On the Importance of Music

I have stated on many occasions why I feel music in a film is as important as the visuals, if not more so: you can close your eyes… Nothing brings a story into our hearts like the right music. So I’m going to propose a little fun this month: I’m going to write a bit about some of my favorite soundtracks, and then you are all welcome to submit yours (and any of mine that I may have forgotten!) and then there’ll be an open polling session where, tournament style, the soundtracks will be whittled down to a final winner. Of course all of this is subjective – there are numerous styles and preferences in play when discussing favorite music, to say nothing about different genres.

But first, I want to discuss a bit about the effectiveness of the music. This is, arguably, a bit less subjective – the music either does what it is supposed to do to you, or it fails to, in worst case scenarios even distracting you from the emotionally point at hand. Above is the Betrayal music from Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith.  I’ve written before about my less than enthusiastic mood toward these follow-up films, but Revenge of the Sith provides the perfect example of what I’m trying to get at here with the importance of the music. These films suffer bad acting, an excess of computer imagery at the expense of any real feeling of connection with reality, they border on ridiculous at times, etc etc. But while watching Revenge of the Sith, who can hold their hand on their heart and swear they are not moved, even profoundly so, during, for example, the betrayal scene [Execute Order 66] when John Williams‘ heart-crushing music cascades over our fragile psyches, smashing our sensitive emotional beings into gloopy sludge? The imagery on-screen is sad enough, but the sword (light saber?) through the heart is clearly provided by the music. Without it, the scene is cerebral; turn the music on and our spirits shake with terror and anguish.

I was recently reminded of the importance of a film’s soundtrack when I watched Django Unchained. The soundtrack was good and appropriate, but it didn’t blow me away, and on a subconscious level, this was nagging me. I couldn’t for some days put my finger on what was missing: the film was powerful and touching; one moment hilarious and the next deadly serious; the cinematography was visually stunning… What was missing? I finally realized none of the music really spoke to me. The selections were always appropriate and fitting, both to the genre/style and to the particular scenes to which they were wed… However none of it captured my inner soul-lust (if that even makes any sense).

It’s sister-film Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, is full of music that ramps my excitement glands all the way up:

Or this beauty, played after a woman and her undesired suitor have shot each other to death and are lying on the ground bleeding to death:

Gotta love Tarantino’s vision!

On the subject of Ennio Morricone, calling out “greatest ever” only subjects one to detractors but really, has there ever been such a prolific, absolutely fantastic composer of music for the big screen? I was tempted to begin a series based on films featuring his music, but IMDb lists over 150 films he composed original music for, and over 400 films he contributed musically to… I just don’t have the time! But I’d love to watch every movie he’s written for since his music alone is worth the price of admission. [I was in attendance at Radio City Music Hall for his first and only concert in the United States - what a concert it was! I'll never forget that night.]

So, onto some of my favorite soundtracks:

Braveheart (James Horner) and Gladiator (Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard) are two that have been at the top of my list for a long time now. Both feature rousing battle music with occasional gentler interludes. Among these softer sounds, I particularly like some of the “(middle) Eastern” sounds in the Gladiator soundtrack. I find it interesting that, despite James Horner‘s Braveheart holding a steady place near the top of my list, his Titanic soundtrack, much beloved by audiences (or so claim the media anyway) disgusts me in a way which is hard to put into words. I despise that nonsense and the movie along with it. [I'm serious when I say a soundtrack makes or breaks a film for me!] The Matrix trilogy (Don Davis) also feature great – what I guess could be called – “ass-kicking music”. Borrowing heavily from Wagner, Don Davis‘ Matrix music is at times especially riveting (not to mention danceable!) while at others it soars to deity-like heights of exultation.

Some soundtracks make their films a true joy to listen to. The Truman Show (original music by Burkhard von Dallwitz as Burkhard Dallwitz) and American Beauty (original music by Thomas Newman with an excerpt featured below) are two that come immediately to mind when I think of light, effervescent soundtracks that completely distinguish their films.

On the heavy side of things,

Inception (by the great Hans Zimmer, featured in its entirety above) features music that rarely presents a tune but rather infiltrates your mind-body system and, much like the premise of the film, plants a seed that grows and takes over the organism. Would this film have been the same phenomenal success without this intense music? I’m afraid not. Do not underestimate the power of the music!

