Sunday, 2 March 2014

Can Film Music Be Art?

Following the Hollywood Reporter's anonymous interview with one of the 6000 or so people determining this year, and his clearly earth shattering revelation that 'I found all five scores inferior'. While it is obviously considered rather classy to highlight your own superiority by spitting down on the sweat, blood and toil of those involved in every aspect of the cinematic process, I thought I'd take this clearly very smug man's opinion and turn into a wider debate on what constitutes a good cinematic score and a brief take on the role of music in film as a whole and if such a score be considered art.

I concede from the very beginning that I am far from an expert on the classics of cinema and as such my examples come from a subjective experience of film scoring but nonetheless I'm rooting my observations in a deep respect for the visual arts and their wider cultural, emotional and philosophical effects.

The Score We All Take Home

In a pivotal scene during Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Maximus and his rag tag band of slaves take on a group of charioteers in a spectacular battle sequence. Shot to perfection, from the shaky cam close ups of the foot soldiers to the slower panning from the crowds and the gorgeous wheel spike perspectives, what really sticks in my mind about this sequence is the music underpinning it. The low string tension before the charioteers are revealed, the frantic violin riffs as the panic is shown and the slow rising music that clashes with the shearing rasps of steel on shield all emphasise the terror and determination of those involved. Finally, as the first chariot goes down and the mock barbarians begin to fight back, the sound swells triumphantly, echoing the themes of Maximus's victory in the opening sequence and we are treated to a brass melody that grows ever bolder as the battle is slowly but surely won.

While this technical analysis is all very well, the point being suggested here is that we not only see the battle on screen, but hear and feel it through the music. While gladiatorial games may have in reality been a bloody fight to the death, Hans Zimmer's composition captures the pomp and significance behind the violence, whilst recognising the fear and bravado of those involved. The soundtrack takes the sequence beyond a well shot depiction to become a dynamic struggle within the overall context of the film.

The first glimpses of the arguably very impressive Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park would not be nearly as captivating without John William's flourishes in the background, or the blossoming romance of Jack & Kate in Titanic. The opening of Toy Story could not have warmed the hearts of anyone, young or old with nearly so much charm as it did without Randy Newman's soulful rendition of You Got A Friend In Me nor would you have fallen in love with the (in my opinion), slightly irritable characters of Timon & Pumba without the undeniably catchy Hakuna Matata.

It can be posited, perhaps aside from films that are explicitly musicals, that the soundtrack is merely an implement that helps convey the wider message of the directors vision and there is great merit to this argument. The terror you feel in Alien, another Scott film is aided by a score deliberately composed to shock you, written with incidentals and melodies that not only provide you with intrigue but thanks to their jarring nature, the music sounds almost uncomfortable to our ears. The wonderful interplay between the guitar riff and brass melody that has come to categorise the James Bond theme tune manages to draw you in thanks to it's intrigue while the bombast of the Rocky theme is punchy and simple (the link to the film not requiring explanation)!

Yet where debate comes in is whether film music can become a work of art in it's own right, not in terms of musical quality (although theorists such as Adorno would throughly refute this claim) but whether it can escape the trappings of it's cinematic associations. The themes from popular movies such as Jaws and Star Wars are certainly very well known and much loved pieces of music, but they struggle to make themselves known aside from being the soundtracks to those films. Occasionally a film can even change the perception of a piece of music entirely, to the extent that Clint Mansell's leitmotif Lux Aeterna, is commonly mistitled as Requiem For A Dream.

Applying an existing work to a filmcan also breed these associations, such  Blue Danube by Strauss, most commonly associated with Kubrick's 2001. The music, complementing of the visuals and dialogue or even when tonally disparate from the events on screen (such as the infamous 'Ear Scene' of Reservoir Dogs), it does indeed seem to take a piece of art and bind it into the larger cinematic work as a whole.

So while trappings to it's origin or popular appreciation remain, can a piece of film music  be art in and of itself. I think it probably can. All art is rooted in a social and historic context and although we may choose to analyse it on purely technical grounds, it is created for a purpose. The portraits of hundreds of years worth of wealthy European noblemen hang in prestigious galleries across the globe, despite their original purpose as a symbolising of the subject's wealth and status. The works of Dickens first appeared periodically as part of newspapers and they now sit revered amongst the best of our literature. Every theatrical piece ever written was created to be perfomed and to entertain as much as it was to reveal some deeper truth about human nature.

Just because a piece of music was written as an, admittedly, indispensible part of a film does not make it any less worthy to be judged analytically as an artwork than a ballad by Bowie or a symphony from Schubert. Whether it is as technically as intricate is another matter entirely, but considering it as a piece of art that invites an emotional response, it can most certainly be defended as such.

You can find the original Hollywood Reporter article here if you want a cynical and slightly snobby take on this years Oscar picks!

The 5 Soundtracks nominated this year that he so gleefully snubbed are from:
The Book Thief
Saving Mr. Banks

No comments:

Post a Comment