When I was a young horror head, my friends and I would watch Halloween all the time. We would discuss what made the movie work so well, and it always came down to that haunting, driving score. A film’s score and musical selections can have a profound effect on it – you’ll often hear about filmmakers trying many different songs or cues over a scene. Martin Scorsese has one of the finest ears in modern cinema when it comes to using songs in his films, and there’s a Dropkick Murphys track in a pivotal scene of The Departed that ups the ante of everything on screen.
The problem with most movie scores, though, is that they’re boring. They’re the same classically-influenced orchestral pieces that we’ve been hearing for decades. One of the worst offenders in this regard is John Williams – I hate the scores of John Williams. They’re bombastic and obvious musical exercises in emotional hand-holding, perfectly suited for the American-Cheese-filmmaking they usually accompany. Williams has broken out his usual style in a couple of films, most recently successfully with some aspects of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but in general he represents to me the sort of stuffy, dull movie soundtracks that people have come to expect and sadly demand.
Last week I saw Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a very strong period film that makes excellent use of post-punk and new wave songs written 200 years after the titular queen lost her head. They’re technically anachronistic but emotionally perfect for the story Coppola is telling. Also last week the teaser trailer for Zach Snyder’s ancient Greek epic 300 briefly escaped onto the web, and it was wonderfully scored to a Nine Inch Nails song. While the footage divided people on the web, the music was even more contentious for some.
But why shouldn’t a movie about ancient Greece have a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack? It’s certainly no more anachronistic than an orchestral score that utilizes instruments that would not be invented for thousands of years after the Spartans met their doom at the hands of the Persian army. One of those 300 Spartans would probably not have known what to make of a horn section or Trent Reznor’s industrial beats.
What’s important is emotional truth, not instrumental or stylistic fealty. To go back to Martin Scorsese, his masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ uses a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel that mixes traditional instruments and electric and electronic instrumentation. The result is evocative music of incredible beauty that doesn’t sound anything like what Jesus and his pals would have been listening to, and yet fits the cinematic world. While we’re on Christ, look at the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar – while Norman Jewison’s film version includes a cheating set of bookends that extrapolates the film as a kind of hippie be-in, the meat of the picture works on its own terms, filled with rock and roll flourishes.
There are often complaints about popular song usage on soundtracks, and while too many films choose songs simply based on whatever the music arm of the corporation funding the movie wants to see promoted, a good pop song soundtrack can give another level to a movie. But the songs don’t need to be period correct – again, Marie Antoinette uses its defiantly out of time songs exceptionally well. The songs on the soundtrack aren’t what the characters are listening to (although in Marie Antoinette the lines do get blurry in one dance sequence) but are reflecting what’s going on in the characters or on screen. While popular music of a certain period can help establish a time frame, there’s no reason why Bob Dylan’s Masters of War would be inappropriate on the soundtrack of any angry, anti-war film, no matter what war is being portrayed.
People often complain that pop music on a soundtrack dates a film – these people must not have seen many films made earlier than ten years ago. Films date. Always. It’s inevitable. The cutting edge special effect of today which convincingly recreates a long-gone civilization is tomorrow’s joke. No matter what music is on Gladiator’s soundtrack, the film will be a nugget of nostalgia from the first years of the 21st century when watched decades from now – every technical and artistic decision will scream its age when seen in the future. Filmmakers shouldn’t be worrying about how the film will be playing to audiences not born yet, but how it will be playing to the filmgoers of today.
The biggest problem with using a non-traditional score is audience expectations. But audience expectations shouldn’t be something good filmmakers are looking to meet but rather break through – the movies we see today don’t look or sound like the movies we saw thirty years ago, which didn’t look or sound like the movies made thirty years before that. The evolution of film style is a give and take thing, but the forward-thinking and bold filmmaker is the key agent in that change.