Film Scores

musacWhat has happened to film soundtracks in recent years? Increasingly, musical scores are becoming generic and lazy. This can be demonstrated easily enough by looking at some older film scores and comparing them to today’s blockbusters.

Jurassic Park. It’s in your head, like a musical ear worm right now isn’t it. Tah da dum dum dum, tah dah dum dee dee. Now, compare John Williams’ composition with the score for Avatar. Can you even remember the musical score for the most profitable film ever? No, neither can I.

Back To The Future. Alan Silvestri’s score is instantly hummable and one cannot imagine the movie without this powerful accompaniment. BTTF is a kind of unique film, but I guess Looper is a good match, as it also deals with time travel paradoxes. Looper is also an excellent film, but I cant remember the musical score at all.

Superman. John Williams score is remarkable, and again on hearing it, it just stays with you. It epitomizes everything about Supes, the music literally soars. OK, now take the music for the otherwise excellent film ‘The Avengers‘. Regrettably, the musical score for The Avengers soundtrack is the most generic of all the film scores that we are going to look at in this post.

Star Wars. The Star Wars franchise is chock full of epic win thanks to the genius of John Williams. Think of Darth Vader, picture him in your mind and I defy you not to have the imperial march accompanying your recollection. As before, we now take a comparable film – John Carter. Once again, there is no comparison musically speaking. Not a single cue springs to mind.

Batman. Compare and contrast Danny Elfmans excellent score for Tim Burtons Batman with Hans Zimmers score to the Dark Night Rises. Elfmans score is instantly recognisable, its memorable and infections in a way that Hans Zimmers fails to be.

A Fistful of Dollars. Ennio Morricone forsakes a conventional orchestral track for mariachi-style sounds and solos. He uses gunshots, cracking whips, choral voices, Sicilian folk instruments and a Fender electric guitar to accentuate the onscreen action. The iconic whistling that accompanies Clint’s stranger is haunting. It’s leagues ahead of the admittedly competent score for the Coen brothers remake of True Grit, which mainly uses piano.

Musical scores of the 80′s and 90′s were terrific. One cant fail to listen to Celine Dion sing “My Heart Will Go On” and not think of Titanic. Try listening to Whitney Houston’s re-imagining of the Dolly Parton classic “I Will Always Love You” and not think of The Bodyguard. I defy anyone to think of a film from the last five years that had a track comparable to Top Gun, The Godfather, The Exorcist or even The Terminator.

Even Disney has quit making cool soundtracks. Look at their past catalog and you’ll see awesome tracks for films such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Film music has become a kind of decorative wallpaper for movies. Why?

8 thoughts on “Film Scores

  1. I can’t speak to all of your examples, but in regards to the new Batman scores I can say that – for me – their strength is in texture, rather than articulation.

    While the former can’t appeal much to appreciators of the latter, they have equal merit. Roughly as much work goes in to writing each kind of music.

    When it comes to the new Star Trek, in the absence of James Horner, I’d much prefer Hanz Zimmer; this Mario fellow’s material really *does* fall under the category of “wallpaper for movies.” Two simple themes, and one of those being little more than a motif? Come on! :-p

    • in regards to the new Batman scores I can say that – for me – their strength is in texture, rather than articulation
      I’d go along with that. I wouldn’t choose to listen to the soundtrack independently of the film, but the Joker’s theme for example did succeed in producing an unsettling feel. I would say that the music to all the modern Batman films complement the onscreen action well, but the rising two note theme used to represent Batman is to me at least, underwhelming.

  2. Perhaps the change relates to our social environment. Maybe Americans needed the epic grand sweep of a John Williams score more so in the past, than we do now. As the comment above suggests, perhaps soundtracks are moving towards a more subtle feel…like spices in a dish. They enhance the flavor of the whole dish but don’t always scream out at you. I’m not the one who is going to research the different social environments of 80s/90s to present day, but I’m sure you could make a case for that.

    However – in defense of new(er) movies – I loved the first Harry Potter soundtrack (Hedwig’s theme is spooky/magical/ethereal), Pirates of the Caribbean had a good theme, though the soundtrack itself lacks creativity if you listen to the whole thing, and I own every single Lord of the Rings soundtrack. I know that only brings us up to 2003, but those are some after the 90′s that I loved.

    And, in defense of Disney, I LOOOOVED the soundtrack for Tangled (2010). But, I know, in general the other soundtracks have lacked the great spunk of earlier Disney movies.

    • Gotta agree with you on the Pirates of The Carribean theme. I recently say Tron Legacy and I quite liked Daft Punks take on it. Jeff Bridges voice over to Derezzed theme was quite cool, and End Of The Line is a good track:

  3. Hey there Great article I found it after your post in the comments section of on trekmovie convinced me to read your star trek III review.
    I do remember the score for Avatar 3D: It was the score for Titanic lol with bits of Cocoon, Mask of Zorro, Star Trek II, and the Rocketeer thrown in for good measure lol sure he re uses alot of his stuff but I still enjoy him as a composer.

    • Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the Star Trek IV post, due shortly. Don’t quite know why, but the music for IV always reminds me of Christmas. I quite like the Star Trek IV soundtrack as it is distinctive from the other music used in the classic movies. Kirk’s theme in particular is upbeat and heroic.

  4. “Even Disney has quit making cool soundtracks. Look at their past catalog and you’ll see awesome tracks for films such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Film music has become a kind of decorative wallpaper for movies. Why?”

    I would say probably due to the nature of their animated features changing. You are right those were some of the best music scores created for film animated or otherwise. And the Songs written for some some of the most classic Songs of the 80s and 90s. But when Eisner decided to give the big showy broadway animated musical the boot in the late 90s early 00′s thats when you saw demise of the great disney scores and soundtracks of the past. It did have a brief flicker of a return with Princess and the Frog, but unfortunately Disney of today has continued for the most part on that track that was laid out at the turn of the century. I think thats the thing that disapoints me most about John Lassiter being incharge of the animation dept, is that he has choosen to stay that course instead of giving us the great animated classics in the style and tone of the Disney’s best.

    I honestly don’t see any of the pixar films being held in the same regard or manner as Snow White, Pinnochio, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid, Aladdin, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong the Pixar films are excellent films but they are also very dated, something the hand drawn disney animated films managed to avoid.

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