Friday, April 20, 2018
  • Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016
Casey Affleck (l) and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea” (photo by Claire Folger/courtesy of Amazon Studios)
To Cast A Spell Upon Your Picture

Late last summer I had the great pleasure of seeing the premiere of the documentary “Score,” written and directed by Matt Schrader

It’s a wholly entertaining glimpse into the artistry, craft and process of many of today’s greatest film composers:  John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Quincy Jones, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Randy Newman, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Brian Tyler and many many more.  (I know, where are the women in that list?!  The director was asked and sheepishly deflected the question.)

For those of us in ‘the business’ there wasn’t much to learn—still, it was mesmerizing to hear these musical magicians talk about their approach to a project—the preparation, repeated screenings, initial thematic sketches, the self-doubt, introspection, meetings with director, the sitting alone…stirring the muse.  The film cut back and forth between composers speaking to camera and scenes from their movies—generally familiar bits which left the viewer / listener nodding ‘Ah yes, who could forget?!’ (i.e.“ET”, “Jaws”, “Titanic”, “The Social Network” and on and on..)  Then into the vast chambers we went (Abbey Road Studios, for example), where 90 brilliant musicians were gathered to bring a written composition to life.  An exhilarating experience.

In the heat of the Great Campaign of 2016, and the subsequent reordering of the Known Universe (aka the election), I’d pretty much forgotten about “Score” until recently, after seeing several movies and bingeing on Season 1 of “The Crown.”  I was reminded of the power of music-to-picture—the dance of emotions, playful to violent, heart wrenching to hilarious, intimate to grandiose—the spectrum of human feeling…contained in the score of an unfolding tale.  The sonic “velvet rope”, guiding the viewer through his/her emotional experience.

The opening theme of Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” was composed by Hans Zimmer.  It, along with the hypnotic title graphic by Patrick Clair of Antibody, perfectly sets the stage for the intrigues to follow.   

The composer Lesley Barber created the original music score for Kenneth Lonergan’s haunting “Manchester By The Sea,” capturing the bone-chilling beauty of the New England setting, and the unsettled emotions of the central characters.  Her music feels a part of the atmosphere itself, as if it were blown in on a nor’easter.  

Another remarkable film, set further south and a few decades earlier, is Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” the story of an interracial couple whose marriage, then illegal in the State of Virginia, resulted in the couple’s arrest, and jailing.  The understated score by David Wingo is his latest collaboration with the director, whom he has worked with since Nichols’ student film days.  The music seldom soars…doesn’t try to pull your heart from your chest.  It stays true to the pulse of the film’s modest characters, and their inner anguish. I’d gladly see it again if you want to go…

In the category of the fantastical we have J. K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (4.3 stars out of 5 according to me).  As legendary composer James Newton Howard observes, “I approached it very, very seriously—wrote it like I would write any human drama, but I tried to give it a distinct sound.  Because it is magical, after all!” 

Even more “magical” (in my humble..) is Marvel’s latest surprise, “Dr. Strange.”  Visually, it’s almost hallucinatory, even if you’ve seen some version of these VFX before.  Undoubtedly because they’re used purely in the service of the story itself.  But those effects and that story are made real/plausible thanks to the extraordinary soundtrack, its combination of orchestral and electronic musical elements and brilliant sound design. 

As director Scott Derrickson said, “Michael Giacchino’s score does so much more than support the visual images, it adds new, additional layers of meaning and emotion to the film. The ‘Doctor Strange’ theme is memorable, moving and yes, magical. I don’t know what the movie would be without it.”  Hell yea.

In our business, we are often approached with these words:  “We don’t have money in the budget for original music—do you have anything on the shelf?”  Our first answer might be, “Sure, we’ll look and get back to you.”  

But let’s try another answer:  “You do have money for original music, and it’ll be much better for your picture—let’s talk.  We’ll find a way.”  Hmm… I’m gonna make that a New Year’s resolution.

About the author

Lyle Greenfield is the founder of BANG Music and past president of the Association of Music Producers (AMP).  Greenfield has been a driving force behind the AMP Awards for Music and Sound, which debuted in New York City in 2013.

Contact Lyle via email