Friday, October 1, 2010

Selling Movies with the Soundtrack

movie-theater Leafing through my iTunes library, I realize my movie soundtrack offerings are fairly scant.  I have more original cast recordings for musicals than straight-up movie scores (I did get a drama degree after all).

However, what few I don’t own for “Maybe I’ll use them in a show someday” purposes resonate with me strongly. 

For whatever reason, exceptional scores can stick with me much longer than the movies that spawned them.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of the music delivering the select moments you want right away, so watching the whole movie would be a waste of time.  If I don’t have time to experience Dr. Grant’s wonder and awe at witnessing a brachiosaurus rip leaves from a tall tree, I can just cue up John William’s theme from Jurassic Park.  There: heart swelled and it only cost me five minutes.

Sometimes a soundtrack does the opposite.  Instead of reminding me of my favorite moments from a movie, the score breeds great anticipation for a movie I’ve yet to see.  A complete score can build the world and tone of a movie far better than a two-minute trailer.  Maybe I’m experiencing the movie backwards.  But who says that’s a bad thing?

 There Will Be Greenwood

What did I know of There Will Be Blood before I saw it?  It was based (loosely) on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!.  It starred a crazy Daniel Day Lewis screaming at that kid from Little Miss Sunshine.  And Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood composed the music.

The trailer introduced me to all three of those elements perfectly.  Set atop Greenwood’s infectious, intimidating strings, it shows trains bustling across wide-open oil country, Lewis conning a roomful of townspeople, and Paul Dano screaming about the devil. 

The score said it all.  This world is spacious, atonal, and dangerous.  Listen to how the first track, “Open Spaces,” intimates hope with danger, rising from the depths of the doom-sounding strings into almost peaceful chords that eventually bleed into worrisome harmonies in motion.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet (is that still a phrase people use?), I downloaded the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood months before I got around to seeing the movie.  I was entranced by the spiteful string phrases stretched taut across piano and percussion.  The expansive, ear-rending harmonies channel a sort-of Bizarro Copland.  I’m still getting a vision of America’s heartland; it’s just covered in blood and burning oil.

Not only did the soundtrack effectively prepare me for Daniel Day’s nightmarish tour de force, it also sent me running to obtain a copy of In Rainbows.  I’d never listened to a full Radiohead album before, and I was (perhaps naively) starting with their newest and one of their most ambitious.  While Greenwood’s film work did little to ease me into Radiohead’s art-rock sensibility, it did give me the resolve to delve further back in their catalogue and catch up on all of the Kid A love I’d been missing. 

I’ve still never watched There Will Be Blood for a second time.  But the soundtrack’s run through my ears at least ten.

Face to Face With Trent Reznor

Did you know Trent Reznor worked on the soundtrack for David Fincher’s The Social Network?  I didn’t until earlier this week when it went on sale digitally.  The longtime Nine Inch Nails creator and frontman collaborated on the project with English musician and producer Atticus Ross. 

How did they make a movie about Facebook and set it to an electronic score composed by the guy who made Pretty Hate Machine?  It’s sort of perfect.  According to prerelease coverage, Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film paints Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in an unflattering by identifiable light.  The technonerd who, in a moment of spite, creates something that catches fire, spreading at a rate beyond wildest dreams and burning bridges he barely had time to build let alone use. 

While that last part doesn’t exactly apply to Reznor, the technonerd part certainly does.  He is the Alpha Geek – forging Pro Tools prowess, rudimentary guitar skills, and throat-thrashing screams into arena-filling spectacle.  I’ve probably spent literal days of my life listening to Nine Inch Nails’ fourth album The Fragile.  Granted, I did most of that listening over ten years ago, and songs like “Starfuckers, Inc.” now sound like silly antitheses to late-90s bubblegum pop.  But The Fragile’s occasional moments of beauty still impress me.  Reznor knows how to construct a soundscape, tricking your ears into accepting buzzing bees as a string section or subtly turning down the volume on his percussion to let his vocals hang desperately in the air.

The soundtrack to The Social Network is that same compositional mind at work without the burden of inane lyrics.  For every so-simple-it-works cut like “Head like a Hole,” Reznor’s rolled out bizarre nonsense like his Year Zero concept album.  On The Social Network, he’s absolved himself of that responsibility. 

Despite the occasional song full of NIN guitar, it’s a synth heavy score.  Rising and falling beeps and bloops are clearly meant to conjure the digital world Zuckerberg’s creating, plus it all just screams Dot Com Valley.  Listen to “In Motion” and tell me you don’t picture expert programmers relaxing at the club (or wherever they go) after changing the world with just a few lines of code.

I was intrigued by the trailer for The Social Network, mostly on the strength of its moving choral cover of “Creep.”  I know that song isn’t in the movie, but now I’m intrigued by what is.  How do you set scenes to this?  This angry yet dance-y industrial technorock.  I can’t wait to find out.

Exceptions to the Rule

Not every score functions by this principal.  And not every score should. 

Had you played the Up soundtrack for me prior to my seeing it, it wouldn’t have reduced me to a weepy mess.  Sure, Michael Giacchino’s winds and strings were beautiful, but his introduction and restatement of themes lines up with the movie so well I doubt I would have appreciated it. 

Sometimes movies can ruin a good score.  I remember when the soundtrack for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith came out.  It was John Williams.  He knows what he’s doing.  That “Battle of the Heroes” song sounded awesome until I saw that travesty of a scene to which it was set.  So unfortunate. 

If you’re going to let me listen to a movie’s soundtrack early, make sure both the music and the movie are worth my time.  I can’t afford to have one sabotage the other.  I like it much better when they feed off of one another to create an enjoyable, cohesive work of art.