Music written for “the screen” is difficult to discuss because of its dualistic nature. It exists as two entities: as one layer within a multilayered artistic creation, and as an independent composition of proper music. Some feel it a sin to rip out the layer of music from a film and explore it on its own—some because they believe its essential function is its ability to underscore and elevate a film, others because they don’t deem it worthy of the kind of treatment proper music receives.
Composers differ, too, on the matter. Some (like the great Bernard Herrmann and, more recently, Howard Shore) defend the art of their craft. Theirs are not mere hands on a cinematic assembly line, but the studied and thoughtful hands of an artist. Other composers, laboring side-by-side in massive teams, equate their “product” with the other items—costumers, props, and the like—manufactured for a film.
To say that all film music is this or that is inaccurate, because of the enormous variety of quality and intention among composers and their music. But, in my occasionally humble opinion, the choicest representatives among music written for the screen share a handful of critical traits—the most important, for music lovers, being that it transcends its immediate function of serving its film, and functions as a work of art in its own right.
Alexandre Desplat, my personal choice for the best thing happening in the music world today, recently commented on his fellow Frenchman, the legendary Georges Delerue.
“The greatest strength in Delerue’s music,” says Desplat, “is that outside of the movies it became pure. It’s the kind of music I listen to. I can listen to Debussy, or Ravel, or Herrmann, or Rota, or Delerue without asking myself the question, ‘Is it film music or just music?’ No, it’s music. I’ve always dreamed about following in those footsteps. I’m obsessed by it. I try to give myself the hardest time possible so that when the music is heard without the movie, it remains just that: music.”
Again, there are many who cry “Heretic!” at such a statement. But if we can discuss Prokofiev’s wonderfully Russian, motif-laden music separate from its balletic context, then why not film music? If we can discuss Wagner’s epic tapestries outside the confines of the opera hall, why not film music? The reason a work is commissioned, the drama that it represents or underscores, the way the music interacts with the performances and staging—these are all interesting conversations, and add value to a thorough analysis of the music. But ultimately, good music is powerful enough to stand on its own two feet, and this is true of film music as much as it true of music written under any other circumstances.
There is still much more to say on this subject. (You can read the prelude to this discussion here.)