Before Sunrise

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:02 pm

At the recommendation of my brother, my lovely wife and I watched Before Sunrise this past week. Ethan Hawke stars as an American traveler in Europe who meets a lovely French girl on the train, and invites her to spend the night with him walking the streets of Vienna before he flies home in the morning. It was written and directed by Richard Linklater, and it’s a very unique film. There are no major characters apart from the two protagonists (possibly not even any other named characters), and there’s very little action; the film focuses entirely on their developing relationship, primarily through dialogue, but it’s well-written enough that it doesn’t get boring and seems strikingly realistic.

The music was very minimal, and, interestingly enough, except for the very beginning and the very end of the movie, all of the music was source music. Source music (or, more technically, diegetic music) is music that has an on-screen or inferred source within the film, which the characters can hear (for example, a singer-songwriter playing in a bar or a man playing a harpsichord in his basement as the characters pass by). The only non-source or non-diegetic music in the film is a string orchestra playing at the beginning over a progression of shots of the train and its travels, and a similar piece at the end after the two part ways. (I wasn’t able to find definitive information on what the piece at the end was, although the beginning was the overture to Dido and Aeneas by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell.)

The choice to use little or no music in a movie, or at least little or no non-source music, is always an interesting one. The example that came to mind for me was No Country For Old Men, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 2008 (and obviously worlds apart from Before Sunrise). In that movie, the lack of music created an eerie, too-quiet feeling of vulnerability–too much silence (or quiet) is often discomfiting. But in Before Sunrise, the lack of music has a very different effect. Like many other elements in the film, the music is stripped away in order to direct all the focus upon the two characters, and also creates a more viable environment of realism (since obviously real life isn’t accompanied by a non-diegetic score). Adding music would also create the dangerous likelihood of the film descending into sentimentality–only an especially talented composer, I think, could avoid that, and thus cutting out non-source music altogether (apart from the beginning and the end) eliminates that possibility.

My wife and I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Not a great movie, I’d say, but a good story, told well. Even without a score.


Joyeux Noël

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:00 pm

A few weeks ago my lovely wife and I watched the 2005 film Joyeux Noël (“Merry Christmas” in French)–her for the second time, me for the first. (Incidentally, we’ve been loving our subscription to Netflix and I’d heartily recommend it to anybody who enjoys watching a lot of movies.) Joyeux Noël is the story of the “Christmas Truces” during World War I, where soldiers on both sides left their trenches and met together in no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914. It was a superlative film–the acting and cinematography were top-notch, and it was emotionally powerful while never falling into sentimentality.

I don’t have much to say about the score, but I loved how music was portrayed in the movie as a force that brings people together. The truces were initiated when the German soldiers started singing carols on Christmas Eve, and were responded to by the other side singing carols back; in the movie (which takes a bit of historical license while still representing the spirit of the story) the Scottish soldiers start playing on their bagpipes, and are answered by the Germans singing “Silent Night.” Cautiously, the Scottish soldiers begin playing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and a German tenor rises from his trench and crosses no man’s land, singing along. It’s a powerful moment. Later, the Scottish chaplain holds a Mass, and the German tenor’s wife (who has come along to raise the troops’ morale) sings an “Ave Maria” to a transfixed crowd of all the soldiers: a great illustration of the power of beauty in a horrifically ugly situation.

The movie is a powerful testimony to how music can transcend race and culture and differences to unite people, and it garners my highest admiration and recommendation.


Watchmen Soundtrack, Tyler Bates

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:57 pm

As you may have seen on my Twitter page (or the sidebar on the right), I went to see the movie Watchmen on Thursday night. It’s the only film adaptation of what is generally accepted to be the greatest graphic novel/comic book of all time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work of the same name. It was considered “unfilmable” for over twenty years, but director Zack Snyder (of 300 fame) did a terrific job and made a movie worthy of the book. I’ve heard that he used the graphic novel basically as a storyboard for the movie, and many scenes are recreated almost shot-for-shot; overall it’s probably the most faithful book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen. The performances were all great, especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II. One of my few reservations was that the movie didn’t give the Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias character enough credit–he was too much of a pretty boy and not enough emphasis was given to his intelligence–but overall I vastly enjoyed it. (IMDB’s trivia page on the movie is rather extensive, and is an interesting source of information on the long process of making the movie as well as a compendium of many of the subtle references made to the book in the movie. Well worth checking out, if you’re interested.)

