More Than the Movies, I Love the Soundtracks

The Wife is laying down in the living room, watching the movie Unbreakable. (If you haven’t seen it, this is one of the best comic book hero movies made, although it’s not even based on a comic.) The movie is on a part near the end, where the main character, David (Bruce Willis), is walking around in the train station after Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him to “go where there are people.” What really impresses me about this part isn’t the cinematography or storyline — both of which are excellent — but rather the music, which is a contemporary mix of string orchestra (with emphasis on the middle to lower range) and techno. Even though the key changes often enough, the music itself doesn’t sound atonal, so it’s fairly easy on the ear, yet in this particular scene it takes a role as prevalent as any of the actors: perfectly placed and convincingly a part of the scenery.

As I listen to this music I can’t help but think how important the role of movie scores is in both contemporary music and how this era will be judged, insofar as what music historians label this age. True, the age of individualism in which we live seems likely to expand, meaning that the music we hear today, especially in films, will likely be the most unified and conservative music most of us hear during our lifetimes. (Ironically, music, when you think about the global view, is more unified now than it was 200 years ago, since cultures are converging and the musical tradition of smaller cultures are either fading away or being assimilated into the popular music styles.) But when I think about it, I can’t help but wonder by which standard this era will be judged, since styles all around us, even when we narrow it down to what’s being done with an orchestra these days, diverge so much from each other. I find it interesting that quite possibly the most conservative, almost neo-romantic styles are coming out of Asia, with composers like Tan Dun leading the way.

Lately — well, within the past year, anyway — I’ve been really starting to notice movie and television show soundtracks. For years I ignored these, mostly because 9 out of 10 times the music in movies is either really bad, badly placed within the film, or both. (In television the ratio is much, much worse. Some of that stuff is just sickening.) Now, if you’re wondering what I mean by “bad”, think of the movie What Dreams May Come. Do you remember the scene where the main character, Chris (played by Robin Williams), got in the car crash, then got out of the car to see how he could help others, then ends up getting flattened himself? (If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry: I didn’t spoil anything for you.) The music right there is the definition of bad movie music. In fact, for the most part, all the music in that movie is mediocre at best, being entirely full of clichés and playing to the detriment of the film. Other examples can be found in just about every sci-fi and military movie and television show from the 1980’s, where rehashes of the Mars movement of Gustav Holtz’s The Planets are played over and over again, with power chords blazing. (A perfect example is the 1990’s short-lived show Space: Above and Beyond, which while enjoyable to the sci-fi crowd, tears at the ears of this musician with its laughable clichés). Thankfully, minimalism in films (especially the Phillip Glass kind) still hasn’t gotten old in films. It’s getting there, though. It’s getting there.

In short, here’s how you can tell whether a movie has good music or not: do you notice it right away? If you do, the music is probably bad. Unless the music becomes (comfortably) a part of the story, the composer hasn’t done his duty.

Conversely, more recent movies (and even some television shows, of the few that I watch) actually pay attention to the music in such a way that they make sure not to fill it with clichés, but to actually engage the listener is enjoying the music as an integral part of the moment within the film. Movies and shows like the Matrix trilogy, Unbreakable, A.I., Firefly — and to a certain extent Battlestar Galactica, the Star Wars series, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy — are all generally good examples of this aspect of film music. (I would include the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the main list, but the songs at the end of the second and third films didn’t quite fit the rest of the music in the film, or the film itself, for that matter. And yes, they were out of place enough to be memorable in the not-so-good way.)

Note: I hesitate to include films like 8 Mile, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? simply because I’m trying to limit the conversation to the orchestral music in films, as well as films in which the music isn’t the main focus (ie. films about music or musicals, even though musicals are an important part in this conversation: so sue me).

The level at which I’ve been paying attention to soundtracks these days easily outstrips the level of my engagement in the movie music scene while I was in college. This, of course, was to my detriment, since I was working on my BM in music composition. (Of course, what I wanted was to do music for video games, but one would have led to the other, I guess. Maybe I really should have gone to Full Sail.) Because of this recent interest, lately I have been looking around in Amazon in order to buy some these soundtracks. I already have a few of the ones I like, such as the soundtracks to The Matrix trilogy and I Am Sam, but I’m also looking to acquire soundtracks by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, instead of just Don Davis in collaboration with Rob Dougan and Juno Reactor. At this rate, I suspect the names of composers with scores as memorable as those in many of the Hitchcock films (Bernard Hermann, for example) will soon become rather familiar to me. This, of course, peaks my curiosity once more, insofar as music composition is concerned. Should I start writing music again?

(For the record — no pun intended — most of the music I wrote in the past was for smaller groups: a couple of voices, piano and guitar; a string quintet; a viola trio. I think this had more to do with the availability of musicians than anything else. Needless to say that if you can’t find a musician in a music school, you’re probably in dire need to networking skills. God only knows how badly I needed them.)

All of this newfound attention has been due to my listening to the online radio station, which plays soundtracks from all kinds of films. If you’re interested in learning more about yet another aspect of your movie, check out the station. (You know, I never understood why such little attention was paid in the “extras” disk in most DVD sets to the music scores. Really, it’s a shame, since the music is such an important aspect of films.)

Anyway, here are a few of my favorite soundtracks. Some of these I own, some I’m simply waiting to acquire. I’ve linked to their Amazon page since you can get a taste of what’s there. (If you scroll down about half way through the page, most have 30-second clips you can listen to and get a taste of.

By the way, I had mentioned Juno Reactor and Rob Dougan before, and couldn’t finish this up without pointing out their CD, Labyrinth. No, it’s not a soundtracks, but it has a couple of the pieces I find most appealing in the Matrix soundtracks (Navras and Mona Lisa Overdrive), plus a few more which are simply incredible. Definitely check it out.

Alright, I’m at an end here. I know almost everything I mentioned here is either sci-fi or fantasy. Sorry about that. Call me an ultrageek if you’d like, I don’t care. Still, if you have any recommendations in terms of soundtracks, I’d like to hear them. (As you can probably tell, I’m interested in the orchestral soundtracks, but any good soundtrack recommendation is welcome.) I’ll look around in my movie collection and update this list a bit later.

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