Theme and Variations

Last week, Tony Zhou from Every Frame a Painting released another fantastic video about the music in the Marvel Cinematic Universe[ref]Can we find a less cumbersome name for this thing?[/ref] I don't have much to add, but to summarize why Marvel movies don't have particularly memorable music:

  • The fashionable idea among directors and producers is that music should not draw attention to itself.
  • Filmmakers working on large, expensive blockbusters are risk averse, and so use music that fits a formula they know will work.
  • The use of temp scores encourages composers to create music that sounds like other anonymous music.

To follow up on the temp score issue, EFaP also released a second video comparing final scores and their (alleged) temp track equivalents.

Dan Golding also put out a response video, focusing on the work of one composer in particular: Hans Zimmer. His use of electronics and synthesizers was innovative, but also provided a way to create music that was considerably cheaper than hiring an orchestra of expensive musicians.

If you talk to actual film score enthusiasts, they'll tell you that this is nothing new. Or that the real problem is replacing the composer on each sequel hinders any kind of thematic consistency. One thing that really helped the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises Tony references at the start is the fact the composer John Williams' themes are present for most if not all of the films.

What's a theme, you ask? The idea goes back to Richard Wagner's operas, where a musical melody or phrase would be associated with a character or idea. When Siegfried appears on stage, you'll hear his theme, or lietmotif. When Wotan and Brunhilde are talking about Siegfried, you'll hear it too.

The last movie franchise I can think of that really cut against the grain for all this was the original Lord of the Rings, composed by Howard Shore. There are literally dozens of themes introduced throughout the three films, representing everything from The Shire, the Fellowship, to the Ring itself.

As someone who loves music, and film scores in particular, I think a film's music often gets glossed over in favor of gushing over the director or cast. But this is a nice change.

The anonymity in the music is something I didn't fully appreciate until I was thinking about EFaP's video afterward. In LotR, there are many, many moments where the score swells to the front of the sound mix, and the composer gets to speak instead of the actors.

One thing that hit me when I saw Lawrence of Arabia on film in a theater several years ago was just how much the music filled the room.[ref]If we're brushing up on Wagner, I'll also point out that he didn't like to call his work "operas." He preferred the term Gesamtkunstwerk (Gesundheit), or a "total work of art." Something that synthesized all art forms into a massive creative achievement- narrative, theater, music, painting, costuming, etc. I know I'm biased, but I think movies also fit the bill.[/ref]

But I don't think cannibalizing the same sources is just a problem for film scores. This isn't unique to film scores- I think movies in general too often pull inspiration only from other films. And it's not just sequels and reboots, either.

More on that another time.