9 Wishes for the Future of Film Music

For this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I’m wishing on a four-leaf clover in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. While I’m hoping for just one holiday where I don’t have to step over splatters of puke on the streets of Manhattan, I’m also hoping for some real changes in film music. Some wishes are purely selfish (hey, it’s my blog after all), but most are hopefully more universal and far-reaching. Some are new topics, while others are well-worn yet still frustratingly viable issues for discussion. I didn’t assign numerical values for this round, and each of the wishes are listed in no particular order of importance. So don’t read in between the lines, only the lines that are there.

Writers offer more in-depth discussion of film music

In much of the writing about film music, where is the discussion of the music? Reviews that discuss the film more than the music, liner notes that give more historical anecdotes and only cursory musical information or analysis, music analyses that consist of “Instrument X played this while Instrument Y played that”… Yup, I’ve been guilty of all three. Often the content is out of our control once it goes through an editor and studio approval. But for those instances where we’re in the driver’s seat, let’s dig deeper. We owe it to our readers and to our profession. Words often fall flat when talking about music, but even a flat analysis can have merit as opposed to no discussion at all.

More fans discover international composers

As a member of the International Film Music Critics Association, I’ve been exposed to film music journalists from around the world, who in turn have introduced me to some astounding music from international composers whose names were completely unknown to me. When so much of the Hollywood product is temped to death and forced into a formulaic cookie-cutter mold, musical experiments in emotion and drama are being explored abroad. It’s hard enough to keep up with even the major Hollywood films, much less smaller and international films. But by neglecting the scores in other playgrounds, we do ourselves and the community a great disservice.

Bring back memorable themes

Not every film calls for a melodic score, and not every score calls for themes that you can hum. But not every film calls for the same score either. Poll any composer and I’d bet money that most would say it’s incredibly satisfying to craft a well-earned melody…and harder too. What is it about melody that is so anathema to stateside filmmakers and execs? For all of today’s Zimmer clones and wallpaper drones, there’s still a lot of musical craft on display. Allow the composer’s voice and personality to soar and sing. I guarantee the medium of film will be all the richer for it.

We all honor our film music history

It’s the eternal struggle for us Golden Age lovers–how to convince those of you who don’t care for the music that there is something there worth exploring. I do what I can on this blog, as do many of my colleagues in their venues, but it’s never enough. I have a couple of theories as to why I personally appreciate that particular sub-genre of film music so much. 1) These were the movies I grew up watching on TV in the days before home video. 2) My Oscar obsession forced me to collect and listen to the music. If I wasn’t already hooked (who can remember that far back?), then I’m sure the obsession helped wear down any last resistance I may have had. Whatever the reason(s), my love of Golden Age film music supports my enjoyment of the half-century worth of music that has followed with a solid foundation. And I can’t imagine having to discuss or write about today’s film music without at least some historical basis of the genre’s early years. Just because it’s old doesn’t necessarily make it classic, and just because it’s written today doesn’t automatically make it crap. No, “they don’t write ’em like they used to,” and I’m not sure I’d want them to. But to actively dismiss whole chunks of something you enjoy smacks of foolishness. Trust me, been there done that, and have paid the price time and time again.

Labels release one edition per soundtrack

This wish concerns mainly new film scores. A digital-only release? Okay, not ideal but it’s better than nothing. A CD release? Even better. Digital releases that are different than the CD release? Boo, hiss. A CD release with one extra track or that you can only get exclusively at Wal-Mart, Target, Borders or any other brick-and-mortar outlet? Again, boo, hiss. European releases that don’t match their American counterparts and vice versa? Equally sucky. Unless you’re planning on doing some fancy expanded edition like the latest HARRY POTTER score, let’s try to stick to one edition per soundtrack, please. I understand there are all sorts of legal and rights-related issues and different agreements made between parties X, Y and Z. But ultimately it just comes down to gouging the consumer, creating ill will in the community, and instigating a lot of unnecessary (yet understandable) bitching and moaning on the message boards.

Thomas Newman wins an Oscar

This is a no-brainer. Dad Alfred has nine, uncle Lionel has one, and even cousin Randy has two for essentially the same C-quality song. So what is it going to take for Thomas Newman to win that ever-elusive Oscar? He’s had huge animated moneymakers such as FINDING NEMO and WALL-E, and even a Best Picture winner (AMERICAN BEAUTY) that under normal circumstances would signal immediate award recognition. Alas, after ten nominations, Newman is still Oscar-less. Yes, it means nothing in the great scheme of things (and may mean nothing at all to Newman himself), but to have one of the finest composers working today not recognized with Oscar gold after so many chances just ain’t right.

