Music and the Cinema, Marriage of the Century?
Can you imagine “Star Wars” without John Williams’ rousing theme music?
Can you imagine “Lawrence of Arabia” without the inspiring theme music by Maurice Jarre?
Film soundtracks are incredibly eloquent, and can burn the experience of a film into our memories for ever. Some themes are “sound logos” – just a bar or two and we immediately recall the film.
Composer of the “Lawrence of Arabia” score, Maurice Jarre said, ‘I have been lucky to work with the greatest, and David Lean gave me a taste for perfection.’ And many other musicians speak in the same way, about the directors that they’ve formed a working relationship with – and vice versa, of course.
What is this alchemy that is created when the movie and its musical score become forever joined in our memories?
We only need to hear a few notes of the James Bond theme, or a few notes of the theme from “Jaws”, and our imagination jumps in recognition. There are many other signature themes: “Mission Impossible”, “The Pink Panther”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The list could be so much longer.
Last year in Paris a thrilling six-month duration exhibition, “Musique & Cinema: Marriage of the Century?” was on show at Cite de la Musique, a music museum adjoining the Paris Conservatoire at 221 avenue Jean Jaures. For film lovers this was a wonderful education about the role of music in the cinema, and a delightful trip down Memory Lane.
Spending many hours there, I was enthralled by watching a ‘loop’ of key scenes from some of the greatest films ever made, where the music was particularly evocative and eloquent in achieving the impact of the scene we saw. The loop ran for maybe ninety minutes, and I watched it all, making mental notes of films to watch again, and one or two films that I had somehow missed.
In another part of the exhibition, there was a video presentation of the opening credits of films, which featured very famous themes that we all know, from many international films. As I approached that section of the show, one of my all-time favorite opening credits sequences was on screen – “Walk on the Wild Side”, with that mesmerising footage of the black alley cat, shot from ground level, slinking warily along, to the sounds of Elmer Bernstein’s jazz theme.
The first film that ever had its own original score was “L’Assination du Duc de Guise”, in 1908. It was of course, a silent film, and synchronized sound was still a long time into the future. The music just played in the background. But it added enormously, to the filmic experience.
The French are justly proud that they invented cinema in 1895 (the Lumiere Brothers) and that a French film had the first especially composed musical score. It’s widely believed that the French are still the most dedicated cinema-lovers of the world, and they have certainly given us many masterpieces, and made cinema history with the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave).
Warner Bros of Hollywood made “The Jazz Singer”, in 1927, starring Al Jolson, and heralded the arrival of synchronised sound, the first revolutionary change to hit the cinema, which put fear into the hearts of many famous actors and actresses of the time, who were from Europe and did not speak perfect English, by any means, or had heavy accents. It ended more than a few promising careers. In “The Jazz Singer” Jolson sang and the soundtrack began to claim it’s place as an inherent part of cinema.
It’s true that a few films are made without using music, and include only sounds that belong to the scenes we are watching, no music to prompt the drama or emotion. However, to me they often feel cold and uncompromising. Sometimes that is exactly what the director intended. They are usually low budget indie films, and perhaps budget restrictions are another reason.
The power of a good music score is immense, as it works on our unconscious and our sub-conscious, and it can be used to accentuate, and manipulate our reactions and emotions.
You only have to try an experiment. Watch a section of a good film with which you are familiar,on DVD, but turn off the sound. The experience is vastly diminished. An enormous amount of expression and emotion disappears.
Generally, a composer joins the project once the image editing is done. They have to sense what is required of them from their viewing of the edit. Often they are given a list of musical cues along with the exact length that their piece should be, to fit the image. But sometimes the music comes first. This was the case with “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” – about which there is more later in this article.
There are many legendary partnerships, of film directors, and musicians, who work together during their long careers.
Steven Spielberg and John Williams have been a team since Spielberg’s first film, “Sugarland Express” (1974).They are great friends, and can almost read each others’ mind, such is the trust between them. “Lincoln” was the twenty-sixth film on which they have collaborated, over forty years. John Williams came out of retirement to do this film, at Steven’s request. Spielberg tells the story of how he asked Williams to come up with a theme for “Jaws”, and how he was less than impressed when they met at the piano and John Williams played him the repetitive chords (like a fast beating heart) which herald the terrifying appearance of the giant shark. Williams, said, “Trust me! That is Jaws,” and Steven knew by that time, to go along with him. The legendary director has said that such is his respect for Williams that he sometimes re-cuts a piece of footage, to fit the music of John Williams.
Brooklyn resident Angelo Badalamenti was first hired by David Lynch, as a dialogue coach for Isabella Rossellini, on the film “Blue Velvet” but when David Lynch learned that he was a musician, he sought his advice, and they soon became a working partnership. When working on the TV series “Twin Peaks, Angelo describes how, before the shooting the two of them sat down at the piano, and he asked Lynch – ‘What is it about?’ David Lynch described the opening images and story in a very evocative manner, and Angelo picked up on it and began to pick out a few notes on the keyboard, which built to a crescendo as Lynch’s description became more and more vivid. Within that one session, they had the Laura Palmer Theme. Lynch says, ‘I love Angelo Badalamenti like a brother. His music will tear your heart out. I sit next to him and we talk and I describe the ideas.’
