My Unhealthy Obsession With Film Music



It’s out of control now. I can’t help myself. I’ve always played film music while I write, but recent developments have forced me to take stronger measures than ever before, like an addict moving up to crack.

I’d always had it under control. Okay, my soundtrack collection, which began when I was, oh, 10 years old, grew to several thousand copies of popular scores, then rare scores. But soundtracks changed. Great composers were dumped for pop hits owned by the studios, and the few orchestral pieces of any leth that were composed became orchestrally so dense and dull that very few now stand out.

This is what drove John Barry to leave behind Bond – because MGM insisted on employing flash-in-the-pan bands for title tracks instead of allowing him to develop themes heard throughout the films. But the history of film music – if you want to know about that, buy the essential volume by Mervyn Cooke – is filled with classical composers working within the great artistic medium of the 20th century.

Those scores by everyone from Shostakovitch and Korngold to Glass, Mertens and Nyman are easily collectable,  Having reached a virtually definitive end to the kind of albums I love, I’ve dived back into finding the ones that were never released by composers like Frank De Vol, Neil Hefti and Francis Lai.

With the aid of a nifty little app called Video2MP3 (it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, I know, but it does the job) you can burn the soundtracks to film clips found on YouTube and so track down those pesky missing tracks – which is how I found the score to ‘Krakatoa -East (sic) Of Java’.

As writers’ aids I can’t recommend film scores highly enough. If you’re working on a suspense sequence, some Bernard Herrmann will impose rigour on your work. Many modern soundtrack composers recycle the work of the greats, so in the early good Danny Elfman scores we hear Fellini’s Nino Rota, and in Alexander Desplat there are echoes of many other composers. But writers build on the works of others, so why not?

Notoriously, Stanley Kubrick fell in love with his temp tracks so much that he was reluctant to abandon them in the final edit, which is why there are two scores to ‘2001’, the temporary version and the commissioned one by Alex North.

Some soundtrack composers have a separate compositional life. Barry did before and during his career of writing scores, and Dario Marianelli does, with a new album every year that rounds up bits and pieces. It’s hard collecting soundtrack music because composers re-use material and rework it (when authors do this, there’s always an outcry).

I do now wonder if great scores have reached an end. With the exception of Desplat’s superb soundtrack for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ there’s been little of note from Hollywood in the past two or three years. Currently Spain is producing the most elegant scores, from Federico Jusid to Joan Valent and Roque Banos, all highly collectable.

13 comments on “My Unhealthy Obsession With Film Music”

  1. Jo W says:

    Good morning,Admin. What is unhealthy about film or any other good music? Enjoy!

  2. pheeny says:

    I love film music and I also see that TV series are sometimes forking out for original compositions – Morse and Dr Who springing to mind.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Stanley Kubrick used and added to his collection of favorite classic pieces to help develop his concept, script and story boards for “2001”, because he wanted to closely tie the complexity of classical music (the second and less transfer-specific original language) into the development and complexity of humanity’s other aspects of mental evolution: spoken and written words, the maths and the world representational and non-representational art. For Kubrick the studio’s commissioned score which came later in the process simply didn’t support his vision for the film and he fought against.)
    Kubrick was very much a hands-on man with a driven artist’s energy and concept and overnight he would alter/throw out a scene, a theme, damn near anything. It was battering to others. Getting him to finish a film and even consider holding to a budget on a film was a “nightmare” for the sponsoring studio, who saw his projecst stretching out to the funding horizon. And with the rather slim Clark novella that Kubrick had to work with, he had a great deal of room to shape and improvise and burn himself and everyone out.
    Several segments of the film gave him a great deal of difficulty: the beginning symbolism – proto-humans (speechless) beating a musical instrument (a drum), the drummers bone drumstick flying up into sky (an overnight redo), the bone symbolically altering into a slowly rotating space station with the beauty of the Blue Danube waltz playing (so much time was spent on selecting and defending that piece which Kubrickloved, labored over in order to suggest man’s great accomplishment and then allowing the viewer to enter the “serenity” and normalcy of the space station from an arriving PanAm space shuttle),and those mysterious, outpost discoveries – new scientific discoveries?, the final so mysterious regression of the sole-surviving astronaut, and then after K. D.’s amazing Black Hole – mental growth/evolution again – light passage and the astronaut’s final and his mysterious rebirth in an Eighteenth century drawing room – Age of Reason. What symbolism – and so labored over. From drumming without words to advanced Reason and then outer space.
    So classical music – a demanding form – was really the way Kubrick wanted to depict in sound the ability of mankind to escape the earth and all the needed detailed and micro to macro knowledge and skill required to accomplish such a feat. He never really seriously considered using the studio score, which he thought was “applied” to his story, while his collection of classical music that was an inherent part of what he wanted to say, his message. For him it was all so much more than a ripping good, pot-smoking feature, even if it left many initially saying: “Whaaaaa?”.
    Say, I didn’t mean to go into to this “in passing” reference, but…
    May I add Arthur C. Clark himself was at first not so for much of a “2001”, the film, fan – I believe – as it was too much a Kubrick project and, indeed, the fame it brought Clark and the several book sequels he was asked to write by his publisher were things he eventually went along with, but on reading them I felt there was some with some lack of enthusiasm on the writer’s part. Maybe, I’m wrong there.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Oh, so long and sprinkled wit the copyrighted assortment of flotsam. Some slack requested.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    That was a very interesting explication of Kubrick, Dan. I learn so much about process from this blog site.

