Monday, September 5, 2022

Composing on Camera

[bit of meandering post here...I don't get to my main topic until the tenth paragraph]

I've been thinking about music in movies recently on a variety of fronts. I recently re-watched the 2012 film A Late Quartet, which is a pretty rare example of a mainstream movie set almost entirely within the world of classical music.* Although Philip Seymour Hoffman is amazing as the insecure second violinist, Christopher Walken is fun to watch as a soft-spoken aging cellist, and the story explores some interesting themes (not just musical ones), my main issue here is with the music - not with the late Beethoven quartet which is a main "character," but with the soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti.

This is not intended as a slight against Badalamenti's skills, but his music has an overtly emotional "here's what you should be feeling" tone which, while suitably autumnal (since the film focuses on a character's journey with age), simply feels too intrusive and sentimental. If they'd asked me (they didn't!), I'd have suggested that the Beethoven quartet featured (Op. 131) would stand out better if the dramatic scenes were allowed to play with little or no music - except for Beethoven. As it is, the drama tends towards a "soap opera" level of melodrama, and Badalamenti's score leans into that very strongly. (You may hear it for yourself here. Basically a late Romantic, Elgar/Delius sort of sound dominated by warm strings and warm woodwinds, especially clarinet. Weeping melodies, poignant harmonies...nothing offensive, but somehow so pointedly emotional as to sound generic. Conventional in a way that is the opposite of late Beethoven.)

Again, this is not to judge the composer too harshly. In this interview, he so much as says his goal was to underline the emotion: "Yaron [the director] and I agreed that the score should emote passion and pain. The characters are beset with a series of hardships which are all very personal. We needed to feel this." But did we need his music in order to feel this? What's been curious for me to realize over the years is that, as much as I love music, I don't love having music tell me what to feel in scenes which are supposed to feel genuine. (Opera and musical theater are something else, of course.) A good script and good acting should be enough, and I wish directors were less afraid of silence. (My own feelings may be colored in part by the fact that my ears are too easily drawn to music, so even background music can be distracting.)

A re-watch of 1967's The Graduate a few weeks ago confirmed this for me. As iconic as the Simon and Garfunkel songs are, they are used only intermittently and quite purposefully, not as window dressing. Yes, it's ironic that its most famous song is The Sound of Silence, but the sound of silence is genuinely important in many scenes, especially some of the most uncomfortable ones. Many of the best, most intense scenes play out with no music.

In the case of A Late Quartet, I believe that letting Beethoven's music be the only music would have better underlined the otherworldly power of late Beethoven. There's something odd for me about being pulled back and forth between two musical worlds in one film, and though Badalamenti is not trying to be Beethoven, I can't help but feel that his music suffers by comparison. (In fairness, it may have been difficult enough to get a movie made about a string quartet, so perhaps they thought it helpful to portray these characters as regular people by using regular film music.)

As it happens, my favorite movie I saw this summer is a tiny little French film, Petite Maman, which boldly uses almost no music, allowing quiet scenes to play out with silence as a powerful frame for the subtleties of the story. About an hour into the 73-minute runtime, two young girls briefly discuss music while taking turns listening through headphones - we see them listen, but we hear nothing. Suddenly, an entire scene plays out scored by a bright, Europop song which....well, it's not really my cup of tea, but it still packs an incredible dramatic punch because of what has preceded. In this case, the music is very emotional and absolutely helps us understand an emotional breakthrough, but its power comes from the fact that there has been so much quiet before this moment.

Of course, there are movies in which wall-to-wall music makes sense. I rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy this summer, and John Williams' space opera score works wonders there. Just try watching these deleted scenes which have no underscoring (or sound effects or significant editing, to be fair) and one can see how much this film would not work if it relied on its screenplay and acting.

A Late Quartet also offers an opportunity to think about the contrast between diegetic music (music actually experienced as music by characters on screen) and any other type of music which is added for the viewer's benefit (?). I'll take this opportunity and any opportunity I can to observe that Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind is the best example I know of a movie which relies almost entirely on diegetic music - the performances of the three folk groups created for this story, with the original songs sung by the actors, are the key to its magic. The songs are fun and sometimes poignant, and we feel how closely connected they are to the characters.