The theme music of “Twin Peaks” is incredibly erie, and unforgettable. A week or so ago, my musically educated daughter and I were sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. The music playing was so soft, I hadn’t even noticed it, but she said: “the theme from Twin Peaks!” I listened hard, and sure enough, she was right. She was about sixteen when we watched avidly, the series on TV. OK, she’s very musical, but that music once heard, is never forgotten.
In Vienna there is a whole museum devoted to just one film, and its traditional Viennese zither theme music by Anton Karas. Of course, the film is Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949), starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Alida Valli, which is set in Vienna. The “The Harry Lime Theme”, topped the USA charts in April and July 1950. It was the triumph of the soloist!
The music of Nino Rota is so unique, and a work by director Federico Fellini without Rota’s complementary themes is almost unimaginable. The two have fused into one. Fellini stated: “I do not suggest the music to him, since I am not a musician. However since I have a fairly clear idea of the film I am making, in all its details, the work with Rota proceeds as exactly as the work on the scenario. Nino sits down at the piano; I stand by his side and tell him exactly what I want. Naturally, I do not dictate the themes to him. Among all the composers for the cinema, in my opinion, he has the most humility, for the music he creates is, according to me, extremely functional. He is not presumptuous in the sense that he wants his own music in the forefront. He realises that the music for a film is a marginal, secondary element that can hold first place only at rare moments, and that in general, it must simply sustain the rest.” (quote from the book ‘Federico Fellini’, by Gilbert Salachas, Pub. 1963)
Sometimes a musical score comes first, and the film plays second fiddle, so to speak. Such was the case with “The Parapluies du Cherbourg”, (1964) by Jacques Demy. The music for this charming film, much beloved by the French and around the world, composed by Michel Legrand, preceded the film, which starred the young Catherine Deneuve. The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Actually this was the first musical film in which ALL the dialogue was sung.
The most recent film version of “Les Miserables”(2012) by Tom Hooper introduced new technology that allowed the songs to be sung and recorded on set by the actors during the shooting – a great leap forward in musical film-making, giving a much more realistic impression. Before this, the method known as ‘playback’ was used. The actors sung ‘half-throat’ during the filming, but during playback they had to sing full-throat in perfect synchronisation with the image for the recording of the songs. Apparently Judy Garland was brilliant at this task.
Sometimes a film’s music is inherently part of the story, such as in “Amadeus” or “The Cotton Club” – that is, the actors within the story are hearing or playing it, or perhaps it’s just a radio in the room they are in. Of course, in the case of musicals, such as the wonderful “West Side Story”, the music IS the movie.
In “India Song”, (1975) writer/director, Marguerite Duras tried a different approach. There was no dialogue at all, but wall to wall music throughout the film, and the entire story was narrated by an off-screen voice. I’d love to see this film, because I can imagine that it would be a beautiful story-telling experience, with distance making it all the more exquisite. The music makes the experience so visceral, but Duras’ approach was unusual, brave, and surely beautiful.
Terence Davies, (born in 1945), made a very moving trilogy of films, which started with “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, based on his own youth. He used in a very evocative way, the popular songs of the times, which were part of family life as he grew up in the post war years, listening to the radio in the family home. While telling an agonizing story of a violent, alcoholic father, and his terrifying outbursts, and treatment of his mother, songs of the times create powerful contrast. They are songs of romance and nostalgia. Terence Davies has not made very many films, but each one is a brilliant and fragile gem of made of memories and pain.
I have a big collection of film soundtracks and I love them all. I used to think probably John Williams’ music for “Schindler’s List” was the most exquisite. But then I heard Alberto Iglesias’ score for “Hable con Ella” (Talk to Her) by Pedro Almodovar, Spain. Since becoming intimate with this soundtrack CD, this is my most beloved film score. It is so exquisite, that sometimes, if one is feeling too fragile, it is almost dangerous to listen to. It gets to the deepest core of your being. The music embodies such longing, pain, and the meaning of Duende – a Spanish word which has no true English equivalent… but reaches into the very earth as well as the origins of emotion.
The magical encounter between these two art forms, music and the movies, is a beautiful gift for all of us who love the cinema. Just consider these “marriages” between film-makers and musicians: Fellini and Nino Rota, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini, James Cameron and James Horner, Claude Lelouch and Francis Lai, Pedro Almodovar and Alberto Iglesias, Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman, and you will be convinced.
To see the Opening Credits of “Walk on the Wild Side” go to YouTube. Type in — Walk on the Wild Side – Best title/credits sequence ever!
Article by: Cynthia Webb