THE best movies have music to match. The Godfather, great as it is, would be less so without Nino Rota’s dark and fateful main theme, also known as The Immigrant, or The Godfather Waltz – now a perennial repertory piece squeezed out by street accordionists all over Europe.
Blade Runner’s visionary opening shot of the future LA skyline gets much of its transportive power from the electronic soundscape provided by composer Vangelis. The experimental music of Bernard Herrmann was essential to some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most potent images. His ominous Vertigo score drops off its opening two-note alarm motif as if falling from a height; the string players he used for Psycho slashed at their instruments in perfect time with the stabbing knife of the infamous shower scene.
“I feel that music on screen can intensify the inner thoughts of the characters,” said Herrmann once. “It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.” Hermann might have been speaking for every film composer in describing the essence of their work, though the practice of scoring moving pictures was not necessarily rooted in the loftiest artistic purposes.
In the early days of cinema, the films themselves were silent but projected onto the screen through clunky, noisy machinery – theatre owners hired live pianists and organists to drown out the sound. Production companies began to send out written scores of sheet music with notated cues to fit moments of high comedy or drama. Realising the added value of an aural element, pioneering filmmakers like Fritz Lang commissioned specific composers to provide melodic accompaniment. Max Steiner was perhaps the first master of the form, and his score for King Kong was a landmark in 1933, carefully synchronised to the action. Most film music that followed grew out of the western classical tradition – symphonic soundtracks written and conducted for full orchestras.
Many scores are still composed that way by veterans like John Williams, who has worked with Steven Spielberg across his whole career, from the simple, evil music that presaged the shark attacks of Jaws to the softer, sweeping themes he wrote for E.T. and last year’s The BFG. Williams’s iconic fanfare for Star Wars continues to resound through that franchise, up to and including the latest movie Rogue One. But the cutting edge of scoring is now occupied by comparatively young talents like Clint Mansell, who has a similar working relationship with Darren Aronofsky – director of the twisted ballet movie Black Swan, with Natalie Portman, and the recent biblical epic Noah, starring Russell Crowe.
“Back in the day,” says Mansell, “the composer might sit at the piano and play each part for the director. This bit will be violin, this bit will be woodwinds. But those were different times, and different skillsets.” For Mansell, composition means “sitting in a dark room with a computer”. “I’ll record it and play it back to Darren, who might like this or that bit. Then I effect changes within the software, and hopefully it gets bigger and better from there.” Former frontman for the English alternative rock band Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell says he grew up “loving films and film music”.
He watched classic westerns on TV with his father, “which all had these big rollicking soundtracks”. Later, he came to prefer “more leftfield stuff” by the likes of David Lynch, who often had Italian composer Angelo Badalamenti add strange, gorgeous music to his own dreamlike and nightmarish visuals. Mansell and Aronofsky first bonded over a shared distaste for the state of art in the 1990s. Over previous decades, the most innovative soundtracks tended to experiment with jazz, rock and roll, and early electronic music. Both were particular fans of genre director John Carpenter, who wrote and performed his own creepy scores on analogue synthesisers.
By the time they came together for Aronofsky’s first film, the sci-fi psychodrama Pi, they agreed that most contemporary scores had become bland background material. “Like wallpaper,” says Mansell. His punkish cues for Pi were driven by the abrasive demands of the movie itself, and partly inspired by a reading of Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey. “That was really helpful for me in figuring out how the music can tell the story.” His work on Aronofsky’s later films – most notably a monumental piece called Lux Aeterna from Requiem For A Dream – has in turn helped advance a new wave of creativity in scoring.
Cliff Martinez, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mica Levi and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood have all composed absorbing, unsettling modernist music for such films as Solaris, Sicario, Under The Skin and There Will Be Blood. But the old guard are still working too. The Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, sometimes called “the Mozart of film music”, recently scored his first western for 40 years – Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – albeit somewhat grumpily and grudgingly. At 88, Morricone still thinks of himself as a true innovator, and almost everyone else as a pretender. “If I had my way,” he has said, “I would win an Oscar every two years.”
FIVE GREAT FILM SCORES
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) Ennio Morricone’s masterpiece – a cacophony of guitars, gunshots, whistles and whip-cracks to accompany Sergio Leone’s fantastical spaghetti western.
THE THIRD MAN (1948) Carol Reed’s immaculate thriller set in shadowy postwar Vienna is perfectly complimented by master zither player Anton Karas.
SUPER FLY (1972) The movie is not great, but the soundtrack is out of sight – an unprecedentedly funky mix of original songs and incidental music by Curtis Mayfield.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) John Carpenter’s main theme for his epochal horror film Halloween is perhaps better known, but this earlier score is the real groundbreaker with its icy, synthesised menace.
LAURENCE OF ARABIA (1962) Maurice Jarre contributed the very definition of a stirring, sweeping Hollywood score for David Lean’s classic, desert-set epic.