Friday, May 29, 2015

Sound in Film

To start off on the right foot, let’s name 3 movies: Jaws, Singing In The Rain, Star Wars. The list could be more elaborated and thought through, it could contain more titles, and different ones. For the Indie films lovers, the list could have been: C.R.A.Z.Y, Boyhood, and Trainspotting. Point is, anyone who has seen some of these six movies knows where they all meet: music. By the way, let it be said here before we go further: if you haven’t seen any of these films, elevate your week and take some time to do so.   

Now, I went to film school. Throughout these years, one thing kept coming back, from professor to professor, book to book and essay to essay. Being French, I always used sources from both American writers and French writers to conduct any type of research. The point is that every filmmaker agrees: the real difference between a good and a bad production is the sound. Let's skip through the details of sound recording, editing or mixing, even if this is what makes the real difference. Let's focus on what any viewer notices: music.

Two schools of filmmakers battle whether soundtrack should be completely original or, a contrario, be a mix of existing songs. If we go back to the early part of the 20th century, the battle even included a third category: the filmmakers who thought films should be completely silent. Back definitions for a minute. It is said that: “motion picture music falls into three basic categories: underscore (James Horner's score to Titanic); the pre-existing song or song and original master recording (the Guess Who's "American Woman" in American Beauty); and the song written for the film (Harold Arlen's and E.Y. Harburg's "Over The Rainbow" for The Wizard Of Oz)”. Sometimes, the choice relies only on money considerations, as music can get very expensive (cf the article referenced above).  
If, in the making of Inglorious Basterds in 2009, Tarantino said that he would “rather work with an editor and already existing titles rather than with a composer” and that “the idea of giving that much power to somebody else for his pieces was unconceivable” , he changed his mind when hiring Ennio Morricone to write an orginal score for Django Unchained. Does that prove that there is no more effective way to create a soundtrack? (Or just that Tarantino can get over his ego to make a better film?). I do have an easier time remembering and humming to “Djaaaango, have you always been alone” than to the Inglorious Basterds soundtrack. I am now exercising with the 6 initial films. Jaws' famous violins, Singing in The Rain's obvious eponymous song, Star Wars's grand trumpets. But then come CRAZY, Boyhood and Trainspotting. I want to do is to listen to their famous tracks on my Ipod, and create my own scenes as I’m listening to them. Let’s be real, when a good song comes on our Ipods, don’t we all pretend that we’re in a movie? But I want to believe that Tarantino didn’t change his mind on a whim, and I have hence come to  a realisation. Original soundtracks serve the purpose of the movie in an almost exclusive way.  However, using existing songs feeds the viewer beyond the purpose of the film. The director is throwing extra culture at them, on top of the piece they have created, for you. In that regard, I applaud both schools. On the one hand, I value the team work of certain directors and the tandem they often make with music composers. To name a few: J. J. Abrams and Michael Giacchino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jon Brion, Wes Anderson and Alexandre Desplat, the Coen Brothers and Carter Burwell or Sam Mendes and Thomas Newman. But I also applaud directors who pick the right song at the right time. See for example Cedric Klapisch, the Nakache Brothers or Jean Marc VallĂ©e.  
All in all, one thing is for sure, my teachers were right: there is no movie without good sound. There is no good movie without a good soundtrack.