Manhattan, early morning. A sleepy, middle-aged male writer trudges through a wintry park. Weak sunlight pushes through the mist, illuminating the carpet of foliage and highlighting the man’s white dog in the middle distance. Cue music.
Wait, what music? An anxious, deadline-is-looming buzz? A fanfare of inspiration? An innocent ditty suggesting this pleasantness can’t last? A melancholy swell, redolent of lost love? What is this movie, anyway? The writer — that’s me — presses pause, yanking out his earbuds, unplugging all the narratives and stylized emotions. Absent the soundtrack, what’s left is a scene that isn’t portentous, evocative, or emblematic at all — just real life, a nonfictional man walking an actual dog in the city’s approximation of silence.
I’ve been listening to movies lately, to the ways a composer can tell us what characters are feeling or thinking, what they aren’t thinking but should be, what we in the audience ought to feel, or what’s going to happen. Sifting through the fall harvest, I grumble at scores that jangle cloyingly along, heightening a scene’s banality. I get impatient when directors treat music profligately, slathering it from title to credits, and appreciate those who use it surgically, to sharpen a silence or finesse a transition.
Music has a way of throwing clichés into relief. I’ve watched an injured man (Patrick Wilson in Bone Tomahawk) drag himself over miles of Western desert, accompanied by foreboding strings; another injured man (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant) drag himself over miles of Western snow, accompanied by foreboding strings; and a group of soon-to-be-injured men (including Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight) struggling through a Western blizzard, accompanied by, yup, foreboding strings.
It’s the season of prestige scores. John Williams’s multipart Star Wars tone poem, 40 years in the making, continues heaving heroically through The Force Awakens. Like the battered droids and early-model lightsabers that reappear in the latest installment, Williams’s score is a mash-up of the old-fashioned and the thrillingly whimsical. The original Millennium Falcon was constructed out of model-kit tank and Ferrari parts; Williams glues together bits of Dvorák, Sibelius, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Ravel. Orchestral music was the CGI of the 19th century: Stage machinery could only do so much, so it was up to composers to conjure windy tundras, fearsome hordes, hallucinatory dawns, elven creatures, forest combat, and world-conquering loves. Williams must have an immense, cross-referenced database in his brain, arranged so that a handful of keywords — desert, clan, swordfight, moonlight — yield up a menu of symphonic moods.
His secret sauce is specificity. One new theme in The Force Awakens is a black glow of sound emanating from Snoke, the Supreme Leader of some malevolent post-Imperial entity known as the First Order. Snoke appears as a monument-size apparition in a shaft of cathedral light. To give meat to his priestly tyranny, a chorus of 24 men, rasping at the bottom of the human range, sings a low, slow, and sacramental chant. You can hear that basso ultra-profundo in Russian Orthodox liturgy (sung, for example, by Yuri Wichniakov). But why should religiosity merge with evil? Faith plays an ambivalent role in the Star Wars saga. The Force is a form of spiritual energy that can serve either power or virtue, turning a disciple into a formidable killing machine. If Williams has no trouble distinguishing musically between the Dark and Light sides of the Force, that’s partly because Russian composers did such an effective job associating Orthodox music with dictatorship. The famous coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is an explosion of liturgical pageantry and massed choruses to glorify the deep-voiced czar. Prokofiev’s score for the 1938 Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky elevates a proto-Stalinist ruler through stirring choral music. Williams doesn’t need to refer explicitly to these moments — it’s enough for him to remix a few of their ingredients to keep the associations intact.
For The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino hired Ennio Morricone, the 87-year-old sage of cowboy scores, and even set aside three pictureless minutes for an overture. While the basses sustain a tectonic drone, violins plod through a C-minor phrase that keeps pivoting back on itself in slow, staccato notes. In a couple of quick orchestral strokes, Morricone gets across both the undertow of evil and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a film that, once it ducks out of the snow, takes place almost entirely in a single room. The problem is that film composers are so adept at such symbolism that they risk inadvertently fishing for ideas from the same big basket of symbols, especially when they’re crowding into the same genre. Like The Hateful Eight, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is an unsentimental study of vindictiveness, in which blood ties justify extravagant quantities of gore. In theory, Iñárritu made a completely different choice of composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto, who came to film from a career in experimental electronics. And yet, with a little rouge and a fake mustache, the main theme he came up with could pass for Morricone’s: Cellos slip and slosh through a G-minor phrase that keeps pivoting back on itself in slow, legato notes, against a reverberant, windy drone.