I really enjoyed the music, as well. Most of the soundtrack consisted of songs from the time in which the movie takes place–”The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan, “All Along The Watchtower” performed by Jimi Hendrix, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “The Sound Of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, etc. Some of the songs play with the action happening on screen; for example, “The Times They are A-Changin’” plays over a historical montage setting the context of the movie and “The Sound Of Silence” plays over the graveyard scene of The Comedian’s funeral. Other songs play against the action, for example when “Unforgettable” performed by Nat King Cole plays over the intense violence of The Comedian’s murder at the beginning. Both uses are very effective in their own way, and I was impressed at how well all of the songs (which already exist in a set form, and were chosen because of their fame in the era) were put to use in the film. It’s also worth noting that many of the songs were referenced in the original graphic novel, several being the basis of issue titles; another example of Snyder paying homage to the source material in as many ways as possible.

The movie also uses several “classical” cues like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for one of the Vietnam War scenes (the piece is referenced in the book, though not in that context). During the scene of Dr. Manhattan’s origin story, which takes place on Mars, the music played is Philip Glass’ “Prophecies,” from the movie Koyaanisqatsi; the eerie, otherworldly quality of Glass’ minimalism is a perfect complement to the isolation and (literally) otherworldliness of the scene.

I enjoyed the actual score by Tyler Bates too (many if not all of the choices of pop songs would have been made by the music supervisor). It was unintrusive, and mostly consisted of background atmosphere-type cues. The one moment that stood out, however, was the scene where Laurie and Daniel (aka Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II) decide to put their costumes on and go out adventuring, like they did in the old days. The music grew to a stirring, inspirational feel as the characters gained confidence and sensed old excitements coming back. The first thing that stood out was the music’s subtle homage paid to the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight scores, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, in its rhythmic string pattern (I wrote about the Dark Knight score back in August). But scarcely before I began smiling at recognizing the reference, the score paid a much less subtle homage to Don Davis’ score for The Matrix, particularly part of the last cue “Anything Is Possible” which occurs when Neo comes back from the dead and realizes all of his powers inside the Matrix. It was practically Bates’ paraphrase of the Matrix cue. Both of the score references were to “superheroes,” of a sort, and indicated strong decisions to take up superhero-like powers–which, of course, was exactly what was happening in that scene in Watchmen. It was rather brilliant.

Watchmen was a great movie with a great soundtrack. The caveat is that there’s a lot of blood’n'guts and a few sex scenes, but I would recommend the movie highly to anyone who enjoyed the graphic novel. I rarely purchase film score albums, and even more rarely do I purchase soundtrack albums; but I’m considering both from this film. Well done, Zack Snyder and Tyler Bates.


Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack, A.R. Rahman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:10 am

Last week my lovely fiancée and I decided to take a break from wedding planning and go out on an old-fashioned date to dinner and a movie. The movie we saw was Slumdog Millionaire, a film about an 18 year-old orphan named Jamal from the slums of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and is poised to win the grand prize of 20 million rupees. But when the show breaks for the night, he is arrested and interrogated by a police inspector who doesn’t believe a “slumdog” could know so much. Jamal tells the inspector his life story, each new stage in his tale revealing how he knew the answer to one of the questions.

Eleanor and I both enjoyed the film very much. It was a very well-made movie, with terrific cinematography, good writing and good acting–a fun ride. I remarked to her that the story was filled with contrasts pitted against each other: the rich gang lords contrasted with the orphans in the slums; the superficiality and shallowness of the game show contrasted with the gritty, authentic picture of life on the streets; the old slums and trash heaps in Mumbai contrasted with seemingly endless new construction. And this contrast of old and new came out in the music quite a bit, too. The score was written by A.R. Rahman, a composer who apparently has done a lot of Indian movies. I noticed that a lot of the music utilized modern electronics and beats, but featured traditional Indian instruments.

You can hear some samples on the Amazon product page for the soundtrack. “O… Saya,” a collaboration between the composer and artist M.I.A., features a computer-altered voice singing a traditional-sounding melody above fast percussion. An uncredited editorial review on the Amazon page declares the song “a rumbling hybrid of Bollywood and hip-hop.” The soundtrack also juxtaposes more ethnic music like “Ringa Ringa” (track number six) with “Latika’s Theme” (track number eight), an atmospheric treatment of a theme that could fit in a variety of movies and becomes a pop song in “Dreams On Fire,” the penultimate track. And the third track, “Mausam & Escape,” sounds perhaps like the Indian version of “Through The Fire And Flames.”

