About Film Scores… AND John Barry

If this blog alone doesn’t show an affection for the recored arts, then the appreciation that I have for music within should serve as the ultimate litmus test.

To describe film scores, filmologists (is there an official name that film buffs call themselves?) call a score that stands out non-diagetic and ones that dissolve into the background obviously the opposite.

I love the first kind, which through circumstance and material, morphs into the latter kind.

The recent American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo featured a cool warped-sounding score by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross.

With their integration of out of tune pianos and decrepit music boxes, it creates a haunting mood that suits the island where journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is called to investigate the disappearance of a young heir, forty years removed.

The world surrounding Hedestad and people who lived through Harriet Vanger’s vanishing moved on since that day in 1966, yet somehow the land itself stands frozen in time.

See: Hidden in Snow, People Lie All The Time, What If We Could?, Aphelion

Another favorite of recent mine are The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack for Hanna, which juxtaposes the wide-eyed naiveté of the teenage titular assassin against her more primal aspects. It runs on almost a parallel track to the former.

See: Hanna’s Theme, Escape 700, The Devil in the Details/Beat, Escape Wavelength

Experimental soundtracks like Reznor’s score for Dragon Tattoo aren’t really anything new, the first really experimental one that comes to mind is Anton Karas’ score from The Third Man, which invokes the off-kilter qualities of Post-WWII Vienna and accidentally reminds of Harry Lime’s famous cuckoo clock speech late in the film.

Setting aside any notions of musical theory, the James Bond soundtracks have always maintained a consistent captivating quality.

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Even Eric Serra’s controversial synthesizer-laden score for Goldeneye, which deliberately comments on the fall of the Iron Curtain, contains an abundance of electronic fun and Barry-esqe cues to go around (Oh hey! Musical theory!).

See: Goldeneye Overture, Ladies First, Run, Shoot And Jump, That’s What Keep You Alone, Dish Out of Water, For Ever, James.

Speaking of John Barry, the scores to his ELEVEN(!) James Bond films over his twenty-five year(!) off and on relationship to the franchise represent a growing range in sounds.

Listen to his first three soundtracks (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball) and they’re the work of the genius whose mind still occupied England’s Big Band scene, which the producers plucked him from.

See: 007, Stalking, James Bond With Bongos, Leila Dances, Into Miami, Dawn Raid on Fort Knox, Chateau Fight, Street Chase, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

His scores evolved with his growing musical sensibilities. As he grew older, he refined his sound and sensibilities, playing down those bombastic big band qualities, not afraid to score the quieter, human moments of James Bond.

I would hesitate to call these later scores of a traditional style in his later oeuvre with Bond, but they work fantastically on subconscious levels, playing the audience like a piano to quote Hitchcock.

They’re all great.

Or to put it another way, while he used the whole chicken for the Sean Connery and George Lazenby scores, he used a mere feather with Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton.

See: Bond Look-Alike, He’s Dangerous, Wine With Stacey, Golden Gate Fight, Kara Meets Bond, Ice Chase, Murder at the Fair, Inflight Fight

A universe away, some of the best comedic scores out there play (an unintentional pun) the subject matter straight—the ones that come to mind are Elmer Bernstein’s scores for National Lampoon’s Animal House and Ghostbusters—and compose as if these films belong to another genre all together—something that House director John Landis specifically requested from Bernstein.

However, more often than not, scoring comedies sometimes devours good men in post-production for awful comedies. You literally hear it in the final product. Many film scores are led astray by mickey mousing the sound at the “laughs” and playing the jaunty to the extreme.

It makes a bad movie all the more unbearable and unctuous. Recently, I rewatched part of Laws of Attraction on cable, a film that fits squarely in this category of a justly forgotten romantic comedy from not too long ago that features good actors slumming it.

As scored by Edward Shearmur, it highlights EVERY SINGLE self-conscious telegraphed moment of comedy, especially when poor Julianne Moore has to pretend that the sight of anal retention is by itself hilarious.

These scores feature the same attention brought to these films that a compilation would all sound the same.

This doesn’t mean that 9-to-5 scoring jobs deserve the put down—legendary Jerry Silversmith made a severely underrated career off of solid workman-like quality on hundreds of scores throughout his career, including some of my favorites, such as Innerspace and Chinatown, and lesser films like U.S. Marshals, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Capricorn One.

This post could continue for another 800 words, so to wrap up, the next time that you watch a new film, consider how scores work to heighten your enjoyment of a film because otherwise you’d be listening to a superbly mixed film that felt empty.

And soundtracks fill that void.

Listen to what they say.