Editor: Gary S Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Webmaster Len Mullenger
Review of 2002
Gary Dalkin - Editor
Every year that goes by sees those involved in their particular field looking back and bemoaning that things aren't as good as they used to be. The very fact that film music devotees divide the past of the genre into Golden and Silver Ages - presumably leaving the present in some sort of tawdry Bronze Age - exemplifies this attitude; and film music fans aren't alone. Film fans to do it to movies in general, comic book collectors do it to comic books. But perhaps there never was a Golden or Silver Age of anything. There are times people prefer, which likely coincide with their youth. As people grow older they often tend to see everything as getting worse; and to prefer everything the way it first was, or the way they first remember it. Which for a lot of older fans today amounts to the same thing, our more mature film music fans doing their growing-up in the 1930's and 1940's, when the specifically composed film score was really coming into its own.
For many people the sound of movies from this era is the way movies ought to sound, and the more movies move away from that "Golden Age" sound, the worse film music becomes. For slightly younger fans it may be itís the sound of the 1950's or '60's that defines the way movies "should" sound. Same principle applies. Yet there's no law, natural or otherwise defining the way a film should be scored, what sort of music it should have, or anything else of the kind. Good film music is what works. Very good film music is what works better, and great film music can elevate a good film into a great one. The sound of that music can be as different as the lush Viennese romanticism of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, or the ethnic derived writing of Mychael Danna's Ararat. Film music is functional music and should not be judged simply on how well it fits into a particular style we may or may not especially like.
All of which brings me to Film Music on the Web's review of 2002. As ever there have been good scores, great scores, and a lot of effective-in-the-film scores which really do not inspire on CD. But that's fine, they weren't meant to in the first place. Perhaps when we complain about a decline in the standards of film music what we are really suggesting is that there are too many albums, and therefore too much immediate evidence that a lot of film music isn't that inspiring. But then it never was. The difference being that back in the 1940's and 1950's only the best of the best found its way onto disc. And even then, only a fraction of that best. Now we have gone the other way, such that it seems if it exists someone will release it.
Being deluged with recordings of film music means sorting the best from the rest. There are now in an average year around 500 film music releases, from new soundtracks to reissues to re-recordings to anthologies. And that doesn't include unofficial releases, promos and items of associated interest such as classical recordings by film composers. Then there are all the endless pop/rock/rap/etc discs featuring "music from and inspired by" various films. Of all these albums, not including the pop and unofficial issues, FMOTW reviews around 200 a year, or less than half. We would like to review more, but obtaining review copies of everything is never going to happen. So we may miss some notable titles, but we hope to uncover most of the good stuff and all of the great releases. Hearing so many albums gives us some sort of perspective on the film music album field and as we look back we see that there is a lot of good music being released. It's in the major new films that the problems come, with more and more mainstream blockbusters being soundtracked with songs and/or mediocre electronic scores. Nevertheless, fine work is still being done, if among smaller scale, more artistic pictures.
One concern is that the greatest composers are approaching the end of their careers; Elmer Bernstein celebrated his 80th birthday in 2002, and was honoured by Hollywood dumping his music from Gangs of New York, though he did pen a fine, Oscar nominated, score which graces Far From Heaven. Jerry Goldsmith had to battle serious illness, but is now back at work with scores for Timeline and Picasso at the Lapin Agile due in 2003, and will be conducting two concerts with the RPO in March. Meanwhile John Williams proved he is still at the top of his career with exceptional scores for Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can and Star Wars - Episode II - Attack of the Clones, even if this latter work was horribly hacked about in the completed film. Williams also contributed fine work to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a score created in collaboration with William Ross. There are though fine composers waiting in the wings to take centre stage; all we can hope is that the commercial situation of an ever more youth orientated Hollywood will allow them to do so. Composers such as Bruce Broughton, Patrick Doyle, Debbie Wiseman, etc certainly deliver the goods.
Among our writers choices for the best of 2002 there were two clear firm favourite scores, Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers, and James Newton Howard's Signs. Meanwhile John Williams cam out on top as the most mentioned composer, with praise for his scores for Attack of the Clones, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, as well as for the DVD content of ET. Most favoured re-recordings and anthologies proved to be Chandos' superb Scott of the Antarctic and Varèse Sarabande's new issue of Franz Waxman's Rebecca, while for the sheer number of recommendations Silva Screen led the pack with such titles as The Fantasy Album and Debbie Wiseman's Something Here. You can see all our choices tabulated here.