Still, Sakamoto’s is the more successful score. Both films slouch toward inevitable spasms of bloodshed, with long pensive stretches in between. Tarantino’s characters talk ceaselessly and have little need for music indoors. Morricone adorns one simple melodic fragment in the overture with a tinkling glockenspiel. Its wrongness lingered with me for a while before I realized that it reminded me not of landlocked mayhem but the “Aquarium” movement from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals — an evocation of fish gliding beneath sun-splashed ripples.
In The Revenant, on the other hand, DiCaprio spends most of the saga alone in the wilderness, and the score keeps him company as mirages, memories, and landscape merge in his drifting mind. Sakamoto slowly progresses through glacial chords that build toward a fortissimo horizon. Only in the obligatory final scene of hand-to-hand combat does he plunder his toolbox of modernist effects: chirping electronics, raspy, scrabbling strings playing sul ponticello (on the bridge), and sudden percussion soliloquies. The score doesn’t so much follow the action here as lead it, urging the fighters on, even as it registers their single-minded lunacy.
Music is good at suggesting insanity. Bone Tomahawk remains score-free for the first 42 minutes, except for the unearthly harmonic howl that only cannibals or complex electronics could possibly produce. Only when Kurt Russell (sporting almost the same elaborate whiskers he wears in The Hateful Eight) sallies forth from the town of Bright Hope at the head of a doughty rescue party does the soundtrack get under way. A stylishly executed movie so culturally retrograde it might have sprung from a Trumpian fever dream, Bone Tomahawk pits white settlers against white-painted primitives, and Jeff Herriott and the director-composer S. Craig Zahler set the expedition to a string elegy reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. This is music for a threatened civilization: The 80-year-old Strauss wrote the original in the closing days of World War II as a prayer for European culture destroyed by cataclysmic savagery. In the film, the knockoff serves to suggest that the stakes for the white man in the West were equally high.
For the most part, a soundtrack inhabits its own sealed compartment within a film, where it can remain comfortably anachronistic. Music doesn’t intrude on the characters’ world. That’s why Alexandre Desplat’s bubble bath of soft-core minimalism doesn’t jar with the meticulous reconstruction of early-20th-century Copenhagen in The Danish Girl. It’s why Thomas Newman’s wallpaper score unrolls through the long standoff in Bridge of Spies without any of the hypervigilant Cold Warriors barking for someone to turn the damn thing off. Film composers often fill the minutes with generic pablum because they don’t want audiences to notice the stuff, either. Sometimes it’s just because they can’t achieve the richness they have in mind.
In the claustrophobic tour de force Room, 5-year-old Jack (the spectacular Jacob Tremblay) examines the confines of the cell where he has spent his entire life. It’s a tactile dance, as the boy drifts from wall to wall, touching all his familiar items and gliding into the shaft of sunshine from the skylight, Jack’s only contact with the outside world. Music is crucial to such a wordless, lyrical moment — and the composer, Stephen Rennicks, blows it. His melancholy waltz, tinged with childlike naïveté, draws on a rich storehouse of classical models. I watched the scene again with the sound off and inserted the second movement of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (the original piano version, performed by Krystian Zimerman) instead. Suddenly the scene snapped into focus, its tragic loveliness almost unbearably intense. This made me wonder why composers don’t rummage more through the vast storehouse of classical music, much of it vividly cinematic, psychologically astute, and free. I guess they’d be putting themselves out of business.
