Score Shows Us How Movies Sound!


Directed by Matt Schrader
Gravitas Ventures, 93 minutes, PG
★ ★

Years ago I got to be one of those names flying by on the fast scroll at the end of a movie: I was a music consultant for a Florentine Films project. My takeaway from that experience is that there sure is a whole lot that goes into a movie soundtrack. When it comes to sound, filmmakers frequently think in terms of seconds not minutes and when it works, it’s magic. Perhaps the best example of this is that quick burst of frantic violin in the shower scene of Psycho. Take away the strings and the horror quotient drops precipitously.

The documentary Score looks at some of those who compose, orchestrate, direct, and mix for the Big Screen—multi-million dollar projects, not the shoestring project in which I was involved. It is, to be sure, a self-serving and self-praising project in which everyone in it declares his or her competitors to be geniuses. Well… yes and no. As one who generally sits in front of the screen, not in the editing room, my standard is that a great score fits one of two standards: either the music integrates so well that you don’t think of it as a soundtrack, or it’s so artfully done that it becomes an earworm long after the film is over. Let’s say, for example, you haven’t seen the original Star Wars in over a decade. If I asked you to storyboard the film, you’d probably falter. But what if I asked you to hum a few bars of John Williams’ theme for the movie? Bet you could do that!

The major virtue of Score is that it shows just how complex it is to merge movie and music harmoniously. Some of the biggest names in the industry pop up: Williams, Danny Elfman, Quincy Jones, Moby, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Hans Zimmer …. Altogether, sixty talking heads appear. It’s fascinating to observe the stylistic and work habit differences between composers and orchestrators. Some work meticulously to craft the music slice by slice, others look for an inspirational vibe and the music flows, and still others are akin to a band leader who starts preparations for the spring concert in October. We also observe how those like Williams or Zimmer think in grandiose terms; in essence, they dramatize through sound. Their opposites are the techno-geeks who create layered sounds on their computers, and the junkyard artists who squeeze sounds out of everything imaginable—from rain drums to castoff machine parts.

Two things stood out for me—okay three if we count Hans Zimmer’s outlandish socks—the first being the extraordinary pastiche that makes up the score, both the music that comes at us a few seconds at a time and the big themes and/or songs that play for several minutes. Even more impressive are those who sit at mixing boards and computer screens and manipulate what we hear by nano seconds and experiment with the levels at which we will hear each instrument. You might even gain an understanding about some of the elements that make movies so expensive to make. That includes the duds. Some of the screen faces have scored movies you’ve never heard of or which you hadn’t. 

Again, though, this is an industry kind of film and I surely wouldn’t label all of these folks ‘geniuses.’ In fact, I’d venture to say that a good third of the films I see have dreadful soundtracks. How often have you had your intelligence insulted by music that telegraphs what will happen next? Or reached for a barf bag because the music is sickeningly maudlin and manipulative? Like I said earlier, the key is to harmonize movie and music.

That reservation aside, Score is well worth watching, as are most documentaries that take us inside the making of a film. Watch it and then think of all the other elements: lighting, script, editing for continuity, acting, directing, special effects, cinematography, and so on. Movies have been compared to painting with light, but when I see projects such as Score, I think movies are more like feeding the multitudes by sending them through the chow line of the world’s largest delicatessen.

Rob Weir

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