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Tom Shone

At the Cinema

As the screens grow busier, film scores are emptying out. But they can still get right under our skin

Tom Shone | July/August 2014

Few things strain your friendships more than an ardent passion for film scores. Of all the cinephiliac obsessions to come down with, it’s the one that least lends itself to sharing, as I found when I tried to get a date for a John Williams concert a few years back. “But it’s John Williams…‘Star Wars’. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’,” I petitioned an assortment of friends, launching into ill-advised renditions of the horn parts from both films—that dazzling, Korngoldian fanfare that tumbles like an acrobat at the beginning of “Star Wars”, and the insanely chirpy “Bridge on the River Kwai”-ish march from “Raiders”, which always fills me with an irresistible desire to rush out and enlist. Nothing doing. They all discovered hair appointments they couldn’t budge, so I trudged along to the Barbican alone, to take my seat alongside all the other Williams fans, all men, also mysteriously single, all of us limiting our shows of enthusiasm, as Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra proceeded to set off firework after firework, to an occasional fist clench, or a silent, devotional smile, with eyes closed, like a Benedictine nun receiving the Eucharist. It was one of the best musical nights of my life—like a Rolling Stones concert, except you had to keep it all inside.

Williams is now 82 and will surely be retiring soon, leaving a huge hole not just in music but in movies. David Mamet said recently that hummable film themes are in decline. It’s true. The old symphonic model represented by Williams—the last of an old guard that included Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein—is giving way to a generation brought up on the minimalism of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Steve Reich and the ambient experimentalism of Brian Eno. As cinema screens have grown ever busier, the scores seem to have emptied out.

There’s much less Peter-and-the-Wolfing, fewer big themes, spelled out in strings, pegged to specific characters. If “Doctor Zhivago” were made today, there would be no “Lara’s Theme”. Instead you’ll find more layering, more washes of sound, less melody, more rhythm. The work of Thomas Newman is less hummable than it is hypnotic, often marking out empty space with spare, reverb-heavy two-part piano melodies, which step up or down an interval, then hold, as if poised on the edge of something vast. It’s horizontal music, made for the empty earthscapes of “WALL-E” or the oceanic ambience of “Finding Nemo”.

Mychael Danna did something similar with his “Moneyball” score: a work of pure, glittering expectation, like a wet lawn at dawn. That’s his Gorecki-like ascent of chords you can hear building in the trailer for the new Christopher Nolan epic “Interstellar”. Stylistically, Williams’s most immediate heir is Michael Giacchino, who has some of the same ear for high-vaulting melodic intervals, and is thus a perfect fit for any film that puts a low premium on the forces of gravity. That makes him a busy man—he wrote the beautiful cloud-bound waltz for “Up” and will be working on the next “Star Wars”—but not as busy as Alexandre Desplat, the French composer whose name so superbly evokes the image of a tomato hitting a wall. This year he has scored the unlikely trio of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Godzilla”, and Angelina Jolie’s forthcoming second-world-war drama about the Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, “Unbroken”. Desplat likes to combine the lush romanticism of Georges Delerue with a rhythmic backbone of mallet instruments, harps and timpani that somehow recall the inner workings of a grandfather clock; not for nothing did he score “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

There’s still too much scoring, on the whole. The great sound editor Walter Murch likes to say that it took the coming of sound for movies to discover the value of silence. There’s a great example of this in “The Godfather”, just after Michael (Al Pacino) shoots Sollozzo and the police chief: for a second he just stands there, gun still in his hand, before finally throwing it to the ground. Cue the descending chords of Nino Rota’s “God­father” theme. If the music had come in any earlier, Murch argues, the audience wouldn’t be nervously replaying Sonny’s advice to Michael (“drop the gun”) in their heads. As it is, the music underscores the violence, rather than accompanying it, with the finality of a full stop, or caesura. There’s no going back for Michael now.

The worst film scores tell you what to feel; the best reveal feelings you weren’t even aware you were having. The best one I’ve heard this year was also the weirdest: Mica Levi’s electronic score for “Under the Skin”, Jonathan Glazer’s rich, strange sci-fi-horror movie about sex and death, with Scarlett Johansson as an alien femme fatale preying on the men she picks up while driving around Scotland in her white van. Levi’s music is half the story: a bendy, Ligeti-like vortex of stretched synths and ambient drones that somehow suggests beehives, black holes and the fleshy warp-factor of Francis Bacon paintings. Or maybe it’s the film that suggests those things. I can’t really tell the two apart any more. Which is exactly the point.

Under the Skin is on DVD, July 14th

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