Movement, Music and Nothing Else.

For a moment I was convinced I’d never hear a new score that made me feel the way my favourite scores used to. That all new movie music was just drumbeats, horns and chanting designed to fill silence or crowd an already busy soundscape. It turns out I was only partially correct: Over the last few years I have heard some truly stirring and magnificent movie scores, just not at the movies.

I guess I should clear up something before I begin; I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know what characterises certain musical elements, I don’t know the names for particular sections nor could I even accurately identify instruments. I just know what it is I like hearing. I’m also primarily talking about a particular type of score. So as much as I love electronic and synth music and as much as I adore the soundtracks of 70’s crime movies nothing excites my nerves and emotions like a bold orchestral score.

Everything I want from a big score is there in John William’s work on The Empire Strikes Back. The end credits alone contains more stimulating and iconic sounds than most musicians achieve in a career. It’s big and bombastic but it warmly extends its arms into the audience and pulls them along with the movie so effectively I cannot separate musical cues from story beats or performances. Williams obviously composed a number of equally sweeping scores but he wasn’t the only one producing this kind of music. Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, James Horner and their peers were not afraid to make their music an overt storytelling tool and their directors were not afraid to let them.

So when I consider the vast number of summer blockbusters over the last twenty years that have been big science fiction and fantasy adventures and that only a handful have music I could hum I don't find it particularly difficult to feel short changed. How many superhero movies have been made recently? How many of their themes can you whistle? And so I had it in my head that no one makes scores like they used to. That is until I heard those scores independently from their respective movies. Suddenly I was aware there is some truly wonderful music out there, it's just they rarely get a chance to be heard.

There are a couple of reasons I think this might be the case. Firstly, modern filmmakers (Directors, Producers, Executives) seem fine with fantasy as long at it can be demystified, deconstructed, explained and rationalised. A side effect of this proclivity seems to be shrinking the scope of the score. During the 80s even some street level action movies would have a full orchestra powering their engine but today Hercules fighting a Hydra would be scored with guitars, synthesised drums and dubstep motions. This is only part of the problem, though, as the main reason is that modern scores rarely get room to breath.

Williams and the other big hitters often relied on themes and melodies to lodge themselves in the memories of the audience yet they didn’t reserve these merely for characters. I remember listening to the The Asteroid Field cue in Empire and thinking that most movies would be lucky to have that playing over their opening credits. They gave moments themes as much as characters because the filmmakers gave them room to. As the sun sets above the map room in Raiders of the Lost Ark, draping a shadow across the model city we get nothing but Spielberg and Slocombe’s gentle camera moves and William’s swelling composition. As the location of the Ark is revealed the cue builds, the magnitude of the discovery sold as much by Williams' baton as Ford's reaction. The audience aren’t told it’s a huge discovery, they feel it. How about Krull? As Colwyn rides those magnificent flying horses we need nothing but visual effects and Horner’s blissfully triumphant Ride of the Firemares. Basil Poledouris' Home breaks the heart as the camera glides through Alex Murphy's shattered memories while Bill Conti's brazen march accompanies the arrival of Skeletor on Earth. Even when there are sound effects in the mix the driving, sweeping orchestra takes the lead.

Modern mainstream cinema likes to attack its audience's ears and attention spans from all directions. A bullet must whizz from left to right, every step of its journey punctuated with processed sound while quick cutting and a need to get to the point races us from scene to scene without ever giving us time to fully experience and explore the moment. The themes composed for the first two Iron Man movies are fine, but there is no point in the first movie where ol' shellhead is given a heroic moment for it to play out. The most memorable scene from the second movie is the suitcase armour sequence. Why? Because it is the one time we get to hear John Debney’s heroic theme. Marco Beltrami always delivers exciting music. His score for the recent Die Hard fiasco is a great action score while his pulse-pounding Bullet Train cue for The Wolverine never even made the final cut. For all the experimentation and edginess of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's The Dark Knight score Harvey Two Face is an escalating orchestral joy, and yet I can't for a second remember when it plays in the movie. I do not believe that the lack of memorable music is due to there being no more Williams or Goldsmiths because I've heard them! The music is out there it's just that we only get to appreciate it when it's not competing with the rest of the movie. Where once they drew long, deep breathes, now they gulp for air before sinking beneath the waves.

Things are starting to change. Peter Jackson has always seen the value in letting movement and music take the reigns. Marvel is starting to get it. Thor: The Dark World features a long and largely silent funeral sequence driven only by some gorgeous visuals and Brian Tyler’s beautiful music. He also does good work on The Expendables movies, resisting the temptation to go with blues or rock and instead delivering a largely classical score. In both of Silvestri’s Marvel efforts he manages to take the lead, getting us to root for Steve Rogers with Training the Supersolider and introducing us to the Avengers for real with Assemble. But then like Williams, Silvestri always delivers a big orchestra bringing scale and magnificence to obvious choices like The Mummy Returns or Judge Dredd and less obvious choices like The A-Team. For all the movie's issues (some of them musical) the heroic theme from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was almost enough to convince me I loved that movie while Michael Giacchino is, for want of a more academic appraisal, the shit. And if only someone would give Oscar Arajo a big feature to score!

I know a big thematic score is not always appropriate. I know it sounds like I'm being nostalgic (I'm not, this stuff still works). And yes I'm aware of the benefits of subtlety and experimentation but dammit I want a big movie with big moments and big characters to have big music. Music that is allowed to take the lead and not compete with clever but overactive sound effects and editing. I dream of long sequences of motion and classical music and little else. I want more firemares, more map rooms. There are some amazing composers creating amazing music out there they just need the room for their work to be heard. 


  1. Oscar Arajo:

  2. Ride of the Firemares:

    Training the Supersoldier:

    Harvey Two-Face:

    Bullet Train:


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