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30: On Music In Movies

February 18, 2013

Day to day, the music we listen to evolves. Dubstep-flavored pop has replaced the overproduced boy and girl bands of the late 90s, which similarly replaced the synth beats and hair bands of the 80s. It stands to reason that as we undergo yearly cultural shifts in terms of the music we consume, we should see that reflected through movies soundtracks as well.

I’m talking specifically about a recent trend in film scoring that opts to use industrial beats, found sounds, and unconventional electronic rhythms. Think David Fincher’s The Social Network and the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (both scored by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), Dredd (Paul Leonard-Morgan), Looper (Nathan Johnson), Drive (Cliff Martinez), Tron Legacy (Daft Punk), and Fight Club (The Dust Brothers), among others.

All of these are examples of exceptional movies (or at least, movies I really like), averaging 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. Tron Legacy was the lowest rated with a 51% critic approval. In 2011, the Academy recognized Trent Reznor with an Oscar for his work on The Social Network score. So are these movies truly better than movies scored by the John Williamses and Hans Zimmers of the world? And second, will they stand the test of time? I took a look at the genres that use primarily electronic soundtracks.

Of the movies I listed, three take place in dystopian futures (I’m including Tron Legacy in that definition). So this industrial sound, the sound of pipes and whines and static as music is supposed to also signify the breakdown of society by indicating the breakdown of the traditional orchestra. Synth replaces strings. “I wanted to create a sound which fitted a future set in 100 years time, so traditional orchestra was out of the question. . . I was looking to create a timeless score which couldn’t be placed in any particular era. So it’s ended up being a cross between a modern dance track and evocative soundscapes,” said Paul Leonard-Morgan of his work on the score for Dredd. Similarly, the film Looper, which takes place in 2042, uses found sounds like slamming doors and the click of a revolver to emphasize a future world where music has evolved. Composer Nathan Johnson and even built his own set of percussion instruments. It took him over a year to complete the score. Of the scores I will talk about, it also uses the most traditional instruments.

Tron is an interesting comparison study. The original score was composed by Wendy Carols, with pop themes by Journey. While still a cult classic, searching YouTube for any scenes or videos of the original film with music was unfruitful. Aside from the title songs by Journey, the score was less than iconic.

And the new:

This fight scene even includes a cameo by composers Daft Punk, as they play the DJs in the soundbooth.

Other movies that characteristically use electronic scores tend to portray a violent or brutal world – a sort of dystopian present. The 1999 cult hit Fight Club, scored by The Dust Brothers, is one of the earliest examples of mainstream electronic-industrial scoring. While I’ve chosen not to cover in depth earlier movies that feature synthesized music, some of the examples are Blade, Highlander, and Run Lola Run. While these movies pioneered the acceptability of unconventional soundtracks, the scoring is in a way their downfall because the style of 80s synth/house makes the films comically dated. In Fight Club, the score is a dark, creeping undertone to the world, using slow, synthesized beats.

While Fight Club as a film and a score still holds up well, the way the drum machine is used still places it squarely in the late 90s music scene.

Drive and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo also fit into the category of vicious dystopian present. They have in common with Fight Club, Dredd, and Looper their use of brutal violence. Their scores exist to set the tone of the world, immersing us because the music feels like an extension of the landscape.

The Social Network is an outlier. It fits into neither of these categories. When I asked my boyfriend why he thought it had the score it did, he said maybe it was because it was about the internet. But that seems like a shallow reason. Whatever your feelings on the film, David Fincher is a very thoughtful director, and there was a deeper logic behind his decision. I admit, I will always be a die-hard Nine Inch Nails fan, and I bought the soundtrack the day it came out. I watched The Social Network for the first time yesterday, in preparation for this blog. The score is minimalist, the use of a solo, haunting, somewhat out of tune piano a trademark of Trent Reznor’s musical stylings. It’s meant to convey the constant undertone of Zuckerberg’s thoughts, building the character instead of the world.

We end with a dilemma. Directors who choose to use complex electronic-industrial scores today likely succeed because the concept is still fairly innovative, and isn’t a decision made lightly. As I’ve noted, there is barely more than a handful of these films, and I have no doubt that this style of scoring will remain a largely independent film phenomenon. Could the drawback be that, like the synth soundtracks of 80s movies, the electro-industrial score will seem dated in 10 or 20 years? The other potential drawback is that electronic scores, while evocative, do more to build the atmosphere of the world, and don’t produce iconic melodies the way Star Wars and other orchestral scores might.

My worst fear is that directors will attempt to create an innovative score to cover up a lackluster movie. But, as we stand, today’s use of electro-industrial soundtracks, when paired with the right films, creates some of the richest settings on the silver screen.

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