My tastes in music have always been a bit of a joke among my closest friends. I was about five years late to the party buying a CD player, and my first CD purchase wasn’t the White Album, or any of the chart-topping or even lesser known indie bands at the time – it was the soundtrack from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, not even a movie for which I had any particular affection. In fact, over the years I’ve probably purchased dozens of soundtracks from movies I didn’t like that much, swelling to a collection of hundreds. The sole reason? I loved the music.
Music and film have long been committed companions, from the beginnings of the silent era when a live musician would sit in the theatre and play piano to dramatize the grainy black-and-white images flickering across the screen. The coming of the talkies, thankfully, did not diminish the need for music to continue its cinematic journey. Early composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza developed upon the traditions of the classical masters to fashion, together, a new musical language for the 20th Century’s most popular new art form, a tradition expanded upon by men like Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota to name but a very few. How many of the incredible movie moments have been etched into our collective memories in large part because of their music? Scarlett’s longing for the halls of Tara in Gone with the Wind. Janet Leigh’s shocking death in Psycho. The lonely trumpet that opens The Godfather. Robert Redford’s home run blast in The Natural. Rocky Balboa’s race up the Philadelphia steps. The mere glimpse of the photo above can conjure immediately the haunting John Williams motif of the yearning of the hero to set out on adventures bold, much as thoughts of sharks can summon his remarkably economical two-note overture for Jaws. The movie score is its emotional brush, painting the subtext of the characters’ deepest passions directly onto our hearts, uniting the audience in a shared experience of joy, pain, despair, and most endearingly, hope.
The 1990’s were a rough era for lovers of orchestral soundtracks. Madonna’s Music from and Inspired By Dick Tracy begat a misguided and disappointing era of music marketing whereby soundtracks were reconfigured as pop/rock/rap compilation albums that had little to do with the movie itself – maybe one or two songs at most were used in the film and the rest were chosen at random by committee. And yet some brilliant scores were flying beneath the radar. I’ve been listening a lot lately to American composer Thomas Newman’s work on 90’s epics like The Shawshank Redemption. Newman’s music isn’t as recognizable as someone like John Williams, who works very much, particularly in his Spielberg and Lucas collaborations, in the mode of leitmotif – assigning a specific theme to each character and recurring emotional beat. Newman’s music is always more subtle, relying on gentle piano, soft percussion and swaying strings, yet its emotional resonance is just as strong. His scores for American Beauty and Road to Perdition are a masterwork of forlorn and melancholy understatement, letting you peel layers from the characters and see directly into their wounds. American Beauty in particular is a movie that would not work with the more upfront, heroic style that Williams is so good at – as Wes Bentley’s character Ricky describes being overcome by the beauty he sees in the world, even in innocuous things like a plastic bag floating in the wind, Newman’s soft piano embraces both him and us, and just for a moment we can see through his eyes. In a sense, the music is that intangible, untouchable beauty, capturing the moment in a way that dialogue, performance and image cannot.
Joseph Campbell suggests that amidst our billions of stories, there is only one – the journey of the hero with the thousand faces. Cinematic scores likewise number in the thousands, some remarkable, some forgettable, but singular in their indispensability as storytellers. They can be our emotional anchor as we fly off into the strange new worlds of the imaginations of directors, writers and actors, and a truly magnificent score can come to define moments in our own lives as well as the ones we see on the screen. Truly, who hasn’t imagined the music swelling at our most heroic, and even our most despondent hours? Stories, like our emotions, are our universal connectors – and music goes with us on the journey as a narrator, speaking the truth in notes and phrases through all barriers to comprehension when words sometimes fall short.