Where Did The Great Movie Soundtracks Go?

David Thomson looks back at the golden age of film scores

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Only a few months ago, Alexandre Desplat’s music for The Grand Budapest Hotel won the Oscar for best musical score for a movie released in 2014. I bet that score is witty and amusing; it was Desplat’s eighth Academy nomination for film music. He is one of the most esteemed and sought-after composers in the business. But I cannot remember this score.

On the other hand, just days ago, I heard music from another room in our apartment. I knew what my wife was doing, just from that snatch of Franz Waxman’s score (it won the music Oscar for 1951). She was watching A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and the key musical theme of that picture has always been my ideal soundtrack for loss and regret. Its fusion of hope and forlornness is as important as the desperate faces of the two stars. It seems like music playing behind their eyes.

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Has something happened to movie music? Put it another way, can you recall melodies from these films: Gravity (I know, you can see the look of it, but the music?), Life of Pi, The Artist, The Social Network (yes, I do hear fragments of that), Up, Slumdog Millionaire, Atonement, Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Finding Neverland? That’s going back over 10 years of Oscar-winning pictures for best music. Of course, there are excellent films in that list, though I did have to pause to recollect Atonement. And I don’t want to pick on modern composers, so let me say that Alexandre Desplat wrote one of the great scores of this century for Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), which wasn’t even nominated.

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Birth, however, is instructive. Do you remember that scene where Nicole Kidman’s character goes to the opera? She arrives late and takes her seat. The camera then moves in on a big close-up. Kidman does not exactly act, so much as submit to the camera and let the Wagner being played soak into her gaze. She is shocked already because a strange boy has told her he is her late husband, Sean, come back to claim her. She seemed to laugh this off as foolishness, but in the close-up and the music we begin to realise the idea haunts her and could make her mad. The long-held shot shows us how music matters in this film as the source of feeling.

And so the Desplat score comes to be uncommonly important in the film as a whole. In 2004, this shot at the opera disturbed some people; it lasted so long, and required viewers to go deeper than they were accustomed to. It said, watch, wait and listen: feel your way into the soul of this woman. But that was harking back to a kind of movie where a close-up and the score could make for the special alchemy called melodrama. And perhaps we are disconcerted by melodrama in 2015, with its intense sincerity — call it passion — not just for its characters but for the whole matter of movie married to music, and the possibility of soul being uncovered.

So “melodrama” is often a despised word now. It signifies something over the top, old-fashioned, with overdone, hammy acting. That’s a mode we feel we’ve outgrown; it’s out of step with our cool, ironic attitudes to earnestness in screen characters, faith in love stories, and even the habit of going to movies to be moved. But bear in mind that melodrama covers opera, ballet, the musical, as well as movies for which we were innocent and happy with stories that soared and crashed on their plot lines and the way music gave them wings. Study music and you can see the history of the movies.

It’s commonplace now to say there was always music at the movies, and sound on top of silence. Audiences talked to a film, they cried out in fear or fun. They stamped their feet when horses galloped and made smooching sounds when lovers kissed. There was music, too, ranging from a full orchestra playing a commissioned score to a lone piano player improvising chase themes, romance music, or unresolved chords for danger, to suit the action in a film he had never seen before. There was charm in that, as well as utility. While shooting silent pictures, there might be a violinist just out of camera-view playing those tunes of romance to inspire a proper mood in actors.

Today, in the welcome revival of silent films, we get bold musical groups with new scores for old movies. One of my best evenings recently was listening to (and watching) the Alloy Orchestra accompany the latest version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), with new footage found in an archive in Buenos Aires.

I stress watching that performed music because it signals the theatricality of live music. We watch the movie, of course, but we’re also drawn to the dedicated and furious work of players at the foot of the screen. That’s a clue to the magic of music on a movie soundtrack.

For it is a miracle, and an escape into fantasy, if the music is simply there, in the air, as opposed to the result of strenuous friction and percussion in the accompanying group. Sound brought two crucial innovations. It swept the movies towards naturalism and the illusion of being life-like once you could hear people talk, and — as sound became more sophisticated — listen to their sighs, their groans and their kisses. At the same time, there was this momentous shift towards dream or impossibility, for magic music, without labour or anything you could see, filled the theatre (and our minds).

This music was unreal, magical and melodramatic. So, the unattainable but sublime remoteness of movies was emphasized. This helped us believe we might hear tender music in our own mundane lives. Why not? So many people now walk the city streets with earbuds enclosing them in Mahler or Marvin Gaye, while others just imagine it.

