Home / Film Music: Not Dying, Just Changing

Film Music: Not Dying, Just Changing

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A couple months back, blogger Scott Spiegelberg wrote about an article in the Palm Beach Post by Scott Eyman, which lamented "The death of memorable movie music." The article isn't up anymore but I have it cached, so I will quote liberally if you don't mind:

Composers like Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann aren't coming back anytime soon….More to the point, where are the Young Turks who can replace Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, or, for that matter, John "He-can't- last-forever-it-just-seems-that-way" Williams?

…The field isn't completely bare, but there aren't many big trees standing. Every once in a while, Randy Newman will write a score of beautiful Americana that skates perilously close to Copland parody and carries no relation whatsoever to his snarky songs; Patrick Doyle continues to do good work, from Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare films to Harry Potter, even if there aren't a lot of good movies that call for it; Danny Elfman only seems to work for Tim Burton, but he almost always writes good scores, even if he has only produced one with the density of a masterpiece: Edward Scissorhands.

…I'm so sick of music where there's nothing to it," says George Feltenstein, a Warner Bros. vice president. "What we're hearing represents a continuing cultural wearing away of the arts in society in general. This is a culture where Andrew Lloyd Webber is taken seriously as a composer, so it shouldn't be any surprise that we're gradually losing musical theater or good film scores."

…The question is whether this is a top-down problem, or a bottom-up problem; in other words, are we suffering from a paucity of talent, or is the problem systemic, within the studios?

…Lukas Kendall is the founder of Film Score Monthly and has produced dozens of soundtrack CDs. He seems to come down on the institutional side of the problem, as well as pointing out that "some of this is like arguing about the best rock band ever. A lot of it is a matter of taste, and some of it is beyond objective qualities. That said, the old stuff is better."

And blah blah blah. "The old stuff is better." How many times have you heard this? And of the times you heard it, how many times was the speaker A) an old bat, B) kissing the ass of old bats, C) deeply under the influence of old bats, or D) submerged in some schlocky-but-righteous nostalgia trip?

This is part of the culture of the aging, the "everything-was-better-in-my-day" crowd that has grown to include the Baby Boomers. Now I take a lot of shots at the Boomers, but it's really not their fault; they make the common mistake of believing that because they're the largest group of people in American history, they are therefore the greatest. But we all age and we all eventually hate what our kids are listening to–not because it's better or worse or what-have-you, but simply because it's different. It does not become us to sneer at that, even though I've done it many times and will happily do so again.

That's what contemporary film music is, too: different. The swelling, grandiose, unfetteredly dramatic scale of Hermann, Steiner, Morricone, Goldsmith, and Williams and their 8,000-piece orchestras is fading away not because the quality is declining, but because that style of film music is passe. It was music made for a time when films were supposed to be tremendous, sweeping triumphs on Shakespearean or Wagnerian levels.

Steiner, for example, is most famous for providing the score to Gone with the Wind. We've all seen it, of course, but when was the last time you really looked at it? Every damn shot of that movie, from the opening credits onward, is designed to be—ahem—


It had a program, an overture, and an intermission, and a four-hour runtime to boot, for God's sake. And did you see those opening credits? Jee-sus.

Same with the famous triumphs of Hermann (the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock), Goldsmith (Patton, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and Williams (Star Wars, Superman). These were huge movies presented in a huge way, so naturally the music, even the subtler pieces on here, was expected to have a certain epic quality to it.

And when we have movies that are epic today, we make epic music. James Horner, anyone? Or how about that Elfman character that the article says "only seems to work for Tim Burton?" Gee, seems to me he's recently scored two Men in Black films, two Spiderman films, The Simpsons, and Desperate Housewives. Even the TV shows here are heavily orchestrated themes, and the movie scores are tremendously dramatic and sweeping.

