Tracking the Sound by Jonny Steiner

Posted: July 27, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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I have been listening to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s Score for “The Dark Knight” for about two days now, and I it has been blowing my mind on the same level as the movie. From the spare dark overtones of Batman’s themes, to the rich pastoral melody of Harvey Dent’s music, and on to the droning whine of the violins as the Joker enters, it is truly a wondrous composition. I have been a fan of soundtracks and scores for a long time but this is the first time in a while, well since Danny Elfman’s Spiderman score, that I have truly been moved. When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio, every Monday night at the dinner table we would listen to “Music of Science Fiction & Fantasy” with Mark on Cleveland state University’s radio station. He would and still does play the classics and modern themes from all across moviedom. Every week I would call in to request something by Danny Elfman, because at the time he was my favorite composer.
Before we delve into some of the best composers and scores we should discuss the genre. Soundtracks are the incidental music that keeps a movie moving along. It keeps pace with the narrative while adding important emotional shading to the story. It is because of that many scores and composers are lost, their compositions serving their purpose, without making a singular impact of its own. At the same time there are Soundtracks, so i ndividual in their appeal, they eclipse the movie itself. One that comes to mind is the soundtrack for the less than moving flick, “Last Action Hero”. Ok the score by Michael Kamen was competent, but the soundtrack was stellar. Featuring tracks by Alice in Chains Anthrax and Megadeth among others, it was a Grunge Rocker’s dream. In many cases the mix-tape Soundtrack becomes iconic in its own right. Like for the Gen X classic “Singles” whose soundtrack was a watershed moment for the Grunge era. I don’t want to focus on those types of soundtracks. Here is a great example. Toto’s (yes the guys that sang Africa) score for David Lynch’s 1984 film “Dune”, a big screen adaptation of the classic Frank Herbet novel. The band was able to wade through the hot mess that was the movie, and create something melodic and futuristic without overshadowing the material.
I tried to look up a list of some of the best soundtracks of all time to include here just for fun, but most of the ones I found were stupid with nary a mention of one of the greatest composers of our time, Vangelis. Born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (say that ten times fast) in Greece, his most known work is the score for “Chariots of Fire”. I think his gifts are fully realized was the score for Ridley Scott’s epic and my vote for the best movie EVER “Blade Runner”. In this score, Vangelis was able to add to the stark bleak atmosphere or Ridley Scott’s uncompromising view of the future. When he produced the album of the score twelve years later, snips of dialogue were looped in and the music became not only an important detail of a stunning movie, but an iconic piece of Electronic Music in its own right. One standout track is “Memories of Green”, a beautiful Ambient piece in the background of which we can hear the late night sounds of a futuristic city.
One of the greatest moments in the realm of Soundtracks and movies is a famous scene from “The Empire Strikes Back”. Darth Vader, standing on a catwalk on the bridge of his Star Destroyer, whirls around and walks off to the strains of John William’s classic “Imperial March.” The regally dark nature of the melody combined with the stature of Darth Vader is truly one of the great moments in film. The music swirls around in a sing able melody not stealing any of Vader’s power, but working with it. The opposite is true in another famous scene from Star Wars, this time “Episode IV: A New Hope”. Inside the Cantina at Mos Eisley Spaceport, the band plays another memorable melody. What is interesting about that is the fact that when you listen closely the music seems to be little more than a Jazz standard, yet the heavy reliance on the Steel Pan Drum makes it sound strange and alien. The problem is that the scene is so heavy handed musically and visually that for a moment we forget about the story and get lost.
Then there is Danny Elfman. Starting out working on “Back To School” he formed the band Oingo Boingo before going out on his own as a composer. His theme for Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman is still one of the most recognizable melodies of our time, right up there with Koji Kondo’s theme for Super Mario Brothers. The important aspect of his work is how grand the style is while keeping the melodies tight and manic, sprawling out before us as Spiderman swings through the city. There is a strange quality in his work that lends itself well to the Superhero Movie genre. It is a telling statistic then that he has scored all but two of Tim Burton’s films.
The last composer I want to focus on is my favorite, the late Jerry Goldsmith. Known for his dark and chilling score for the horror film “The Omen” which won him an Oscar, Goldsmith resented having won for a horror movie. His work is soft and flowing preferring to pulse below the action rather than usurp it. His score for 1979’s “Alien”, (hmm another Ridley Scott Film?) is a barren atonal affair, that mimics the setting and feel of the movie perfectly. In my opinion his most inspiring work came from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, yes a pretty crummy movie, but with a few inspired moments. When Captain Kirk Mr. Spock and Bones the Doctor set out on foot to explore a planet inside of a black hole, Goldsmith’s “A Busy Man” brings us along with its lush themes and ethereal strings. It is a bright spot in an ultimately dismal movie.
Some of the best soundtracks come from video games. I am not talking about current games. I am talking about 8-bit Nintendo themes, that lull you into a relative trance as you sit there for hours playing. The inescapable fact that these themes have become part of our modern melodic lexicon is by the way they have been re-imagined. The Mario theme is the most obvious, but the theme from “The Legend of Zelda” is just as important. There are even bands like “The Minibosses” who play rock versions of Nintendo themes. I personally love the 8-bit sound because of the way that the composers were limited technologically. Despite that they were able to make music that has transcended the games becoming something much greater. It is not the purpose of Soundtracks to do this, but it is important to note when a Score is able to become greater than the sum of its parts. It gets problematic when that comes at the expense of the film or the game. “The Dark Knight” illustrates this perfectly in the way it complements the film, and stands alone as a beautiful piece of music.

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