What makes for a memorable movie score?
Typically when people hum cinema tunes, it’s always something original. No one ever hums a pop song that found it’s way into the credits of a film unless they just stepped out of the theater and it’s still lingering in their mind. I understand why popular songs of the time sometimes work for films. Granted sometimes those popular songs make the film (think Guardians of the Galaxy). But they work because the songs become part of the movie. They aren’t simply “sad Adele song plays while girl breaks up with boy and walks out into the rain.” There’s a purpose to the score and there has to be an emotional value behind it.
The soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy works with the theme of nostalgia which is a vital part of the protagonist, Peter Quill, as a character. It creates an atmosphere with meaning and the film also mixes in some original music as well. The same goes for Full Metal Jacket. The soundtrack consists of songs that were popular or came into being during the time of the Vietnam War. In this case, they help with constructing that time period and creating an atmosphere that works with the story rather than playing popular songs for no other reason than that they’re popular. This is one of the reasons why I’m continuously unsure about how I feel toward the most recent Great Gatsby film.
One of my favorite movie composers is Hans Zimmer who I appreciate most for his work with the Lion King and Pirates of the Caribbean. Most people know the main theme to Pirates of the Caribbean well and I’ll admit, that song still makes me feel pumped up every time I hear it. It works well for the film because it shows the excitement and the fun Disney is having with a film based on an amusement park ride. Yet the score still has this dark undertone to it to represent the more grim areas of the film series. Yes, this is a Disney film about pirates, but it’s also going to aim itself at a slightly more mature audience. This is a tale of adventure on the high seas and it’s going to be a fun ride. Zimmer’s theme perfectly captures that feeling. To have songs from the Top 40s list at the time would ruin the atmosphere this film created for itself and also runs the risk of making it dated.
Original music or music that ties into the story allow a film to become timeless. The problem I have with the 2013 adaptation of the Great Gatsby is that while the music plays with atmosphere, it also feels more commercialized than meaningful. Honestly, each time a new song play in the movie I was taken out of it. When I look back on it, it feels very 2013 and that’s not good especially with such a classic story that many people admire.
Perhaps is they took popular songs and redid them to sound like they were from the 1920’s it would have worked better aesthetically. Instead, it felt more like they were taking something vintage and trying to bring it into modern day without updating the plot or setting itself. As a result, it was jarring. Does this mean the movie is terrible and should never see the light of day? No. It just means that it lost a sense of meaning and atmosphere it could have easily had, had it been done in another way.
I think Star Wars also did well because of its score. The music from the original trilogy has become so iconic and the movies themselves are a large piece of pop culture. I was relived to see that John Williams had returned for the Force Awakens and that this series wouldn’t tamper with the music in order to market it to a modern audience. They kept the classic, timeless, and unique aesthetic that it seems only Williams can do for Star Wars. Rey’s theme specifically illustrates her character perfectly from the moment it first plays when she is introduced to simply hearing it on Spotify. This soundtrack does not tie the music to the year it’s being released, but to the environment of the story being displayed on screen.
Movie scores have a stronger effect on the audience than the audience may even realize. And because of this, it helps a film to create something timeless that also works with the plot, characters, and settings. These things cannot be separate of each other and the music needs to play with emotions, build ups, and ultimately place the audience into this world for just a little while.