Tuesday 8 May 2018

Score - A Film Music Documentary + Score - A Film Music Documentary... The Interviews

The Winds Of Score

Score - A Film Music Documentary
USA 2016 Directed by Matt Schrader
Epicleff Media Blu Ray Zone A


Score - A Film Music Documentary
The Interviews - Educational Edition

by Matt Schrader
ISBN: 978-1974367412


“… the really simple brass ‘brahms’ of Inception. Now, when Chris (Nolan) and I did those, they were a story point, an absolute story point. They were in the script. And then they sort of became ubiquitous, in a funny way, in trailer music. People were just sort of using them as transitional pieces. So the idea that they actually tell a story got lost. They’re just a sound effect. So their meaning got distorted and so there’s a sort of misuse of that.”
Hans Zimmer.

Score - A Film Music Documentary is something I didn’t think I’d get to see over here. I’d just assumed it would be one of those films that didn’t get a UK release and would sink without a trace with no other venue to watch it on other than the slight possibility of a dodgy download somewhere. However, I was very pleased to find that there is this Blu Ray release in the US (it’s also been released in the UK but only as a DVD release for some strange reason). I was also surprised to learn that there is an accompanying educational edition, book companion to the film with full length transcripts of the many interviews conducted for this... about 90% of which doesn’t seem to have actually made it into the film so, actually, it’s a very valuable resource independent of the actual documentary itself. I was delighted to be presented with this on my 50th birthday by a friend earlier in the year, before I even knew this tome existed.

There is also, as it happens, a release of Ryan Taubert’s score for this film but, alas, it’s only available as an electronic download and not as a proper CD edition so I probably won’t get to hear it away from the movie. I really do fail to see how a movie about film scores would ignore a segment of the fan base for such things and not release it in a high quality presentation on the best available media. I guess it says something about the studios who control these properties that they’re a little out of touch, I guess.

So, anyway, this really is not a bad documentary and, although it deals primarily with the state of scoring or the film industry now, it’s actually quite unique in its own way because it interviews a lot of the ‘now’ composers who are the ‘new guard’ including some of my absolute favourites like Bear McCreary, Brian Tyler Hans Zimmer and Marco Beltrami. I mean, there’s a whole host of names in here and chances are that, even if movie music isn’t your thing, you’ve heard at least a few scores by each of the many interviewees here. And it was certainly nice to finally be able to put faces to the names I have adorning the, literally thousands, of film score discs I have lining every wall and alcove of my immediate environment.

Although it’s been said by some people that the film only deals with modern scoring from the 1960s and onwards, I think that’s a little unfair as the documentary is only an hour and a half long (personally, I would have liked it to be at least four hours) and there are some deliberate nods to many of the composers who have made landmark scores in the past. Admittedly, there are less golden age composers than I thought would have made the grade (where are Korngold and Tiomkin?) but the film does acknowledge certain aspects of the past with dedicated segments to composers such as Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams although, of those, the only one still living, Johnny Williams, is not actually interviewed for this movie. That being said, I’m kind of glad that the overall focus of this one is a little slanted to modern composers and their methods/practices because, frankly, we’ve already seen a lot of the other stuff countless times... I think interviews with people like Christopher Young, Junkie XL and the great Hans Zimmer are far more valuable at the moment.

The movie opens with... I think it was Marco Beltrami... demonstrating a dying piano way up on a deserted hill which is connected to a studio by loads of wires which react to the wind. So the wind and environment are helping create the musical texture and, as he says, the notes travel through the wire faster than the wind carries them so you kind of hear the echo of the notes first. This is a great opening hook to start the film off with. It then shows the importance of score by using snippets of the Rocky films under Bill Conti’s famous ‘getting stronger’ theme and really gets the message home for an audience who are perhaps unused to contemplating such things (although whether any of them would sit still for a movie about film scores is anybody’s guess).

The documentary has a number of interview snippets with various composers, mostly new guys although there are some people like Quincy Jones also added into the mix and it’s an extremely valuable bunch of excerpts for the modern film score afficionado, it has to be said. There are also numerous, valuable clips of the various composers either conducting or overseeing the recordings of the films from various scoring sessions, which makes for some interesting watching. Especially when they show the cues being performed in one half of the screen and the accompanying visuals for such movies as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (scored by Joe Kraemer) and Casino Royale (scored by David Arnold) in the other half.

It’s also nice that you have legends like Hans Zimmer and his contemporaries paying their respects and expressing their admiration of some of the past ‘greats’ of film score composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. It’s just nice to see that the importance of these people is so well appreciated still. Plus, a good visual representation of how leitmotif works, as seen when notes of recurring motifs are highlighted during sections of Howard Shore’s score to The Fellowship Of The Ring.

There are also some very interesting choices of interviewee such as a music psychologist, Siu-Lan Tan, who talks about the way music effects us. How music can be delivered directly into the specific reward centre of the brain, the same place where sensations such as chocolate and sex are processed (ha, I knew it). Actually, I found her the most fascinating of the subjects in a way and I am now on a mission to seek out and read her books about this specific subject.

