Saturday, 14 April 2018

Score: A Film Music Documentary

Featuring: Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Williams, James Cameron, and Quincy Jones

Director: Matt Schrader  

92 minutes (E) 2016
Dogwoof DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Howard Yarborough  

Essay movies have a long pedigree in the cinematic documentary field with a special reference to critical academic works. Music for the screen is of such intrinsic value to visual entertainment its importance cannot be stressed enough. Score: A Film Music Documentary ranges from the bygone times of Wurlitzer theatre organs played for silent movies, to synthesisers a go-go, and it explores how music for the movies is created by bold experimenters and canny interpreters, not just by successful musicologists. Sometimes they are vague historians of musical instruments - including pipes, drums, and strings - from a variety of cultures, and many astute composers of classic scores fuse exotic folk sounds with cutting-edge technology, and time-distorting innovations, to generate the strongest and most evocative memories that might well be possible without factoring in the direct sensorial effect on the human brain of smells.

As this documentary attests, movie scores communicate both raw and refined emotions capable of inducing uplifting tears of joy like few other experiences, and cinematic music frequently provides the engine-heart of a whole production with changes of tone supporting an unfolding narrative. It’s quite interesting how many top composers often appear to be swaggeringly odd eccentrics, with even a few hipsters, or staidly professorial types. Perhaps their anti-fashion sensibilities are just another expression of a magically imaginative approach to breaking traditional rules, subverting directorial expectations, and absorbing various contemporary rock and pop influences for an essentially visual medium.

Rachel Portman and Deborah Lurie are not the only women interviewed but they are the only two female composers among nearly four dozen such interviewees in this evidently male-dominated field, despite a far greater diversity usually found in orchestras or bands of session players employed for scoring movies. How much of this bias might be due to the familiar tyrannical stereotype image of the orchestra conductor is left sadly unexamined and unquestioned here. Dr Siu-Lan Tan is a professor of psychology who studies and teaches how music works on the brain. Her fascinating comments are key scenes in this educational movie’s highlights of investigating the ways that sublime dissonance from aural products of creativity affects or challenges us while we are watching movies.

The compositional ambitions that can result in a ‘beautiful chaos’ are faced by not only sometimes ‘insane’ levels of only unconventional complexity, but enormous pressures from studio executives. Authentic milestones celebrated here include the screechy violin of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the famous five-note motif that made Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - a sci-fi classic that’s partly about music used for communication with aliens, and the unexpected revival of rousing orchestral themes for Star Wars. Whether entirely complimentary or radically counter-intuitive of acoustic-space overtures, dramatic cues, and simple codas that raise goose-bumps, all of these provocative moments, electrifying statements, and sequences of dark melancholy can sound timeless and inspirational. Movie music is clearly a unique art-form that bridges two centuries and, more importantly, reveals and revels in an astonishing power to move minds that defies rational scientific explanation.

Pick of the disc’s extras: James Cameron interview (29 minutes), which is partly a remembrance of James Horner.

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