Piano players for silent movies had generally imitated or underlined the action on screen, but that could be limiting and monotonous. Unseen music (with as much orchestration and as many players as you wanted) tended more towards mood or atmosphere. It quickly established itself as “movie music”, an enriching background that went with the stealth and protection of the dark. So, if you’re doing a radio show on the movies and you want to evoke the Thirties, just play a bit of Max Steiner’s music for Gone With the Wind (1939). That grand and stirring sound has become an identifying sign of The Golden Age of Movies, as valid a cliché as a shot of the Eiffel Tower telling us exactly where we are.
It took a few years for sound recording to improve, and for film-makers to grasp the new possibilities of music.

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But by the late Thirties, movie music was in bloom: the exuberant, playful panache of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); the resonance of The Wizard of Oz (1939), which included songs and an overall score by Herbert Stothart; Gone With the Wind; music for Of Mice and Men (1939), written by Aaron Copland (one of the rare occasions when a classical composer worked for Hollywood). At the 1942 awards, one man — Bernard Herrmann — was nominated twice for music in the 1941 films Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy. The latter won, which defies belief now, but Kane was not favoured by the Academy, even if its range of music seems ground-breaking, with most of it marking the outbursts of Kane’s character.

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Two years later, Max Steiner won again for his Casablanca score. That all-time hit takes us deeper into music, for the Steiner score is moody, romantic, with a suggestion of Morocco, but the film is likely better known for its songs. Those include “La Marseillaise”, “Knock on Wood”, and a little thing called “As Time Goes By”, written by Herman Hupfeld 12 years before the movie, and forgotten. Now it is the thing remembered above all, and it’s characteristic of many movie songs in its feeling for passing time: “You must remember this…” was a lyric that spoke to wartime memories of home and happiness.

I don’t mean simply songs within a musical (though there were plenty of those), but songs with as much dramatic or melodramatic point as “As Time Goes By”. Run through best-song winners in the Thirties and early Forties, and these are tunes you still know, though you weren’t alive at the time. These are part of the American songbook: “Lullaby of Broadway” (1935); “The Way You Look Tonight” (1936), sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers; “Thanks for the Memories” (1938), the song that made Bob Hope; “Over the Rainbow” (1939), which may be one of the most poignant songs in all movies; “When You Wish Upon a Star” (1940), from Pinocchio; “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1941), at a time when we couldn’t see Paris, thus the song was tinged with sadness.

You may feel that some of those songs are hokey and sentimental, though many are still moved by “Over the Rainbow” and “As Time Goes By”. But those melodies were brands for their films, on recordings, yes, but just as much through sheet music and radio play. As you may have noticed, the recent contenders for best song are not of the same quality, and in part that’s because songwriters and audiences no longer feel as committed to the romanticism of songs, or the claims for the great love they aspire to. In time, the depth of feeling in songs gave way to something closer to the urgency of rock, just as frustrated romance turned into available sex.

Here’s an interesting test case. If I told you that in 1955 a movie was made in which most of the characters were high school kids in Los Angeles, a film about teen troubles, with James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, you’d likely guess it had a rock score. After all, Elvis Presley began recording in 1954, and “Heartbreak Hotel” was released in 1956, while Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was released in 1955, just months after it had been used in the film Blackboard Jungle. But in fact, Rebel Without a Cause (that’s the Dean film) had a lush score, full of yearning, written by Leonard Rosenman, a young composer who had just scored Dean’s first feature film, East of Eden. Neither of those scores was even nominated, but today they seem classic movie music and better inducements to love than “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”, which sounds camp, or “Around the World in Eighty Days”, which seems daft.

By then we were in the age of big movie adaptations of stage successes like Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956), Oklahoma! (1955), all the way to The Sound of Music (1965). Soundtrack albums from those films sold very well, along with records of the scores to dramatic films like Duke Ellington’s music for Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s accompaniment to Roger Vadim’s When the Devil Drives (1957). There were rock’n’roll films, too, like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) — a dismal exploitation picture to go with Rock Around the Clock (1956) — and Elvis’s start as a film star (which rarely dared capture the suggestiveness of his live act). This movement reached its peak in two films, made in England by director Richard Lester: A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). There were Beatles songs that nodded at romance (“She Loves You”), but they were overlaid with sexual satisfaction and The Beatles’ contempt for archaic romantic notions. These were lads on the make, thank you very much, with absolutely nothing to be wistful about.

But the mid and late Fifties also saw the heyday of a genius. Bernard Herrmann had never forsaken Hollywood, though he was rather prouder of his own orchestral compositions. He had done beautiful work on films like Portrait of Jennie (1948) and On Dangerous Ground (1951). But just as he had enjoyed a brilliant collaboration with Orson Welles, so in the Fifties he teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock in a remarkable run of pictures: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). All those films deserve to be heard.

