Scores vs soundtracks: Why Hans Zimmer can blow me redux.
There’s an interesting thing that happens when you take a hiatus from writing. Your posts keep generating their own traffic independent of your promotion of them, and you get to see which posts are the ones that generate traffic merely by existing. Back in January, it seemed like “Rap and the persona.” was that post. It got one to two views a day, steadily, for over four months. However, when I stopped writing and stopped looking at the stats on my dashboard, another post took off like a rocket. It was a piece of ranty filler posted over a year and a week ago called “Why Hans Zimmer can blow me.”, in which I spoke at length about how I disliked Hans Zimmer’s music. That was really my only thesis in that essay, yet it’s the most-commented article on my blog, with the comments full of people who love Zimmer and think I’m an imbecile for not loving him like they do and others who simply don’t like his music and don’t get the hype.
I made a mistake in writing that post: I didn’t define my terms properly. Most of the comments I’ve received on it, positive or negative, seem to confuse film scores and film soundtracks. The difference is one of those things I’m gonna put in my glossary when I get around to uploading it. The way I’ve defined it is as follows: a film score is written to picture. It is the work of a composer who has sat down with the finished movie and written the music to it. That is it–it does not define what instruments are used to play the music or how it’s recorded or if it even exists at all. A soundtrack is music that is written outside of the picture that is then put to picture after being written. It can either be an original soundtrack written for the picture specifically by any number of composers or it can be just a collection of songs–pop or classical–selected by the director or someone else on the crew for the movie.
All of these approaches to music in a motion picture can be used to make great movies with great music. Not a one of them is inherently wrong. And here’s where a lot of people got confused. Let’s walk through a number of examples of movies with music that I’ve seen and you’ll see what I mean when I say I wish Hans Zimmer would try writing music to picture.
Let’s start with the home of the motion picture score in recent years, Pixar. Pixar has made 12 feature films, not a one of which has had a soundtrack. From Toy Story to Cars 2, all of them have featured original scores that have been made for the picture in question and not once have I wondered what the music would have sounded like if it were written differently. The Lord of the Rings trilogy features original scores by Howard Shore from beginning to end; not once have I wondered what it would have sounded like if it were written differently. And this is really the point I want to get to with motion picture scores: on the whole, they fit the features they’re written for and don’t make you wonder what else could have been. And if you’re not the kind of person who wonders how things could have been naturally, then don’t worry about it.
I’m sure there have been bad scores, but I can only think of one at present. Cassandra’s Dream by Philip Glass for Woody Allen. I had no strong feelings about it before or after the movie. It could have increased the suspense or done anything to heighten the drama of this feature, which was really just mediocre.
Soundtracks as collections of songs the director wants in the picture at certain places go all the way back to 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The spinning of the space station reminded him of the movement of waltzers, specifically the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss II. He used Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra for the dawn of man and great leaps in mankind’s development. He wondered aloud why he had to get a composer in to do music for his feature when there was such great music available in the world already. Quentin Tarantino likely wondered the same thing when selecting music for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs and every feature he’s made thereafter (except Kill Bill). Woody Allen has built his entire career on soundtracks built out of music reflecting the setting and themes of his features. Terrence Malick went the Kubrick route for the extraordinary The Tree of Life. And again, when watching these movies, you’ve never wondered how it could be made better. That’s because these are great movies only made better by great music that reinforces the emotions onscreen.
A bad existing song soundtrack? Sucker Punch. Watchmen. Zack Snyder is a lot of things, but he doesn’t understand the difference between evoking a mood and telling someone what the mood is supposed to be. The same goes for setting or character.
And now we arrive at Hans Zimmer’s arena: original soundtracks. The bastard children of scores and soundtracks, these are soundtracks scavenged from a singular source–usually a selection of songs handed to the director in pre-production, sometimes made throughout production right to the very end. The director still has final say over what music makes it to picture and how, but the composer’s signature style can be heard in the final picture. In short, you can tell a Hans Zimmer when you hear one, just like you can tell a John Murphy when you hear it.
The best original soundtrack I have ever heard in my life is that of Kick-Ass. It was a five-way collaboration between four composers and the director himself. He selected four composers with distinct individual writing and arranging styles, then told them to rewrite and rearrange each others’ themes for different parts of the movie. He selected a theme from the orchestral guy, for instance, and would give it to his hard guitar guy to rewrite to suit a different scene. He’d take his techno theme and give it to any of the other guys to remake it for a purpose. Kick-Ass‘s soundtrack exists somewhere between a score and a soundtrack, but still functions as a soundtrack.
But when a director gets a selection of music in preproduction and that’s the extent of the composer’s work on the film, it stunts the emotional content of the music of the movie and raises the chance of a thematic mismatch between the music and the movie where the director had to go with something the composer gave them despite it not quite fitting. This has happened a number of times when I’m in the theater, and oddly enough, most of the time it turns out that the music was written before the movie was even shot and just synced up afterward.