The Amazon page also quotes Kurt Loder of MTV.com as saying this: “The propulsive score, by Bollywood soundtrack auteur A. R. Rahman, is hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind.” I agree. Artistically, I appreciated how the fusion in the music reflected the fusion in the movie; and as a listener I enjoyed the music for adding another dimension to a very cool film.


La Vie En Rose Soundtrack, Christopher Gunning

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:22 pm

Well, so much for posting more consistently….

A few weeks ago, my lovely fiancée and I rented the movie La Vie En Rose and watched it for the first time. It’s a French movie (originally titled La Môme in France), in French with English subtitles, about the “extraordinary life” of the French singer Édith Piaf. The actress who plays Piaf, Marion Cotillard, won a Best Actress Oscar for the role last year–only the second time a foreign film has ever garnered that award. So, between the critical accolades (a draw for me) and the fact that it was French (a draw for Eleanor), we decided we would check it out.

It was a very good movie–very long and very sad, but very good. Cotillard’s performance was heralded as “breathtaking” and “one of the greatest performances on film ever,” and it is certainly a superlative one, especially as Piaf near the end of her life.

Of course, since the movie was about Piaf, much of the score was comprised of her songs–sometimes with Cotillard singing but often the original Piaf recordings. The rest of the score was composed by Christopher Gunning, whose IMDB page reveals no other movies that I recognize–apparently he’s written a lot for TV. I found it interesting that in many of the movie’s moments where the score enters, when it didn’t involve a Piaf song, the composer employed a lone piano with no other instrumentation. Often the rest of the movie’s audio (dialogue, sound effects, etc.) would fade or disappear completely, leaving only a piano playing generally chordal passages in minor keys. It was an interesting touch, and a poignant one. As portrayed in the movie, Piaf had few friends and very few close ones; I wonder if Gunning’s choice of a single instrument was representative of her loneliness. In any case, the score did not make a great impression on me otherwise, but I enjoyed this particular concept and the rest of the movie was excellent.


Okay, okay, I know, I was the last person to see the new Batman movie The Dark Knight–I saw it this past weekend (last Thursday night, I think, with my lovely girlfriend). I am a huge fan of the director, Christopher Nolan, particularly his films Memento (one of my favorite movies, and one of the most brilliant movies, ever) and Batman Begins. Up there with the (in some ways) incomparable M. Night Shyamalan, Nolan is one of the greatest consummate filmmakers of our day. Going into The Dark Knight, then, I had high expectations. And I must say, before I get to the musical side, that it is an excellent movie in almost all respects. Yes, it’s very dark and rather creepy, but it’s an amazing movie. All that stuff you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker–one of the greatest movie villains ever, posthumous Oscar, etc.? All true. Is this the most intelligent superhero movie ever? Very possible.

Okay, but we know this isn’t a film blog. What was my opinion of the score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard?

Much as I felt about their score for Batman Begins; in a word, disappointing.

Hans Zimmer (who, interestingly enough, doesn’t read music) and James Newton Howard are two of Hollywood’s top five film composers. I particularly like Howard’s (Newton Howard’s?) work; for example, his scores for Peter Jackson’s recent King Kong and all of Shyamalan’s films. From such a composer, especially in collaboration with Zimmer who has scored movies such as The Da Vinci Code, The Last Samurai, and Gladiator, one would expect an impressive and memorable score.

It’s memorable, all right, but only because it’s so unimpressive that it’s surprising from two A-plus-list composers.

I have to say that my recollections of the score in the movie may be tainted, because I was so engrossed with how awesome the rest of the movie was; but I didn’t even remember much music at all, much less good music. The main theme from Batman Begins returns here: steady strings playing the alternating notes of a minor third, with occasional bass notes thrown in here and there somehow comprising both the bass and the melody. But they’re occasional enough (i.e. far enough apart) that they don’t make for much of a melody. You can hear a hint of this theme on the Amazon product page in the sample for the track “A Dark Knight” (the last track on the album), although that includes a bit of extra melody, in the low strings.

There is a progression of two chords which comes back very often in the score; you can hear it in the sample of “Introduce A Little Anarchy” (track 12)–which, as you may notice, includes as an accompaniment a slight variant on the minor third in the strings. You can perhaps hear James Newton Howard’s influence in the sample of “Agent of Chaos” (track 11), which layers King Kong-esque piano over the minor third in the strings–are we starting to see a pattern here?

