The art of soundtracks

The soundtrack can determine whether a movie is a hit. Chris Sullivan talks to masters of the art of composing for films
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The Independent Culture

One of the highlights of the much anticipated and soon to be released film of The Da Vinci Code must be the musical score. It is the work of Hans Zimmer - one of the world's most influential soundtrack composers - whose impressive record of more than 100 film scores includes Driving Miss Daisy, the Oscar-winning The Lion King, and one of the bestselling soundtrack albums of all time, Gladiator. "A good score should have a point of view all of its own," says Zimmer. "It should transcend all that has gone before, stand on its own two feet and still serve the movie. A great soundtrack is all about communicating with the audience, but we all try to bring something extra to the movie that is not entirely evident on screen."

Today, it is impossible to imagine a great film without a soundtrack. Consider The Godfather without its luxurious Nino Rota lament, or Lawrence of Arabia without Maurice Jarre's immense musical landscape. When Halloween was previewed in front of studio executives without music, most walked out, berating director John Carpenter for having wasted their time; once he added his inimitable score, it became the biggest-grossing independent film of the Seventies.

"Psycho is a perfect example of how music can elevate a film," says Rolfe Kent, whose scoring credits include About Schmidt and Sideways. "Bernard Herrmann, who composed Psycho's soundtrack, ignored Hitchcock's suggestion that Psycho should have an entirely jazz score and used all manner of anomalous avant-garde techniques created specifically to jar the audience audibly. He dropped in sequences that ended unnaturally on the third bar and punctuated scenes with nasty high-pitched violin stabs, and as a result brought an undeniable edge to the film and completely revolutionised film soundtrack composition."

"It is our job to try to break new ground," says Harry Gregson Williams, composer on, among others, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Kingdom of Heaven. "But we have to work closely with the film's director and within the film itself and not be too experimental. For Bridget Jones, I tried all manner of instruments and the only thing that worked within the pop songs featured was piano and strings. A Chinese bagpipe playing discords would have been awful, but for another film it might work."

And the method of creating film music is as diverse as the product. "There is no one way of doing it," asserts David Holmes, former acid house DJ and soundtrack composer. "It depends on the project. As Federico Fellini once remarked: 'Nino Rota [Fellini's composer] has never seen any of my films because he's never stayed awake long enough to see one.' With Ocean's Twelve I'd sent Steven Soderbergh 12 pieces of music before I'd seen the film and by gauging his reaction I knew where to go with it. On other occasions I've sat with the director, watched a rough cut and then come back with something that fits. A great director will often get a great soundtrack because he will treat you like an artist."

The correlation between great directors and great scores is undeniable. Who but Sergio Leone could have allowed Ennio Morricone the scope to create the magisterial score for Once Upon a Time in America, which deconstructs the same piece of music some 13 times? And who but Louis Malle would have had the cojones to allow Miles Davis to provide the soundtrack for the majestic Lift to the Scaffold, not having seen the film or even knowing what it was about?

"The directors I work with give me an incredibly free rein," affirms Zimmer, who began his career with Buggles - the band responsible for "Video Killed The Radio Star" - and is currently scoring Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. "And it is my job to do what they can't even imagine. It's interpretative liberty."

But an inferior soundtrack can kill a film. "Theme music should just orchestrate the subtext," says Marc Evans, director of the forthcoming Snowcake, starring Sigourney Weaver. "The worst examples are usually comedies or car-chase music, when the composer is stating the obvious."

"A soundtrack can carry a visual along, be an unforgettable addition to the film and sometimes there is a small moment of something really great, which exists as beautiful music on its own merit," says Zimmer.

"There are few avenues in contemporary music where one can use an orchestra or a huge choir, do what you want, and then get millions of people to hear it," says Gregson Williams, currently scoring Deja Vu for Tony Scott. "And the variety of subject matter is shocking. I've been let loose on chickens [Chicken Run], ants (Antz), men stuck in phone booths [Phone Booth] and 12th-century crusaders [Kingdom of Heaven]. I couldn't do this if I was a pop musician."

Maybe this is why many producers and musicians are turning to soundtrack composition. David Gray produced the soundtrack to Amma Assante's A Way Of Life, Damon Gough of Badly Drawn Boy found success with About A Boy, and Massive Attack, after myriad appearances on source theme music, scored Luc Besson's Unleashed.

"Everyone wants to do film music," says Clive Langer, who, having recently scored the eagerly anticipated Brothers of the Head, produced Madness, Elvis Costello and Bush. "This is because you are given a greater opportunity to express yourself and because it's a lot braver than most chart music, as you don't have to worry about the radio plays or have a record company breathing down your neck looking for hits."

'The Da Vinci Code' opens on 19 May