Saturday, May 3, 2008

Too much film music, or not enough?

I have noticed lately that music is now everywhere. There is no respite from piped in constant recorded music, no matter where your day takes you. Your radio wakes you. Your car plays CD or XM or something as you drive to work. Stop in the Starbucks for their pimped CD of the day. Next it's elevator music up to the office, where someone has your local easy listening/lite rock/best of the 70's/smooth jazz station barely audible in the background. At lunch your favorite cafe has whatever it's ethnic groove is helping with the atmosphere, even in the bathrooms. Your evening run is enhanced by your Ipod playing YOU radio on shuffle and there is NO BREAK.

Recently I watched the British film from last year, "Notes On A Scandal". Veteran composer (and I like to stress the last 2 syllables of that word when referring to him) Phillip Glass did the score, which basically is non-stop throughout the movie. I felt that it undermined what power the film had, by providing little dynamics to the soundtrack. It's constantly there, so it's use has no effect whatsover. I also watched most of "Reign Over Me", and I found that that, too, had a continuous musical wallpaper going on. Adam Sandler's grief-stricken character uses his music on headphones to escape the reality of his situation, so the use of wall to wall music seems to make a little sense, at least. However, if music is constant, then to where exactly is he retreating when he pulls the phones over his ears?

This is why it felt that "No Country For Old Men" had so much more intensity than other recent movies. What music there was in the film was minimal at best, completely unmemorable, and it's absence helped the film have weight. So many scenes from films in the last few years would be naked and weak without the score. The music covers up a lack of real drama, and often a lack of skilled acting! But in "No Country..", the acting, direction and action are so tight, that music is not needed to manipulate the audience.

The best scores are those that provide mood, and an audio hook to the film. I think of "Chinatown", "Taxi Driver", "Vertigo" and "Jules and Jim" as fine examples of this. The zither from "The Third Man" is almost like another character in the film. It seems like filmmakers have lost music's purpose, and now rely on it for a bed on which to lay their pictures, or worse yet, a sort of manipulative cover-up to mask the blemishes of their sub-standard work.

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