Does music make the movie? Let us digress and consider two notes: E and F. Now — name that movie. (Stumped? We’ll come back to this.) A great soundtrack is no substitute for a solid storyline, script, acting, directing, and special effects. Yet there are many examples of motion pictures (and television shows) where the music is so good that it actually makes an otherwise mediocre production palatable. And then there are those movies where everything is just perfect. Here’s our take on Iconic Soundtracks That Made the Movie.
The smell of napalm in the morning
Synthesized Huey rotors, exotically flavored with Asian wind chimes, pan eerily around the theater. Robby Krieger’s sinuous guitar snakes in. “This is the end,” sings Jim Morrison. Onscreen, fiery footage of copters napalming a jungle village are cross-dissolved with an upside-down Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) staring down a nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel room. Sitting in the audience, you knew you were in for a ride. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now made masterful use not only of music, but also of sound. Released in 1979, Apocalypse, along with Star Wars and several other ’70s big-budget films, even established a new class of motion picture sound technician: the sound designer. Taking advantage of the recent advances in motion picture surround sound technology, Apocalypse Now blended music and sound effects seamlessly with the onscreen action to create a total immersion experience for the audience.
Vietnam was America’s first helicopter war (with around 7,000 deployed), and these sound effects were elevated in importance, as “characters” to be strategically introduced and reintroduced to move the story forward. Source music is another “sound effect,” in that it must appear to be emanating from a source in the scene. As such, it needs to be, in re-recording mixer parlance, “futzed” with filtration and ambience that reinforces the reality of what you see onscreen, with the sound of the music being adjusted accordingly to match the perspective of every camera angle.
As Captain Willard’s Navy patrol boat wends its way upriver toward Cambodia, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” plays on a radio as one soldier surfs and another dances shirtless. Classic. In another unforgettable scene, Lieutenant Colonel and surfing enthusiast Bill (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) Kilgore (Robert Duvall) exclaims: “Put on psy-war op; make it loud,” before cuing up Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on the reel-to-reel and blaring it from his helicopter’s loudspeaker to intimidate the enemy as the air assault cavalry approaches and destroys the Vietcong village.
Composed and sound-designed by the director and his brother Carmine Coppola, the Apocalypse Now soundtrack uses effects, score elements, and pop music that’s at times ludicrously incongruous with what we’re seeing onscreen to help depict the hubris, hopelessness, and ultimate futility of the Vietnam War. It does this brilliantly, while leading us, through Willard’s eyes, to the character’s attempted redemption amid the rapid, inexorable descent into madness all around him. So as not to end this on a downer, we have to mention that musical genius runs in the family: Roman Coppola, Francis Ford’s son, is the creator and creative force behind Amazon’s delightfully refreshing Mozart in the Jungle.
A bit of the old ultra-violence
Music lovers became aware of the synthesizer through the pioneering works of visionary musicians such as Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita. Early Moog modular synthesizers were the magic behind Switched-On Bach, Snowflakes Are Dancing, and other top-selling albums. Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, scored by Carlos, heavily featured the Moog modular, which perfectly reinforced the near-future dystopia depicted onscreen. A critical story thread in Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel is the conditioning of the protagonist — a young, violent delinquent named Alex (Malcolm McDowell) — against the very music used in the film’s soundtrack.
Convicted of murder and sentenced to a long prison stretch, Alex is selected to be the subject for an experimental behavior-modification program consisting of intense aversion therapy that involves forced viewing of filmed sex and ultra-violence accompanied by Alex’s favorite music — Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The net result of the conditioning is that hearing his beloved “Ludwig Van” becomes associated in his mind with pain and suffering, making him physically ill.
To convey Alex’s state of mind to the audience throughout the film, Kubrick mixes up snippets of the Ninth with warped synthesized classical rearrangements by Wendy Carlos along with Carlos’s own compositions. It’s rare that a movie’s soundtrack becomes the plot. But with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick breaks the components of the film into fragments, then reassembles them. Synthesizers had been used in films before but had never played such a central, iconic role. Kubrick would employ Carlos’s synthesis artistry again for his 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel.
