07 May 2008

Moments of glory, made for the big screen

One man’s trash is another man’s genre.
I love movie soundtracks. They are the product between a fine balance of classical music and pop accessibility. Most of the time, the music produced for movies is as forgettable as the previews that sometimes run before the movie itself, but on rare occasions, the music produced for a movie is good enough to take on a life of its own. The “Indiana Jones” theme and the “duuuuu-DUM” motif from “Jaws” come to mind. When properly done, a soundtrack not only scores a movie, but enhances it. There are scenes in movie history that would be less without the music that makes them – like the scene I am about to reference from “Apollo 13.”
When the signal is given that the mission is “Go for launch,” James Horner’s score starts with a horn motif underscored with an insistent-yet-purposeful synthesizer baseline. Horner is an interesting composer in this way, because he can use a synthesizer in a way that does not detract from the classical musicians working on the rest of the piece. His score for “Titanic,” which sold millions of copies, is proof of this. In “Apollo 13,” the music builds until the astronauts step onto the gantry leading to their capsule, and the music bursts forth in a triumphant brass explosion that somehow combines heroics with the tension and adventure of the situation. It sounds, in short, like the kind of music that would play if God were to ascend from a cloud to the Earth. The film perfectly couples this music with little details that underscore the sheer heroics of the situation: the astronauts are embarking on a voyage that could well be the pinnacle of their career (and lives), and are dappled with CG-sunshine as they move their bulky, suited selves from the gantry to the capsule.
This scene and the music in it resonated with me so much that I wanted to become an astronaut in high school. I wanted to taste that pinnacle of success. I wanted to be brave, and have talented composers write stirring music for my adventures. I wanted to be an astronaut not because I wanted to go into space – I wanted to be an astronaut they way they were portrayed in “Apollo 13.” This is the effect that a good soundtrack can have. As I was exercising and listening to the “Apollo 13” music yesterday, I felt emboldened, and full of pride to the point of bursting. I wasn’t merely exercising – I was voyaging bravely into the unknown realms of my own tolerance and discipline. This piece of music moved me to tears (as it sometimes does), as if the heavens were blessing my pursuit of fitness. In short, I wasn’t getting on to a spaceship, but the soundtrack behind my efforts made it seem so.
Soundtracks are often (sometimes rightly) thought of as a throwaway accessory to the movie they are made for. In many cases, this is a true statement: how many times have I seen copies of the “Varsity Blues” and “Last Action Hero” soundtracks at thrift stores? Most of these work belong in the very places they are found, but some composers consistently rise above the pack with works that not only stir the emotions, but stand as works of their own. John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith – the list pretty much ends here. It’s a specialized field, and in it, these men have perfected the art of making a good film score. In high school, Williams’ work with the “Star Wars” trilogy was able to open my mind to classical music. Much of his work incorporates classical elements (like using a motif that plays each time a character is on the screen) in a way that is easy and digestible at the same time. In a way, he prepared me for bigger musical adventures.
It’s easy to think of soundtracks as a dorky sort of genre. However, despite this handicap, they can sometimes move the human spirit in ways their creators might never have imagined.

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