To some, film soundtracks and scores are like seatbelts, always in use but rarely necessary, only noticeable when they aren’t working quite right. Others might give them a bit more credit, comparing them to the underlayer of pigment on a watercolor, always perceived but never consciously appreciated. I prefer to think about them like spices in a great dish. In your stereotypical film score, salt and pepper are the strings, required to pull the discrete elements of a film together (say, meaty cinematography, starchy dialogue and veggie acting) into a palatable whole. Dashes of garlic, cayenne pepper or oregano are the winds and brass, an essential aspect of all but the most basic of soundtracks. Too much of any of these elements will spoil the whole meal.
With this in mind, Jonny Greenwood, best known as Radiohead’s guitarist, toes the line of perfection with his score for The Master. Its absence from the Oscar nominations list is, for me, the snub of the year. Greenwood’s score complements the flavor of the on-screen drama without being trite, like strawberry jam on the perfect chicken biscuit (don’t knock it ’til you try it). It strikes the perfect balance between attention-grabbing, stylistically interesting music and tonal scenery. In a film with several Oscar-nominated dramatic performances and the brilliant directing of Paul Thomas Anderson, the music was striking enough to warrant a paragraph in the review I wrote of the film a few months ago. But, like all good movie music, it knows its place in the film as a whole.
For well over a decade, my mom has been gathering CDs to curate the ultimate road trip soundtrack. Most loved of the ever-evolving collection is Baz Luhrmann’s Something for Everybody, a compilation of remixed or newly-recorded versions of songs from Luhrmann’s plays and films that has lived in my mom’s round leather CD holder since before the new millennium. The tracks that comprise S.f.E. range from Holst’s “Jupiter” (from The Planets) to one of the funniest covers I’ve ever heard: someone named Snooper singing the Cardigans’ Lovefool. In all, it’s a damn good way to spend an hour on the highway.
Until I was in high school, this album was all I could attribute to Baz, but then I saw his fantastic 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. I was impressed by his ability to give freshness to a story that seems to have been done a hundred times, from high school stages to Hollywood to Broadway. The soundtrack, which draws mostly from ’90s indie music, might be my favorite part of the film. With artists such as Garbage and Radiohead, it opened my eyes to an entirely new musical realm. And more importantly, the songs support the plot without feeling inappropriately obtrusive, receding behind dialogue and action while stepping forth during transitions, landscapes and Luhrmann’s opulent party scenes. Pop-song soundtracks carry a different set of challenges than orchestral scores. Rather than highlighting the elemental components and novelty of individual instruments playing original music, pop songs—already polished morsels—can’t help but carry their own connotations. To most listeners, “Talk Show Host” isn’t part of the R+J soundtrack—it’s a Radiohead song. Given the band’s fame, everyone has prior knowledge to color their perception. Composer Craig Armstrong added orchestral explorations of the track with “Introduction to Romeo,” lending threads of connectivity and less obtuse tracks to the film’s otherwise single-heavy song list.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gives us an example of a soundtrack that oversteps its bounds, despite an otherwise excellent first installment of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy. The high-frame-rate presentation takes the immersion of 3D where it needs to go, and I loved the accuracy and completeness with which the source materials were used. But frankly, the soundtrack sucks. Howard Shore’s compositions for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy comprise one of the most recognizable soundtracks since Star Wars, and it lends an appropriate sense of scale and drama without obscuring the filmic excellence that appropriately swept the Oscars. For The Hobbit, Shore crafted such a cheesily dramatic soundscape that it somehow managed to spoil a plot I already knew. This is the atomic wing sauce of film scores, overpowering the basal elements on-screen: over-wrought dissonance ruined imminent downturns in the plot while sickly-sweet major progressions foretold success. Background music became foreground music in all the wrong ways, and all I wanted was to taste the chicken. Shore mercifully kept beloved motifs from LotR, especially “Concerning Hobbits,” but these reworks feel like tainted versions of the originals. The only new material I enjoyed was the Dwarvish folk music, made by setting Tolkien’s lyrics to new musical themes. The tonality and arrangement align perfectly with Tolkien’s Dwarvish culture; big, open intervals remind us of their resonant under-mountain homeland and deep vocal pedal tones demonstrate their massive testosterone levels (have you seen those beards?). These songs, full of flavor but elegantly simple, are a hearty shepherd’s pie hidden in Shore’s grotesque Vermonster of a score.
Most of you have probably seen previews for Luhrmann’s next film, The Great Gatsby. Two of the trailers that have been released so far feature dark covers of long-standing classics: U2’s “Love is Blindness” (1991) covered by Jack White and The Turtles’ 1967 hit “So Happy Together” covered by Filter. The song choices for the trailers both worry and excite me; they signal a return to Baz’s formula for R+J and S.f.E., but repeating the same process could deny any opportunity for originality. One difference between Gatsby and R+J is that the score will be written not by an orchestral composer but by the collaborative efforts of Jay-Z and The Bullitts. A film set during the Jazz era backed not by Ellington and Gershwin but instead a rap king and a funky electronic group might be enough of a cognitive dissonance to prove off-putting, or it could work brilliantly. Baz’s track record suggests the latter.
By asking Jay-Z to score his latest film, Luhrmann has added to the lengthening list of new-school musical minds scoring major films. In the past few years, original motion picture soundtracks have been composed by Grizzly Bear (Blue Valentine), Daft Punk (Tron: Legacy) and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (The Social Network). Two justifications for the trend jump to mind: using an artist with proven appeal provides both appealing music and an established fan base. Those feel like cynical reasons, and I’d really like to think production teams choose such musicians for more artistic reasons than pandering to mass audiences. Greenwood, Reznor, Daft Punk and Grizzly Bear all produced effective, noteworthy and sometimes award-winning scores, so maybe Hova will provide us with delicious cinema, too. Musically intriguing soundtracks should be the norm, not the exception, and we should have enough taste to enjoy their succulence.