The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Film Music Journalism

Once upon a time, nobody wrote about film music. Back when I was first discovering it in the late ’70s and early ’80s, only two people were discussing film music with any regularity. Page Cook wrote “The Soundtrack” column in Films In Review and Royal S. Brown took a far more high-handed tone in Fanfare magazine. Such was my myopic world that I didn’t even read either of them until at least a decade or so later. The thought of anyone actually writing about film music just never occurred to me.

Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, there’s a whole new chorus of voices discussing this genre of music that we all love. Arguably headed up by Jon Burlingame and Jeff Bond and their regular platforms at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, new opinions are being read in liner notes, books, articles and blogs, and heard on radio, DVD commentaries and elsewhere.

So what are “the good, the bad and the ugly” of film music journalism? What do you like and dislike? What is there too much of and what’s missing? Too high-brow or too dumbed down? Too deep or not deep enough? I have my own opinions, but I’d rather hear what you have to say. Plus, I’m not here to fawn over or slam my colleagues.

I have left the questions purposefully vague. Think of the sites you visit; the opinions you read, listen to and enjoy (and the ones you don’t); and your ideal form and platform of “reading” about film music. Where you would like it to go and what would you like to see, read and hear?

I only have one request. Please do not call out specific people by name in a negative light. Leave that crap for the message boards. However, feel free to rant and rail against me if you have any issues. It’s my site and I can take it.

So, “the good, the bad and the ugly” of film music journalism… Discuss.

  1. I’m not sure what I like or dislike of what’s out there, but easily the two biggest hacks in this field are Jim Lochner and Tim Greiving.

  2. It is a great question, well needing discussion, and I like the constructive recommendation (as to negative assessments). Curiously, we ARE passionate about the subject, and so the typical shout fests that can happen.

    With Warren Sherks recent “Film and Television Music” bibliography, that odd collection of writing that has built up over time, like a hundred years of blind men occasionally stumbling upon a famous elephant, is becoming more understandable. The problem, at least from the “high-brow”(?) perspective, was beautifully located in Phil Tagg’s 1995 paper “Studying music in the audio-visual media: an epistemological mess”. There is a very blurry division between the type of film-music knowledge for the “punters” (or as to be presented as a nice musical subject for a Sunday tea talk to the nice ladies at the vicarage) filled with the easy “take home” of “leitmotifs and mickey-mice”, and those who really have to professionally deal with the “product”. Like train spotters, most of the film music crowd can tell you or argue about which label such and such a sound track came out on or what Jerry’s favorite just before bed-time snack was, but the quiet from the “train engineers” (composers/directors) on the subject is because so little is “known” on that side. For a business that risks hundreds of millions, it is surprising how often the process of making the music is a case of (secretly) hoped for inspiration, or a superstitious twisting of the same dials. That is why temp tracks are so importantly necessary (the villain that the Sunday tea ladies are all well trained to go “ssssss” at the mention of)!

    There is a wonderful line of philosophical questioning on the subject (to my tastes) that I think of as the fruit of Michel Chion simply because I seem to remember (but am not sure) that Claudia Gorbman and Royal Brown were originally students of the French language (and Royal Brown may well precede Chion in his columns). But although Chion can be fanciful, there seems to emanate honest and important examinations from this group.

    One of the tenets of science is that “correlation does not prove causation”, but much of popular film music criticism seems to be based on the practice of pointing out perceived or constructed correlations as proof of what ever thesis the critic is proposing. This is its own form of art, entertaining for the process, but rarely enlightening the functional elements of “film music”.

    Philip Tagg’s semiotic tools are readily graspable (an easy intro http://tinyurl.com/3k9ymvs ), and I always wonder that more have not yet taken them up (buy a copy of “Ten Little Title Tunes”( http://tinyurl.com/428czv7 ) for the full take. Or watch the videos of his analysis of the theme to Kojak ( http://youtu.be/bbzPGLVAD4Y ) for an example of how it works.

    Ops, I’ve “gone off” all over your blog when I am supposed to be writing something else… I apologize and quickly return to what I am suppose to be doing. Again, a great question and I look forward to the responses.

  3. >So what are “the good, the bad and the ugly” of film music journalism?

    I will give you an example: the writing of a CD booklet.
    Film Score Monthly writes the most interesting proses about the art of film music: the track-by-track analysis is a must. Unfortunately, such dense, detailed and long contents (24 pages) are absent from the majority of other labels which function as mere merchants.
    There are exceptions to the rule sometimes: see last year’s “Spartacus” book from Varèse.

    >What do you like and dislike?

    Some labels decides on purpose not to elaborate on a score and a composer: see the majority of Kritzerland booklets which are empty and completely omit to deal with music concepts and instruments use which are the essence of a score.

    >What is there too much of and what’s missing?
    Not enough track-by-track analysis, the role of instruments use, the exhaustive list of musicians. The journalists do not write enough about music itself.
    They act as film critics or marketing people.

    >Too high-brow or too dumbed down?
    It’s much too generic and not specific about the art of music.

    >Too deep or not deep enough?
    It’s obviously shallow about music.

    >Where you would like it to go and what would you like to see, read and hear?
    FSM is the template and the labels should follow their way as a milestone.

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