The film with a composer but no score
An early “synthesizer” invented in 1929, the Trautonium was one of the first electronic musical instruments. Modern classical composers such as Paul Hindemith wrote music for it, and it famously generated soundtrack elements for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds — which didn’t have a musical score but did have a composer, the great Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann had been working with Hitch since 1955’s The Trouble with Harry and had composed several standout scores for the director, including North by Northwest and Psycho.
In 1962, Hitchcock became intrigued by the prospect of using electronic sounds in place of music for his upcoming film. He wanted to use an electroacoustic device — the Trautonium — that would allow him to manipulate sound in a musical fashion. Hitchcock brought this idea to Herrmann, and the composer, rather than being peeved he wouldn’t be writing music for The Birds, was intrigued as well and signed onto the production as sound consultant. Hitch commissioned Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann to design an electronic soundtrack that relied heavily on the Trautonium. With a screen credit that read “electronic sound production and composition,” Sala and Gassmann were precursors of the modern sound designer.
Throughout The Birds, and especially during the attack sequences, sound — and the absence thereof — plays a very important role; the prime example being the attack on the Brenner home. With the characters inside the house, just waiting, the terror starts to build as we begin to hear the sounds — sporadic at first. A chirp here, a flutter there. Then comes the cawing, as it builds into a full-scale attack. Hitchcock was famous for eliminating dialogue from his films wherever possible, and the attack on the house is a sequence that essentially plays as a silent movie — except for the bird sounds that are used to devastating effect.
So did Hitchcock make a film totally devoid of music? Well, no — there are two pieces of source music: Claude Debussy’s “Deux Arabesques,” played on piano by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels character, and a Scottish folk song sung by the schoolchildren. As an interesting footnote, the absence of score music in Birds has served as an irresistible blank canvas for many a film scoring student and even some professionals. Some of these efforts, as well as numerous joke effects soundtracks, can be found on YouTube.
Now about those two notes…
They announced feeding time for a ravenous 25-foot Carcharodon carcharias with attitude. Brilliantly simple — and terrifying, John Williams’s iconic 2-note ostinato sent shivers down the spines of moviegoers in the summer of 1975. We’ll assume you’ve seen Jaws, the film that invented the summer blockbuster; the movie that kept people out of the ocean for years. Now, imagine the movie without those two notes. When Williams first previewed his idea for the main theme to Steven Spielberg on the piano, the director thought it was a joke, but he now credits the music for at least “half of the success” of the movie. It’s impossible to think about the film without the music. It’s driving and primitive — just like the great white.
Simplicity and repetition can be highly effective in riveting audience attention to a scene — and here, of course, Bernard Herrmann’s infamous screeching shower scene ostinato from Psycho comes to mind. Another plus is that this technique allows the music to build: as the Jaws theme develops, the 2-note ostinato is progressively embellished to the point where it is no longer simple, but rather a complex full symphonic orchestral arrangement with echoes of Stravinsky and Debussy. The Oscar-winning Jaws score — which marked Williams’s second collaboration with Spielberg — moved the motion picture industry back toward classical orchestral scoring, which had fallen out of favor after the Second World War. Viewed in retrospect, Jaws launched a glorious golden age in which masterful composers such as Williams, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer would write larger-than-life scores perfectly suited for a new era of blockbuster movies.
Although John Williams started composing professionally in the late 1950s, Jaws was the film that launched him to superstar status. The most nominated living human in Oscar history, Williams famously went on to rack up awards and nominations for the beloved Star Wars franchise, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the four Indiana Jones movies, the first two Jurassic Park films, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Memoirs of a Geisha, Munich, Lincoln, and The Post — and that’s just a partial listing of Spielberg projects!
From the heavy story lines of Oliver Stone to the lighthearted touch of Chris Columbus, Williams has worked with just about every major director. Says J. J. Abrams: “It’s almost cheating when you have John Williams because he writes feelings. He knows how to make your heart soar.…” It’s impossible to think about a Star Wars universe without the “Imperial March” or the Mos Eisley Cantina Band. Not to mention the epic main theme, where the composer plays the London Symphony Orchestra like an instrument to instill a sense of childlike wonderment in even the most cynical movie-goer. Sadly, motion pictures are the only popular venue for modern classical music, which makes John Williams an American treasure, our very own Ludwig Van.