Of course, the structural simplicity and brevity of folk songs make it much easier to incorporate them in full than it would be with a 40-minute string quartet. It would also be far too much to ask the actors from A Late Quartet to play Beethoven for real, though they do an admirable enough job faking it, and the Brentano String Quartet's actual playing is fantastic. Nonetheless, I wish the director/producers had been brave enough to let the music speak for itself a bit more. Imagine using this frenetic Presto instead of the generic Jogging music Badalamenti wrote. Imagine letting us feel the cold New York scenery in which these lost characters live with this instead of this. As it is, the only really complete Beethoven we get is when the closing scene performance of Op. 131's finale continues all the way through the credits. 


Now to shift gears to the main thing I wanted to write about: characters writing music on screen. There's a very special subset of diegetic music which occurs when we get to see/hear a composer write the music as part of the story. It requires a good bit of hubris to think that film can really take us inside this mysterious process which, after all, probably happens most often inside a composer's head, but it's surely the kind of thing that interests people. We all would like to look inside that creative process. 

I'm going to cite three favorite examples, though I'd be curious to know if you know of others. First up, I'll steal a scene cited in a memorable sequence from That's Entertainment, Part 2. As absurd and over-the-top as it is, this imaginary carriage ride in which Johan Strauss II writes Tales from the Vienna Woods is kind of brilliant, and it's ridiculously fun to watch. I particularly appreciate how slowly it develops and that we get to see brief moments of the composer feeling stuck and unsatisfied, though these blocks are quickly removed. 

The second scene I have in mind is probably the most famous and acclaimed of its type. Although I have mixed feelings about the overall success of Amadeus as a film (mostly due to some of the acting, and a few stage-y scenes which don't play as well for me on screen), it's hard to resist the drama of a dying Mozart dictating the Confutatis maledictus to his awestruck rival, Salieri. Though Peter Shaffer's original play was enormously successful, this best scene from the film was newly written by Shaffer for the film. The playwright later admitted to regretting a few overly simplistic details (like Salieri being confused by simple tonic/dominant harmonies), but this is a great example of how diegetic music can work both as subject matter and as emotional/dramatic framing. (Also a reminder of how effective it can be to stick with the music of a composer subject for all of the soundtrack as Mozart's music is absolutely the MVP of Amadeus.) 

Now, having gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, it might seem like I'm lazily settling back into the ridiculous, but this final scene is actually the most successful composition scene I can think of, and it comes not from stage or the big screen but from a 1970's sitcom. Somehow, in about three minutes, the brilliant Tony Randall convincingly writes an entire song. A very stupid, silly song, yes, and with more emphasis on the development of the lyrics, but a song nonetheless, with references to leitmotif, melodic direction, and word painting along the way. I, of course, have no business posting this video but I couldn't find it elsewhere and so far YouTube has only notified me that copyrighted content is recognized - it's not taking it down. The songwriting begins around 1:58, although I've included part of the opening scene for context - especially as it lets us hear a sample of Felix's previous songwriting prowess.

Now that's a strange line-up: Cartoonish Johann Strauss, Melodramatic Mozart, and giddy Tony Randall, but I think it shows an interesting variety of ways in which the composing process can be shown to viewers. Let me know what I've missed!


* P.S. There are a few high-profile classical music movies on the horizon. Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a fictional composer/conductor is coming out soon and Maestro, Bradley Cooper's biopic about Leonard Bernstein, is set to arrive in 2023.

P.P.S. Another famous movie/theater song supposedly written on the spot is Do-Re-Mi, though it arrives too fully formed to seem like something in process. (Although maybe with more time Maria could have done better than "LA, a note to follow SO," which seems lazy and also messes up the solfège since in this case SO is sung on TI.)

P.P.P.S. One could make the case that this documentary scene shows a new song, Get back, coming to life before our eyes. Of course, this vernacular style lends itself more naturally to "writing out loud" than do many other styles of music. 

P.P.P.P.S. I once wrote here about my then Top 13 Movie list with brief discussion on the role of music in each. 

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