That Old, Familiar Tune

October 09, 2016
A thought by James Berardinelli


Music has a unique ability when it comes to triggering memories. A song, tune, or piece can mentally transport us to another time and place. While it can be said that all of our senses do this to one degree or another (the scent of apple pie always reminds me of Thanksgiving), the impact of sound can be especially visceral. With movie music, it’s more profound. It has long been my contention that today’s filmmakers either misunderstand or ignore the influence that a great soundtrack can have on their film. This error is elevated to egregious proportions when there’s an iconic theme involved.

Some movie music affects us for deeply personal reasons. If you see a film shortly after a loved one has died or while on a special date, that music may embed itself in your consciousness for reasons other than its importance to the movie. I recently spoke to someone whose favorite score is Dragonslayer. Although I know the film, I can’t say I remember anything of the music. I have a strong personal attachment to John Barry’s work for the 1976 King Kong. In fact, I would go so far as to say it may be his best score. (Although a case can be made for Dances with Wolves or Goldfinger.) But, as good as his King Kong music is, it’s not well remembered. When I call to mind the movie, I think of Barry’s score.

Among the thousands of scores that have been written since the early days of talking cinema, a handful can be said to be iconic. Gone with the Wind. Psycho. Casablanca. Dr. No. The Godfather. Jaws. Star Wars. Close Encounters. And so on… Among Westerns, there is no stronger candidate than The Magnificent Seven. Of all Elmer Bernstein’s themes, none has embedded itself more deeply into the collective consciousness. Maybe its use in Marlboro commercials had something to do with this but, growing up in an era when cigarettes could no longer be advertised on TV, I recognized “The Magnificent Seven” even though I had never seen the movie. It’s not as ubiquitous today as it once was but it remains widely known and often heard. So why was it given such a shabby treatment in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake?

To be clear - the 2016 The Magnificent Seven doesn’t ignore Bernstein’s theme but it also doesn’t go out of its way to use it. The productino teases it a couple times but waits for the end credits for the full rendition. That’s disappointing but not disrespectful. At least it’s there, although you spend the entire two hour running time waiting for it. The movie itself is like a second-generation mix tape or a Xerox of a Xerox - a fuzzy and largely unsatisfying retelling of a familiar story. One can’t help but wonder whether a better use of Bernstein’s score might have enhanced the overall experience. (It’s possible that James Horner had something grander planned but his death necessitated a reworking of the score using the bits and pieces he had composed. Regardless, the viewer can only react to the finished product.)

Fuqua in particular doesn’t seem to have much reverence for musical source material. Not only is Bernstein’s theme marginalized in The Magnificent Seven but Stewart Copeland’s title music for the TV series The Equalizer (although by no means iconic) was bypassed entirely in the director’s big-screen version. The reason for this is mystifying, although an explanation provided by Zack Snyder for another project may provide some illumination.

In 2006, Bryan Singer resurrected one of D.C. comics best-loved superheroes in Superman Returns. Although none of the actors from the 1970s/80s movie series returned (unless you count the late Marlon Brando), Singer retained a variety of visual and (more importantly) audio elements. The cornerstone of John Ottman’s Superman Returns score was John Williams’ theme from the 1978 Superman - music that, in the intervening 28 years, had become as representative of the character as the “S” logo or the blue-and-red costume. Singer knew how best to employ the music and I’m convinced that part of my initial rapturous reaction (which has been tempered over the years) is because the trumpeting of Williams’ theme pushed all the right buttons. But Superman Returns, although doing adequate box office business, fell far short of the success Warner Brothers had been expecting… so, a mere seven years later, they opted to reboot the franchise. In the process, they ignored a popular aphorism about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the first things Snyder did after being brought on board to “Nolan-ize” Superman’s story in Man of Steel was to jettison the Williams music. Aware that this might be met with less than universal acclaim, he defended the decision by arguing that the 1978 theme didn’t “fit in” with his new vision and that he wanted to get away from previous interpretations of the character. This didn’t make a lot sense. After all, if you’re making a Superman movie, why distance yourself from an aspect of the character that had been ingrained in his mythos for more than three decades? As for the music not fitting the story, I can think of several moments when its inclusion would have been a marked improvement over Hans Zimmer’s generic superhero tango.

