Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘Score: A Film Music Documentary’: An Eye and Ear Opening Experience

Michael Clark

Often confused with soundtracks, which contain mostly source material (songs with lyrics), a score is instrumental music composed and performed for a specific movie. For some people, the only thing they will listen to are film scores and quite a few in the know think it is overall the most interesting genre in present-day music.

Funded entirely by a Kickstarter campaign, former CBS TV journalist-turned-director Matt Schrader’s first and, to date, only feature, “Score: A Film Music Documentary” (SAFMD) isn’t a complete overview of a vastly underappreciated and overlooked facet of movie production, yet it is as thorough as it can be with its bullet-point approach.

‘Silent,’ Not Really

The first hint we get that Schrader knows his subject matter comes near the start, with the crucial role music played in the success of “silent” films. The role of musicians playing Wurlitzer organs (the first de facto synthesizers) in individual theaters across the country—often via improvisation—was, in some ways, more integral to the overall film-going experience then than it is in the present day.
Composer Hans Zimmer featured in "Score: A Film Music Documentary." (Epicleff Media)
Composer Hans Zimmer featured in "Score: A Film Music Documentary." (Epicleff Media)
Perhaps not the first but easily the most recognized early movie score came in 1933 with “King Kong.” Composed by 24-time Oscar nominee Max Steiner, the music for “King Kong” transformed what was kind of a B-horror flick into a cultural and artistic landmark. The music accompanying the Empire State Building scene in the finale of that one movie set the stage and the bar for the next two decades of film music. Steiner went on to score, among others, “Casablanca,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “The Searchers.”

Transition from Symphonic to Jazz

The music contained in the bulk of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” movies adhered closely to Steiner’s orchestral, classical blueprint; some began reflecting the non-movie musical tastes of the time—mostly a mix of traditional strings and big band. With “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), composer Alex North (“Cleopatra,” “Spartacus”) brought modern jazz into the mix and film music in general to the forefront, particularly within the U.S. and European “noir” productions. It would be another quarter-century until orchestral-based scores would enjoy a resurgence.
With the arrival of spy flicks and the American New Wave in the 1960s, scores underwent a radical shift in tone and approach. Everything was up for grabs and nothing was off-limits. John Barry’s wild hybrid of surf, brass, and strings became the staple for every James Bond movie. Folk/bluegrass dominated “Bonnie and Clyde” and, with “Planet of the Apes,” Jerry Goldsmith would rely mostly on percussion with phenomenal effect. Goldsmith went on to score seminal works such as “Chinatown,” “Alien,” and “L.A. Confidential” which laid the groundwork for all future mixed-genre efforts.

Williams Was the Game-Changer

Whether you love him, hate him, or are indifferent, it’s hard to argue that John Williams has had the greatest overall success and impact as a film composer. Starting out as a session pianist (“West Side Story” (1961)), Williams got his big break with “Jaws” (1975), directed by the relatively unknown Steven Spielberg. Since that time, Spielberg and Williams have collaborated in over 20 films.

Second only to Walt Disney for lifetime Oscar nominations (54), Williams has won five with his most recent accomplishment being the final (?) “Star Wars” trilogy. To say he no longer dominates the score landscape would be true, but few people before or since have provided greater influence.

Film composer John Williams conducting the Boston Pops in 2018. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Film composer John Williams conducting the Boston Pops in 2018. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Newmans

The start of the 20th century saw the emergence of a dozen comparatively younger composers including Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer, Jonny Greenwood, Rachel Portman, John Dabney, collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and first cousins Randy and Thomas Newman. Although Randy had been scoring since the 1970s, his film career didn’t hit full stride until his long partnership with the animated wing of Disney beginning in the late 1990s.

Like with so many recent documentaries, “SAFMD” would make for an ideal mini-series. Given the limited running time (93 minutes), it would have been impossible to cover the history and breadth of the material fully in this format. That way someone could dedicate an entire episode to the Newman family.

Regulated to two sentences lasting less than 10 seconds, Randy doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention given spent on Thomas and his uncle Alfred (also the composer of the Fox Studio fanfare). Randy has two other uncles and four cousins who also work or have worked as film composers. Alfred, Thomas, and Randy have a combined record of 76 Oscar nominations and 12 wins—more than any other blood-connected family in movie history. That’s some pretty impressive DNA.

Schrader dedicates the final 30 minutes to a portion of the musical process everyone knows exists, but few are fully aware of the particulars. Among the first to see the work print of finished films, the composers then provide their works to transcribers who orchestrate the parts and present them to conductors. The music is then recorded and a final mix is made. It might sound simple but it sometimes involves hundreds of people combining thousands of man hours before the finished product is done.

The most successful scores are the ones which either provide primary foreground accent to the visuals (Williams’ specialty) or, in the case of more recent productions, remain in the background and in the margins in the form of ambient electronic punctuation. They should always complement the visuals and rarely, if ever, take center stage.

Promotional ad for "Score: A Film Music Documentary." (Epicleff Media)
Promotional ad for "Score: A Film Music Documentary." (Epicleff Media)

“SAFMD” is a rare bird indeed. It can be enjoyed by the casual viewer as well as those who previously thought they knew everything about what shapes films. Once you see it, you’ll never hear movies the same way again.

‘Score: A Film Music Documentary’ Director: Matt Schrader Stars: Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes MPAA Rating: NR Release Date: June 16, 2017 Rating: 4 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.