Thursday, September 04, 2003

Movie Music: High Art and Popular Culture

Dear Music Maven Kari:

Indeed, I agree with you that movie music is the new classical music. Film is where some of the best music of our time is being written.

However, there are snooty folks who would distinguish between high art and pop culture. These same folks would write off John Williams as not a real musician. I think that is ridiculous.

Think on this, in terms of the day-to-day job, isn't what Howard Shore doing with the soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings comparable in scale to a massive opera? In the end, the three films are going to require close to 12 hours worth of music. I think he has done an amazing job giving the places and peoples of Middle Earth a distinct sound and voice.

photos linked from

(hint, Christmas wish list, wink)

My knowledge of movie music is nowhere as extensive nor as sophisticated as yours but as the cliche goes, I know what I like! So here goes a stream of consciousness list of some of my favorites.

I first heard James Horner in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and liked his style. I think he hit his high-water mark in the music for Glory. He has many movies to his credit because he hits the right mood more often than not. Movie music shouldn't overwhelm the movie. I think of it as salt and spice for food where you add enough to make it distinctive but doesn't overpower the movie.

I like Hans Zimmer especially for Gladiator.

Jerry Goldsmith occasionally gets a little too bombastic but I am usually happy with what he has going with my favorite being his work on Patton.

As a guy, I probably don't mind the obtrusive soundtracks as much as you might because those booming tunes work well with action flicks. But there are times when it is way too much even for me. One example was Leonard Rosenmann's soundtrack for the somewhat unsuccessful animated version of Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi. I am probably one of a small number of people who even remember that attempt at bringing Tolkein to the big screen.

I see you mentioned Bernard Herrmann. I came to appreciate his work first in television for his music in many of the classic Twilight Zone episodes. I would later learn he and Hitchcock teamed up on many a project.

Speaking of television music, I like Mike Post's work in the many title themes he has done.

But going back to film music, I'll toss out two more composers. I was impressed by Carter Burwell's music in And the Band Played On. It was simple and haunting. I didn't know he did so many other films until I looked up his filmography. I haven't seen many of those films but you perhaps have and would be curious what kind of music he is noted for and his style. I'll go ahead and also mention Alan Silvestri's work for Contact. Just loved that film and the music was just right.

But coming back to the music of the guy who started this discussion, I definitely feel, John Williams is under-appreciated. Since he does so many movies, I'll agree that some of his stuff is not very distinguished and starts to sound alike. For instance, his recent work on the Harry Potter films hasn't made much of an impression on me and in his album By Request The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops has a few tracks that didn't register much with me. His Star Wars stuff though is just terrific. He has the heart pounding adventure music, the more soothing sounds for quieter moments, jazzy stuff for certain scenes, ominous beat of the dark side and the light hearted fun of the Ewoks, and I just love his choral stuff at the end of Phantom Menace. But the CD I have in my collection isn't Star Wars, rather it is Schindler's List. That clinched it in my book that he is a real talent who will stand the test of time.

Hope your travels have been safe and productive.



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