Film music composers are mad scientists.
It all began (along with other aspects of modern filmmaking) with King Kong in 1933. Worried the groundbreaking special effects wouldn’t stop audiences from finding their movie a bit cornball, the producers tasked composer Max Steiner with creating a pounding score to augment the emotional heft of their monster movie. Using a full orchestra, the resulting score drove the film, heightening the horror and quickening the pace from Skull Island to the top of the Empire State Building. Disbelief was suspended and the modern film score was born.
Composers of film music are usually the last players to join the storytelling team. The film has been shot and edited by the time they make their vital contribution. Writer/director Matt Schrader’s Score: A Film Music Documentary is devoted to revealing the process and personalities that create the music that drives the emotions of the movies we love. Listening to Hans Zimmer pontificate is reason enough to make it your new favorite show business documentary, but joining Zimmer to discuss film history, collaboration, aspiring to greatness and crippling insecurity are luminaries like James Cameron, Howard Shore, Leonard Maltin, Danny Elfman and a host of names you will recognize from the opening credits of some of your favorite blockbusters.
Writing a film score means turning emotion into music. In an interview in the film, Moby calls music the invisible art form. While musical instruments, turntables and MP3 players are all tangible objects, music itself is not. Technically, music is the restructuring of air molecules to produce a desired effect. It can add weight to the images on screen or subvert what is shown. Music establishes character through the use of motifs; we know the hobbits are good in Lord of the Rings by the music that underscores Frodo’s introduction and that Darth Vader is looming when the “Imperial March” begins to play in The Empire Strikes Back. Music can also direct the eye to different parts of the screen, controlling the audience’s gaze. This knowledge seems innate, but the deliberate nature of the work is rarely highlighted.
Film music composers are mad scientists. They seek goosebumps with every new project. To a person, they state to the camera that the presence of goosebumps serves as their barometer. If they achieve it on themselves then chances are audiences will respond in kind. With each new project the composer hunts for a new alchemy to achieve this effect. This is of great interest to scientists like Dr. Siu-Lan Tan who try to understand the effects music has on the body and neural transmitters. Interviews with Dr. Tan are placed between the film clips and the interviews with the artists. She explains how those structured air molecules stimulate the body and manipulate an audience’s attention. She is an expert in the science of goosebumps.
Each decade of film history has its star composer. First there was Steiner, then Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw less orchestration in film scores and more of a reliance on popular music, the Simon and Garfunkel songs in The Graduate being the greatest example of the trend. Ironically, it took another monster movie to usher in the next great era of film scores, one that we’re still enjoying today.
In 1975, Jaws brought John Williams to prominence. His score for Steven Spielberg’s killer shark movie functioned in much the same way Steiner’s did for King Kong decades earlier. The many shark’s-eye shots underwater were made suspenseful by Williams’ simple theme. The music as much as anything drove the marketing campaign that kept people away from beaches for the summer.
The career of John Williams forms the heart of the documentary. The comments of other composers underscore Williams’ most famous compositions and the film clips that feature them. This montage is there not only as an ode to his greatness, but as proof of the hypothesis that composers are storytellers who turn emotion into music. The themes from Jaws, the Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park and Superman the Movie swell one after another, transporting you back to childhood and the emotions you felt the first time you experienced each. Williams stands with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as the triumvirate that redefined the modern blockbuster and every new superhero movie and summer fantasy thrill ride is an extension of their collective legacy.
Because of his work on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, we are now living in the Hans Zimmer era, according to the documentary. Due to his previous life in pop music, Zimmer has changed how an orchestra is utilized to wonderful effect – not unlike a previous Batman composer, Danny Elfman. Schrader doesn’t focus on the composers alone. The engineers, orchestrators, sound designers, mixers, musicians and famous studios like Abbey Road get their due in Score. It is a film so in-depth that Brian Tyler, composer of Avengers: Age of Ultron, is comfortable confessing his habit of hanging out in a men’s room stall, waiting to hear if anyone is humming his music after a screening. Take that as a warning after your next trip to the movies. You never know if the composer is nearby, lurking.