x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Know the score

In addition to being an essential part of the movie-going experience, film music is among the most powerful and distinctive art of the last century.


Can you imagine The Godfather with a soundtrack of disco songs? A Quentin Tarantino film in which the action is backed up by orchestral strings? Or a classic Hollywood weepie where the story's emotional peaks were presented without any music at all? Not easy, is it? While we are often only semi-aware of its presence, film music is an indispensable cornerstone of many famous movies, so central to their character that they would be flat, disjointed or bizarre without it. But despite this important role - and the recognition of a small number of its composers - film music remains a frequently ignored or undervalued part of cinema culture.

The Middle Eastern International Film Festival is doing its best to redress that imbalance, with a programme that gives film scores their rightful place in the spotlight. First up, there is a high-profile screening of the Bollywood extravaganza Blue, accompanied by a brand-new score combining the talents of the Oscar-winning composer of the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, AR Rahman, with those of Kylie Minogue. And accompanying the music of this pairing is a trio of masterclasses from experts in the field of film music, on subjects as wide ranging as the use of Middle Eastern music on film soundtracks to improvisational piano accompaniments to silent film.

This focus is appropriate given what a key aspect of most films music is. It is also, however, a much criticised one. As Woody Allen once said, "let's just say it covers a multitude of sins". Used to heighten the mood of a scene, build up suspense or simply to revive flagging audience attention, film music can be, by turns, both sublime and bluntly manipulative. While some directors (such as Stanley Kubrick) are noted for their brilliant, spiky use of music, many critics have seen the use of incidental music as frequently heavy-handed and shallow. This could be one of the reasons why, despite creating some of the past 100 years' most memorable music, film composers were for a long time looked down upon. Despite the creation of spectacular scores by respected composers such as Shostakovich even way back in the silent era, classical-music pundits long portrayed film music composers as traitors to high culture, selling their souls to the devil of consumerism. The reputation of the excellent late-romantic composer Erich Korngold, for example, was effectively ruined when he moved to Hollywood in the 1930s to write superb scores for a number of movies (among them Errol Flynn's 1938 version of Robin Hood). Seen as kitschy slush by purists (sometimes with good reason), such music damned itself by being both accessible and populist and thus apparently not worthy of the attention of serious audiences.

But such snobbery misses the point of film music, which at its best is a potent narrative tool in its own right, one that sometimes works best when it takes a deliberate second place to the acting and cinematography. Listen to the music Bernard Hermann composed for Hitchcock's Psycho without images, for example, and it is undoubtedly lively and dramatic. It is only when you watch the film, however, that its brilliance becomes clear.

The shrieking, disjointed rhythms of the score synchronise exactly with the film's sharp, jerky editing to create a sense of horror and foreboding that later, far more explicitly gory films have invariably failed to match. The music in itself is not supposed to stand alone but to work in seamless tandem with the image to create something that is far more than the sum of either part. And as for creating music of lasting value, while it is true that the woozy, conservative lyricism of some high Hollywood soundtracks might seem a little overcooked, later film music has been far more adventurous. The best works of composers such as Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter, for example, succeeded in fusing diverse musical styles and both classical and electronic instruments in a bold, experimental manner. Such music is highly memorable - but given that film music is there to enhance rather than compete with images and dialogue, can a good musical score ever save a mediocre film? Too many films employ music that attempts to disguise their shortcomings, piling on instant pathos, or suggesting tension that the on-screen action actually lacks. Sometimes these efforts on behalf of composers are enough to lift a film, however. Who would remember aquatic shocker Jaws (1975), for example, without its dramatic music? It is even arguable that such acknowledged classics as Visconti's Death in Venice (1970) might not have such a reputation for poignancy without the resplendent beauty of its soundtracks (Mahler's Fifth Symphony). But the use of music in film can be far more contrary and insidious than simply building up on-screen tension and emotion. Indeed, scores often work best when they jar with, rather than complement, the images they accompany. The mild, major-key zither melody made famous by its use in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), for example, only makes the dark, sinister post-war Vienna of the film seem even more doomed and perverse, despite is gentleness. Likewise Stanley Kubrick's unexpected marrying of Johann Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz with a futurist setting in space in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey creates an unsettling contrast that enhances the sense of eerie stillness in the film's space station. Now that film composers have gained wider respect and recognition, it is ironic to think that the art of the film score might be on the wane. Since the late 1960s, film music has been gradually inching away from the use of original scores, music -especially composed to complement a film's action. Edging into the gap are compilation soundtracks, strings of songs often chosen as much because they sit well together as part of a spin-off album as for their suitability to a film's action. While no classical Hollywood film was complete without an original score, things have changed. While as late as the Star Wars trilogy, original scores were still a major part of a blockbuster's success, nowadays the most successful soundtracks are often compilations such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Juno (2007) spawning albums whose reach went even further than the films they accompanied. While old-time orchestral scores are still around - the Pirates of the Caribbean series is a notable -example - could it be possible that the greatest original soundtracks have already been written? Whatever the answer, film history is still brimming with memorable -moments. Which of these moments are most memorable is the subject of much debate, here is a heavily partial round-up of the best.

