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In the first few moments of his terrifically engaging documentary Score, director Matt Schrader makes his point about the power of film music with brilliant simplicity. The screen is black, Bill Conti’s Rocky theme begins, and nine out of 10 viewers will experience a rush of recognition. Then the screen fills with the climactic images of Sylvester Stallone’s character training for his big fight, and the emotional charge is complete.
It’s a perfect example of how the right music heightens action, but far from the only one in Schrader’s brisk, illuminating survey of Hollywood scores. The film, which took its bow at the Hamptons fest and has more festival dates lined up, is sure to click with film buffs, aspiring composers and anyone who’s interested in the chemistry of moviemaking.
With his co-editor Kenny Holmes, Schrader orchestrates a dynamic mix of archival material, film clips and incisive new interviews with more than three dozen composers. A handful of studio musicians offer their perspectives on working with the likes of John Williams. Agents and music executives weigh in, as do historians and scientists, their valuable insights never ponderous but, rather, marked by appreciation and enthusiasm.
The multihyphenate filmmaker explores changing trends over nearly a century’s worth of movie music, from “silent” comedy shorts — live scores helped to mask the sound of the projector — through the mold-shattering atmospherics of David Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Marlon Brando’s star-making turn in A Streetcar Named Desire wasn’t the film’s only blast of creative innovation, the doc demonstrates; Alex North’s revolutionary use of jazz also was a touchstone. Jerry Goldsmith’s novel instrumentation on Planet of the Apes gets its props, along with the influential styles of Hans Zimmer (“rock swagger,” one observer calls it) and Thomas Newman, with his often-emulated piano-centric themes.
Whether they’re talking about their contemporaries or the greats of yesteryear, the composers express a profound admiration that’s born of an intimate understanding of what makes a work groundbreaking or indelible. A look at the shower scene in Psycho, both with and without Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings, is potently instructive. Though it’s usually the editing that’s credited with suggesting graphic violence where there is none, it’s clear that the scene’s music is at least as important.
The specificity of the work separates it from other forms of musical composition, and its unexpected use in other contexts can prove jarring for the composer, as Trevor Rabin found when the Obama campaign used his Remember the Titans score on election night 2008 (he would have appreciated being asked). That specificity rests not just on the composer’s hyper-focused response to the images of the film but on his or her relationship with the director.
James Cameron characterizes the composer’s role in that relationship as a kind of therapist, an alert listener who often has to draw out and intuit what the director wants but doesn’t know how to describe. A spotting session between John Debney and the late Garry Marshall illustrates the initial steps in that conversation, while Mad Max: Fury Road composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) bears witness from the other end of the process: He spent more than seven months producing the score for George Miller’s poetic-muscular action adventure.
The composers let Schrader into their workspaces, which range from digital consoles to scoring stages with full orchestras. As musicians first, many of them reveal their attachment to the lo-fi instruments of the trade — among them Outlander composer Bear McCreary, a hurdy-gurdy devotee, and Mark Mothersbaugh, with his wistful recollection of the $60 toy piano that he used for a Rugrats score.
With affecting openness, Zimmer and some of his peers confess their anxieties over the blank slate that lies before them with each job. It’s a reaction that any artist can appreciate. But setting this group of creative types apart from most is the commercial pressure that comes with a studio project, and the panic that can hit some of them when they see their name on a movie’s poster before they’ve finished the score.
In a closing-credits tribute to James Horner, who died in 2015, Cameron shares an anecdote about the score for Titanic. His story celebrates the ineffable communion between visual and musical artists and offers compelling evidence of how, as psychology professor Siu-Lan Tan attests, brain science goes only so far in explaining the emotional effects of successful movie scores. Schrader’s film gets into the nitty-gritty without losing sight of the alchemy, the element that Tan finally admits is “uncapturable to us as scientists.”
Production: Epicleff Media in association with Film Score LLC with support from Soundbite Studios
Director-screenwriter: Matt Schrader
Producers: Robert Kraft, Trevor Thompson, Nate Gold, Kenny Holmes, Mubarac Alsabah, Lincoln Bandlow, Daniel Gabriel, Damien Mazza, John L. Savva, Ryan Taubert
Executive producers: Matt Schrader, Jonathan Willbanks, Nobuko Toda, Flavio Machado, Marco A. Roman
Directors of photography: Kenny Holmes, Nate Gold
Editors: Kenny Holmes, Matt Schrader
Composer: Ryan Taubert
Sound supervisors: Kari Barber, Peter Bawiec
Sales: Cinetic Media
Not rated, 94 minutes
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