The thrill of the chase is like gasoline on fire in North by Northwest; Psycho has perhaps the best score ever for a horror film, and it identifies both the dark humour and the terrible dangers in that film. But Vertigo is the best of all. This is a film founded on the past and an attempt to remake it, and it traces the tragic path of two misbegotten love affairs, while aching with thwarted desire. That score is now so famous, and Vertigo is so admired (though it flopped when it came out), that it is sometimes played by symphony orchestras in concert halls.

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Maurice Jarre was less of a genius, but on three films for David Lean — Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970) — he was one of the key sounds of the Sixties at the movies, and distinctly at odds with the astounding pop music of that same age. Jarre wrote old-fashioned music for movies all set before 1920. It was also background for grandiose nights at the cinema, with music for an overture and an intermission. I think the three films he did with Lean steadily diminish in artistic success and musical value.

But for Lawrence, he found the film’s love story — the emotion Lawrence felt for the desert — and Jarre’s sweeping, slow phrases did match the roll of endless dunes. On Doctor Zhivago, with a supposedly great love affair, and a panorama of revolutionary Russia and desolate scenes of winter, Jarre faltered. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie don’t have enough chemistry as the lovers and Lean seems shy with their scenes.

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So Jarre has a motif that keeps coming back, mixed in with a balalaika (a crucial plot point) and an overall wish for “epic music” that never quite takes flight. Ryan’s Daughter is simply a poor film, with airy but empty music. It failed because such love stories were going out of style.

But the last wave of successful movie mood music came in the Seventies, a time of career breakthroughs and a new sense of darkness as a fitting subject matter. No director was more open to musical experiment than Robert Altman: on The Long Goodbye (1973), he took the theme from the song (written by Johnny Mercer and John Williams) and toured it through many variations (including a doorbell); for McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), he commissioned Leonard Cohen to write a sequence of songs that meander through the film in a half-drugged state; and then for Nashville (1975), he asked many of his actors to write and sing songs for a movie set in the country music citadel. That’s how Keith Carradine won an Oscar for his song “I’m Easy”.

Michael Small had an ear for sinister melodic lines on Klute (1971) and Night Moves (1975). On The Godfather (1972), Nino Rota wrote music that is as familiar as the score to Gone With the Wind. Hear a few notes and we know what it is. For Taxi Driver (1976), a film of paranoia and violence, there is an elegy to a ruined city and its lost lives: this was the last work by Bernard Herrmann, and the film is dedicated to him.

Then there was Jaws (1975), the significant introduction to composer John Williams, with his pounding warning chords to tell us the killer shark was coming. Williams went on to an illustrious career, and his music is both recognisable and apt, even if I’d rather hear the lament in the Taxi Driver score any day, than the triumphalism of the Star Wars films.

There’s another maestro to mention: Michel Legrand, a fine jazz pianist and the composer of over 200 film scores. Of course, he did a lot of films not worthy of him. But in France in the early Sixties, he wrote the music for Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), and made a vital partnership with director Jacques Demy that led to Lola (1961), Bay of Angels (1963) and the masterpiece of song as narrative, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). With that success he came to America and soon won another reputation on The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Go-Between (1971), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Other Side of Midnight (1977), Atlantic City (1980) and Yentl (1983) for which he wrote the melodies for Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics which Barbra Streisand sang.

Those Yentl songs, sung by a woman to herself and her fates, may be the last great love music written for the movies. But that’s a period picture in which the rules of old censorship exclude open sexuality. That may be decisive, for movie music excelled when desire was inhibited by censorship. Then a time came (long awaited and deserved) when movies welcomed nudity and sexual action. Nothing ever stops progress, or leaves that progressiveness without a question mark. But the liberties of the late Sixties and early Seventies made it harder to believe in the necessity of love stories linked to unfulfilled longing. A lot of us now see movies not in the big dark, but on hand-held screens, where “overwhelming” music can seem old fashioned.

But Yentl came out over 30 years ago, and I’m not sure movie music has found a new place for itself. There is some interesting music to be sure: the work Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has done for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012); several scores by Philip Glass such as Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters (1985), The Hours (2002) and Leviathan (2014); the jukebox effect on Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) — and Birth. But those scores are rarely romantic.

That character for music in the dark has faded away. Still, there are kids and film students experimenting with putting “wrong” music on an existing movie and discovering that it could be “right”. Keep an open ear and let the mind draw its own conclusions. Try playing Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (circa 1927) over 12 Years a Slave (2013)! Something new happens.

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