This is a video posted on Youtube by Dan Golding in response to the Every Frame a Painting video on music in Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s equally interesting. There were a number of things that, however, deserve commentary.
To start, Dan Golding tackles only one (admittedly central) strand among many in Tony Zhou’s criticism, namely that Marvel’s music is derivative. Another, equally major point was with regards to how the music is used. Zhou’s argument was that Marvel’s films don’t allow the music to stand on its own, and so we don’t get the memorable musical moments we see in Star Wars‘s opening crawl or Monty Norman’s James Bond theme1. It’s not enough, Zhou says, that the music is original – it has to be used in bold and imaginative ways, too.
Then there are Golding’s points about Hans Zimmer. His observation about ‘textural’ soundtrack – yes, the Joker theme in The Dark Knight is less music and more noise, but it was a perfect way to help illustrate the character. And while Zimmer has been extremely influential in this regard – see also the ‘bwaahhh’ sound in Inception – he is preceded by the likes of Bernard Hermann and John Williams, whose rhythmic, unusually dissonant themes for Psycho and Jaws respectively have become part of our pop culture.
It’s also actually incredible that Golding implies Zimmer’s music isn’t ‘hummable’. You can rightfully criticize many aspects of Zimmer’s music – that he’s too reliant on computers, that it’s really his vast staff of sound engineers that do most of the work, that his music is too percussive, that his sound has inspired too many copycats in Hollywood – but what is less debatable is the actual quality of Zimmer(’s studio)’s output and how memorable it has been for the audience. He’s responsible for this and this from The Rock, the main theme in Pirates of the Caribbean, and this and this from Inception, all of which are some of the most referenced and sampled pieces in the media. Going back to Golding’s video, it’s a shame that it only talks about the Joker theme, because elsewhere in The Dark Knight trilogy there’s some wonderful, lasting, melodic music: Molossus is the signature theme for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and its variations accompany many of the chase scenes in each film2; Why Do We Fall which plays over Bruce Wayne’s climb out of the pit in The Dark Knight Rises is a high point as well as a personal favourite. Zimmer’s music for The Dark Knight trilogy was a conscious decision to move away from the catchier superhero themes of the past, which he felt did not reflect the ‘complexity and darkness’ of Nolan’s movies3. Certainly Molossus is not hummable in the same way that Danny Elfman’s Batman theme is, but it is equally great in a different way, a less triumphant and more nuanced take on the superhero fanfare. This approach is also reflected in the soundtrack for Man of Steel. Compare John Williams’s Main Title March for the 1978 Superman with Zimmer’s What Are You Going to Do When You’re Not Saving the World from Man of Steel. Williams’s piece, like many of his other famous works (particularly for Steven Spielberg), has a more immediate payoff and, of course, is the iconic Superman theme we’ve come to know and love. But I also think Zimmer’s take, a slow-burn that builds to a terrific payoff, more than withstands the comparison.
Golding makes a great point in the video, that the reason Zimmer’s computerized approach became de rigueur in Hollywood was that it was cheaper, more expedient, and above all else a method that gave directors more control in tailoring the music to their films. That in itself is not a bad thing at all, and is a logical progression of how film music should be created. After all, film music exists to serve the film and the filmmaker’s vision, not the other way around. Technology has enabled this, just as technology has been the enabler in the rise of today’s formulaic music in Hollywood. Zimmer’s influence in this regard is oft-stated but I feel he is short-changed by Golding’s video, which doesn’t give him enough credit for how good his scores have actually been, and – unlike Every Frame a Painting – doesn’t talk about the role directors play in encouraging formulaic scores. For Interstellar, Christopher Nolan got Zimmer started on the soundtrack two years before the completion of the filming4, and the result as we well know is outstanding: majestic yet deeply personal, thunderous yet also intriguing and mournful, Zimmer’s music on Interstellar has now become the new benchmark in anything involving space. Not many other directors have the inclination or indeed the clout with the studios to allow this much creative freedom and tight integration for their composers.
As a way to round off this article, here’s a list of some movie scenes where I think incredibly memorable music is used equally memorably5. A reminder of how powerful movies can become when music and images are used with imagination:
- The ride to Minas Tirith – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Howard Shore)
The reveal of the White City at 0:25 mark is hair-raisingly epic, but the way it’s followed by the driving strings as Gandalf makes his way up to the top makes it one of my favourite movie moments. The lighting of the beacons scene later on from the same film is another highlight.
- Opening credits – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Michael Kamen)
This piece by the peerless Michael Kamen, accompanying a montage of the Bayeux Tapestry, was so good that Morgan Creek, the production company behind the film, subsequently adopted it as their logo song. The rest of the movie itself, though, doesn’t quite live up to the opening.
- Malone’s death scene (at 1m 50s mark) – The Untouchables (Ennio Morricone)
No such list is complete without at least one Ennio Morricone score. While the elegiac music is somewhat at odds with the bloody scene on display, it makes Sean Connery’s death deservingly heartbreaking.
- Battle of Gaugamela – Alexander (Vangelis)No video of the scene with the original soundtrack available
Oliver Stone uses Vangelis’s soaring music to great effect in charting the history-making turns of Alexander’s cavalry charge against the Persians in the Battle of Gaugamela.
- Just going by Zhou’s examples used in the clip introduction. ↩
- Molossus in Batman Begins; Introduce a Little Anarchy during the fight scene with Joker’s henchmen and the SWAT team in The Dark Knight; Chasing the Convoy East during the final chase scene in The Dark Knight Rises. ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Knight_(soundtrack)#Composition ↩
- This article is worth reading for some insight into the process Nolan and Zimmer went through to create Interstellar’s score. ↩
- I tried to avoid the obvious ones like Rocky and Blade Runner, to name but a few. ↩