Paperhouse: On Film Scores

A film score can make or break a movie. Before the advent of talkies, most movies completely relied on their scores to build suspense, create drama, and serve as an audible link from the images on the screen to the viewer; yet the rise of talkies saw a seismic shift in emphasis, from cinematography and music to acting and the voice.

In recent years, film music has been a lackadaisical affair. There is a small group of greats — composers Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Howard Shore, and John Williams — that are responsible for most Hollywood blockbusters. The process has become mechanical: The lead composer writes a theme, which is often a small alteration from a past film and a group of assistants writes the variations. This method can work quite well: The score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a perfect example. But often this results in the same sounds being put into multiple films.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this process. Every once in a while, a newcomer will come to the scene and create something quite memorable. In 2011’s Drive, the score featured the ethereal, ’80s sounding, synthesizer Europop sounds of Cliff Martinez. Apologies to Ryan Gosling fans, but the dreamlike score of Drive is definitely the film’s strongest element.

Film music, like any sort of music, is a mixed affair filled with highs and lows. Perhaps more interesting is how the elements of the score permeate into the rest of the music world. Most recently, Johnny Jewel, the person who everyone thought would score Drive, released the album Themes For an Imaginary Film, which, like Drive, featured arpeggiating synths, dramatic sweeps, and brittle drum machines. The term “cinematic music” is thrown around a lot, but rarely does this term truly imply a cinematic experience. The two hours of music contained on Themes For an Imaginary Film, however, is able to emulate the experience of watching a film. All you have to do is close your eyes and be drawn into your imagination.