Film Music vs. Concert Music: Guilty as Charged, Part III

…in which we conclude the discussion begun in Part I and continued in Part II.

Bottled formulas and thoughtless regurgitation.

I lump these two complaints into the same category because they both revolve around a lack of originality (as does the crime of classical pastiche, but that one deserved its own section). Self-plagiarism and formulaic music are not unique to the film world, but it’s one of the more frequently lodged complaints by critics who wish to question film music’s legitimacy as an art form.

And with good reason. From the contracted music committees of the golden age to the remotely controlled clones of today, numerous exhibits in the annals of film music are obvious reflections of the assembly lines from whence they came.

The two biggest (mainstream) culprits in this crime zone are the legions within Hans Zimmer’s empire and, once again, James Horner.

Zimmer’s many musical children are responsible for the countless iterations of Crimson Tide during the nineties, and the countless iterations of Gladiator during the oughts. Zimmer scores that began as fairly original works spawned a soulless army of imitators, usually under Zimmer’s watchful eye. All too often in Hollywood, corporate decisions have trumped artistic ones, and the suits with no concern for originality or artistic integrity have reached for the “Instant Blockbuster” packet o’ music: just add water and stir.

Horner has no suits to blame but his own (though he’s usually seen wearing smart cardigans and ascots). In score after score he has reduced old themes, reused them, and then recycled them again. (A more green composer you will not find.) Snobby critics of film music will attest that Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and <insert any film composer here> are no less guilty of self plagiarism—but with Horner the accusations hold water.

Composers like Elfman, Goldsmith, and Williams will indeed recycle a thematic idea here or a passage there; show me one composer—classical, film, or otherwise—who hasn’t. But Horner doth take the cake, his own cake, with his unsettlingly consistent practice of serving up variously garnished leftovers. As I said earlier, I actually like a lot of Horner’s music; but ye critics, have at him, because he mostly deserves your scorn.

The accusations I’ve highlighted in this series are the three biggest I’ve heard for why film music cannot be considered a legitimate, independent art form in the same league as concert music. They basically boil down to either 1) lack of originality, or 2) lack of musicality. In the examples I mentioned, and in many others I didn’t, these accusations are legitimate. The film music universe is populated with plenty of no-talent hacks, lazy composers, and commercially-motivated production companies…not to mention time constraints, tiny budgets, last-minute replacement scores, and all the other demons that plague even the best film composers.

The critics have sufficient ammunition to attack plenty of film scores and composers, but not enough to besmirch the genre as a whole. For out of a body of music that includes homogeneity and shameless Wagnerianisms emerges a majestic arsenal of rich, original, intelligent, emotional, complex, and heavenly works. These scores are the testaments to the power of film music—the inherent potential of true melodram—and to the limitless possibilities a good composer has when writing a narrative piece of music for film.