  6. Mike Cane says:

    Harlan Ellison once said he listened to Ennio Morricone while writing. I listen to them while thinking. Barry Gray, Herrmann, John Barry, and I can’t get away from the songs of “Rock Follies.” As for modern scores, I thought the one for The Incredibles was just that — the way scores used to be. Ah, I also love the soundtrack to The Final Countdown, especially the end titles. Might be too militaristic for you, but it’s bold.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Yes, Dan’s input definitely makes me want to track 2001 down again. Most thought provoking – and I always enjoy the music!

  8. snowy says:

    While 2001 is a good film the middle hour is as baggy as one of Demis Roussos’ frocks, and would have been better for being tightened up.

    And while Leonard Rossiter in a straight role, might have worked back then, his later work does rather overshadow his performance now. [A similar effect can be experienced when watching ‘Deathwish’*, one minute you are immersed in the film and suddenly up pops ‘Nigel Tufnel’ completely breaking the mood.]

    [* Not reccomended except as a means of calibrating what was and wasn’t considered violent in the 1970s.]

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, Snowy, 2001 was baggy.
    A remaining question for me is this: Was HAL, the know-it-all computer, the next step in human kinds’ evolving intelligence. Probably yes. Therefore, HAL must have selected the most appropriate crew member on the ship and then cause him to have a “rebirth” in that 18th Century drawing room and, therefore, well ahead of the “drumming” stage of evolution. Thus jumping knowledge in the future way ahead of where it was at the film’s start.

  10. snowy says:

    Perhaps ‘baggy’ sounds a bit harsh, but if you are going to be ‘lyrical’ [in a visual sense] at the start and end of a film, the middle section should pull the audience along by the sleeve and show them all the interesting sights. Rather than slowly drift about like the spacestation does, visually pretty, but conveying no meaning.

    As to whatdoes it mean? the only person who knew is no longer on this planet, but there was an interview where he did explain it a bit.

    [Let me find a link…….. got it! It’s quite long and starts with Napoleon but then gradually expands out. Including a rather strange segway into the sexual orientation of HAL for some reason.]

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Snowy – Last comment on 2001 and thank you for the link – very interesting.
    My comments up above are my memory of conversations Kubrick had by phone and in person with someone who worked closely with him on the film for much of the three years, but from me it’s secondhand and conversations don’t always get carried out and the art process morphs..

  12. snowy says:

    Well you’ve done it now, there will be hordes of Kubrick nutters obsessives fans scouring the land trying to track you down and recover this infomation, out of your brain.

    I’d avoid the sort of places they are likely to hang out in for a few weeks, just in case. Big dark rooms with a flickering screen at one end are a particular risk.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Shhh…. Oh dear, I really know no more. Anybody have a bolt hole for lease? Attic space? Potter’s cape?

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