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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Music In Movies

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the use of music in movies.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Kevin:

The one-two trumpet punches of Rocky. The orchestral explosion when the Star Wars logo hits the screen. The menacing, oh-so-cool guitar riff hallmarking the entrance of 007.

Can't imagine these films or characters without their tagline anthems, can you? Strip away the Indiana Jones theme from the titular character? Might as well take the poor guy's fedora and bullwhip as well.

Of course, the power of music in film goes well beyond rousing heroic scores. There are the sweeping strings that seemed to punctuate many Hollywood romances of yesteryear, and more recently, much ink has been spilled over the role of music in horror tales, as discordance can ramp up tension even more than the sight of a rusty machete.

To say nothing of diegetic sound* -- maybe it's not such a great idea to play a crackly Joanna Newsom record ("Sprout and the Bean" in The Strangers) when you're alone and worried about a home invasion?

[* This refers to music that's audible to the characters in the film, like when someone flips on a car radio while cruising around, or, in the case of Rachel Getting Married, when TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe sings at his own wedding on screen.]

The 2016 documentary SCORE! is a great primer on the subject, but as this is a CHIRP production, perhaps we should also explore a tangential avenue and talk about the intersection of cinema and independent music?

A few months ago, "Beat City" by The Flowerpot Men rolled through our station's new release rack; it was featured prominently in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but somehow it took nearly four decades to earn a genuine release. (Director John Hughes famously pressed copies of the single himself for friends and colleagues at cast parties.)

Questions for you, Clarence:

1) While The Flowerpot Men never parlayed that bit of cinema exposure into success, can you think of any indie acts who did? Air's soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides comes to mind. Ditto with The Shins and "New Slang" in Garden State. (It also qualified as diegetic sound, as one character just about forces the song upon another via her headphones. For the record, I couldn't make it through the film, and the use of the song was just a bit heavy-handed. But still -- a fine tune.)

2) I mentioned the rousing anthems of Indiana Jones and Star Wars at the outset -- you could toss in Superman as well, along with practically the whole John Williams catalogue. Which soundtracks have hit that musical sweet spot for you?

3) Is there something about the connection between majestic film scores and childhood? I can't think of any soundtracks of the past quarter-century that have moved the emotional needle for yours truly like those aforementioned works. It's probably also telling that these days, I prefer my dramas to be bereft of music, since more often than not, it jolts me out of the illusion of reality. Do film scores work for you in any genres beyond action and horror?

Clarence:

When I was younger I was obsessed with the full orchestral soundtrack from The Empire Strikes Back. It was a double vinyl release, and I could not get enough of it. It's the only soundtrack from that era I obsessed over. I don't even particularly like John Williams' music, but I was in the perfect demographic range for that specific combination of film and music to impact my formative years.

Now that I think about it, I can't recall a long list of movie music beyond what you've already cited that has affected me all that much. There are exceptions, like the brilliant zither work in The Third Man. I would also add the work of Curtis Mayfield's Superfly and Isaac Hayes' Shaft to your list of all-time anthems. But beyond those I can't think of too many movies where I thought "Wow, that original score really put that movie over the top!"

That being said, I've found that soundtracks that recycle existing music have caught my attention much more than music specifically written for a movie. Two that come to mind are Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, whose soundtracks are basically mix tapes done so well they become inseparable from the rest of the movie, while also introducing audiences to amazing back-catalog music.

Samuel Barber's classical work "Adagio for Strings" is a fundamental mood-setter in Platoon. And I know I've never listened to "Stuck In the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel the same way after seeing and hearing it used in Reservoir Dogs.

It makes economic sense that there are so few memorable original soundtracks today. Hiring a composer and musicians to make music specifically for one project is expensive, especially when you can just grab music off the shelf. But, to me, not having any music in a film can be just as distracting as having too much. I think that's why I've never gotten into movements like Dogme 95 and its insistence on "realism" in how music is used in a completely artificial medium. I do have my own music biases, though. Except for a very few movies like Singin' In the Rain, I usually can't stand musicals. And concert movies generally don't work for me either outside of their documentary utility. How about you? Are there any movies that appeal to you where music is the subject?

Kevin:

I'll go one step further in that the Shaft soundtrack -- truly an all-time banger -- has aged much, much better than the actual film. I certainly appreciate Shaft's status as a culturally-significant movie, but... the pacing is a struggle. (And I feel similarly about the aforementioned Rocky. Great score, but a plodding series, at least until Mr. T and Hulk Hogan arrive on the scene.)

