what I'd call an accomplished work), don't stand well on their own. While some of the electronic music that Reznor and Ross - as well as a few others such as Jonny Greenwood (I did enjoy his music for There Will Be Blood) - works well for a few moments in these films, they are not scores that can stand alone. One can't even compare listening to the score for The Social Network with the great symphonic scores of Goldsmith, Williams, Morricone and their counterparts.

So while electronic scores are here to stay, I was thrilled to hear so many classic symphonic scores for the cinema of 2011. Here are the three finest from this past year:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two - composer Alexandre Desplat
French composer Desplat has risen to the top of the ranks among film scorers in a very short time, as his first major work Syriana is from 2005. His score for last year's The Ghost Writer was superb, its edgy strings reminiscent of Herrmann's work; overall the score had a drive that added to the unease felt by the characters in this film.

Desplat wrote a fine score for Deathly Hallows: Part One in 2009, but he has outdone himself for Part Two, composing his finest film score to date. He was given the challenging assignment of composing scores for a franchise that had been a success for John Williams, especially with his "Hedwig's Theme", written for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone back in 2001. Undaunted, Desplat went ahead and composed a score for Deathly Hallows: Part Two that recalls the musical heritage of these films, while at the same time, taking it in a new direction.

Desplat wrote two new themes for this film, "Lily's Theme", a lovely piece with Celtic overtones and a cue called "Statues", one of his prettiest themes melodically. This is a score with lush arrangements for strings and woodwinds, while other instruments such as celesta, harp and trumpet and used in memorable passages. Desplat's cue, "The Resurrection Stone" (#19 on the soundtrack album), is a haunting variation of "Lily's Theme'; this quiet, highly moving and romantic piece features a spare string arrangement that alternates with piano for the theme, backed by a choral section with a lovely solo performance. This works beautifully in the film and on its own and is the loveliest piece of film music I heard in 2011. This is a great score!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - composer Alberto Iglesias
The main job of a composer when writing a film score is to heighten the emotions of what we are witnessing on the screen. Goldsmith (and others) said that in so many words and it's a lesson well-learned by Iglesias for this marvelously crafted spy thriller. His theme "George Smiley" (#1 on the soundtrack album), heard under the main titles, is a quiet, haunting theme that successfully sets the tone for this drama; featuring muted trumpet, oboe, strings and piano, this is a moody cue that gets under your skin. This cue ends as quietly as begins, as the mystery of this film begins to unravel. This is a film score that is subdued, never announcing itself - again, this is music that serves the film and does so marvelously. Iglesias has been a solid composer for several years now; I throughly enjoyed his romantic score for The Constant Gardener (2005) as well as his quietly effective music for The Kite Runner (2007). Iglesias also composed a lovely classical piece for string quartet this year for The Skin I Live In  and continues his maturation as a composer with this work.

War Horse - composer John Williams
How wonderful to have John Williams back composing for films again after a three year hiatus. In fact, the maestro graced filmgoers with two new scores this year, this one as well as his highly entertaining and imaginative work for The Advenutes of TinTin (his quirky theme for the wild opening sequence is simply wonderful).

For War Horse, Williams gives us a grand score reminiscent of his "large" compositions of the past. What he does so well is to write memorable themes for any moment in a film, be it a small personal one or one that's more majestic in nature. Compare two cues for War Horse, first the one entitled Dartmoor, 1912 (#1 on the soundtrack album). This lovely Celtic-influenced theme, featuring strings, woodwinds and brass, starts quietly and then builds in texture, as Williams paints the lyric qualities of the English countryside setting in the early 20th century. The cue "Homecoming" (#16 on the soundtrack album) gives us another Celtic theme performed by flutes and strings that is soon followed by a lilting Irish jig, itself eventually followed a heart-wrenchingly beautiful theme for strings that celebrates the reunion of Joey the horse with his young owner Albert as well as the final welcome back on the farm for these two. This section of the score is uplifting and captures the love that Albert has for Joey and that he has for his family and land. This theme made the three year wait for Williams's return to composing for the cinema worth the wait.