David Newman gets a new agent

Speaking of Newmans, what about poor David? From the sweeping sci-fi glory of GALAXY QUEST and SERENITY to the echoes of Russian masters in ANASTASIA, David Newman has more than proved his talent time and time again. And yet he’s not mentioned in the same breath as his father Alfred and brother Thomas, not even uncle Randy. But when you’re stuck composing cheesy comedies and low-grade children’s fare time and time again, it’s hard to make your mark. Sure, these films probably pay the bills quite nicely, but where are the A- and even B-list projects that a Newman so richly deserves? I can’t imagine the latest Martin Lawrence crapfest BIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON provided Newman much of a musical challenge. If this is Newman’s desired path, then more power to him. If not, fire that agent and jumpstart that career.

Reznor and Ross justify their award recognition

Oddly enough, I wasn’t bothered that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar (or any other award for that matter) for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Was it my choice? No. But I thought it worked effectively in the film and the wins were by no means a surprise, given the film’s popularity and its overwhelming critical acclaim. However, I hope that the two are allowed to compose the score for the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO to picture and that they don’t rely on works from past Nine Inch Nails albums. Both men are talented and obviously work well together, so hopefully director David Fincher will allow a bit more flexibility this time around. It’s time to wow us, guys.

Composers take greater care with their files

Golden Age excavation and restoration will always present challenges, especially given the toll that time takes on music storage devices. And even though acetate discs are no longer in fashion, no storage device is immune to damage, which means even today’s score will be in danger at some point. You name it–tape, CD, CD-R, digital file, etc.–nothing is forever. And one day, the major scores of our time will go out of print, and eventually it will come time to re-release a beloved score. If history has taught us anything, don’t rely on the studio to hold on to anything. Files get lost, scores get trashed, Finale files get corrupted, boxes get mislabeled and disasters happen to destroy generations worth of talent. So hopefully the film composers of today are taking note and taking care of business. Composer, get organized and hang on to what you have. If not for yourselves, then for future generations of film score fans.

What do you wish for the future of film music?

7 comments

  1. I would love it if the score to every movie, TV, game etc. were available. If the record companies don’t want to release it within 6 months to 1 year, the composers themselves (or lesser labels) should be given the rights to make the music available. If they can’t or won’t make it available on CD, I will be happy to get the digital release.

    A lot of the time when I talk to someone about movies, I am asking about the music. So many times I have heard: “Yeah the music was so great! Specially that scene…”. The music of course never appears in the stores and frustration ensues. If only…

    I would imagine a lot of labels jumping at the chance to make something available from movies we would never normally hear the music from.

    1. I know that’s one of your projects, Jørn, and I’m very impressed with your tenacity. But I know of tons of Golden Age scores that aren’t worthy of release, as well as plenty past that point. Still, from a historical point of view, it would be great to have all these scores around “for the record.” And it would be nice for the composers to have that exposure, even if they’re not around anymore to enjoy it.

      1. I can’t think of anything I don’t want to listen to at least once. Maybe it’s my collector mind that just can’t get enough :)

  2. Would it be asking too much if AMPAS limits votes for music to composers and songwriters rather than the whole Academy as it presently does?

    1. I feel your pain, Gersham. However, then it just turns the awards into guild awards, like the Writers Guild, the Costumers Guild, etc. And even then, I’m not so sure it would “fix” things. Besides, if it did, what would we have to bitch about? That’s half the fun of the awards. :)

  3. I’ll buy tickets to having more memorable themes in contemporary scores! I find it somewhat disconcerting, and hard to believe, that most filmmakers and execs would dismiss the kind of melodies that made scores like PICNIC, THE BIG COUNTRY, SPARTACUS, THE SAND PEBBLES, HAWAII or BORN FREE so unforgettable. There seems to be plenty of evidence in the new millenium that soundtrack music of this kind is extinct. Perhaps the new hope is out there, as you suggest, in the International ranks.

  4. Hear hear! Great points all, and things for the composers themselves to keep in mind (as we avoid the trap of becoming “Zimmer clones and wallpaper drones”).

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