When you leave the theater humming

January 19, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

It's been suggested that the best film scores are the ones you hardly notice, those so perfectly in pitch with what's on screen that the effect is almost subliminal, serving the films without ever calling attention to themselves.

But that's an oversimplification at best, at worst a cop-out that tries to establish the ordinary as the gold standard. For while it's true that many a perfectly serviceable film score goes largely unnoticed, the best take their movies and their audiences to new heights, underscoring -- but never overemphasizing, and certainly not obfuscating -- the emotion of the film. Music is a poor substitute for cinematic artistry, but it works great as a sort of Hi-Liter.

Think, for example, of Nino Rota's haunting, elegantly rhapsodic score for The Godfather. Director Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make a gangster film that broke the mold, one that saw the Corleones and their minions not as thugs, but as family, even nobility -- Scarface wedded to King Lear. And Rota's score, with its old-world underpinnings and lush melodies, captured the mood of the film perfectly. His music may not have made the movie great, but it sure made it memorable.

And that's what the best film scores do. Even long after the movie may have faded from active memory, the melodies remain, ready to be triggered. Who can hear the elegant strains of Maurice Jarre's Lara's Theme, and not instantly be transported back to the snow-covered vistas of Doctor Zhivago? The mournful crackle of Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the relentless ominousness of John Williams' oft-imitated theme from Jaws, the screeching desperation of Bernard Herrmann's piercing theme from Psycho -- each not only underscores the action of its respective film, but ensures that they remain firmly entrenched in the viewer's memory.

(Some scores have even become hits on their own, sometimes more so than their films. Morricone's theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly became a No. 1 single back in 1968, while Sergio Leone's film was only a moderate popular success.)

Movie scores can be separated into three categories: the moving, the mundane and the truly awful. And while it's probably true that even the best film score can't singlehandedly make a film great, the worst can make them all-but-unwatchable.

Most, naturally, fall into the middle category. A good film score simply helps move the action along, underscoring the emotion of a scene, filling in gaps in the dialogue -- watch films from the early sound era, when film scores were a relative rarity, to see how noticeably empty a movie without music sounds to modern ears -- and rarely calling attention to itself. Hundreds of competent, and largely anonymous, composers have made perfectly wonderful careers of putting together such scores.

The great film scorers are those who manage to remain true to both the films and themselves, whose visions both jibe well enough with the films to not overwhelm them and reflect their own styles and talents enough to stand on their own. Not surprisingly, these are the composers whose names come up at awards time -- from such pioneers as Herrmann, Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind), Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights, All About Eve), to such acknowledged masters as Williams, Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith (L.A. Confidential, Alien) and Jack Nitzsche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

But then, there are the truly awful, those scores that so overwhelm the movie (think John Williams at his most bombastic) that the actors onscreen don't have a chance. Or they can be so obtrusive that you wait for nothing so much as for the music to stop (Bill Conti's score for Neighbors is among the most annoying things ever written). Or they can be so overly emotive that it's like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer until the tears start flowing (James Newton Howard's score for The Prince of Tides ought to be arrested for emotional abuse).

Then again, time has a way of dealing with the bad ... when's the last time anyone heard Conti's Looney-Toons-inspired Neighbors score on any radio?

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