Hamlisch was a composer who could create outstanding work within the lines too, as he did with THE WAY WE WERE, a lush romantic weepie, as well as his appropriately haunting score for the mournful SOPHIE’S CHOICE in 1982 and the other more traditionally scored works of his. But he could be as bold as anyone too. In 1977, he wrote one of the more unusual film scores ever for a James Bond film with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. He didn’t go the bombastic route that the 007 composers usually take. Instead, Hamlisch’s Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better” was a slow and steady pop ballad sung by the breezy Carly Simon. The result was positively winsome and incredibly different from the typical Shirley Bassey brassiness of most Bond themes.
Director George Roy Hill not only worked with Hamlisch to create something special with THE STING, but years earlier in 1969, he did the same with Burt Bacharach when it came to scoring BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Most western scores typically rely on guitars and harmonicas, instruments of that time, to give them an authenticity. Hill went a different way. He hired Bacharach to write a jaunty and jazzy score and it made his contemporary western feel even more modern.
Composers like the late, great Jerry Goldsmith had always strived for such modernity. He could score bombast with the best of them (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) but when he experimented with oddball instrumentation, he broke new ground and became one of the true pioneers of film music. He clanked on everything from garbage can covers to lead pipes to make the futuristic music for PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and it gave the whole venture a genuine sense of the bizarre and other-worldliness. Years later, Goldsmith was still experimenting, using a basketball as the traveling bass for his score of HOOSIERS (1986). Traveling, indeed.
There are many scores that one can appreciate for not only their emotional connection to the story they’re accompanying, but because they took the road less traveled creatively. One of the reasons that Stanley Kubrick is so well regarded and that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is so legendary is due to his choice to employ classical music for his futuristic story. That was considered quite unique back in 1968 and it helped pave the way for the full orchestral sound of the likes of STAR WARS (1977) and everything else in the sci-fi genre that has come since.
The directors and producers who hire the composers and then let them go in different directions deserve special acclaim. They too are pushing their craft, and the medium, in all kinds of details that make up a movie. 99 out of 100 filmmakers would have probably chosen standard classical fare to accompany the veddy, veddy British Olympic story of CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) but producer David Puttnam and director Hugh Hudson called upon Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou to create something wholly fresh with his pulsing synthesizer-driven score. Brian DePalma saw THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) as a modern day western and hired Sergio Leone stalwart Ennio Morricone to score the tale and give it, yes, those period harmonicas and other western instrumentation.
Of course, some genres seem to encourage the same old/same old when it comes to musical composition. Perhaps focus groups are driving the constant use of treacly piano music in romantic comedies, but I think it’s so prevalent in the genre that it’s become a joke, one that’s funnier than most rom-coms. The just-released HOPE SPRINGS with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones has gotten very good notices but its preview suggested that its score is anything but fresh, with the clichéd tickling of the ivories that limits so much of what that genre could and should be. There are other instruments that can make humorous sounding themes come to life. An oboe, anyone?
I think musical scores that try something different and really push the boundaries make for a more exciting cinematic experience. And I own hundreds of scores on CD and most of them are the more daring ones. Still, some critics and film fans frown upon such experimentation and boundary pushing. Director Michel Hazanavicius got into some serious hot water with the film blogs last January for sampling some of Bernard Herrmann’s VERTIGO score in his soundtrack for THE ARTIST. If it was my call, I’d have had incorporated only original music for the Oscar-winning Best Picture, and composer Ludovic Bource was certainly capable of doing so. (He too won an Oscar for his score for THE ARTIST.)
But it was Hazanavicius’ artistic choice and that’s fine. It worked in his film. And it’s done all the time by some of our greatest filmmakers. Everyone from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino do it all the time. Tarantino sampled the David Bowie song “Putting Out the Fire” from CAT PEOPLE (1982) a few years ago in his WWII tale INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. The fact is, daring music choices like those of Hazanavicius and Tarantino add not only a distinct personal touch to the art, but make for a more interesting soundtrack. Certainly these choices get people talking and paying more heed to film music. And that’s great because there are so many marvelous artists composing music for the film world.
There are so many great composers who fill a movie with full, rich music but I also love the composers who know that less can be more too. Herrmann only used strings in PSYCHO (1960) and it was incredibly suspenseful with no other instrumentation to be found. John Williams made his theme for JAWS virtually unmelodic, but everyone and their brother can still hum that unforgettable, repeating 4-note stanza. And Williams once again knocked it out of the park with his score of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) basing his core theme on a mere five notes.
Some say the best movie music is that which you don’t realize is there at all. I couldn’t disagree more. The best movie music is that which stands with the film and helps the whole experience stand out. And if you respond to the music specifically, well, that only can help the film in the final analysis. I also think that the best film music is like any music – it moves you, makes you feel an emotional connection, and you return to it again and again, wanting to hear it over and over. Lately I’ve been listening to Elmer Bernstein’s sublime score for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). I’ve enjoyed it dozens of times, both in the movie and alone on its soundtrack. Each time, Bernstein’s gorgeous and heartfelt score moves me to tears. And that is a score worth noting. As are all the scores mentioned here by these fabulous artists, including the recently departed Mr. Hamlisch. I will miss him. But I will always have his music.