The film director as DJ.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 20 2002 3:28 PM

Lord of the Recordings

The film director as DJ.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Film music, as I hinted around Oscar time last year, is a fiddly art: While strong movie music should flavor and pace a film, it shouldn't divert you from the narrative. Even though scores and soundtracks are written to be experienced during a film, they're released as albums and therefore beg to be judged as such.

This year's Oscar nominees for Best Score certainly aren't too difficult to codify. They're all blissfully mediocre. John Williams' score to A.I. is both overly theatrical and self-conscious, with classic string-section wailing, percussive suspense tactics, and phantasmagoric soprano vocals from opera star Barbara Bonney. Williams' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stoneriffs (yes, the scoring superman is nominated twice) aren't as weak as A.I.'sif only because they impersonate his Star Wars tunes, which of course were excellent even if they first appeared in the scores of Serge Prokofiev and Richard Strauss. Still, for a film whose chief virtues are digital representations of sorcery, this music lacks original charisma and fails to summon a supernatural aura.

James Horner's music for A Beautiful Mindis his most manufactured to date (he's also the culprit of the Aaron Copland-y score to The Perfect Storm and the heartstringing of Titanic). It's hard to want to vote for Horner's self-plagiarism—symphonic sweeps that scream "I'm the king of the world"—and the employment of pop-opera phenom Charlotte Church to meditate on John Nash's struggles. In fact, given the film's subject matter—mental anomaly and game theory—I had hoped Horner would have vindicated himself by finding slightly more cerebral choices.

The Lord of the Rings' composer Howard Shore should also not have been nominated. Taken down a notch—less goth-choir moans, more quirky, questioning themes—and he might well have added an interesting soundtrack to a film that's essentially a sequence of battle-and-chase scenes. And I'm not even going to warrant Monsters, Inc. composer Randy Newman with more than two sentences. His lowbrow cutesy tunes aren't worthy of a cheap club cover charge, much less a big-budget animation comedy.

2001 was an even worse year for movie-score nominations than it was for movie scores. The Academy ignored several fine scores that used challenging musical idioms and adhered to their films' themes. My write-in candidates include the innocently zigzagging French waltzes of Amélie'sYann Tiersen; the Astor Piazzolla-inspired tangoriffic elaborations of Waking Life's Glover Gill; and the bizarrely creepy haunts of Mulholland Drive's Angelo Badalamenti, to name but a few.

That said, the Academy's choices of warhorse composers over fresh and innovative ones reflect the general deflation affecting the movie score. It's not just that interesting scores aren't receiving the acclaim they deserve—they're simply not being written much anymore. When a director looks for a composer these days, it's usually to write incidental music to be played between the pre-released pop hits that form the real soundtrack of the film.

Some of these filler jobs speak well for their movies. Wes Anderson's much-lauded picks for The Royal Tenenbaums meld the filtered cantorials of Nico, the impressionism of Ravel's "String Quartet," and the CBGB abandon of the late Joey Ramone. Also impressive is the glue that holds it together: original, incidental music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, who finds thematic synthesis in juxtaposing polar opposites: Childlike chimes dance with dark cello grunts; ska syncopations skip around harpsichord arpeggios; sitar snaps punctuate harp glissandos; and bluesy harmonies remain unresolved underneath hip finger snaps. These gutsy leitmotifs give the work character; hell, they give the characters character.

The Anniversary Party, co-written by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, isn't only blessed with standards by Marlene Dietrich, Henry Mancini, Lulu, Petula Clark, and some indie-rock favorites; it's sewed together with original compositions by Michael Penn that get at the heart of what the film's about—celebrity and thirtysomething adolescence—by virtue of elusive and contemplative layers of harmony chased with bits of hip-hop drumming and trumpet ellipses. The latter, for instance, are clichés of fancy-shmancy celebrity party music—the sort you'd hear at a dinner or book-release party filled with stars. Here Penn uses them to cheeky effect.

Ghost World features a mix of classic jazz and ethno-tunes—Vince Giordano's "Georgia on My Mind," Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman," Lionel Belasco's "Venezuela"—centered around a searching theme by David Kitay, full of angst and deliciously dissonant chords that address the film's theme of alienation. This soundtrack works even better precisely because one of the movie's subtexts is music, particularly old music and the nature of historic recordings.

One of Ghost World's themes is whether or not people can accurately be presented through and judged by their cultural preferences. Directors who employ pre-composed soundtrack music would seem to think so: Not only are they willing to entrust their work to existing recordings, but they also borrow heavily on those recordings' resonance and meaning. Whether it's an issue of narrative insecurity, naive skepticism about how close a composer can get at a movie's soul, budget constraints, or just sincere pop fandom, a sad fact results: Fewer composers are getting the chance to write film scores, while Hollywood grows ever more oblivious to the few good ones left.

Adam Baer has written for the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Business 2.0. He lives in New York.