~He Impact of Music on Film

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, April 1992 | Go to article overview

~He Impact of Music on Film


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


MUSIC can enhance a movie and it can detract from its power. It can help build atmosphere and tension and it can undermine both character and action. It can be something to savour or something to forget. How often have you left a cinema saying 'well the film didn't amount to much but the score was memorable'? What is indisputable is that music plays an integral role in a film and for far too long its importance has been undervalued.

A great director like the late Sir David Lean used music as a trademark--his best films, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and Dr. Zhivago, were remembered as much for theft score as for their script, performances and camerawork. Music in each case helped set the theme, mood and tone of the film, creating both an emotional impact and a sense of time and place.

All too often at major international film festivals the role of music in films has been overlooked. How many prizes, for instance, at Cannes or Venice have been awarded to the best film score? Hardly any I can remember. Admittedly at the glitzy annual Hollywood Oscar ceremony the value of the musical contribution to a film is recognised -- but only in scant fashion, usually with a scattering of minor prizes that rarely bring recognition to the film or its composer.

However, this situation has now been redressed with the 18th Flanders International Film Festival, held recently in the charming Belgium city of Ghent, where a major part of this annual event focused on the Impact of Music on Film. The festival marked the seventh consecutive year that Ghent has organised a competition based on this theme. The competition was reserved for non-musical fiction films, as opposed to films dealing with music or owing their existence to music, which were brought together in other festival sections.

Why feature films you may ask? The reason is obvious: you cannot possibly compare a biographical film on Franz Schubert to a concert film of the Talking Heads or a documentary on the Guameri String Quartet to a fiction film in which music serves the dramatic structure of the story. Music is the reason why musical films exist and that is why they could not compete. Furthermore, production of musical films is, both from the point of view of quality and of quantity, so unequal that it is very difficult to set up a proper competition. In feature films music has a specific function: it serves the narrative, it can give the film a special dimension influencing the viewer's reception, his state of mind and his involvement. The music is a meaningful component in the concept of the film as a whole. Whether a film works with existing music or new compositions, whether this is classical music, jazz, folklore, rock, ethical or electronic music, or whether the music was composed for the film is not essential. Which music a director had chosen and why, and how he worked with it was what mattered.

For a good example of how an effective music score can enhance a film and give it extra edge you need look no further than Sean Penn's directorial film debut The Indian Runner. This could be described as a modem day Caine and Abel story set in a small American town circa 1968. In point of fact, the film is a precisely measured portrait of two brothers, one 'good' and the other 'bad' (although the first is lethargic and the latter full of passion, and nothing is quite so clear cut anyway). As the 'bad' brother returns from the Vietnam War and begins to fight against the limits of respectable society--including the values and emotional ties of his family -- the 'good' brother is faced with choosing ultimately between trying to save his brother or maintaining his own identity and keeping safe those dear to him. …

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