The Sound of Music

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 20 2001 9:00 PM

The Sound of Music

What makes a film score score?

Not only is Best Original Score one of the most overlooked Oscar categories; it's not even clear what the criteria are for judging it. Consider some of the most lauded scores: John Williams' famous heists from the classical repertoire (Star Wars, Superman); original compositions now being played on the concert stage (Bernard Hermann's chilling stabs from Psycho); or those written by a lauded classical composer expressly for the screen (last year's winner, John Corigliano's score to The Red Violin). Should we judge these pieces as independent compositions? Or by how well they support the story, helping characters and audiences tremble, weep, and celebrate?

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I choose the latter. Film music isn't written to stand alone. Sure, certain composers—Aaron Copland and Erich Korngold, to name two—have produced scores so exquisite that they've entered the classical-music canon. But this isn't the motive for most movie-music composers. These guys have a job to do, just like the lead actor and the best boy grip.

This year, the nominees are Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gladiator, ThePatriot, and Malèna. The music from Crouching Tiger should win by a mile. Tan Dun's tunes are both functionally narrative and artful; they add life to a story that, in its expert direction and choreography, almost doesn't desire a soundtrack (the slashing wuxia broadswords and sky-scampering chase scenes are so rhythmic they're practically a form of music themselves). Tan is an important new classical composer whose specialty is meshing Eastern folk tunes and Western-tradition symphonic style. Crouching Tiger's score is an expert fusion that—thanks in no small part to Yo-Yo Ma's deft cello-playing—spins one memorable musical thread with pitch-bending flavor into a dreamlike pattern. Listen to how he uses the modern cello to imitate indigenous Eastern instruments—the sparse use of vibrato, the wavering Zen-like motifs—above the background of a Romantically inspired orchestral string sound.

A distant second place is Rachel Portman's cutesy foray into "world music" for Chocolat. The CD opens with a direct steal from Django Reinhardt—jazz's most famous gypsy guitarist, whose music inspired Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown—and moves on to episodic tangos that work well for a movie organized like a children's storybook. The film even has its own incarnation of Django in Johnny Depp, who plays a pony-tailed Irish river rat with a penchant for a little swing jazz guitar himself. Portman's work may be imitative, but it's well-crafted. Note the way she paints an animated musical image of a traveler's spunk by using rhythmic, rainforest-y violin tunes that, amid hollow-flute bird calls, hop and twirl above syncopated, off-beat guitars.

Ennio Morricone's score to Malèna is  disappointing, especially when you consider his résumé. In Cinema Paradiso, director Giuseppe Tornatore's last Italian coming-of-age hit, Morricone used idiomatic Italian-film-music tools—nostalgic, sensitive melodies played on a violin and a celesta—derived from great predecessors like Nino Rota, official composer for Frederico Fellini and of the music to Francis Ford Coppolla's The Godfather. Despite the music's pedigree, it had an appealingly childlike simplicity. Malèna's music is innocent and heartwarming as well, but the thickness of the orchestration and the cheesy repetition of a Disneyish theme waters down Morricone's style and robs it of any eccentricity.

Though it won the Golden Globe, Gladiator 's music doesn't deserve the Oscar for two reasons: 1) It is credited to two composers—the famed Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard—while rumored to have been composed by more; and 2) it's stunningly uncreative. Grandiose orchestral utterances drag us unwillingly to carnage; drums beat us as if we are the victims ourselves. This score harks back to a time when movie music was strictly background for the story and didn't add anything to it.

Surprisingly enough, John Williams shouldn't win either. Over his career, he's been up for 39 Oscars, making him the most nominated living person today, but his music for The Patriot does little for the movie and for its audience. How many times will Aaron Copland's open-prairie-style harmonies under brash trumpet fanfares and diddling flutes indicate that we are indeed in America (or at least the 13 colonies)? You'd think such a skilled and highly paid film composer could have been a bit more creative.

This is why half of the Oscars' viewers probably flee for popcorn when the best score awards are doled out. If more composers like Tan Dun took to film music, maybe the category would be taken more seriously. For one thing, it's a great gig for new composers; their world doesn't offer much exposure, and films are a wonderfully stealthy way of bringing top-notch music to vast numbers of people. But sadly, a composer like Tan Dun risks serious scorn from the music establishment for playing to Hollywood's level. Only I'm not sure that Tan did—in fact, he might have brought Hollywood up to his. 

Adam Baer is a culture critic for the New York Sun and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Slate, among other publications.