Monday, 1 May 2017

Soundtrack of my life

A great soundtrack makes a difference. It can change the feeling of a scene, or even an entire film. The great ones manage to imbue a greater emotional depth and draw the viewer in. You could argue that in some cases they are as important as the cinematography in creating feeling in the audience.

This isn't new. Film scores have been a vital part of cinema since the earliest movies, when silent films were accompanied by music (oftentimes played live in the cinema) to heighten key parts of the plot, where there was no luxury to be had in hearing the characters actually talk, and where action scenes were often accompanied by increasingly fervent music. That damsel in distress tied to the railway tracks wouldn't have felt half as threatened if the pianist had been playing a slow waltz.

Nothing to see. No panic here.

So when did I start noticing music in films? I could pretend that it was something to do with a particularly interesting period of fascination with Czech arthouse cinema, but I'd be lying. The first soundtrack that had a real impact on me was that of Flash Gordon. You know the one, it made Star Wars look like a documentary. The biggest, brashest, not brilliantly acted, but most fantastic of science fiction films. Brian Blessed wearing pants and wings, Max Von Sydow chewing more scenery than Al Pacino in his prime, and Timothy Dalton killing Peter Duncan (take that Blue Peter). There was only one possible way to score that movie, and that was to get Queen to do the honours. Quick confession here: I'm a massive fan of Queen. Anyway, it worked. The melody of the title tune chugged along in the background throughout, punctuated by the odd explosive guitar solo or piece of music that fitted each scene perfectly. Football Fight is still probably the best piece of music to accompany a futuristic game of quasi American Football ever.

Go Flash Go!

And from here something was born. I started taking more of an interest in the music that accompanied the films I loved. And I've divided them up into types to make it easy for you.

The big hitters.
Some films are epic and they need a statement soundtrack. I'm talking about John Williams levels of sonic assault here. Growing up there was Star Wars, Close Encounters, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman, Bond and a fair few more besides. Event movies got their own style of music. There was no way anyone was going to be allowed to get through a film without being completely guided as to what to think at any given moment. Is the hero upset? Of course he is, can't you hear the haunting strings and oboes? Are the bad guys winning? I dunno, but there seems to be some sort of Nuremberg-esque military number going on. Has good triumphed over evil? By jimminy they have sunshine, I've never heard so many trumpets!

The complete opposite of the big budget, bombastic, blockbuster. It's a brave move to produce a minimalistic soundtrack. Done well, you're guiding the viewer through the film rather than grasping them by the hand and pointing out how they should feel at any given moment. There's one film that really stands out for me: Psycho. Despite all the attached connotations this film now has it's a study in understatement and horror, and the soundtrack is pivotal. Everything in the first act leads to the fateful shower scene of which the music is pitched perfectly. The rest of the film becomes more investigative and the music is so well judged as to almost not be there. There are few films that can match the combination of script, direction, dialogue and music so well.

John Carpenter.
He is his own category. There is minimalist and there is John Carpenter. Go and watch his earlier films and you'll see what I mean. There are few directors who can craft atmosphere from such a small musical range. Somehow he creates emptiness, fear, dread and a myriad other emotions from a really small musical palette. The stripped back nature of his soundtracks works perfectly with the low budget, hard edged films that he made his name with. My favourite soundtracks of his are Dark Star, Escape From New York, and The Thing. Go watch them.

Go Easy John, you've already used four chords.

Pop culture.
Film soundtracks used to be the preserve of composers. Not so anymore. Quentin Tarantino's use of music he loved to fit a scene became de rigour for a while back in the '90's. It was probably mimicked too much back then but has now become a standard way of scoring a movie. And when it's done well it transforms both the scenes and the songs. Stuck In The Middle With You is synonymous with Michael Madsen dancing whilst torturing a cop, whilst Guardians of the Galaxy took an entire decade of music and matched it so perfectly to the film that it added a whole new dimension to the script.

There are loads of great soundtracks that have elevated films beyond just the visuals. Too many to count to be honest. I rate pretty much anything that Kevin Shields has scored; the Natural Born Killers soundtrack by Trent Reznor is still electrifying; and Anton Karas' accompaniment in The Third Man still leaves tingles down my spine.

And you'll notice I haven't gone near Disney soundtracks. You're Welcome.