Dating your score

Dating your score

No, I speak not of the practice of courting a film score with aims of wooing it and, ultimately, entering into a common-law marriage with it—though that would be a great idea for a blog (and actually pursuing…with the right score, of course). I mean the practice of tying a score to a particular era/genre of popular music that, in years hence, dates the score and forever affiliates it with that era.

In general I think this is a shortsighted and bad move, though it’s probably often the fault/choice of the director or power-that-be rather than the composer. I recently interviewed Bill Conti about a ’70s score he wrote in the wake of Rocky, and asked about his choice of giving it a distinctly disco flavor. He said it came as a request from the director, and that many people were asking for the Rocky sound (and attendant box office success) in those days. “Disco just happened to be a timely, stylistic thing of the period,” he told me. “And it dates things horribly.”

Disco may be the most blatantly (and amusingly) time-sensitive genre of pop music, but it’s far from the only one. There is the jazz of the ’60s, the lounge vibes of the ’70s, the synth-pop sound of the ’80s, the bad drum machines, early techno, and adult contemporary mush of the ’90s—and it may be too early to say what will give the past decade’s scores a dated sound (because it’s still too current to our ears), but the same result is surely inevitable.

There are two main reasons for coating a film score (or parts of one) in a contemporary pop sound. One is to deliberately evoke the era through the music, or to associate a character or something in the story to the times. This is, at least in theory, a good reason, because it’s narratively justified and thus usually more thoughtfully applied by the composer. This can either be done in the moment of the era being evoked, or after the fact—though the clarity and distance of hindsight is usually advantageous. Here’s an example:

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Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1994 romantic-comedy-meets-Albert-Einstein film I.Q., set in the ’50s, soaks up the doo-wop sound of the “Happy Days” era to help set the chronological stage. Along with the hairstyles and wardrobe and production design, the music is used to transport the audience back in time. But it’s also a vessel for Goldsmith to create a riotously, ridiculously fun bit of music (which some may find riotously exasperating), that I think works just as well in 1994 and 2013 as it would in 1955.

The other reason for dressing a score in contemporary sound is, basically, to be hip—and this is a bad reason. A lot of scores sound dated because they were myopically living in the moment and emulating whatever was hot on the radio at the time. That sound is no longer fresh or hip, and the music was not conceptually justified by the story, and the result is that the music (and usually the film) has dated badly and draws unflattering attention to itself, like an old polaroid of a guy with an afro or giant glasses or a baggy, loud, hideous ’90s t-shirt. These scores can be guilty pleasures (I think of music by Giorgio Moroder like Cat People, or so many of Hans Zimmer’s infectious ’80s and early ’90s -soaked efforts), because the artistry of good composition can still shine through, or because the oldschool sound functions like a pop culture time machine. But it’s still a bad idea from a filmmaking perspective, and is the very (negative) definition of dated. Here’s an example:

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John Williams is better than anyone, ever, at almost everything where music is concerned—but even a penitent worshiper such as myself admits that he’s not the hippest cat when it comes to writing “contemporary” music…at least not since his youthful heyday in the 1960s. This training montage from Spacecamp is a case in point, and it is all the wrong kinds of eighties-ness.

There is what we consider timeless art, and then there is art tied to a particular period. In the latter category, I would say that bad contemporary music dates, while good contemporary music ages. Some styles are generally more enduring or charming in their vintage quality than others (and to each his own regarding taste)—but if a score goes “current” just to ride the wave of a fad, it will usually mar it in the decades to follow. In other words: only date a score you think you could marry one day. (Or…something like that.)