Elfman's someone to look at more closely here, methinks. This is the guy who fronted Oingo Boingo, you may remember; they did the theme to Weird Science, showed up in Rodney Dangerfield's classic Back to School, and of course who could forget…one of the Teen Wolf films? If you know any of those, you know that the music is extremely poppy, but also extremely quirky. Which is the way a lot of film music is headed these days, thanks to Mr. Elfman. You may know the name Mark Mothersbaugh, another quirky guy from a weird '80s rock band (Devo) who's becoming more and more visible in the film-scoring universe (Lords of Dogtown, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Non-rock, but no less peculiar, is Hal Willner, who's always willing to dabble in the vanguard. Terence Blanchard, the young jazz trumpeter who's also scored most of Spike Lee's movies, has branched out to other films too (although his work with Lee remains his best), forging himself a completely idiosyncratic but nonetheless impressive catalogue. And T-Bone Burnett? The Coen Brothers' favorite music guy, both as a song selector and a composer/arranger? I trust that this point makes itself. Film music and its composers are taking on a far more experimental, quirky, but no less appropriate or memorable role.

We're in an era where Prince, after all, has an (deserved) Oscar for Best Soundtrack in Purple Rain. "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won this year's Best Song at the Oscars, outraging conservatives (the same people who are most likely to be heard complaining about the decline of film music (see options A-D above)). That should say something to you: the mode of the music is changing, which causes, as Plato observed, "the walls of the city to shake." And okay! Let them shake! It's a Hell of a lot better than hearing how much better the city was back when blah blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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About Michael J. West

  • sdtom

    The major reason I feel there is a lack of truly thematic material these days is the directors/producers don’t want you humming anything when leaving the theater. The days of the wagner/leitmotif have passed us by and we are into a landscape type material for many of the films especially if a budget is involved. But they have the technology today so a lot more is released than ever before. Do we need the soundtrack to Pulse?

  • zingzing

    if anyone (ahem, steve) thinks that there is a “comparative artistic lack in and of the new stuff,” (referring to music in general,) then one has stopped listening.

  • Steve,

    1) I don’t know how my comment in #9 warranted such nastiness. I certainly didn’t undertake any of the name calling that you did in #19 (at least before it was edited), nor did I violate BC’s comments policy. Why such hostility?

    2) I still didn’t “get it.” The quote you posted from my article didn’t really give me any context for your original statement. Combined with the unwarranted personal attack, it just confused me that much more. I finally had to go to your website to figure out that

    3) You seem to have missed much of the point. On your website, you say that I am “talking about orchestral film music vs. ‘pop’ cues in this context“, which is not exactly true. I mention Horner and Elfman in the article and Howard in the comments, all of whom are orchestral film composers. Elfman has pop credentials, but the only thing his pop music has in common with his film scores is their quirkiness.

    What I was talking about was closer to “epic, dramatic, nearly Wagnerian film scoring of old vs. newer, quirkier, more angular and postmodern film scoring.” The references to “Purple Rain” and “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp” (which, of course, are not score cues) was merely to point out that the accepted standards for music in the movies was changing, not to say that scores themselves have gone pop. I don’t think they have; pop sensibilities may have been soaked into the orchestral mixture, but that’s hardly new and it makes for new directions for the orchestra.

    That said, I do object to your implication that knowing one’s way around orchestral music makes one more “musically literate” than knowing pop. Knowing BOTH, that’s musical literacy.

  • Dear Michael J.,

    Here’s my response to your cutesy bulls–t in post #9.

    “And blah blah blah. “The old stuff is better.” How many times have you heard this? And of the times you heard it, how many times was the speaker A) an old bat, B) kissing the ass of old bats, C) deeply under the influence of old bats, or D) submerged in some schlocky-but-righteous nostalgia trip?”

    THIS is what the hell I’m talking about. [Edited]

    Hate, Steve

  • At the risk of steering the conversation back away from minimalists, I’d like to give props to James Newton Howard as well. A film composer whose name I’d seen everywhere (King Kong, Sixth Sense the theme from ER), but I didn’t notice how good he was until hearing his work in Collateral on HBO this evening.

  • zingzing

    mark… try reich, reilly, ligetti…

  • Good article, but I do not fully agree. Radiers of the Lost Ark or Star Wars or even the original Superman were made greater by thier iconic music that was unique to those stories. The score was used to enhance the story. Now, the score is the star, made to boost sales of the soundtrack.
    Remember “Lost Boys”? Good movie, better soundtrack. The soundtrack was released weeks before the movie and sold incredibly.
    If I had to choose between on or the other, I would take John Williams over any of today’s compossers, though Elfman is the exception. He is a nice blend of the two styles. The “Beetlejuice” score was great.

