(A double-sized blog because we love you)
When John Carpenter made Halloween in 1978 he had barely enough budget to shoot a feature—and zilch to spend on a composer. Imagine Halloween – or any movie, for that matter – without its score to establish mood, temper the pacing, and otherwise manipulate your brain.
Ever scrappy and enterprising, Carpenter booked some sessions at a studio in LA and, over three days, improvised a score on a synthesizer.
As he told NPR last year, “I recorded five or six themes. And this wasn’t scoring-to-picture. This was just scoring blind, and then I would cut the themes into the movie. I had to guess at various moods. What surprised me is, they actually fit pretty well into the movie.”
Now in his early 70s, having all but sworn off directing after so many ups and downs, a strange new turn in Carpenter’s career is underway. He’s taking his movie scores on the road for sold-out concerts. He goes up on stage with his synth, maybe sometimes a pair of sunglasses if he’s really feeling it. And while his movies play out on a screen behind him, he tickles the keyboard.
And the fans flock.
Movie scores have always attracted their devotees, and the iconic opuses from Psycho and Star Wars and Jaws and 2001: A Space Odyssey are of course engrained in everyone’s head from youth, the sounds utterly inseparable from the images onscreen.
The advent of iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, among other streaming services and media platforms, has only bolstered the popularity of music scores to unprecedented heights. It’s moviegeek culture benefiting from better resources at its disposal. Adherents can dissect every minute detail that make movie music great—and forever debate. Did you know that they were planning to cut “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz?
The composer’s contribution is thus getting its long-awaited due, and names like Hans Zimmer (Christopher Nolan’s go-to guy for movies like Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy); Spaghetti Western wizard, Ennio Morricone (the cryptic whistler from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as 400+ other scores); and The Simpsons composer, Danny Elfman (Tim Burton’s moodman for Batman and the like) are almost as well known and carefully studied as directors and actors—at least by real cinephiles and audiophiles.
Movie scores have played an integral role in the motion picture experience since the silent film era. Even in the second and third decades of the 20th century, up until the 1929 arrival of sound with “talkies.” That revolution was forecasted by the now-shocking Jazz Singer, a 1928 silent movie that used radically-new sound technology for a few singing scenes—most famously, when Al Jolson dresses in blackface and sings about his “mammie”).
Back then, the moviegoer’s experience would be supplemented by the services of an organist up front. The player improvised a score as the film unfolded, or, more rarely, read music from sheets included with the distribution of the movie. For finer affairs, a full orchestra went hard in the back of the theater.
As a callback to that golden era, today in LA you can spend a night at the Hollywood Bowl and see your favorite movie – The Pink Panther, The Sound of Music – with a full orchestra playing live, just like the old days.
As with any other craft, there’ve been trends from which the great names stand out as either brilliant practitioners or maverick deviants.
Film Independent does a great job of running us through some of these trends, decade by decade, beginning roughly with Max Steiner’s cultivation of leitmotif with 1933’s King Kong. A leitmotif is a piece of music meant to accompany a particular character. Think of Darth Vader walking on screen and you’ll know what they’re talking about. (His theme’s called “Imperial March,” by the way, as many a biting YouTube comment will insist.)
Click here for the Guardian UK’s take on the 50 Greatest Film Scores of All Time.
The scores to American movies of the 1950s were both products of, and conduits for, the explosion of jazz. Frank Sinatra’s brilliant and overlooked heroin drama The Man with the Golden Arm features some dark, snappy brilliance from Elmer Bernstein, and director Elia Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire makes good sultry use of New Orleans-influenced sex music and menace to set the scene.
Scoring a movie is a collaborative effort among director, composer, sound engineers, editors, and music directors. Today’s musical soundtrack is usually an amalgam of original music (the score) and some needle-dropped songs chosen for the film, such as James Horner’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, written for Celine Dion, and forever tied to Jack and Rose’s iconic kiss on the bow.
If you’re looking to see when popular music started making its way into the pictures, have a look at this punk-minded 1964 short film by Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (a huge influence on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets; whole thing’s free on YouTube), where the only thing you hear is pop music of the times, the film itself being a montage cut to the rhythms.
Whether it’s original songs, like “Oh My Darling” in High Noon, the hypnotic synth sounds of The Exorcist’s “Tubular Bells,” or the old school innovations of a composer like Bernard Hermann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo) —music is as integral a part of film as it is to life.
But you won’t find a playlist of its greatest hits on Focus@Will. There’s a reason for that. Our music is specifically designed to not evoke a given mood, to not sync with specific images, to not coincide with particular tempos.
But there are similarities between movie music and Focus@Will tracks. Think of our channels as a soundtrack to your nonconscious mind. You couldn’t switch out the scores of Gone With the Wind and Trainspotting without turning both films into farces.
Yet our music will work, increasing your effectiveness (without drawing attention to itself), whether you’re writing, coding, accounting, painting—or working on the next great movie. Check it out for yourself at focusatwill.com.