At times, music bursts out of the subliminal soundtrack and into the plot. That occurs twice in The Hateful Eight. Jennifer Jason Leigh sings the Australian folk ballad “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” with a banged-up guitar and a voice as cracked as her lip. Later, Demián Bichir sits at an out-of-tune piano and plunks out “Silent Night” as a portent of the Yuletide unholiness that is about to be wreaked inside the isolated inn. Music also becomes a character on another Christmas night in Brooklyn, when an immigrant stands after a soup-kitchen feast to sing the Irish folk tune “Casadh an tSúgáin.” The power of the moment makes it a fragile one, and it’s a shame that director John Crowley didn’t trust it. In the original novel, Colm Tóibín anticipates the silence after the final syllable, that brief distillation of enormous loss. “Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place …” Tóibín writes. The movie doesn’t allow that moment to come. Instead, composer Michael Brook sneaks violins in under the final verse and draws the tune out of the church hall and into the snowy evening, landing on a mawkish cadence at the start of the following scene.
The film composer has an even more delicate task than threading music through the film’s fantastical world: drawing it from inside the characters’ minds. In Paolo Sorrentino’s surreal Youth, Michael Caine plays the buttoned-up composer-conductor Fred Ballinger, who is convalescing from imaginary ailments at a resort in the Swiss Alps. Once, he would have had cataracts of music — Mahler’s, Elgar’s, his own — pouring through his brain virtually round the clock. But now he’s spent and bored, and the emptiness of his life produces an anxious silence of the soul. Only once does he become momentarily inspired, when he sits on a stump amid the cows and conducts a glorious choir of moos and bells. Scraps of his famous “Simple Song No. 3” float across the hotel grounds, and Queen Elizabeth dispatches an emissary with an offer of a knighthood in exchange for a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Ballinger demurs. It’s a tall order for a real composition to play the role of a fictional masterpiece, but Sorrentino was smart enough to tap David Lang, who produced a translucent, ostensibly straightforward orchestral reverie that owes a little to Canteloube’s Songs From the Auvergne and more to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, without feeling like a knockoff of either one.
In many movies, the soundtrack gives voice to the director’s Olympian viewpoint. The characters may cavort in gauzy yellow sunlight, but the music knows — and reveals — that they will suffer before long. The composer is confined to a narrow band of affect and style. Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short, is equally omniscient, but he’s an attention-deficit deity, bouncing among subplots and players. He’s so terrified of boring the public with talk of credit-default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations that he keeps the camera and the characters in relentless motion. They shove their way into a cab, curse into a headset, try to grab a stripper’s attention in mid-act, jiggle impatiently on the arm of a couch, brandish drumsticks — and each of these people comes to the overarching story of global moral failure with his own set of tunes pumping through his ears. Songs keep bursting like fireworks into the soundtrack than flaring out, their helter-skelter pace fueling the hyperoxygenated film.
The nimble composer Nicholas Britell weaves his way through this riot of images and sounds with a self-effacing but effective score that holds the whole clattering contraption together. It’s his job to express the movie’s bedrock philosophy that no matter how cynical you are, you are still naïve. He’s at his best toward the end of the film, when the scattered crusaders converge on a revelatory real-estate-finance conference in Las Vegas and believe they’ve discovered the depths of financial corruption. Britell captures the way a mindless system keeps blithely hooting toward the abyss. “I am going to try to find moral redemption at the roulette table,” says the saturnine money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). That line triggers a passage of high-register, music-box piano arpeggios, filled with creepy cheer. The plinkety-plink could be the sound of money, or of keyboard clicks, or the sheer robotic insistence that everything is fine.
But neither McKay nor Britell is done. The camera follows Baum to New York, where he unburdens himself to his wife. The editing is jumpy: Lines of dialogue come unstuck from the characters’ mouths, drifting across cuts, or else vanish into the ether. Baum’s apocalyptic predictions merge with the memories of his brother’s suicide … all while a psychedelic organ dirge ennobles his rage and guilt. Without warning we cut to Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, listening to death metal in his basement, unleashing a satanic scream and releasing his frustrations on a set of long-suffering cymbals and drums. This is what a good film composer can do: bind three scenes, three locations, and three kinds of music in a sequence of adrenalized despair.
*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.