Still from The Omen, part of Filmic 22
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Sean Wilson

on Thu 19 May

Filmic 22: Sean Wilson explores the extraordinary evolution of film music

Posted on Thu 19 May

As part of his season curating the history of the film soundtrack, Bristol-based journalist Sean Wilson talks more about his relationship with film music. With his new book, The Sound of Cinema, due for release in May, Sean explores the medium’s evolution and its extraordinary ability to encapsulate and encode all manner of complex, intangible emotions.

“I don’t remember the music from the movie at all.” How many times has one had that particular exchange after watching a film? Heaven knows, as a soundtrack enthusiast and journalist, I’ve heard it a lot, and yet this isn’t allocating blame. In fact, one of the great joys and mysteries of film music is its mutability, capable of both grandiose overtures and insidious, subtle gestures.

This throws up an interesting question: does film music work better as an overt statement or a background player? Of course, both approaches are equally valid, and serve to demonstrate why the medium of the film soundtrack is one of the richest and most diverse artistic formats in the history of human creation.

Naturally, the relationship between music and moving picture stretches back to cinema’s nascent period at the close of the 19th century. From its humble beginnings, often as a live organ or piano accompaniment to silent cinema, through to the thunderous, leitmotif-laden work of Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, onwards towards masters like Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, film music has always had to adapt in order to survive.

One of the great complexities of film music resides in its lack of autonomy. Without the medium of the picture, it would not exist. It could not exist. And yet, think of all the movies that have implicitly been made greater by their accompanying scores. This is a peculiarly cyclical state of affairs – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example, is a technical treat when divorced from its score, but try imagining the shower sequence without Herrmann’s jabbing, terrifying music (amazingly, this was Hitchcock’s original intention).

It's hard for me to remember when film music first imprinted on my brain. As a child of the late 1980s, I was fortunate to ride the creative swell of some truly remarkable symphonic artists, and not just the aforementioned John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Alan Silvestri, James Horner, Danny Elfman and others encapsulated a primal sense of emotion that I clearly understood on an emotional gut level, although I was clearly too young to articulate these complexities.

I might credit Williams’ multifaceted symphonic majesty on Raiders of the Lost Ark, by turns rollicking, romantic and scary. Or maybe it was Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, a mixture of the heroic, brooding and knowingly tongue-in-cheek, that did it for me. Either way, from a young age, I was evidently perceiving the powerful relationship between celluloid and soundtrack. And that love has only deepened with the passing years.

These are just some of the principles I have been delighted to explore in my first book, The Sound of Cinema: Hollywood Film Music from the Silents to the Present, due to be published by McFarland at the end of May. In the book, I’ve taken an in-depth, analytical look at the 126-year relationship between film and music, exploring how accompanying film scores can embody and enhance the intrinsic themes of a filmmaker’s vision. And I’m equally delighted to have selected five movies and soundtracks from the book for Filmic 22, a curated series of Sunday screenings at Watershed this June.

One of the aims of this Watershed series is to highlight the sheer diversity and tonal range of film music, and not just in the orchestral realm. Pop and rock music has also had a major stake hold in carving out our emotional response to cinema, dating right the way back to 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. The ecosystem of soundtrack music is such that curated pop playlists and bespoke symphonic tapestries regularly sit alongside one another, although the cumulative effect is the same: a sincere and profound enhancement of our emotional response.

One might wonder: how on Earth does a writer pick just five soundtracks from the annals of more than 100 years of cinematic history? It certainly wasn’t easy, but I’ve sought to identify important musical tentpoles, ranging from experimental gems to crowd-pleasing wonders.

The series begins on 5 June with Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the first-ever jazz score in the history of cinema, and what a sultry, seductive delight it is, perfectly embodying Marlon Brando’s atavistic, raw performance as Stanley Kowalski. On the same, day, audiences can feel their pulses quicken and their spines tingle with a presentation of the aforementioned Psycho, as Bernard Herrmann’s string-only, ‘black and white’ score assaults the senses and defines the tone of contemporary slasher horror music.

Later, on 12 June, there will be a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The notorious Western auteur revels in his expected violent nihilism, but did you know that this movie gave rise to the Bob Dylan classic, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’? Little wonder I felt the need to include this as a sign of how pop music developed in film.

Moving ahead to 19 June, I’m morbidly pleased to introduce a film and score that made a huge impression on me as a teenager. Jerry Goldsmith’s supremely chilling The Omen, composed for director Richard Donner, uses a Satanic black mass to champion the young Antichrist, in the process fashioning what is arguably the greatest horror score of all time, and one that gifted the illustrious composer his only Oscar ®.

We then end on a high on 26 June with John Williams’ utterly magnificent Superman, the soundtrack that gave rise to the contemporary superhero score. With its unmistakeable brassy main theme and swooning love theme, the Superman score, again composed for Richard Donner, demonstrates Williams’ brilliance in resurrecting the symphonic traditions of Hollywood’s golden age.

I look forward to welcoming you to Watershed to share in the breadth, nuance and brilliance of these five astonishing film soundtracks, each of which is generation-defining in its own right, and each encapsulating the ability of music to heighten our basic emotional response to cinema itself.

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