Now before I turn the rest of the page over to Ian Lace, Paul Tonks and Mark Hockley, who obviously may disagree entirely with my views - in-fact optimism and pessimism is equally balanced throughout our retrospective - I'll just like to mention as fine a new score as you are likely to hear in a long time. My favourite work of 2002 comes from the Japanese animated film Spirited Away. The fantastic music is by Joe Hisaishi and you can read my full review here.
Ian Lace, Managing Editor
My feelings about the new film scores 2002 may be summarised by the paragraph I wrote for the American classical music magazine Fanfare, from which I have just retired having contributed reviews and articles for the last seven years or so. The editor of Fanfare encouraged me to be more stinging than I had originally planned. He has now closed down the film music reviews section in his magazine because he concurs with my sentiments -
"What has happened to the quality of new film scores? Oh, for the old days when the studios had dedicated music departments staffed by classically-trained musicians. Gone are the elegant, the heroic, sweeping romantic scores of yesteryear with their lush, memorable themes. How well I remember the days of my youth when I would linger in the theatre to see films round again simply to hear music like Franz Waxman's thrilling Prince Valiant score. Now all I seem to hear are tedious clichéd formulaic opuses written by Pop-and-Rock-orientated musicians who give the impression that they grudgingly listen in to popular classical music broadcasts on Sunday afternoons. I cannot think of one new score album amongst the many that I have heard this year that I would choose to keep in my collection."
That paragraph was written in 2002 (copy dates for Fanfare are very early) but since then there has been little to make me change my mind other than James Newton Howardís Signs and Gabriel Yaredís Possession. James Hornerís Iris score, which straddled 2001/02 impressed too. But in the last twelve months, acting as editor of Film Music on the Web and sampling all of the new scores recordings that came across my desk before sending them out to our reviewers, I can remember precious few others that impressed me in any way. Even more disturbing has been a distinct falling off in the issue of recordings of the film music of Hollywoodís Golden Age, with the exception of the continuing sterling work of Film Score Monthly and the Marco Polo teams. Sadly there have been disappointingly few releases this year of classic scores from Varèse Sarabande. The quality of new material coming from this previously highly respected source is to say the least, disappointing. Recently I have been doing a little guest lecturing on film music and I have been disappointed, appalled even, about the scant coverage on syllabuses and in examinations of the work of Korngold, Steiner and the other Hollywood pioneers. I fervently hope that I have simply experienced a local aberration.
On a more positive note, the trend of including interviews with film music composers on DVD film releases is welcome; that is, whenever they are articulate and contribute to the appreciation of the scoring of the film. For instance, DVD releases of E.T. Ė The Extra-Terrestrial and A.I. Artificial Intelligence have included fascinating contributions from John Williams. The British Film Institute (bfi) is to be congratulated on releasing some fine material on DVD. It made available publicly for the first time, Ken Russellís excellent 1960s BBC Monitor drama documentaries on Elgar and Delius, the former with extremely valuable supplementary film footage of Elgar. The bfi also released the enchanting French classic La belle et le Bête (with glorious music by Georges Auric) and, although outside our remit, the utterly absorbing and very instructive A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
I trust that the present standard of score writing for the screen, big and small, is just a glitch and that the more promising of the emerging new young film scoring talent will create music that is as arresting and memorable as that of golden days gone by.
A year ago I was saying 2002 would have a lot to live up to. So Iím delighted to say it did. The movie market may still be saturated with noisy blockbuster efforts and there may still be a great proportion of Hollywood thinking that canít be creative outside of whatís succeeded before, but Iíve seen some positive signs. There are great and involving films out there to be enjoyed. Likewise there is still some wonderful new film music being written. The real problem with 2002 is the same as itís been for a few years, that thereís just so much being released all the time that itís hard to keep up. Which is where places like Film Music On the Web come in handy of course! And just in case you missed some of the gems in the past 12 months, itís where FMOW is even handier by providing a run down that cuts to the quick of what was worth your while.
Howard Shore impressed me as much for squeezing in Panic Room and Spider as his continuation with The Lord of the Rings. Iíve written at length about the score now, but perhaps the simplest reason it makes my top recommendation is for managing to enhance my appreciation of the Fellowship score. Signs nearly beat it to the top spot for its remarkable depth of construction. Director M. Night Shyamalan certainly seems to inspire the very best from Newton Howard. Shame the same canít be said between George Lucas and John Williams any more. Star Wars - Episode II - Attack of the Clones contains some wonderful musical sequences and ideas, but more than ever; youíre hard-pressed to discern them in the film.