Reading between the lines, it’s evident that Snyder’s ego was driving all facets of the remake. He wanted as little of the previous iterations to remain as possible. Williams’ theme, as iconic as it had become, threatened him. He didn’t use it because he hadn’t commissioned it. It didn’t bear his stamp. Unlike Fuqua with The Magnificent Seven, this was disrespectful. It not only weakened the movie but left fans of the original score feeling slighted. The inclusion of the Williams Superman music in Man of Steel likely wouldn’t have changed the final box office tally by one dollar but the non-financial benefits would have been incalculable. It would have helped Man of Steel feel like a Superman movie rather than some twisted, nightmarish attempt to inflict Batman-inspired darkness on a character whose nature is radically different.

If there’s a current composer who seems to “get” it, it might be Michael Giacchino. Not only is he not intimidated by using existing iconic music but he relishes the challenge of incorporating it into a new score. Giacchino has now composed for three Star Trek movies and all have employed (to one degree or another) Alexander Courage’s TV theme. He hasn’t touched Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme but that’s understandable since that music was subsequently repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation (although Goldsmith used it for one post-Generation TOS movie, The Final Frontier) and has become inextricably associated with it. If Picard and company were to return to the big screen, the music would be expected to accompany them. Giacchino also did a good job splicing in the memorable Jurassic Park themes into Jurassic World.

The unanswered question (at least as I’m writing this) is what Giacchino will do with Rogue One. I recognize that this is a “Star Wars story” rather than a numerical chapter of the Skywalker Saga but it’s inconceivable that Giacchino won’t rely heavily on Williams’ catalog in at least two aspects: the main theme and “The Imperial March.” It would be an affront for Vader’s first appearance in Rogue One not to be accompanied by the music Williams wrote for him in The Empire Strikes Back. As for the main Star Wars tune - how can one even contemplate calling something Star Wars without using it in some capacity - and not just during the closing credits?

Is Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton score iconic? Probably. It’s not as recognizable as The Magnificent Seven but many listeners would indicate a familiarity with it while not being able to identify the source. (“Damn, I know that music!”) Goldsmith’s work on Patton is one of the great examples of how to wed music to images. What many people don’t know is that, in the 1980s, there was a made-for-TV sequel. Called The Last Days of Patton, it achieved a major coup by bringing back George C. Scott to reprise his role. The script left something to be desired, primarily because Patton didn’t do much beyond lie dying in a hospital bed after a car accident. The filmmakers, however, either didn’t want to pay the money to license Goldsmith’s Patton score or they didn’t care enough to look into it (probably the latter). If you want a perfect illustration of the void created by omitting iconic music, watch The Last Days of Patton.

What is perhaps the most iconic theme in all of cinema regardless of genre or era? There’s no definitive answer but I would argue in favor of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.” (I won’t get into the arguments about its true authorship here, although many experts agree that John Barry had at least some involvement in the final arrangement.) Every official Bond movie has used this. For the most part, at least until Brosnan was removed from the role, the familiar tune not only opened the movie but was incorporated into the incidental score. That changed for Casino Royale when it was absent for most of the running length until making a triumphant return prior to the end credits. Bond has been around for more than 50 years. He has been rebooted, reworked, and played by (at least in the official lineup) six actors in 24 movies. In all that time, with all those different people involved, no one has considered not using “The James Bond Theme.” It’s an integral part of the series. The producers, regardless of what flaws they may have, understand this. It’s a lesson Zack Snyder and Antoine Fuqua could learn - not to mention the next filmmaker who thinks that ignoring movie music of the past is the best way to saunter into the future. It’s not - it’s instead a misstep into disappointed expectations. Movie music matters and iconic movie music even more so.