Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Movie Partnerships Part II: Directors & Composers

Can you think of Star Wars or Jaws or Halloween or Superman or The Godfather or The Sting and not think of the music that accompanied those films? I can't. For me, the music scores of those movies are part of the fabric -- every bit as important as the acting or the directing. Maybe even, more important. Every now and again movie music transcends the film it accompanies and takes on a life of its own. Music has always been important to film, especially in the early days of silent cinema. How an theater organist chose to accompany a film musically might change the entire feel of a film. In one city, it might play as a comedy, while in another, a drama -- all because of the music. Just as with actors (see Movies on My Mind, 9/19/05: "Movie Partnerships: Directors & Actors"), directors will develop an affinity to a particular composer, because, like a lead actor, that composer may share a particular vision with the director, or be able to filter the director's sensibilities for a particular film, musically. Two outstanding partnerships come to mind:

Steven Spielberg & John Williams: Never before (or since) has an artistic partnership developed a more indelible combination of sight and sound. Either is less without the other. Together, they have created the greatest audio/image collaboration in the history of cinema. For 32 years, through numerous blockbusters and even a few klunkers (1941, Hook, Always), Steven Spielberg and John Williams have worked together since Sugarland Express in 1974 (and as an off-shoot of this, George Lucas and Williams, starting in 1977, have worked on all six Star Wars films together). They made movie history a year later with Jaws. (Would that film be even half as good without Williams' stirring and frightening nautical score?) The simplicity of the central five note theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind was followed by the rousing Saturday morning matinee style orchestral of Raiders of the Lost Ark and then, the next year, by the sentimental (if somewhat derivative) string-led score of E.T., The Extra Terrestrial. Add to that, the deep south sound of The Color Purple, the adventurous and ominous, pounding notes of Jurassic Park; the melancholy violins of Schindler's List; the patriotic, yet mournful, stirrings of Saving Private Ryan and you realize one thing: these men understand each other. By now, it seems a given that when Spielberg directs a film, Williams scores it. These two giants of cinema tell the same stories in different mediums, and without each other, those stories, in retrospect, would seem only half told. Spielberg's images are absorbed by our eyes while Williams' music fills our ears. Together, they have, on occasion, stirred our souls.

Tim Burton & Danny Elfman: It seems that Tim Burton, like Spielberg, or even John Waters, likes to work with the same group of people time and again. Starting in 1985, and for 20 years now, composer Danny Elfman has scored every feature film directed by Burton, (as well as the Burton-produced A Nightmare Before Christmas, which Elfman not only scored and wrote songs for, but sang in as well). Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, all have the unmistakable frenetic, sometimes comic book-style sound, of Elfman. This composer and director seem to be cut from the same cloth. (Non-Burton projects include the theme song to The Simpsons and the Spider-Man films.) While -- unlike Williams -- Elfman's scores may not be memorable beyond the film (perhaps with the exceptions of The Simpsons and the Batman themes), his music makes a Tim Burton film a "Tim Burton film" every bit as much as Tim Burton himself.

It's interesting that Steven Speilberg keeps making movies, even though he could have retired long ago. I guess he has vision, and likes to work.
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