Score: A Film Music Documentary

“Score: A Film Music Documentary” celebrates the important but almost invisible art of scoring a motion picture. You may think, from various special features on DVDs and Blu-Rays over the years, that you might understand how the process works, but you’ve never really gotten this in depth before, and before this, you probably never knew you wanted to go this in depth before.

(“Score: A Film Music Documentary”was screened in early April 2017 as part of the 60th San Francisco Film Festival, and opens in select theatre on June 16th, 2017.)

How much does a good film score affect how you interact with a movie? I’m going to try a little experiment right now…

“Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Chances are, you are now hearing John Williams’ Indiana Jones theme in your head. You may even be humming along. You may even be smiling as you’re humming along. And you’re now probably remembering your favorite scenes from the film. But it’s a good bet the first thing that popped in to your head was the theme, because a good theme or score stays with us long after the viewing of the movie the theme or score is based from.

(Personal anecdote: A year or two ago, my brother sent me a video of my then five year old nephew humming various Star Wars themes as he played with his toys, completely oblivious to the fact that his father was recording him. My nephew wasn’t playing with his Star Wars toys, but he was using whatever toys he has available in his reach. He hums the main Star Wars theme and the Duel of the Fates theme as he plays, for a good four or five minutes, before the kid catches on that he’s being recorded and shuts the door. But here was this adorable little red-headed five year old, who at point had only watched the movies once or twice, and he had already memorized the main motifs of these two songs.)

But what makes a film score so unforgettable? How do the composers come up with them? That’s what “Score” aims to find out, and succeeds at so wonderfully.

The movie opens following composer Marco Beltrami (who has scored the last two “Wolverine” movies along with all four “Scream” movies, amongst nearly 120 credits over the past twenty years), as sets up a strange contraption outside his recording studio in the hills above Malibu. An old wooden upright piano is sitting on top of a shipping crate out on top a dusty hill, open to the elements. Attached to the back of the piano are several industrial-sized cables, which are heading up the hill towards what looks like two short metal silos of some kind, a good hundred plus yards away from the piano. This crazy set up is all to naturally manipulate the sounds of the piano for the score to some minor Sean Penn action/drama movie that you don’t remember from two years ago (when the bulk of this movie was shot). The movie the score was written for might not be memorable, but what Beltrami does and how he goes through his process to get this one sound for a portion of that score is captivating.

And that is the magic of first-time filmmaker Matt Schrader’s movie. Capturing the magic that surrounds this loneliest of movie collaborations. Using archival footage of the works of cinema greats from the past like Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith to Bernard Herrmann Alfred Newman combined with interviews from dozens of today’s top composers, “Score” brings together almost everyone film lovers might want to hear from when it comes to creating music for film. You want to hear Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about working with David Fincher? Done! You want to hear Danny Elfman talk about his process? Done! You want to hear Randy Newman and others talk about the lasting musical history of himself, his uncle Alfred Newman and his cousin Thomas Newman? Done! Want to listen to Hans Zimmer talk about creating the scores for the “Dark Knight” trilogy while lounging around his composing studio surrounded by many instruments wearing a deep maroon velvet smoking jacket, pajama bottoms and crazy socks? Done!

Want to listen to John Williams and Steven Spielberg talk about their classic collaborations over the years? Well, we get that too, but in archival footage, as Williams is one of only three major composers the film didn’t seem to get. The second is Thomas Newman, who is still amply represented. The third is James Horner, whose tragic passing happened around the time of this film’s production. However, we get the next best thing in the form of frequent Horner collaborator James Cameron talking about their work together, including this film’s singular best moment, talking about the score to “Titanic,” which I will not spoil here.

It’s hard to call this a “review” or a “critique,” because it’s a deceptively simple movie that really has no flaws. The comments given by the composers about their jobs are always absorbing or insightful or hilarious, the balance between the talking heads and the clips of the scores from the movies they were used in is perfectly in sync, and the footage of how everything comes together in a recording studio is amazing. (Another highlight is listening to one composer explain why he is setting up his musicians one way in the largest Abbey Road recording room as compared to why John Williams would set up in a different way for the score to “The Phantom Menace” because of the dimensions of the room, all while being reminded of this being the same room George Martin and The Beatles recorded the orchestral parts of “Sgt. Pepper”… breathtaking.)

One of the joys of having a website like this, being able to see films in advance and being able to write about them is to discover little gems outside the norm that one can help get the word out about. “Score” will already have a few strikes against it, covering such a niche audience and opening in the middle of the summer movie season. If I can help get the word out about this movie to even a single person who might not have otherwise sought this movie out, I have done my job. So forgive me if I am a blabbering sycophant instead of a critic this time around. “Score” is a beautiful love letter to the movies and the people who help make them even more beautiful, and I encourage everyone who loves movies to check it out.

Rating: A
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