There are three other scores from 2011 I want to comment on, as I thought they were also among the finest of the year. The first is the score for Hugo, composed by Howard Shore. Twice an Oscar winner for his scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shore has composed a lovely, lilting score for Hugo that befits the fantasy and childlike wonder of this film. This is a multi-layered score written for a variety of instruments, including piano and strings and of course, accordion, which seems to be a prerequisite for a film set in France. However, the accordion passages are not cliché-ridden, but gentle and lyrical. There are also some darker passages in this score as well, especially in the track labeled as "Purpose" (#12 on the soundtrack album). This is a wonderful score with a light touch that fits this film like a glove and listening to it on its own instantly takes you back to the particular scenes in the film. Well done, Howard!

Secondly, I want to briefly discuss the wonderful work of Mychael Danna for Moneyball. This is a subtle score, one that you don't notice right away, but one that slowly creeps up on you. Written primarily for strings, there is a great amount of dissonance in the music; as this is a more reflective look on baseball and not the usual pennant-winning-heroics type of movie, this is perfect. There are some electronics utilized in this score, but their use is spare and they are only small ingredients in this work. Rather this is more of a classically oriented, string quartet type of score - one that adds a layer of depth to this film (track #17, entitled "Game 5" is a brilliant example of the composer creating tension through dissonance in the strings - it is heard in the film as we see a pop fly land in an infielder's glove that suddenly ends a baseball season - it's a small gem of a piece).

Finally, kudos to Ludovic Bource for his charming score for The Artist. Of all the films made in 2011, this was arguably the film that most required fitting musical accompaniment and Bource accomplished that very well. I absolutely love his theme "George Valentin" (#3 on the soundtrack), a bouncy, jazzy cue written for piano, xylopohone, clarinet and strings with light percussion that perfectly recalls the essence of Charlie Chaplin's work from the 1920s. Yet this is not a rip-off of Chaplin's music, rather it is a complex set of compositions that perfectly fit the mood of this enchanting film. I have seen many silent films with specially composed scores that were not only wall-to-wall music, but ones that announced themselves and took away from the visuals on the screen. So Bource's score is the best of both worlds, a lengthy score (as needed for a silent film) that perfectly fits the film and one that has much more creativity and subtlety than most scores written for silent films (regardless of being composed for the film's premiere in the '20s or commissioned years later).

So there you have it- 2011 was a year that lovers of classically-oriented film scores should treasure. Let's hope that we can look forward to many more scores such as these in 2012 and coming years.

P.S. Given that Alexandre Desplat had a remarkably busy year in 2011, scoring five different films (The Tree of Life and Carnage were among other works), this is a promising sign that classic scores are returning.

P.P.S The Academy Award nominations will be announced on Tuesday and it seems certain that three of the nominations will go to The Artist, War Horse and Hugo, all well-deserved. That leaves two more nominations and chances are that John Williams will receive one of those for his score for TinTin, which wouldn't bother me. I'm also guessing that as Reznor and Ross won the Oscar last year, they'll get another nomination this time around for Dragon Tattoo. Personally, I hope not, but that's probably how it will go.

That means that the scores for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Moneyball would lose out on a nomination, which would be a shame, especially for Potter, as I believe it was the finest score from 2011. Maybe with this category (as well as a few others such as cinematography and editing), there should be a floating number of nominations - from five to ten - as with the Best Picture category. Back in 1945, there were 21 original dramatic scores nominated for an Academy Award; that's probably too many, but why only five? Yes, only one can win each year, but why limit this to five choices? Why not recognize excellence when it's present? For some of these composers, the nomination is an award in itself.

P.P.S. In case you think I am being a bit tough on the work of Reznor and Ross, wait until you read this review at the site. This critic really can't stand their work!

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