The most notable change from the Batman Begins score (and there aren’t many) is the addition of the musical leitmotif, if you will, for the character of the Joker. You can hear the general idea in the sample of “Why So Serious,” which is track 1 (and also “Always A Catch,” track 5): a part-strings-part-electronic hum which slowly rises in pitch as it rises in volume. A creepy effect; it’s not even really a theme, it’s just that, an effect. But it’s effective, and I have to say it’s probably my favorite part of the score: it’s interesting, it’s provocative, and while it may not exactly be original it’s definitely not a cliché.

After listening to the sample tracks on the Amazon page, I am perhaps willing to surrender a bit of ground. It seems that there was quite a bit of the score that I didn’t notice in the movie. But even just listening to the samples, you can hear a great deal of homogeneity. There are basically three components to the score:

1. The strings playing the alternating minor third.
2. The two-chord progression.
3. The Joker’s “theme.”

If you listen through each of the samples on the page, almost all of them are variations–but only slightly changed variations–of one or more of these ideas. Yes, movie scores need a lot of coherence, but they need more variety than this.

The score is moody, dark, and brooding, as many of its reviewers have noted, but it accomplishes those ends by using the same means throughout. I can’t say I was surprised, exactly, because I expected more of the same from Batman Begins; but I was certainly disappointed that it could not rise higher than the low expectations I’d set for it.

The Dark Knight is now the number one movie in America for the third straight weekend, which means that statistically, there’s a very high chance that most of my readers have seen it. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree?

(P.S. Just an FYI: In researching this post, I discovered that the score even has its own website: thedarkknightscore.com.)


Contact Soundtrack, Alan Silvestri

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:44 am

Over Subway sandwiches on an evening a few months back, my brother and father and I watched Robert Zemeckis’ film Contact, an excellent sci-fi film from 1997 starring Jodie Foster. The score is by Alan Silvestri, with 102 film scores to his credit (IMDB.com), including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future parts II and III, The Polar Express, Night At The Museum and most recently Beowulf, the sex-blood-and-guts animated version. He also has composed scores for “family” films such as FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Lilo & Stitch, and Stuart Little; but his most well-known score is that for Forrest Gump, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It would seem he tends to specialize in simple, childlike and fantastic scores, and Contact is no exception. There’s not too much music in the film, and apart from the “excitement” theme when the message from outer space is first discovered, the music serves two main purposes. The first is poignancy, when one character (usually Foster) is looking wistfully out into space, which is accomplished primarily by soft chordal piano passages not unlike those I wrote about in Scent Of A Woman, except not quite as original or interesting. The second is the simple, childlike fantasy theme, recalling Foster’s character’s simple passion for science as a child, which goes something like this:

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(Whadda ya know? All those ear-training and dictation classes from my music degree come in handy–if only for a “Figure 1″ on my blog. The key of G is arbitrary; I don’t know what key[s] it appeared in in the movie. G just fit nicely on the staff.)

Simple stepwise movement with conservative leaps, all diatonic and based around the tonic triad, simple tune, easily remembered–very folk-ish and childlike. Not particularly original or interesting, either, but it works and certainly serves its purpose. The movie is very well-made, but it is about science after all, and art (in this case the score) is used mainly in a strictly practical manner. But that could of course be as much a reflection on the director, in the end, as on the composer.


Mood Music for the Beach

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

On Wednesday night after work, I felt that the air was cooler than it had been over the past few days, and I could feel the ocean beckoning me. So after a brief stop back at the apartment, I hopped in my car and headed down to the beach–Newport Beach, to be precise. I felt that this occasion, which was the first time I’ve gone to the beach alone since I moved to Irvine, warranted some particular music to fit my mood: excited, adventurous, free. I chose U2, unsurprisingly–All That You Can’t Leave Behind, to be precise. “Beautiful Day” is the first track, and one of the most popular songs of their whole career; it seemed to embody the feeling I needed. It was the first song we listened to as we set out on our road trip last fall, so perhaps that gave it an adventurous and free connotation in my mind. Wednesday was a beautiful evening, at the least; the orange sun burned in a pink and cloudless sky. I raced it down to the horizon, and won by a little, as it hung red just above the fog when I arrived at Newport.