  • Glass takes the ideas of others? that’s interesting, i can easily see why people don’t like his music, but i’ve never thought he sounded like anybody else.

  • nugget

    I agree with zing. Philip Glass doesn’t seem to bring much to the table.

  • zingzing

    dude… i had several of his albums and couldn’t make it through the soundtrack for a 30 minute nature short.

    to me, that kind of music (much like metal, jazz, rap, etc) has to be absolutely stunning on some level (there is no “yes, but it is very, very well done for what it is” for me in these genres). i just don’t find terrible amounts of originality and/or excitement to be found in glass’ music. it’s all surface… which wouldn’t be a problem in some forms of music, but in minimalism, i find the idea behind the music to be just as important to my enjoyment as the music itself.

  • I don’t agree with you about Philip Glass, zing, and suspect you would change your mind if you’d heard more.

  • zingzing

    ew–philip glass… he’d be great if he wasn’t so dull, dull, dull. as far as musical texture goes, he’s great. as far as any development… nothing. don’t get me wrong, i love minimalism, but glass just takes the ideas of others and reduces them to the lowest common denomentor. he understands the sound, but none of the theoretical qualities, the processes, the ideas.

    i just don’t like the guy.

    i’m trying to figure out what steve is saying as well… can’t quite figure it. is he saying one has to be a musician to understand–no, appreciate–music? that’s obviously not true. is he saying anything relevant? not sure. actually, i’m pretty sure. that he isn’t. “musical literacy…” does that mean reading music? not sure. who’s the “they” he speaks of?

  • two ‘modern’ film scorers that i rate right up there are Thomas Newman (American Beauty & others) and Philip Glass.

  • Dear Steve,

    What the Hell are you talking about?

    Love, Mike

  • Okay, so non-musicians don’t “care” about music. Orchestral texture or just a drum beat. Screechy lead singer or lyric soprano. So what? It’s just music, as far as they’re concerned.

    I get that.

    Not everyone cares about what I care about. Live and let live. No need to put other people down because I’m dedicated to musical literacy and they aren’t.

    Point taken.

  • Good column! I have recently started to have a better appreciation for film music. I think it is my evolvimg love for film. I am coming to love putting in a score and letting it take me back to the film, or just letting me enjoy a beautiful piece of music. It is interesting to here film music that can work just as well by itself as it can in conjunction with a film.

  • Dr. Zira

    Actually, The Coen Brothers’ usual composer is Carter Burwell.

    And it’s HERRMANN, not HERMANN.

  • nugget

    I think if film composers knew what was good for them they’d follow the example of wind ensemble/choral composer Eric Whitacre. I think he is the future of grandiose emotional music.

  • zingzing

    dude, there aren’t that many good ones. most movie music is (and always has been) schlocky, unoriginal and dull. in fact, i like it when a director can use preexisting music instead of having some hack write cheesy incidental music anyway.

    as for incidental soundtrack music that actually works, carl stalling and looney tunes is the only thing that really matters. now that is amazing stuff.


  • All right, fine. Badalamenti too. Jesus, I can’t name EVERY good composer. I was just giving examples.

    Nugget, actually that was completely relevant. I’m talking about people who get hung up on their genre-of-choice. I was thinking about their refusal to cotton to innovations in that genre, but sometimes they embrace innovation in their genre so enthusiastically that they refuse to acknowledge that it happened in another genre first.

    Same coin, two sides.

  • zingzing

    and what about badalamenti? horner’s good, but elfman can be annoying. i’m not much for movie music these days… never was. my favorite movie soundtrack is “texas chainsaw massacre,” but that never came out as a soundtrack…

  • nugget

    good article. I tend to agree.

    I was talking with my wife today about when we used to listen to George Crumb in intro to music (freshman year of college). I can’t remember the name of the piece, but he included a screeching tire sound in it…and well, because he was GEORGE CRUMB (ooo ahhh) our TA couldn’t get over how genius it was to include a sound affect in his piece. I thought to myself, “rappers do that ALL the time…they do it in their sleep!! what makes it so Einstein when a contemporary composer does it?”

    anyways, that may be a bit irrelevant…but this nostalgia exists everywhere in music. I’m glad you’re pointing it out in film music. I’m a huge Horner/Elfman fan.