Since we’re at the start of a new year and a new decade, I thought I’d break tradition a bit for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post. Rather than concentrating on the scores of a single composer or genre, I wanted to take a look at nine reasons why, 33 years later, I still love film music.
9. THE EXPERIMENTATION
Is it the melodies and harmonies? Is it the fact that so much of today’s music, whether in the concert hall or popular music, is so afraid of a tune? Or is it the unabashed emotion that I often hear in film music? The sound of film music is ever-changing. It’s no longer just orchestral. Technology has brought us new sounds and aural landscapes that weren’t possible once upon a time. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But I’d rather film music continued to morph and experiment than remain stagnant. Do I prefer melody and harmony? You bet. But there’s more than enough stories that require different kinds of film music for everyone.
8. THE NEW
I’ve always had this overwhelming “need” for new music. It’s almost primal, like the food I eat and the air I breathe. And considering I live in New York, it’s often better than the air I breathe. Nothing excites me more than that first flush of excitement upon hearing a new score. Whether it’s a composer I’m familiar with or someone brand new, there’s a sense of hope that the music will surpass my expectations. As Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine say at the beginning and end of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE; “White, a blank page or canvas. So many possibilities…” Indeed.
7. THE GOLDEN AGE
When I can’t listen to any more electric guitars, drum loops, and synth patches, I put on some Korngold, Steiner, Newman, Herrmann, Previn, or a dozen others. The music from Hollywood’s Golden Age brings me greater pleasure than any other period of film music. When I was a kid, there was no cable, no DVD, no Netflix. Hell, there was no such thing as VHS even. On the few stations available on TV, I watched old Hollywood movies starring Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn. These were the films I grew up on, the film music I first heard, even before I knew what it was. And, so, perhaps the Golden Age represents a return to a simpler life, a sheltered life. Golden Age film music makes me feel safe and content.
No sound from the Golden Age pulls at my guts more than the strings of the 20th Century-Fox orchestra, usually under the musical direction of the great Alfred Newman, the so-called “Newman strings.” Take your pick of any heart-wrenching moments. Anne and Peter alone in the attic in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. William Holden telling Jennifer Jones “give me your hand” on a hillside in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. The death of the King at the end of THE KING AND I. Whether it was his own music or someone else’s, Newman brought a recognizable and never-too-be-duplicated sound that defined not only the sound of a studio but the sound of an entire age.
5. THE PROS
As I’ve delved deeper into the film music industry over the last decade, I’ve had the chance to meet many professionals who had made it their career. Composers, writers, soundtrack producers, a whole community of men and women bound by this strange and wonderful world of film music. These are the people who tirelessly create and champion this music that I love so much. The hours put in, the money that changes hands (usually with very little return), the studio red tape. I thank them each and every day for enriching my life in ways they’ll never know.
4. THE EFFORT
When I first started writing liner notes, I had no idea the amount of work that went into the production of a CD. Until I began to write about film music, I never realized the amount of work that goes into creating an hours worth of music on incredibly tight deadlines, ever-shrinking budgets, and studio cretins who use music to “fix” their films. Look at the restoration process it takes to get even a mid-1980’s score in shape sonically, much less a Golden Age score that has deteriorated or been destroyed and has to be reconstructed from scratch. It’s this effort that informs the sounds I hear now. It has given me a new appreciation for the sheer craft that informs this music I love so deeply. Talent only gets you so far. Now, I feel more keenly the heartbeat behind the score and the blood, sweat, and tears coursing through the music.
3. THE HEART
I admit to a fondness for film music that tugs at my heartstrings. Just look at the examples above, my mind and my heart go for those raw emotional moments that only music can carry. Whether it’s sad or happy, I love a good cry accompanied by a wonderful piece of film music. In the early 80s, when I was going through a particularly painful period as I worked up the nerve to come out to my parents, I played Dave Grusin’s ON GOLDEN POND and the Charles Gerhardt recording of Alfred Newman’s theme from THE BEST OF EVERYTHING on the turntable over and over again. I’d sit in my room and cry silent buckets of tears as I imagined every possible awful scenario that my parents could dish out. Now when I hear those melodies, I not only appreciate their beauty of composition. They remind me of a defining moment in my life and one from which I’ve never looked back. Film music has helped define who I am.
No matter what kind of music it is, nothing sucks the air out of the room like passionless music. We’ve all heard it. It’s that score that we only give a cursory listen and then chuck in a pile or immediately run to the message boards to excoriate it. I’m just as guilty as the next person. And yet imagine what it takes to create music. Even if you’ve never sat at a piano or stared at a blank piece of staff paper, that “blank page or canvas” is a pretty frightening prospect. It’s like any creation. A passion for the material begins the process. You believe in it. Then you live with it, and you punch it, pound it, and mold it until it begins to take shape. When the passion is there, it shows in the creation. Your heart starts beating a little faster, your skin tingles. I look for that passion in every piece of film music. And oh what an indescribable thrill it is when I hear it.
1. THE OMEN
Come on, you knew I had to end with this, right? No matter how far I travel in the world of film music, my love comes back to that first soundtrack LP I purchased. The score that started it all. Perhaps because I write about film music on a regular basis, there’s usually not a day goes by that I don’t think of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score. It brings me just as much joy now as it did in 1976. Even after all this time, I still hear new things in the music. And the well-worn sounds that I know so well? Like my favorite shirt or a particular pair of sweats, it’s comfortable and comforting. If the sounds of Satan can make a man happy, these do.
Film music has been–and always will be–my music of choice. It’s the balm that soothes my pain, the jolt that jump-starts my passion, and the light in my day. May it continue to bring each and every one of us continued joy in this year and for years to come.