Film Music Q & A
You ask, I answer...
Some of you might know I used to run a film music newsletter a few years ago. While the format was quite different to this one, one thing I used to include was a question-and-answer feature, and it’s something I always enjoyed. So I decided to bring it back or at least see if anyone had any interesting questions they wanted to pose. There wasn’t much interest if I’m honest, but there were a few thrown at me, so let’s see what they are and if we can answer them.
Who are the three biggest names in women in cinematic music, past and present? - or future of you know of a rising star! - Violet
An excellent question. Women in film music are still very much a minority, and this needs to be sorted so they have more of an equal footing, certainly in terms of opportunities. The three biggest names, though… that’s an interesting one. How does one measure that? Awards? Box office success? Let’s see. I think the box office top spot goes to Pinar Toprak, who scored the Marvel superhero flick “Captain Marvel,” which made around $1.1bn worldwide. Hot on her heels is Hildur Guðnadóttir and “Joker,” which pulled in $1bn - she also won an Oscar for her score in 2020. Then there are some collaborations, such as Deborah Lurie, who wrote additional music for 2007’s “Spider-Man 3,” which made just under $900m. Another Marvel flick was this year’s “Thor: Love & Thunder,” which was composed by Nami Melumad and Michael Giacchino and made $761m. And, of course, “Gladiator,” which had Hans Zimmer sharing credit with Lisa Gerrard. That movie made a mere $460m.
As I mentioned, Hildur Guðnadóttir won an Oscar for “Joker,” while Rachel Portman won one for “Emma” in 1997 and was further nominated for “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.” 1998 also saw Anne Dudley win an Oscar for her score to “The Full Monty. That’s it so far, although Hildur could pick up another one next year, with the buzz around her music for two films from this year, “Women Talking” and “Tár.” Personally speaking, I’d say Portman, Wendy Carlos, who scored “The Shining” and “Tron," and Mica Levi, who stunned everyone with “Under the Skin,” and is continually writing refreshing and interesting scores. One for the future? I’ll answer that another time…
What are the movies that should have been exceptional, that were undermined by their scores? What are the movies that didn’t deserve to see the light of day, that the score made tolerable if not exceptional? - Bear
This is where I probably step into divisive territory. I thought “Dunkirk,” by Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch, and Lorne Balfe hurt the film terribly. I understand it’s intention, it just felt like it was suffocating too much, and not enough interesting variations. Ironically, only the Elgar arrangement really did anything for me. “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” was another which I found pretty boring, and it distracted me a lot from the film, which itself I didn’t love. That’s off the top of my head, but I could probably go for a while on this. The same with the other question - “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a terrible movie with a fantastic score by Michael Giacchino that makes it watchable, albeit not by much. “Rambo III” is another for me; Jerry Goldsmith’s score turns a potential snoozer into an exciting action epic, even though, well, it’s rubbish.
I have a question. In the context of popular cinema, in my mind there has been a fundamental shift in certain eras of what is "acceptable" as a score. In a welcomed way, mind you. Just curious what your take is on the rise of avant-garde/ambient/experimental scores of late. - Dustin
I love this question, and there certainly has been a shift, one which has exposed the fragilities and biases of many in film score circles. I’m very open to anything that might make a film score, especially if it’s something innovative or stylistically fresh - “acceptable” is such a loaded word, and the biggest question is, acceptable to whom? I mean, many film score fans exploded when Reznor and Ross came on the scene with “The Social Network,” and further exploded when it won an Oscar, and there are still people with huge chips on their shoulders when it comes to the success of Mica Levi. It seems some people have some narrow idea of what is an acceptable film score, but I am certainly not one of them.
Holiday movies obviously come with a lot of recycled well-known music. Are there any holiday movies you can say have original scores or music that adds to the film and doesn’t fall into the Christmas musical saccharine trope? - Kristina
Certainly. In terms of excellent scores that do interpolate existing music like carols, Dimitri Tiomkin’s wonderful music for “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a big one, and so is John Williams’ “Home Alone,” both of which really do a lot for the films while sounding fresh, even when they do reference other music. The Jim Carrey animated “A Christmas Carol,” which was scored by Alan Silvestri, also takes the opportunity to use Christmas carols, and it works wonderfully. Interestingly, Michael Kamen’s score for the perennial holiday favourite “Die Hard” also uses pre-existing music, although in his case, he picked Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Jerry Goldsmith’s “Gremlins” is an incredible score that stands on its own as a Christmas classic, as are two from Danny Elfman: “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” although obviously that one’s a musical too, and “Batman Returns.” The latter is absolutely amazing and feels like the holidays put through a translator set to German expressionism and ‘80s goth. If you want one that doesn’t sound like Christmas, that’s the one to go for.
Feel free to send more questions in! You can leave them as comments below or reply to my Twitter.
I mentioned my interview with composer VAAAL about his music to the great new horror film “A Wounded Fawn,” and you can now read that at Fangoria.
Have a better one.
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Not that Ghostbusters 2 is a terrific film, but the score definitely doesn’t do it any favors. For me it makes the film less watchable. Great questions and answers! I’ll have to submit one next time.
These were great!