The Irish film director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) once told me that people don't really watch movies; they listen to dialogue to get the gist of the story. For example, if in his movie In America (2003), a little girl enters the New York apartment and exclaims, "It's huge!" then everybody complains that the apartment was too big for the family to afford. The dialogue suggests the review. Sheridan makes a good point. Certainly there were a handful of recent movies that relied on their images more than on dialogue, and they received mostly negative notices, or were flatly ignored (The New World, The Intruder, The Black Dahlia, Marie Antoinette, etc.). But there's another factor in movies that gets even less notice. I promised myself a year ago that I would spend more time listening to musical scores while watching movies to determine how effective they are. But more often than not, after the fact, I don't even remember hearing a score.
The point of a good score is to underline the emotional content of a scene while not drawing attention to itself. Sometimes a director may choose to use no music at all if the moment calls for it. One composer I always notice is James Horner, whose scores often go too far over the top. He has composed more than a hundred scores, and many of them are good, but some of his more noticeable, recent efforts include Bicentennial Man (1999), The Perfect Storm (2000), The Grinch (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Iris (2001), Beyond Borders (2003), Radio (2003), Troy (2004), The Legend of Zorro (2005) and the current Apocalypto (114 screens). I hated all these movies, and part of the reason is because the score jarred me out of the movie experience. The music explained the emotional content of the scene to the point of overload.
However, other types of scores can draw attention to themselves and still succeed. John Williams created themes for Jaws, Star Wars, Superman and Indiana Jones that any movie buff can hum on command. (The best part of last year's Superman Returns was hearing that score blast once again on the big theater speakers.) Bernard Herrmann's scores for a handful of Hitchcock films remain an essential part of those films' fabric, such as the "spiraling" music of Vertigo or the eerie strings of Psycho. Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia and Charlie Chaplin's Limelight have also become classics in their own right.
This year, one score stood out for me, Alexandre Desplat's The Painted Veil (287 screens). I normally hate costume movies based on classic novels, but this one came alive for me. Part of the reason was Desplat's elastic, emotionally engaging music, which rose and fell perfectly with the images. When I came home and looked up the composer's name, I was surprised to note that Desplat had also composed my favorite score from 2004, for Jonathan Glazer's Birth. Puzzlingly, he is currently nominated for an Oscar for The Queen, a score I didn't remember at all. I just listened to another Oscar nominee, Thomas Newman's The Good German (34 screens) on iTunes; following the lead of the movie itself, Newman deliberately mimics the scores from 1940s Hollywood, like Max Steiner's music for Casablanca. It's loud and bombastic, but for some reason I can't recall it either.
So what's the difference between all these scores? I admit I don't have any kind of scholarly degree in music studies, but I would submit that any score you don't notice is a good score, one that does its job without doing anything special. Any score you notice or that feels redundant is a bad score. But any score that you take away with you as part of the movie is a great score. One man who has done that again and again is Ennio Morricone, whose last U.S. release was Lajos Koltai's Fateless in early 2006, but who has composed a dozen new ones since then.
Maestro Morricone will receive a special Oscar this year. Morricone has composed -- according to the IMDB -- over 500 scores, which is astonishing in itself, but many of these have become classics. He is best known for his Sergio Leone spaghetti Western scores, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and has worked with many great filmmakers: Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Corbucci, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma, Samuel Fuller, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo, and many others. Quentin Tarantino borrowed a piece of his "Twisted Nerve" theme for Kill Bill. The guy's practically a walking piece of film history.