I set up my beach chair a little way back from the water, and journaled for a while. When I was finished, I pulled out my iPod and looked out over the sea. I love the ocean, and again I needed to find music that fit the mood of the situation. I felt as if I needed something to match the grandeur of the sea and the vastness of the sky, and as I browsed through the artists on my iPod I settled on some excellent choral music: the Mass of Swiss composer Frank Martin. (The recording I have comes from the CD Cathedral Classics, by the Dale Warland Singers, and it’s AMAZING.) I promise I’ll write a post about the Mass within the next week or so, because it’s such an awesome piece that it deserves its own post. But for now, suffice it to say that it served my purpose perfectly: sometimes big, grand and soaring, sometimes soft and sweet, always creative and evocative. It was a little hard to hear when it got softer in volume, due to the roaring of the waves, but otherwise it matched the emotion and mood of the scene.

After the Mass was over (it’s about 25 minutes long), I felt I needed some Chopin. Chopin was a Romantic composer (i.e. he lived in the 19th century–1810 to 1849, to be precise) who wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and his music is so distinctive that it’s almost immediately identifiable by anyone who knows his style. His music is very poignant, evocative and emotional, and often is characterized by a longing or yearning feeling that I felt would be appropriate to the sea following the Martin. (It was, in some senses, like choosing which fine wines would pair well with the various courses of a meal. The Martin Mass communicated the grandeur of the ocean and the sky in themselves; the Chopin matched the longing and intimacy of me, a lone man, standing before them in their grandeur.) I chose his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, from a recording by Krystian Zimerman.

(Incidentally, an interesting side note: a short time into the Ballade, I changed the EQ setting on my iPod from “Loudness” to “Piano.” The difference was very noticeable; the piano didn’t necessarily sound better–I actually felt like it got a little shallower and brighter in sound–but it was much better defined and much clearer, and I could even hear the pianist taking breaths as he played. It was in short a very helpful EQ setting.)

All of the ballades of Chopin (he wrote four) are worth listening to, but the first is my favorite, followed closely by the second (which I’ll also blog about soon, perhaps). And the first again was a perfect choice to pair with the cuisine of sea and sky; its yearning seemed a fitting musical counterpart to the constantly breaking waves.

When the Ballade ended, due to the waves covering some of the sound and the fact that I was getting very cold, I decided to pack up my chair and backpack and head home. Back in the car, I returned to the U2 CD; but things seemed to revert to my usual listening-to-music-in-the-car mood.

I’ve noted in the past that listening to an iPod while doing something else like walking, or watching the ocean, or whatever, is good training for being a film composer. Film composers need to be able to capture whatever human emotion is being displayed on screen and express it through music. And if I’m listening to something on my iPod, it’s almost like a movie soundtrack to the life that I’m experiencing; I can note what emotions that type of music stirs in me in that particular setting, and that would help me if I was ever to compose music for a scene in a film with a similar setting and emotion. So, Mark, if you ever make a film that has to do with the beach and you need some scoring for it, you know who to call: me–to be precise.


Juno Soundtrack, Various Artists

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:29 am

I saw the movie Juno for the first time a few weekends ago. It was, of course, a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar last year, and it was a very well-hyped movie in my various circles, which led me to high levels of anticipation. As a movie, I felt that it was definitely good but not quite as great as everyone had made it out to be (though, as my roommate Mike pointed out, definitely better than most movies nowadays). The soundtrack, however, was disappointing to me. A quick click through some of the samples on the Amazon page for the soundtrack, particularly the songs written and performed for the movie by Kimya Dawson, reveal the general style of the songs–a sort of stripped-down emo feel. Meaning no offense to those who may have enjoyed the soundtrack, I really dislike that kind of music. The lyrics are often silly or downright stupid, which is not necessarily bad in a light-hearted movie like Juno; but the music is played on often out-of-tune guitars and sung by almost always out-of-tune singers. And the melodies tend to be boring, simplistic, and monotone, which makes all the songs sound the same.

I appreciate the quality of “authentic-ness” that I assume this music tries to portray–just a songwriter strumming and singing, as if in a living room performance. And I know that this is one of the reasons some people enjoy this style. But to me, it seems like a bunch of songwriters who can’t write songs, guitarists who can’t tune their instruments, and singers who can’t sing. And that makes it really hard to listen to for extended periods of time, and even harder to enjoy.

But, apart from the music, the movie was very good.


My Favorite Film Production Company Video Logo

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:17 am

Of all the short video logos I’ve seen for film production companies (you know, the three or four or more short little deals that show up right before the opening credits of every movie), my favorite is the one for Castle Rock Entertainment. I like the piano, I like the winds, I really like the chord progression. You can find a video of the video logo here.


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