Morricone's famous score for this 1966 movie is as lean and moody as Clint Eastwood's cheroot-chewing character. With its famous whistling flute theme intended to recall a -coyote's howl, the dramatic tension Morricone's music adds helps turn this bleak, minimal tale into something approaching a masterpiece.

Without its theme music, this -forgettable 1975 film would have been lost to history, a latter-day B-movie about an improbably angry fish and little else. Thanks to John Williams' simple but deadly soundtrack, however, it has earned an unshakeable place in movie history. The insidious, two-note crescendo of sawing strings has become such an iconic snatch of music that it has appeared in many other films (often to comedic effect), the mere unwelcome memory of it giving many of us a shiver of unease when stepping off a beach into the sea.

All of Tarantino's films exhibit a skilful use of popular songs on their soundtracks, possibly showing the influence of that earlier great manipulator of golden oldies, Martin Scorsese. Picking out which Tarantino soundtrack is most effective is tricky - but few moments are more iconic than the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs' chilling and unforgettable pairing of Gerry Rafferty's anodyne Stuck in the Middle with You with footage of Michael Madsen -torturing a policeman. It is Tarantino's trademark use of feel-good, -uptempo music and stylised violence at its most spiky and perverse.

The "Screech! Screech! Screech!" of violins during the infamous shower scene in 1960's Psycho has to be one of the most recognisable pieces of film music ever written. It forms part of a Bernard Hermann score that is rife with musical invention, highlighting the film's drama in a way that became a benchmark for horror films and thrillers thereafter.

Jean Luc Godard's dreamy, inscrutable story of a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) losing the affections of his scornful wife (Brigitte Bardot) might not sound like an obvious candidate for one of cinema's greatest soundtracks. Played against Georges Delerue's backdrop of swooningly lush, melancholic strings, however, the 1963 story gains an unforgettable romantic power. So unforgettable, in fact, that Scorsese recycled the music to equally potent effect for Casino, his 1995 portrayal of gaudily dressed Mafiosi losing the plot in Las Vegas.

Without its soaring orchestration, the 1939 story of the conniving but resilient Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivien Leigh) romantic mishaps at the time of the American Civil War would not have half the impact. The rich harmonies of Max Steiner's classic score give the story a much-needed lift, leaving viewers with an unshakeable, upbeat sense that, in Scarlett's parting words, tomorrow is another day.

While the Coen brother's inventive retelling of the Odysseus legend in the American South of the Great -Depression was well received on its release in 2000, its Grammy-winning soundtrack arguably had a greater impact than the film itself. Unleashing a huge popular -comeback for the bluegrass strain of traditional country music, the film resulted in a sell-out tour by the musicians whose work was featured in it and turned its most important song, A Man of Constant Sorrow, into one of the most covered country tracks of -recent years.

Nino Rota's sad but strangely catchy, funereal music for Coppola's 1972 epic has sunk into popular consciousness like few other scores. Just a few bars of the music is enough to make most people immediately recall the puffy-cheeked mob boss, played by Marlon Brando, and his family's slow descent into bloody chaos.

The revered soundtrack composer John Barry first truly perfected his trademark massed strings and sexy, bombastic brass in this, the third film in the Bond series, which hit screens to great acclaim in 1963. With its brilliant use of jarring metallic clangs to underline the film's theme of cruel, glittering ruthlessness, Goldfinger's soundtrack also brought the world Shirley Bassey's belting performance of the title song, arguably the most memorable the Bond franchise has produced.