Re: the Pulp Fiction "mix tape" -- special shout-out to Chicago's own Urge Overkill, who was best known for their featured cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." This was also a case of diegetic sound, as Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace actually sings and dances along to the song* during the film. Check out that clip, though -- she's playing the track off some sort of reel-to-reel projector and not a vinyl/cassette/CD player...?

[*As far as the ultimate cinema example of said integration, I'm going with Ferris Bueller's lip-sync of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout." Brought the song back to the Billboard Top 40 charts after two decades!]

On the classical front, since you mentioned Platoon's "Adagio for Strings," I'll toss in Carl Orff's "Gassenhauer," which was featured prominently in Terrence Malick's Badlands, and the later Hans Zimmer homage, "You're So Cool," in True Romance. I'll also never hear "Canon in D" without thinking of Ordinary People.

Regarding the lack of memorable soundtracks today, I'm wondering if this is a by-product of the fact that today's celluloid mainstays aren't nearly as "heroic" as those of yesteryear? It'd be tough to envision a rollicking, uplifting score to a Batman film, for instance. Did John Wick have an anthem? How 'bout The Avengers? Even today's Superman depictions are far darker than those of the Christopher Reeve era; I just cued up Zimmer's Man of Steel soundtrack, and there ain't a hint of the old John Williams derring-do.

We're in agreement on the economic realities of the business. In fact, the documentary I mentioned, SCORE!, talks about the fact that film studios are actually major lifelines for orchestras, many of which desperately need soundtrack work to stay afloat. But while I'm no huge fan of Dogme 95's Lars von Trier, I do love stripped-down aesthetics when it comes to my visual storytelling. Kelly Reichardt? Dardenne Brothers? Sign me up.

I've only seen two concert documentaries in my life: Rattle and Hum, and U2 3D. Obviously, being a fan of U2 was rather germane to one's enjoyment here! And U2 3D was an extra-special event because it really did have the vibe of a one-night-only concert, seeing as how you needed 3-D glasses and an IMAX screen. Perhaps VR goggles will resurrect this experience?

As far as films where music is the subject... hmm. Can't say I've caught any of the recent biopics for NWA, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John. Going back further, only two come to mind: Ray (with Jamie Foxx turning in a terrific performance as the titular Ray Charles), and Crazy Heart (featuring Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out former country music star).

The genre of biopics isn't one that I naturally gravitate to, but Clarence, is it possible that the process of music-making simply doesn't often make for riveting cinema? (Adaptation referenced this with regards to writing in general, in self-deprecating style.) Would I rather hear a song I love as a finished product, or see it hashed out in dribs and drabs by clones of the original artist? I'm opting for the sugar rush of the song after it's emerged from the studio oven, every time.

Clarence:

I'm so glad you brought that up, because it underlines my favorite form of music cinema by far: artist and band documentaries.

(It’s probably good to define terms here, with “documentary” being the retelling of a historical event using fact-based tools like interviews and news footage, versus a “biopic” which is a dramatic recreation of a historical event, with less emphasis on facts than things like expression and mood.)

You’re so right, Kevin, creating a song is one of the least cinematic activities to film. For example: the recently released eight-hour Beatles doc The Beatles: Get Back that I stopped watching after 45 minutes out of sheer boredom.

But all the other stuff that surrounds the music (the shows, the record contracts, the rises, the falls, the redemptions, on and on) makes for good movie watching to me, probably because the events are based in fact.

While the recent Elvis Presley biopic from Baz Luhrmann wasn’t that great, This is Elvis is a fascinating survey of his life and career arc. Similarly, the multi-part series Pistol, which dramatized the history of the Sex Pistols, wasn’t as gripping as The Filth and the Fury which only needed 100 minutes to tell the same story in a more factual and entertaining way.

One of my favorites in this category is 24 Hour Party People, a great bio-pic/documentary mash-up about the rise of Joy Division, Factory Records, and the “Manchester sound.” It’s also a great critique of the documentary format, reminding the audience that most docs, no matter the subject, lie to a certain extent in the ways they alter history, omit details, and present “the truth” as a subjective experience.

Other enjoyable docs that come to mind: The Devil and Daniel Johnson, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO's profile of the Bee Gees and the ‘70s Disco era), Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones pic featuring the disastrous Altamont concert), and recently Summer of Soul, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, and The Sparks Brothers.

I like how these docs, even the ones that are loose with the facts, are rooted in the fascinating reality of being a musician. The stories told in many of them wouldn’t be believed if they weren’t true. Placing the stories in specific eras and historical contexts makes them even more compelling.

I think in a way that’s why music and motion pictures (and by extension television) go so well together in this format. The basic function of each is to bypass the brain’s thinking parts and impact the emotions. Whether you're focused on one person's journey or spanning entire eras, feelings matter as much as facts when you’re telling a good story.

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