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The Big Score: A Timeline of Movie Music

| February 24, 2012 | 2 Comments

Composer Howard Shore, whose awards include three Oscars for scoring the Lord of the Rings triology, says, “I like to work around the edges and try to give the film another level of subtext, which is what music can do. I love painting around the corners of the frames and staying out of the middles. What you want to do is bring the audience right in the scene with the characters, so they’re living and breathing as part of the film.”

Ever since the first commercial movies flickered onto screens in the early 1900s, composers have been doing just that. From Bernard Herrmann to Henry Mancini to John Williams, these behind-the-scenes heroes weave their melodies and harmonies into films, creating celluloid magic. Imagine Rhett and Scarlett’s first kiss from Gone With the Wind without Max Steiner’s orchestral swells. Or the opening shark attack in Jaws without John Williams’ ominous strings.  As composer Elmer Bernstein once said, “The music should be a character in the film.”

This year’s Oscar Nominees for original scores are: John Williams for The Adventures of Tintin; Ludovic Bource for The Artist; Howard Shore for Hugo; Alberto Iglesias for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; and John Williams for War Horse. In celebration of the award ceremony this weekend, we invite you to step behind the curtain and into the world of movie soundtracks.

And … Action!

In the early 1900s, movie soundtracks were performed live by piano and organ players stationed discreetly in a front corner of the cinema. Sometimes the music was improvised (a young Fats Waller was the inventive organist at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater for years); more often it came from generic cue sheets. Aside from enhancing the action on the screen, this mood music served the more practical purpose of masking the loud, metallic ratcheting from film projectors.

By the time of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), scores were being assembled from existing music to fit the stories of motion pictures, and performed live by full orchestras—at least in the more extravagant theaters. With a battery of blocks, bells and whistles, the drummers in these orchestras were the first sound-effects men. But keeping 30 to 40 musicians on retainer was expensive.

Though technology for synchronized sound—a “sound track” is a physical, audio-coded region on the film’s border—had been around since the turn of the century, Hollywood didn’t come aboard until 1923. The Thief of Baghdad was one early ground-breaker, with a soundtrack by composer Mortimer Wilson that a newspaper review called “woven into a colorful fabric of harmony to serve as background for players and action.” A good definition for a score.

Orchestral scores weren’t the only sounds finding their way onto celluloid. After the song “Charmaine,” which appeared in 1926’s What Price Glory?, became a hit, movie studios sensed a goldmine of sleeping copyrights. They gobbled up Tin Pan Alley’s music publishers—and suddenly, Hollywood looked like the invasion of the songwriters.

This set the stage for 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the landmark film that featured Al Jolson in blackface, singing hits old (“Mammy”) and older (“My Gal Sal”)—50-odd years before The Big Chill, the movie soundtrack as a collection of feel-good hits, was born.

32 Bars of Schmaltz

With all the studios in the songwriter sweepstakes, the early ’30s was a boom time for memorable movie tunes (often more memorable than the films themselves). Consider a few of the titles introduced: “Thanks for the Memory,” “Louise,” “I’ll Get By,” “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Singing in the Rain” (23 years before Gene Kelly splashed through the song, it appeared in the forgotten flick Hollywood Revue). The Astaire-Rogers films were the pinnacle of the movie musicals, yielding glamorous hits such as “Cheek to Cheek” and “They All Laughed.” We treasure these songs as standards, but at the time the studios’ take was summed up in a line a Warner Bros. exec would bark to his staffers: “Ah, just give me 32 bars of schmaltz.”

Harold Arlen, composer of The Wizard of Oz, described the relationship between songwriters and studios. “We made a lot of money but had no prestige. We were considered just songwriters. George Gershwin, too. He’d be invited to a party and be expected to sit down and play like a hired entertainer.”

The influx of East Coast songwriters was followed by another variety—classically-trained European composers. Vienna-born Max Steiner led the way, writing what is considered to be the first complete original soundtrack, King Kong (1933). To his impressive list of accomplishments, Steiner would add Gone With the Wind and Casablanca (though one-hit wonder Herman Hupfeld was responsible for “As Time Goes By”). The émigré wave also included Franz Waxman, Ernst Toch and Erich Korngold (to hear Korngold’s rousing scores for Errol Flynn swashbucklers is to understand where John Williams came from).

“Seemingly only a composer knows that it takes time to write music,” Ben-Hur composer Miklos Rozsa once said. Studio bigwigs such as David O. Selznick and Jack Warner expected their staff composers to churn out scores with machine-like efficiency, often in three weeks or less. Selznick was so relentless, he even supplied Steiner with amphetamines to make sure he was logging 20-hour days. To add a touch of competition—and paranoia—to the mix, producers often commissioned “insurance scores” from other composers, just in case their first stringer had a breakdown or pulled attitude.

As composer Hans Salter once explained, “No matter how well you did the job, the producers rarely made any comment. Perhaps they were afraid that if they paid us a compliment, we would ask for a raise.”

