Some people are just head and shoulders above the rest in terms of execution; the Michael Jordans. John Williams and Steven Spielberg are like that in movies. I’m not saying everything they do is ‘the best’ every year but, like His Airness what they do is of such a consistent quality that over time, they just dominate. They are the U of M ground game of movies.
And ‘War Horse’ is another example. It’s not the best work for either, but again, the execution is so damned good that you watch the implausibilities go by and feel your emotions being manipulated like a Swedish masseur and you give into it because, hey… it’s a fuckin’ Swedish Massage.
What makes Warhorse at the top this year is not that John can write in any style he wants and it’s gonna sound great. He may be the last guy who can really write a truly post-romantic score. (People forget that the guys who laid down the law in Hollywood’s Golden Age were largely exiles from Hitler’s Germany (Korngold, Newman) or concert music stars (Copland, Virgil Thompson) who wanted their shot at raising the bar (and raising a few bucks.) In short, there was a time where being a Hollywood Composer really meant some skills.
No, what makes Warhorse a great score is that, because John is a for-reals ‘composer’, he’s also one of the last of a dying breed of guys who can write an actual melody. I have a theory about this (don’t I always.) My theory is that producers actively discourage the composer from writing anything too memorable. Because the music is already competing with a sound and image universe that is too much for humans to comprehend, it’s usually in the movie’s best interest if the music ‘stays out of the way’. It’s my belief that movie makers have made a conscious decision against good movie music; for the sake of the movie. More on that in a moment. For now, suffice it to say, Warhorse is a soundtrack worth owning and listening to on it’s own.
The other film that had a great score this year was The Artist by Ludovic Bource. So much was made of it being a ‘silent movie’, but the fact is that it’s wall to wall music… just like in the good ol’ days.
Monsieur Bource is able to channel a type of concert music you rarely hear in movies. Whereas John Williams has mastered the classic post-romantic movie styles (Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and some Aaron Copland if it’s a Western), for this one Bource pulls out Ravel. And not Ravel the impressionist, but Ravel the orchestrator of other’s music (Pictures At An Exhibition, Bolero). Ravel the guy who created tapestries of sound; a direct line from the extravagance of Rimsky-Korsakov. This score is the first I think I’ve heard since Godard’s Beauty And The Beast which really has that flavour. Vive La France! Too much of our movie music tradition comes from the Germanic tradition, so any time you get a score that taps a different vein feels like a breath of fresh air. Most of those alternatives tend to be folk music. Using concert music from a different tradition was an inspired stroke (OK, maybe because the principles are all French it wasn’t too out of the box, but still. It feels a lot more fresh than if they had chosen more typical period music.
Those Were The Days
As Archie Bunker might say. Back in 1935, when men were men, movies were movies (and dames were somethin’ else, baby) you had dialogue and music… and maybe five percent foleys (sound effects.) This hierarchy was reflected in the screen credits. If you look at the credits of a classic movie the composer is third or fourth in the credits, right alongside the screenwriter producer and director.
Nowadays? As I said above, it’s clear to any moviegoer that music has lost it’s importance for movie makers. Thus the fact that the music credit is usually about twelfth… somewhere after costume designer and casting director. So it isn’t surprising that the music used in movies has become more and more like ‘green screen’ effects: only important as a wallpaper. (I used green screen intentionally. If you listen to the director commentaries of any CGI-heavy movie you’ll hear how the directors obsess over levels of detail in those planetary backgrounds and mythological mountainscapes, pointing out detail after detail that no human could ever pick out. Music is now like that: the details have to be as perfect as a CGI effect, but no one expects anyone beyond the makers to notice those details. They are, like those Persian rugs, so full of ‘stuff’ that all one notices is the overall effect. But sadly, unlike the rug, one doesn’t have the opportunity to meditate on that detail because there are NINE THOUSAND CYLONS ABOUT TO ATTACK! In 3-D, of course.
It’s A Wrap
So there you have it. Two scores for 2011 that are worth owning on their own. I think if you do pony up to get the CDs or MP3s you’ll find a whole trove of treasure you weren’t even aware of when watching the movies. I dare say they would be worth listening to over and over even without seeing their parent movies.
There may have been a few others, but if there were, I can’t recall them, and frankly that’s half the test for me in recommending any film score; if I can’t remember anything about it? Probably wasn’t that great. And while it’s true that a score must serve the needs of the movie in order to be considered a success, it’s always great to hear a score that serves the film by being work worthy of audition for it’s own sake.