Christopher Tookey regrets that film scores do not receive the attention they deserveby Christopher Tookey / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Who can now remember who won the music awards at this year’s Oscars? Music critics are much more likely to review a concert or opera heard by a few hundred than a film score heard by millions. Almost 50 years ago, music critic Hans Keller wrote: “Film music is ripe, not to say sufficiently putrid, for widespread criticism.” Yet lack of space, or confidence, means that even today few critics evaluate a composer’s contribution to a movie. In their defence, critics might point out that few leading 20th century composers have written for film. There are exceptions: Sergei Prokofiev, whose scores included Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible; and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who came to the genre at the age of 69 but wrote scores for 49th Parallel and Scott of the Antarctic. Composing for film was once a lowly handmaiden to the movie business. Early practitioners in Hollywood were seen as hacks and plagiarists. Even in the late 1930s, it was not uncommon for a studio’s music department to compose, orchestrate and record a score in a week. Composers were rightly upset when studio executives told them that the best film music was unnoticeable, or when they heard their music being swamped by dialogue, re-orchestrated without their permission (the “Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia ended any interest which Stravinsky had in going to Hollywood), or simply replaced. Even America’s senior composer Aaron Copland, whose score for The Heiress (1949) won him an Oscar, found his main title music curtly rejected by the executives in favour of “Plaisir d’Amour.” It was his first and last Hollywood job. Top composers became even more upset when tone-deaf directors instructed them to organise their music so that an appropriate phrase illustrated a particular action. This practice was described as “mickey-mousing,” but was not confined to cartoons or comedies. Max Steiner, Hollywood’s foremost composer of the golden age, was a master at it; his overuse of the technique makes some of his most famous scores (such as his Oscar-winning music for John Ford’s The Informer) now seem laughable. Another reason why film music never became culturally acceptable was that it was heavily influenced by the Viennese and romantic traditions. For years, music critics considered this retrograde, but because films meant mass audiences, composers had to write music which could evoke feelings and contribute to an atmosphere-unlike the emotionally arid, earnestly intellectual ordeals which their concert hall equivalents were often producing. Some composers from the golden age of Hollywood could reasonably have claimed to produce work which could rank alongside music which “serious” composers of the time were writing. Steiner’s output was too colossal for quality control to have intruded much into his thinking (from 1932 to 1934 he “composed” more than 30 films a year). Yet King Kong (1933) is a fine achievement, as are the scores for The Big Sleep (1946) and White Heat (1949). The taste of Hollywood’s moguls was always conservative, romantic and grandiose, ensuring that attempts at musical modernism were few and unappreciated. George Antheil’s modernistic music for Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), Kurt Weill’s cantata for cash register at the start of Fritz Lang’s You and Me (1938), and Leonard Rosenman’s 12-tone score for The Cobweb (1955) were the exceptions which proved the rule. Three things gave new momentum to Hollywood score writing in the 1940s. Film noir allowed even an arch-romantic like Steiner to write with more edge, and brought an outstanding contribution from David Raksin, with his dissonant score for Force of Evil (1948). It also paved the way for one of the great director-composer collaborations, between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, in masterpieces like Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). Then came the commercially available soundtrack, with Miklos Rozsa’s Jungle Book (1942). The million-selling album which resulted from Around The World in Eighty Days (1956) encouraged record companies, including Columbia and Warner Brothers, to enter the movie business in 1958. The third new phenomenon was the spin-off hit. The eye-opener here was Dmitri Tiomkin’s ballad from High Noon (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'”) which, sung by Tex Ritter and released months before the film’s release in 1952, turned a picture feared to be a turkey into a box office sensation. (These developments combined to imperil the original film score, as more and more movies were made with simply a “compilation score”- fragments of hit records from the appropriate era, as in American Graffiti, Car Wash or The Big Chill.) The decline of the film musical during the 1960s contributed to the closing of many studios’ music departments; but fine movie composers kept on coming-among them Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and Ennio Morricone, whose soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s westerns are memorable. In the 1970s, John Williams’s elaborately symphonic, Steineresque score for Star Wars brought the orchestral soundtrack back into fashion-where it has stayed. Film composition is today more vibrant and varied than ever. The American Howard Shore is among the most talented and versatile. His music for Ed Wood is quirky, dissonant and unpredictable; his score for Seven dark and stark, with overtones of rap and house music. Yet fine film music remains insufficiently criticised and without a regular slot on any of our radio frequencies. It is a gaping hole in our cultural coverage.