Commentary: Action movie scores muddied by mayhem

Effects-heavy mixes frustrating

If you're a fan of film music, you've probably suffered through this experience: You're watching a lavish Hollywood action film filled with the usual wall-to-wall pyrotechnics and visual wizardry, but with every ear-ringing explosion or gunshot, the orchestral score you've been enjoying in the film's quieter moments is being drowned out by a muddy sound mix that favors mayhem over melody.

Effects-heavy sound mixes can be extremely frustrating. All too often, a talented composer's muscular score is buried so deep in a cacophony of noise that it begs the question: Why is there music at all in this sequence? Often the decision to include constant underscore appears to be tied to a misguided fear that today's moviegoers need a constant barrage of stimuli or they'll run for the exits.

But it's not just the film geeks who are dissatisfied with Hollywood's kitchen sink approach to score and sound.

"It's the most frustrating thing in the world," says veteran composer John Ottman, who should know because he often does double duty as both composer and editor on big-budget, effects-heavy releases, including "Superman Returns" and "X2: X-Men United."

"Either have the music there or just don't have it there," he says. "If the music is there, it should be there for a reason. It's not just there to be under the layer of the sound effects. Sometimes you sit there and watch a sequence and think, 'Why did I agonize over that scene for a week and why did we spend five hours recording that cue when, by the time you hear it in the movie, it's just a drone?' "

As an editor, Ottman often finds himself in the position of determining just how much music is needed for a given scene. But despite his knack for full-bodied orchestral scores, he prefers to err on the side of caution when it comes to music.

"I always say if there's a way to do it without score, that's the way you should do it," he says. "When I edit a movie, I edit the film for months without temping it. In fact, I get my entire edit together, and there's not a note of music in it because I want to see how much the film can withstand with no music. I only want to score where it's necessary, because why gild the lilly?"

That said, Ottman notes that the amount of music he writes depends on the project, and that despite his initial instinct to compose a minimalist score for the upcoming Tom Cruise epic "Valkyrie," that approach changed because the film called for it.

"There's a ton of music," he says. "I thought it was only going to need like 15-20 minutes of score because it's a dialogue-heavy film. But it's also a thriller. It's very much like 'Usual Suspects' -- in order to keep the tension going in a scene where there's really a lot of dialogue, we had to rely on a lot of score.

"But the score is done in a very sort of pulsating, subliminal way. It's not an expository score, it's more like a running pulse going through the movie, and we found it had an amazing impact."

Sound designer Craig Berkey agrees that less can often be more, and his brilliant work on last year's virtually music-free Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" makes a convincing case for that all-too-rare approach. Berkey's meticulously crafted sonic effects in "No Country" are so key to the film's sparse, elegiac tone that the ingenious interplay of seemingly mundane sounds -- a soft desert wind, boots on gravel, a shriveled candy wrapper crackling with dread as it slowly expands -- take on a musical effect all their own. It's an approach that stands in stark contrast to the tedious bombast of most Hollywood movies these days, and one that Berkey and Ottman find refreshing.

"I think that a lot of people use music as a tool because they don't know what other tools to use, soundwise," Berkey says. "So it does happen by default where a scene isn't working and needs energy, so they just put a music cue in. It's a backup default that works, but there are other tools that you use."

Says Ottman: "I loved 'No Country for Old Men.' In fact, I was actually bracing myself for cues to come in and ruin a scene."

So, does "No Country's" success mean we'll be hearing less competition between the gunshots and glockenspiel?

"I hope so," Berkey says. "I think people in the sound community have been talking about this for a while."

While that might be true, the film music geek has to wonder: Is Hollywood listening?