Saturday 18 April 2020

On demand: "Score: Cinema's Greatest Soundtracks"

Matt Schrader's brisk 90-minute primer on film scoring Score has the bright idea of inviting leading contemporary composers to talk through the history of the medium and the tools of their trade. There's a certain public service in the film's putting of faces to the names that have helped move the movies along in recent times. Schrader finds Marco Beltrami attaching a piano to the wind to fashion The Homesman's authentically primitive, elemental score; he checks in with Danny Elfman, barely seen publicly since his Oingo Boingo days, toiling in the dark as he has been for Tim Burton; and he swings by the archive to spot Hans Zimmer doing his best Ron Mael impersonation in the video for Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"

At every turn, the film cues up riffs all but guaranteed to release dopamine into the listener's brain (Rocky, The Pink Panther, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), doubly so when attached to many of the most indelible (and rewatched) sequences in cinema. And there are useful insights into the nuts-and-bolts composition and recording of such scores: Alexandre Desplat observes that orchestras in London generate a softer sound than their L.A. equivalents. (Is that because they're further away from the studios, hence notionally more relaxed? Score is pretty good on the pressures that come with composing for film in its current, corporate state: Elliot Goldenthal notes how agonising it is to enter a subway and see his name on a poster for some much-trumpeted future release, knowing he hasn't yet completed his work - a reminder that scores are generally added late in the day, after the images are settled upon.) 

One limitation, and it's a major one, given that definitive subtitle: Morricone aside (tellingly billed as the man behind Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission and The Hateful Eight), there is next to nothing on non-American cinema, which means no mention of Jacques Demy's collaborations with Michel Legrand, zip on A.R. Rahman and Bollywood. Instead, we get a long segment on John Williams - deserved, given he's one of a small handful of composers the man on the street could identify (from that Imperial March alone) - Mark Mothersbaugh telling us how he wrote the Rugrats theme (which isn't really cinema) on a toy piano, and bits on the Transformers and Fast & Furious sequels that really only point up the dearth of imagination in modern blockbuster scoring. (One score clanks like a robot; the other revs like an engine.) Fine, but there's a touch of the Thomas Edisons about its editorial line: other sound systems are and have been available, so long as you keep your ears open.

Score: Cinema's Greatest Soundtracks is streaming via the BBC iPlayer, and available on DVD (as Score: A Film Music Documentary) through Dogwoof.

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