Ever Wondered How a Film Score Is Composed? This Documentary Is for You

The documentary Score gives a rundown on the history, impact and craft of composing film music.

Film soundtracks and their composers wield subtle power: Ideally, their work remains unobtrusive, enhancing a scene while never overshadowing it. But music has a profound, intangible effect, raising pulses and emotions; the very best scores remain with you long after you’ve forgotten a movie’s plot or cast. Even if you’ve never seen Jaws, chances are you’re familiar with the great John Williams’ menacing two-note theme.

In Score, director Matt Schrader shines a spotlight on film soundtracks, creating a comprehensive overview of their history, creative process as well as different styles and techniques used. Best of all, Schrader manages to interview countless composers, who show off their instrument collections, tell anecdotes and praise their colleagues.

Using archival footage and film clips, the craft comes to life, demonstrating how Viennese émigré Max Steiner (born at Praterstraße 72) gave unprecedented gravitas to a cheesy story when he created the very first orchestral score for King Kong; or how Bernard Herrmann’s short, circular themes added extra suspense to Hitchcock classics like Vertigo or Psycho.

You also get to see a lot of the insecurities that creatives live with. German composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight; Pirates of the Caribbean) casually admits that he has no idea where his ideas come from and fears running dry. Brian Tyler, who created music for Marvel Comics films, confesses he sometimes sneaks into movie theaters just to watch the audience reactions. Slightly more embarrassing, Tyler also occasionally hides in the bathroom after the picture to hear if anyone is humming his melodies. Creepy, perhaps, but the ultimate compliment.

Unseen Magic

Score also tracks how movies have changed over the years – and their music with them.

Working closely with the director is crucial, as so many are more comfortable with visuals than music. While directors like Steven Spielberg deliberately created big, wide-open shots in E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark to let John Williams’ work “breathe,” today’s preference for more frantic cuts is served better by Hans Zimmer’s intense, aggressive string sections that evoke an electric guitar – or, as one exuberant Disney executive gushes, “like Led Zeppelin, played by an orchestra!”

Today, Zimmer points out, the motion picture industry is the only one commissioning new orchestral music on a grand scale, ensuring the continued survival of this pillar of Western culture.

However, it’s not just great movies that demonstrate the power of film scores. In one segment, a tired sound engineer walks us through his final mix, the one he does on the last night after everyone else has gone home. He demonstrates how emphasizing the French horn section punches up the approach of the villain – even more impressive considering the antagonist is a characterless CGI creation in a sequel to Transformers. In another scene, composer John Debney conducts a powerful rendition of his work, visibly moved; the musicians beam. But then you catch a split-second glimpse of the big screen where they project film stills as inspiration for the orchestra – blink and you’ll miss it. That stirring masterpiece was composed for a Spongebob Squarepants movie. Now that’s magic!

Now playing, Actor’s Studio, 1., Tuchlauben 13. Apollo, 6., Gumpendorfer Straße 63. cineplexx.at

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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