A lot goes into making a popcorn movie what Roger Ebert called “an out of body experience.” The blockbusters may be bigger than ever, these days. Each new “Star Trek” or Marvel or DC Comics adaptation sets new standards for box office take on the opening weekend, thereby guaranteeing that studios will want to patent that formula and re-use it time and again.
“Spider-Man” “Iron Man,” “Dark Knight,” and so on — they roll out on a quarterly schedule, one right after the other.
They are embraced by the new generation of fans as the new state of the art. It becomes accepted wisdom that these movies are better than ever, that summer films are operating on a higher plane. And when a summer comic book movie is actually “about something,” as the last “Dark Knight” was, the current “Captain America” is, they can make that point stick.
But “out of body experiences,” movies that hit us on an affecting performance level, in our funny bone, in the whiz-bang “How’d they DO that” SFX sense (digital is the answer) AND that extra something? Not a one.
That extra something is the score. Whatever the merits of today’s crop of ace film composers, not one could carry Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein or His Holiness John Williams’ sheet music or baton.
Every film fan for generations has known “The Raiders of the Lost Ark March,” the Main Title Theme “Star Wars,” the “Superman” theme, the great Jerry Goldsmith big screen “Star Trek” theme.
Hum a few bars of “Spider-Man,” any “Spider-Man,” “Amazing” or earlier. Hum any part that isn’t an homage to the old TV song, “Does whatever a Spider Can.” Or however that goes.
You can’t. James Horner, who did wonderful work back when “Star Trek II” came out, wasn’t called on to do much of anything special with this.
“Iron Man”? Not coming to me. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”? No more memorable music than “X-Men: First Class.” The same guy (Henry Jackman) did both.
“Thor” (Patrick Doyle did that one)? Not coming to me.
Pop stars or trained classical musicians are doing the orchestrating, and doing it on a budget. Synthesizers replace strings. Horns? We don’t need no stinking REAL horns. Or we can’t afford them. This stuff sounds ground out, like sausage. Talking with Mark Mothersbaugh about his work on “The Lego Movie” a few months back, I asked him about these other scores he has in the works. He’s so booked he can’t keep track. Might that be the problem? Just a few people getting all the gigs, and rushing to finish them, writing themselves into banality in the process.
Generic music rolls out for even the least generic of these genre pictures — J.J. Abrams’ summer spectacles. His films manage a moment here or there, musically. But nothing that sticks.
Danny Elfman is the dean of today’s composers and he at least recognizes the giants he followed. Horner has been a go-to guy for decades. Howard Shore, too. John Powell does great things with pop touches, but nothing that thrills anybody to the marrow.
Film after film scored with action-appropriate but utterly forgettable themes, action beats, etc. I wonder if the problem is the directors for hire, here? Jon Favreau? Did he give “Iron Man” music much thought? Kenneth Branagh knows what a good score sounds like. Listen to his “Henry V” (Doyle did that one, too, lovely) or “Much Ado About Nothing” or even “Frankenstein.” “Thor”? It could be outtakes from other scores, re-arranged with no more thought given than where you’re putting the caterers in the closing credits.
John Williams, for those who study him, stole from the great ones — Holst and Korngold. Bill Conti ripped off Tchaikovsky for “The Right Stuff.”
Hans Zimmer (“Inception” at least had those digital tubas) and Williams are getting old and working less. Is anybody really up to taking their place?
Who are today’s film score composers inspired by or borrowing from? A computer program — Film Filler Music 4.0? Who among today’s directors with clout are insisting on getting the music right? Aside from Scorsese, I mean, and all he really needs is a Rolling Stones Greatest Hits CD.
We’ve had a decade of comic book adaptations whose music, while apt enough, has let them down. That’s why these movies are staring at a shorter shelf life than a “Raiders,” a “Star Wars” or “Wrath of Khan.” You’d think with all the money being hurled at today’s blockbusters, they’d stop scrimping on the music. You’d think with all the Nolans and Abrams et. al. deigning to devote huge chunks of their lives to these behemoths, they’d care how they sound, that they’d want to do every thing in their power to get close to that “out of body experience.”
But apparently, they don’t.
And apparently, today’s film composers don’t listen to a lot of orchestral music — either concert hall classics, or the Dimitri Tiomkins or Erich Wolfgang Korngolds, the Maurice Jarres, John Barrys, Alfred Newmans or Bernard Hermanns. Because they sure as shooting aren’t stealing from the best.