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