It’s also nice that there’s a lot of fun stuff in here too and if you want to see Bear McCreary rocking the Hurdy Gurdy and talking about the history of the instrument and why he used it on the TV show Black Sails, this is the place to do that. Indeed, a longer take of him playing the instrument and talking about it is one of the very nice extras accompanying the film on the Blu Ray and DVD release of Score - A Film Music Documentary.

The book, Score - A Film Music Documentary: The Interviews, is available separately and, rather than just reiterating all the great stuff found in the movie, it actually gives you way more information when it comes to each composer and their attitude and approach to the art and craft of scoring. There are a couple of slight niggles with this volume though.

One is found in the very first words of the first chapter. Each chapter comprises an interview with a specific composer and starts off by listing a few of the scores they are known for plus a list of awards, nominations and other musical affiliations but I was quite annoyed to see that the first score listed for David Arnold was for Independence Day - Resurgence, the sequel to a film Arnold actually did write the score for. Alas, as I’m sure most fans of film music will be able to tell you, the score for this sequel was actually by Thomas Wander and Howard Kloser. Now, I don’t know if maybe Arnold did actually do some work on this and his score was rejected but I’m guessing that this would surely have been known before this book went to print. So, yeah, that’s a problem. When the same kind of error occurs later in the book for Tom Holkenborg, it’s at least understandable as I think the book may have already been published before he was taken off of Justice League and Danny Elfman took over scoring duties on that one.

The other slight problem I have with this book is the amount of typos. There are absolutely loads of sentences which start off with a lower case letter dotted around the book. At least, I hope these are typos and not some bizarre attempt to change the way English grammar works, at any rate.

In spite of all that though, the volume is something which I think most film score junkies will appreciate. It’s true there are some things you expect certain composers to talk about... so included in David Arnold’s section is his enthusiasm for using Monty Norman’s James Bond theme at various points in a Bond movie and director James Cameron talks about the importance of the temp score and working with James Horner. However, there’s also a lot of stuff which people may find less familiar and it’s in these words by the people in the front line that you gain the real knowledge from.

For instance, Quincy Jones starts off talking about how hard it was to be a black composer in 1960s Hollywood. But it’s interesting to learn how he'd make a conscious effort to get away from representational music (what we would call ‘Mickey Mousing’) and to score something more in touch with mood and feeling/setting (something which Bernard Herrmann used to do, I believe). Similarly, the composing team of Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross talk about completely coming at the score from a soundscape kind of sensibility to ensure that each section is appropriate for the mood and tone of a picture and scene. Being an admirer of their score for the US version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I found their interview section very refreshing and informative.

It’s also interesting to read about the contradictions between composers talking about their work too. Some think the sole job of the score is to just illustrate what’s already on the screen but others, such as Hans Zimmer, more correctly talk about the music enhancing rather than supporting the film. Filling in bits to give the audience emotional direction, for example.

Another interesting point is when the great Bear McCreary makes a really good case for why composers have to use orchestrators and why it’s actually, in the long run, more preferable to the lifestyle than doing it on your own. It’s something I’ve never been quite comfortable with in terms of the artistry of the profession but Bear more than justifies this practice here. He also talks about how you should put the directors in a very comfortable state of mind and connect with them to have the most productive dialogue in the first place.

On the other hand another of my favourite modern film score composers, Brian Tyler, is not a fan of letting what he writes go to orchestrators and mixers and, although he kinda admits it’s a necessity, he will sometimes go and remix it all again afterwords anyway. He also cherishes the imperfections of timing and performance because that's how the music feels "alive and original" which is nice. When you see a concert I’ve always been conscious that this is the only way you will ever see it performed exactly a certain way... no repeats, it’s always going to sound different every time. It’s interesting to see Tyler celebrating this natural phenomenon as being extremely beneficial to the final performance recording of the art form.

And then there’s Garry Marshall. Now, it could be that I was reading his section with the wrong tone but he seemed to come across, at least to me, as either a complete nutter or a total idiot. For example, if he wants a sequence in a film to seem like something is important... he’ll just put in a song by U2. I don’t know, maybe he’s just got a really great sense of humour and I was reading it incorrectly but... yeah... if I were a composer I might have second thoughts about collaborating with him on the strength of his words here, that’s for sure.

However, the book is, as I said, a really useful and insightful tome, in spite of the occasional piece of misinformation and rampant typos . An excellent companion piece to Score - A Film Music Documentary. If you’re a fan of the art of motion picture music then chances are you would have already seen/read this one or added it to your list. If not, then you really should and both the book and the film are certainly good for people who have no idea about the art and want to get up to speed. I’m really happy to have both the Blu Ray and the paperback and these get a big, raised conductor’s baton thumbs up from me. They’re certainly noteworthy.

You can read my review of a Hans Zimmer concert here and a review of a Brian Tyler concert here.

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