Though many of these European transplants were spared from the eventual Nazi persecutions in their homelands, the movie business held its own kind of humiliations and tortures. As French director René Clair said, “In 1940 I had my choice between Hitler and Hollywood, and I preferred Hollywood—just a little.”

From Cowboys to Bikers

Ask the average person who wrote the score to Double Indemnity or who penned “Mona Lisa” and they’ll be stumped. It speaks to the anonymity of film composers and songwriters that continued through the ’40s and ’50s. Despite the creative leaps scores had taken, they were rarely noticed by most filmgoers, not taken seriously by critics and were never available on album (Selznick tried to convince Columbia Records to release the Gone With the Wind score, but they declined). All that changed because of a cowboy song.

For the 1952 film High Noon, composer Dimitri Tiomkin answered director Stanley Kramer’s request for a simple folk tune with “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.” Kramer loved Tex Ritter’s version of the song so much that he sprinkled it throughout the picture. But preview audiences laughed at the song, and Kramer was pressured to remove it. As the film languished in re-editing, Tiomkin went to Columbia Records and convinced Frankie Laine to record the song. Not to be outdone, Capitol Records cut a version on Ritter. In the months leading to High Noon’s release, both songs galloped into the Top 20, selling over 2 million copies combined (which earned Tiomkin more in royalties than the entire score). High Noon opened to packed houses, and Tiomkin won an Oscar for Best Original Score.

This pointed the way toward a new marketing tactic: the soundtrack pre-selling the picture. By the mid-’50s, albums of Technicolor musicals such as South Pacific and Gigi were dominating the charts, eventually sharing the spotlight with the emerging rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, courtesy of Blackboard Jungle and a slew of Elvis Presley vehicles.

By 1962, soundtrack sales were booming. The blockbuster arrived with the Oscar-winning adaptation of Bernstein and Sondheim’s Broadway smash West Side Story, which spent a whopping 54 weeks at No. 1. Star-crossed lovers Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood lit up the screen, but when called to break into song, their voices were dubbed (by Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon). The sly practice soon became common.

Though we think of the ’60s as belonging to the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Motown, there was an almost constant tug-of-war on the charts with romantic soundtrack music. In the summer of ’66, Maurice Jarre’s “Somewhere, My Love (Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago)” charted higher than “Eleanor Rigby.” But then again, the Fabs made their own soundtrack history with A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, becoming the first rock group to star in a film as well as writing and performing the soundtrack. Simon and Garfunkel saw their profile rise when director Mike Nichols used the duo’s songs exclusively for The Graduate.

But if there was one ’60s soundtrack that became the blueprint for decades to come, it was Easy Rider. A collection of rock songs by various artists (“It was basically [co-star/co-writer/director] Dennis Hopper’s record collection,” Peter Fonda once said), it commented on the action while aiming squarely at young moviegoers. A quick glance at today’s soundtracks proves that Dennis Hopper may unwittingly be one of the most influential figures in the history of movie music.

Big Fish, Big Chills, Big Money

The rise of rock and soul soundtracks was countered in the mid-’70s by the grand orchestral scores of John Williams for Jaws and Star Wars, which went multi-platinum and yielded chart hit versions of their themes (Trivia: The ominous two-note motif of Jaws is a direct lift from Herman Stein’s score for The Creature From the Black Lagoon). The success of Williams (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Empire Strikes Back) brought symphonic music back in vogue and paved the way for contemporary traditionalists like James Horner, Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore.

But the era of big-money soundtracks began in 1983 with The Big Chill. This feel-good jukebox pumped full of boomer hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Whiter Shade of Pale” sold millions of copies, drawing a much-copied blueprint for chart-toppers, from Top Gun to Forrest Gump to Sleepless in Seattle.

Picking up where Elvis and the Beatles left off, artists like the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever), Prince (Purple Rain) and Eminem (8 Mile) broke new ground as musical auteurs. But no one did it better than Whitney Houston, who single-handedly made The Bodyguard the biggest-selling soundtrack ever.

Revisiting the Dennis Hopper model, Quentin Tarantino let his quirky record collection do the talking in Pulp Fiction, making stars of surf king Dick Dale and indie band Urge Overkill. Five years later, the Coen Brothers pulled a similar trick with their favorite bluegrass and old-time music on O Brother, Where Art Thou?

And let’s not forget the cartoons. With blockbusters like Aladdin, Toy Story and Shrek, studios Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks made animation into high art.

While movie scores have come light-years from the early 1900s, some things haven’t changed. As composer Marc Shaiman says, “I see a movie like a singer, and I’m the accompanist playing for it. That’s what movie composers really are—accompanists.”

—By Bill DeMain

—Pulp Fiction photo by Linda Chen/WireImage

From the May 2007 Special Feature: The Big Score, which also includes a timeline of movie music highlights and interviews with composers Howard Shore, Harry Gregson-Williams and Mark Isham.

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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