Legendary film composer Ennio Morricone recently shared his assessment of the current state of film music. The maestro is not impressed.
Speaking with The Guardian, Morricone complained that the quality of motion picture scores has deteriorated and that he has “suffered a lot” watching recent films because of it. Further, he places responsibility for this sorry state of affairs squarely at the clay feet of insecure filmmakers.
“There are some directors who actually fear the possible success of music,” he said. “They fear that the audience or the critics will think the film has worked because there was a very good music score.”
A pointed observation coming from a composer often credited for the success of films he has scored. The enduring popularity and iconic status of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to go with the most obvious example, surely rests as heavily on Morricone’s shoulders as it does on its director, Sergio Leone.
Other examples abound. The shark in Jaws simply doesn’t exist for most of the picture unless John Williams puts it there. And unless you’re fascinated by long, static takes of Janet Leigh behind the wheel while looped rear projection footage runs in the background, then it’s pretty obvious that Psycho – cinema’s all-time shocker – is one big bust without Bernard Herrmann’s strings busily accompanying her with that old standby, “Impending Doom.”
The prominence of music in these classics doesn’t diminish Leone, Spielberg, or Hitchcock. On the contrary, it only confirms how completely these master storytellers understood the medium and the complex, sometimes magical ways music enhances the way audiences experience a film.
This is true for films both great and, well, not so great.
For most of Hollywood’s history, music represented that last opportunity to make a movie as effective as it was ever going to be, and studios were rarely shy about deploying their composers and in-house orchestras to do what they could. Sometimes the cause was lost from the start, but there are ample examples of films being pulled from the brink by a compelling and memorable score.
No, a score can’t magically transform a bad film into a great one. But if a picture has any pulse at all, the right score invites us on board and sweeps us along even when other aspects of the picture (a patchy script, shoddy effects, Keanu Reeves) are working against it. And when the composer is in the zone, a picture of even dubious value can achieve its own kind of immortality.
Here are my choices for the Top 10 most impressive salvage jobs by a composer.
10. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
To the Rescue: Ennio Morricone
Well, Morricone started this so I might as well start with him. Exorcist II owns a special place in the annals of movie madness. The most expensive film released by Warner Brothers at that time, the picture was made (one assumes) with complete awareness of the fact that a massive audience was waiting for it with very specific expectations of the kind of film it would be.
Director John Boorman obviously could not have cared less. Forgoing the pea soup and spinning heads, Boorman created a phantasmagorical extravaganza that baffled and enraged audiences who were too upset at not being sickened and frightened to notice that a visionary filmmaker was at work.
Whatever demons, um, possessed Boorman to go this way, Morricone obviously caught the same fever. No hint of “Tubular Bells” here. Instead the composer weaves a feverish sonic tapestry that veers from the hauntingly beautiful (vocalist Edda Dell’Orso is used to great effect) to the trippiest acid rock.
Others have made a case for Exorcist II being an unrecognized masterwork (I won’t – every time Richard Burton says “Pazuzu” I fall apart) but there’s no question that Morricone’s own genius makes this derided film a memorable, one-of-a-kind ride.
9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
To the Rescue: Jerry Goldsmith
Star Trek’s rocky path to the big screen is well known, and a big part of the legend is the film’s nightmarish post-production as director Robert Wise and his team rushed to make the film’s December release date. They never really made it. The $42 million production (an astounding amount in 1979) arrived on America’s screens basically an expensive work print.
Sound and visual effects were left unfinished and lengthy effects sequences were dropped into place literally at the last minute. There was no time for audience previews or even a proper run through for last minute changes. The first time Wise saw his final cut was when in unspooled in front of him at the film’s gala premiere in Washington D.C.
The main reason why Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t remembered today as a total disaster (but instead with no small amount of affection by fans) is composer Goldsmith. His epic, Oscar-nominated score deftly balances big, orchestral effects with inventive sonic textures. Indeed, the music is everything the movie itself wants to be – full of grandeur, suspense, heroism, and the mystery of the unknown.
Goldsmith’s contribution goes a long way toward minimizing the film’s patchiness and draggy pace. More than 35 years on, it remains one of the most popular film scores of all time, and Goldsmith’s main title is as embedded in the culture as the iconic original TV series theme by Alexander Courage.
8. Cleopatra (1963)
To the Rescue: Alex North
Another hugely expensive nightmare, destined to be one of Hollywood’s historic catastrophes despite becoming the top box office attraction of 1963. (The picture simply cost too much to earn back the millions lavished – some would say, wasted – on its production.) At four hours, this Cleopatra would try the patience of even the most indulgent fan of old school epics. It does have one critical and under sung asset in composer Alex North.
Consider one of the picture’s key set pieces, the entrance of the Queen of the Nile into Rome. That sentence took me a half second to type. Onscreen, more than six minutes go grinding by before Liz gets her regal butt through the door, preceded by hundreds upon hundreds of lavishly costumed extras, dancers, jewel-encrusted elephants, and whatever else millions of Hollywood dollars could throw in front of the cameras.
Michael Bay-raised audiences of today would probably be dumbfounded to see a movie literally stop in its tracks for such a long, stately processional before getting back to the plot. At the time, though, this was called “giving the audience its money’s worth.” What makes the scene powerful, still, is North’s music, with its layers of rhythms and exotic accents.
North gives the sequence pace and dramatic resonance – you’re not just watching stuff go by, you’re drawn into the spectacle. Caesar and Cleopatra are playing out their political and romantic games with this show of power after all. North gets the pomp and the meaning, and it’s thrilling.
7. Superfly (1972)
To the Rescue: Curtis Mayfield
Superfly, the movie, is the morally dubious tale of a lowlife exploiter looking to cash in before he goes straight. Superfly, the soundtrack, is about a flawed but sympathetic character trapped in a no-win urban hell beset by poverty, addiction, and oppression. He’s a man looking to affirm his value as a human being and gain control of his destiny.
With his landmark song suite written for the 70s Blaxploitation classic, it’s clear right away that Mayfield is telling his own story. It’s a story that humanizes its characters in ways the film never attempts. Just as important, it opens our senses to the realities of the ravaged African American community that Superfly navigates in his cool threads and wide brim.
We may watch the movie for the crude action and to see our fly anti-hero stick it to The Man, but it’s Mayfield’s story that we feel. If a film’s composer could ever be called its “auteur,” it would have to be Curtis Mayfield with Superfly.
6. High Noon (1952)
To the Rescue: Dimitri Tiomkin
Yeah, I know. High Noon is a classic. One of the greats. An AFI perennial. Bill Clinton’s favorite movie. The fact is, however, that this beloved western laid an egg with critics and audiences at its first preview in 1952. The studio considered ditching it. Then Tiomkin commercially released his title song, the lyrics by Ned Washington sung by Frankie Lane. It became a huge seller.
By the time the picture hit general release, audiences were sold on the picture and its story of a brave sheriff who stands alone, abandoned by the cowardly townsfolk. This was more than a simple case of clever marketing. Tiomkin’s music provided context while elevating the drama.
High Noon plays out in close to “real time” – a daring device for the era and probably the reason why early audiences were cool to it initially. The composer turned the device to the film’s advantage, accentuating the ticking seconds and encroaching dread. It still works like gangbusters today. Maybe one of the most dramatic composer rescues in movie history.