Film: Score – A Film Music Documentary (2016)

June 5, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

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Genre:  Documentary / Film Music

Synopsis: Portrait of film scoring featuring a plethora of interviews and film clips.

Special Features:  n/a




Film scoring hasn’t been wholly ignored by documentarians, but most works have been isolated to specific composers (standalone portraits include Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Toru Takemitsu), with many produced for TV, making Matt Schrader’s feature-length theatrical release rather bold.

Packed with a mass of interview subjects spanning current A-list composers and many veterans, Score attempts to cover a lot of ground without being a classic talking head film, interweaving words and music samples with visuals from the films and of composers at work & play, but it’s very much aimed at newcomers unfamiliar with the intricacies of writing music for movies.

After a very hurried opening third, Schrader’s film settles into a proper groove when a psychologist explains the power of orchestral and film music on the mind, stimulating dopamine and activating aspects of our processing mechanics that enable us to experience a fuller version of what characters are subjected to in a scene. It sounds like an eccentric claim, but it’s quite believable when theory is articulated and supported by the very real effects film music has on audiences; as the old axiom goes, the best music is what we don’t notice, letting it influence, enhance, and affect us in tandem with the filmic elements to which it’s connected: dialogue, performance, editing, cinematography, and sound design.

Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho) is quoted as saying ‘The first rule of film scoring is there are no rules,’ which is more applicable now as composers come from various venues – concert, classically trained, rock, rap, and experimental, to name a tiny few – and it’s a point Schrader reiterates as the film moves towards the finale, allowing former Buggles keyboardist (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) Hans Zimmer (Inception) more screen time to express his views on a craft that still energizes and terrifies.

The interviews also coalesce into appreciations for icons like Zimmer and John Williams (Jaws), and Schrader’s camera captures candid segments from recording sessions with Heitor Pereira (Minions) and Joe Kraemer (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) at Air and Abbey Road Studios, respectively. The experimentation and no rules axiom that resulted in stellar scores – Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders (The Gunman), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) – are also shown via the odd instruments and sounds that formed the root of a theme, or are part of a composer’s obsession with unusual sounds and instruments (notably Mark Mothersbaugh, and his collecting bug for weird, antique, and vintage keyboard-based instruments).

When Score calls it a wrap, the closing comes from James Cameron who recalls his reaction after placing the piano demo of Titanic’s main theme against the film’s romantic sketching scene. It’s a poignant memory for James Horner who died in 2015, but the spotlight on Horner at the very end also highlights the film’s chief problem: with a net cast out so far to record comments by a mass of composers, there’s undoubtedly a wealth of material that had to be shorn to keep the film moving.

The first 20 mins. will likely irk fans wanting greater attention paid to some of the aforementioned pioneers. Nods are given to Herrmann, Steiner, Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes), Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire), and Elmer Bernstein (The Man with the Golden Arm), but their contributions are often reduced to tight little sentences, where words fight with captions and clips of music.

Jon Burlingame is the anchor who keeps the montages grounded to keywords and the doc’s emerging scope, but not unlike Ellen Weissbrod’s brilliantly cut & sonically layered but overworked documentary Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (1990), the pauses for audiences are few, and what should’ve been 30-35 mins. on the birth of film music and its early practitioners is too hurried. Jones himself is interviewed, but he isn’t highlighted as an important figure whose big band background brought edgier jazz in masterworks like The Pawnbroker (1964), and especially In Cold Blood (1967).

The inevitable home video release might offer a better paced cut of what could’ve been a 105 min. version, but also problematic are the onscreen captions for many interview subjects which often compete with replies before the next quick edit, making one sense Score was cut for length & verbal pacing than balancing its equally vital visual & musical information.

It’s clear many of the interviewed composers have their own unique stories that could be explored in separate films, and perhaps Score might be the spark that sets off a fresh wave of such specific examinations.

Score: A Film Music Documentary is currently screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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