Other titles that impressed me: Spider-Man / Red Dragon (Danny Elfman), Secretary / LíAdversaire (Angelo Badalamenti), Changing Lanes / Die Another Day (David Arnold), Eight Legged Freaks / Pumpkin (John Ottman), The Time Machine (Klaus Badelt), Ararat (Mychael Danna) and Spy Kids 2 (John Debney and Robert Rodriguez).
It seemed to be a very lean year for re-recordings versus premiere releases of classic scores. Vareseís pared down output was most notable, but of them Rebecca pleased me most. Similarly, there seemed to be less collections being put out. Despite that, Debbie Wisemanís anthology was a clear winner and would have been in any year.
Our new category comes from the one market thatís ever expanding; DVD extras. Those that focus on film music with anything of real worth are proportionately few and far between. Again, it was the enormous undertaking of Lord of the Rings that best pleased me.
So that was 2002. 2003 has a lot to live up to!
Iím disappointed to say that Iíve found 2002 to be an incredibly underwhelming year in terms of fresh and exciting film music. So few scores have made any real impression on me that I actually had a hard time even coming up with a top three and that has to be serious cause for concern. My selections had so little competition it might appear that they succeeded by default, but in the case of Howard Shoreís The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, there is no denying its power and majesty and Iím certain this score will find its place beside The Fellowship of the Ring as a future classic. Other than this, one of my favourite current composers, James Newton Howard, continues his astonishing run of outstanding scores with the Herrmannesque Signs, a delight of dark mystery and suspense. Sadly though, beyond this I find little to get enthusiastic about. Apart from a number of compilations which always throw up a wide variety of worthwhile releases and several wonderful new expanded versions of truly great scores from the past, I can find nothing to warrant discussion, explaining my failure to make any kind of nomination in several of our possible categories. I can only hope that 2003 will bring better things.
Mark Walker, senior DVD & video editor at Amazon.co.uk and editor of the Gramophone Good Film Music Guides responds:
I think the heart of the problem for "musical" people is this: that Golden Age film music was, for the most part, written by classically trained composers who understood the formal techniques of orchestral composition. This is reflected in their approach to writing film music -- Korngold, Steiner, Rozsa, Waxman etc -- as it is of course in the current work of people like John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, those survivors from the old days of the studio system, as well as a handful of youngsters like Debbie Wiseman and Joel McNeely.
However, these days there are many composers (Hans Zimmer to name one) who have no formal musical education at all, usually coming from a rock music background, and who use electronic equipment to "mock up" their orchestral scores. The results can be very enjoyable and effective, certainly, but there is a fundamental difference between their approach to scoring and that of the old school.
This ultimately translates into a debate about how enjoyable film music is on CD. Does score X make for a satisfying listening experience in its own right? When score X is written by a classically trained composer (let's say, Bruce Broughton for example), it is far more likely to sound like a piece of "absolute" music on CD. Scores written by people with no formal musical training, are less likely to satisfy in this respect (though some do). They might sound fine in the picture but don't attract repeated listening away from it. Hence the perception that the quality of film music has declined.
Is film music purely functional? That's the core question. I would say not. Certainly it is functional, but so is incidental music written for the theatre (Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" for example) or ballet. It would be my contention that good film music combines its functional use with an independently satisfying musical experience. Pretty much every John Williams score succeeds in this regard, which is one reason why he remains pre-eminent. If film music on CD is going to be something more than just a souvenir of the movie, then the music must work away from the picture. But the two things are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps it's even deeper than that: what constitutes "music" after all? Does film music count as "music" at all if its sole job is to support images in a movie? In that case is it not mere noise like the sound effects, and has no place away from the film? I would argue that film music must strive to satisfy as music independently if it is to be regarded as a genuine art form and not just a way of "wallpapering" a movie with clichéd emotional cues that might just as easily have been culled from a music library.
A good film score is a well-rounded, properly thought-out composition. It has a sense of a beginning, middle and end, the individual cues are not isolated but related to each other in musical ways (key structure, use of motifs, inversion of themes etc). That's what unites Miklós Rozsa's "Ben-Hur", John Williams's "Star Wars" scores and even Howard Shore's "LOTR" -- a sense of musical structure. Ultimately, it is this that many modern scores lack, which is in turn a result of the lack of formal training of the composers.