Much the same could be said for The Tree Of Life (featuring original music by Alexandre Desplat along with many classical selections) and Melancholia (soundtrack by the late Richard Wagner). While cerebrally these films would stand intent and premise intact, the experience on the consumer end of things would be sorely inferior without the glue which is the soundtrack. Remember, only half of every movie is visual. Even silence serves a purpose when called for.

Speaking of silent films, Nosferatu (1922) has, in its current Netflix streaming incarnation, a gloriously bizarre soundtrack. This is of course not original to the film, but it adds such an interesting dimension to the experience that it warrants mention here.

There are thousands of soundtracks worthy of mention and discussion, but, since our lives are finite, I’ll just briefly mention (in no particular order):

  • 2001, A Space Odyssey (particularly the Ligeti, which was apparently used without his permission, according to IMDb)
  • The Godfather (Nino Rota)
  • The Burbs (Jerry Goldsmith of Star Trek fame)
  • the recent Transformers films (Steve Jablonsky)
  • Ghostbusters (Elmer Bernstein and of course Ray Parker)
  • Solaris (both the original featuring music of Eduard Artemev and the remake featuring Cliff Martinez)
  • Dark of the Sun (Jacques Loussier)
  • Schindler’s List (John Williams, another prolific and amazing film composer, especially in more recent years, although many of his most famous credits are from years past)
  • Atame! [Tie Me Up Tie Me Down] (Ennio Morricone) – This by the way is a very interesting film from 1990 I’ve just been introduced to – very interesting, both musically and otherwise!
  • The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
  • The Mission (Ennio Morricone)
  • and a special mention for Danny Elfman, whose distinctive style has graced (among other things) Gothic themed films consistently for the better part of thirty years now.

Well, these are some of my favorites. Share yours and in a week’s time (roughly around Thursday the 10th), I’ll announce the competition and the voting/polling can commence!

6 comments

  1. Black Hawk Down’s soundtrack caught me a bit offguard. I was expecting quite a lot of that “ass-kicking music”, but it was quite poignant as well. “Ashes to Ashes” was somewhat expected (after all it’s Hans Zimmer), but “Hunger” really hit the stomach.

    Similar genre blend: The Cell (from 2000) intro by Howard Shore and Master Musicians of Jajouka (sampled). Also, The Cell’s visual impact was very, very strong on me. I had never seen anything like that before or since (I don’t think) and the surreal, horrifying, beauty of the imagery is still with me after all these years. The soundtrack went very well with it.

    District 9′s work by Clinton Shorter also caught my ears; particularly “Harvesting Material” which was short, but had a Zimmer like vibe (which used the same drum loop in Bourne Identity’s “Escape from Embassy”, also by Shorter). And “Wikus Is Still Running”.

    Addendum to Zimmer’s work: Dark Knight’s the Joker theme. Can’t dance to it, can’t snap your fingers, can’t even call it a beat for a lot of its duration, but all you need is just a few seconds to know who’s on screen without opening your eyes. It’s unsettling, harsh, cluttered and captures the thought process (or lack thereof) of the antagonist.

    1. Ah, speaking of Bourne’s drum loop, my mistake. It was John Powell (just looked it up). I think it was the same used in Man on Fire : “Sanchez Family”. Also a good soundtrack, but a wee bit repetative.

    2. Yes, the Zimmer Batman music is right up there too. Powerful stuff. I recall liking District 9 (and its soundtrack) when I saw it but I can’t recall any of the music at present. Will have to rewatch (or at least YouTube it). The Cell and Black Hawk Down I haven’t seen yet (BHD more or less deliberately as it seemed very political at a time I didn’t want to be bothered with political films). I think I’ll make an effort to see The Cell, based on your positive review. Thanks!

    3. Oh yes, listening to District 9 soundtrack excerpts on YouTube – I remember now. Yes, very excellent music. Profound and sublime.

  2. I Was listening to an interview with a writer who has done both books and film lately, and e was saying the one thing that separates te two genres really is score and music. He never realized until he started making them, but when you watch an initial cut of a movie with no music yet it’s like all the feeling has been sucked out of it. I sort of agree- the music makes the movie something really special

  3. [...] amongst other delightful selections, which, incidentally, reinforces my belief, relayed in a previous post, in the importance of music in the success of a film. Actually both of these films demonstrate the power of an effective [...]

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