Review: ‘Score: A Film Music Documentary’

7 mins read

Score: A Film Music Documentary
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Matt Schrader


Imagine the nerve-wracking beach scenes of Jaws without the deep chords composed by John Williams or the horrific shower scene of Psycho without Bernard Herrmann’s shrill strings. Consider the menace of Darth Vader in Star Wars without John Williams’ contrasting themes of good and evil or the timeless romance of Casablanca without Max Steiner’s arrangement of the melody of “As Time Goes By” swirling through the air. These classic films would just be images and motions, shots and edits—mere pieces of a whole. Without music, film is just a body without a soul.

Music gives life and meaning to movies in ways that images cannot. Film might be the business of motion pictures, but the sounds that fuel the movies we love engage us by tensing our backs with fear, rousing our spirits with inspiration, and swelling our hearts with emotion. Director Matt Schrader composes a loving overture to the art of film music in Score: A Film Music Documentary that is as broad, sweeping, and stimulating as a wall-to-wall John Williams score from the golden age of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It’s a treat for film buffs.

Schrader assembles many notable composers from the film industry to discuss the art of scoring a movie. Figures such as Hans Zimmer (Inception), Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Dario Marianelli (Atonement, a personal favourite!), Rachel Portman (Chocolat), Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice), Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) and Thomas Newman (American Beauty) chime in on their creative processes. (John Williams only participates via archival interviews, which is a notable loss.) Each composer shares similar stories about finding inspiration by relating to the characters and imagining the right connective tissue to bridge the emotions of the audience and the picture with the right notes and cues.

While Score rhapsodizes over some of the most iconic soundtracks ever recorded, Schrader neglects to look beyond Hollywood productions and mainstream British films, with the exceptions of spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Canadian co-pro Race. The homogeneity of the interviewees who created musical works for countless Hollywood sequels, prequels, reboots, and rehashes lacks the timeless quality one wants for an examination of how one creates great scores. Surely there is a better example than Transformers for explaining how the layers of a composition shift, creating emotional resonance. Score doesn’t consider the challenges of making the same connections with audiences outside the studio system; independent films and world cinema deserve representation. Odd pairings, like a discussion of John Barry’s work in the 007 franchise while featuring a music cue from Monty Norman’s familiar Bond theme, make the doc hit a few false notes.

The film succeeds as a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of a film score as the composers demonstrate their craft. Several artists sit down with Schrader and tinkle on the keys to find the right tune for a work in progress and it’s amazing to see the films heighten with a spark when the images shift to a musical accompaniment. Equally impressive is the pace and scale of the process as the composers work with studio orchestras who sight read the music with swift, professional eyes while executing a new score perfectly. These large-scale orchestrations are timeless pulses within an industry that is changing rapidly, and the composers give nods to legends like Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo), Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and John Williams (Jaws, Schindler’s List) for revolutionising film music by demonstrating that soundtracks can match the pedigree of classical works.

Schrader also outlines the evolution of soundtracks from the 1920s to today. Critics and academics like Leonard Maltin explain the origins of music in silent films in which comedy found its slapstick beat. Fellow composers convey their excitement when they discuss how Alex North changed the game by using a jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire or note how Jerry Goldsmith’s innovations with sound and genre in films like Planet of the Apes and Chinatown remain inspirations.

Score spotlights some contemporary innovations, too, to illustrate the digital revolution in music and the rising trend of seeing films scored by musicians who aren’t traditional film composers. This segment celebrates the bombastic vigour of Mad Max: Fury Road as Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) demonstrates how he achieved the propulsive fury of the film using multiple tracks of synthetic drums, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails revisit their chilling and unconventional music for The Social Network. As film evolves, so do scores.

An exercise in film appreciation, a tribute to masters of the arts, and a wonderful collection of cinematic nostalgia, Score is a valuable doc that helps audiences appreciate and understand a vital element of the art form. As a playlist of the greatest hits from Hollywood history, it’s melodious movie-going bliss.

Score: A Film Music Documentary opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, June 2.




Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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