Mixtapes over Masterpieces: The Lost Art of Film Scores
I know that it’s somewhat cliché for people to say that they listen to all kinds of music. That’s why I actually do try to listen to all kinds of music, so I can say it without feeling pretentious. One of my favorite things to listen to is film scores. Sadly, in recent years, film scores have started to be treated as afterthoughts in most major studio films. Film’s still have composers working on them, but unless some pop star comes in to help the film go for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, there’s not much of an interest in making film scores that stand out as memorable.
I feel like the films of the ’80s, and especially the ’90s, had a huge hand in devaluing film scores. It’s hard to deny that Fight Club found the perfect way to end as The Pixies’ song, “Where Is My Mind?,” played over the backdrop of chaos, and I can’t imagine Pulp Fiction opening with anything other than Dick Dale’s surf rock cover of “Misirlou.” That said, I can easily listen to those songs without thinking of the films they were in. On the other hand, if I listen to “Imperial March,” or any of John Williams’ other Star Wars music, I’m going to think of Darth Vader and feel like a badass. Still, rather than try to give their films unique and evocative soundtracks, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino rely heavily the power of mixtape soundtracks. Tarantino and his films were influential. The trend of using licensed music to score entire films became a full-on industry norm for a while. It worked for Tarantino, but it was a crutch for most others.
Besides that, studio films aren’t made in a way that favors film composers. One major reason that film scores don’t stand out anymore is because major productions, the ones that can afford to hire skilled composers, are often filmed and edited to create a frenetic pace. The long takes and sweeping panoramic shots fell to quick cuts of handheld shots. Trying to match a film score to an action scene is understandably a difficult thing to do. For instance, the most recent Star Wars films have been criticized for, among other things, having a by the numbers soundtrack that fails to match the bombastic, meaningful originality of the previous films. It’s just another example of putting in music as a formality of filmmaking. It’s even worse when directors are no longer interested in learning how to use music in their film and instead leave it to someone else.
The strangest part about the death of memorable scores is that it isn’t just an unintended side effect of the way the industry works; it’s intentional. There seems to be a resistance to the idea of letting film composers make a masterpiece. Film composers are told what to create, both directly and indirectly, without the space to actually be artistic. The standard process used to be showing film composers finished or nearly finished scenes without music, and then letting composers make music that they feel fits with minimal direction. Now, things are different. The film industry’s preferred method now is to show composers film clips with temp tracks already attached. Film’s are edited with these temp tracks, usually music from other films, so the director already has a sense of what music he or she wants in the film. Composers are then instructed to make music like that, rather than what actually fits the scene. Basically, directors are encouraging film composers to imitate each other in a vicious cycle of generic scores.
One of the most imitated composers at the moment is Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is credited (or blamed) with reinventing the modern film score. He brought modern tech and his synth-pop sensibilities to blockbuster film scores. His early work won him many awards and critical acclaim, but after teaming up with Christopher Nolan for his Dark Knight Trilogy, his style became a hindrance to not just him, but Hollywood scores in general. It’s recognizable to the point of parody.
I think what’s even more interesting than Hans Zimmer’s career as a film composer is his career before that. Unlike the John Williams of the world, Zimmer didn’t train as a film composer. He has a background in ’80s pop music, most notably with The Buggles. When Hollywood embraced him, they opened the doors for other outsiders. For example, Trent Reznor. The Nine Inch Nails frontman is more famous these days for his partnership with Atticus Ross and crafting haunting, introspective, electronic and atmospheric scores for The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. He won an Oscar for The Social Network and a Grammy for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Reznor is one of the more famous examples of studios trying to adapt a more electronic, industrial sound, but he’s far from the only one. Basement Jaxx and Attack the Block, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and There Will Be Blood, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Cliff Martinez and Drive— filmmakers seem to understand that music artists and producers can create the kind of memorable scores that they don’t let trained film composers make anymore.
I hope more filmmakers recognize the viability of turning to professional, commercial music artists to write film scores. They don’t have to be synth-heavy electronic music, and it doesn’t all need to be the haunting kind of music that draws attention to itself (film scores are meant to be unsung heroes for a reason). I just think that hiring music artists to work with film composers is a perfect medium between the overwrought and oft-forgotten orchestral scores we’re too used to, and the licensed music mixtapes that at times take audiences out of the film. Just imagining the kinds of soundtracks that artists of various genres could make if they were given a story or a visually stunning scene to write for gets me excited. I know that most people, audiences, and producers don’t care that much anymore, but I’m looking forward to listening to whatever film score makes us all care again.