Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky heard film composers are good at scoring—if you know what I mean (wink wink).
"I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music."—Ingmar Bergman
One of the least discussed, least understood aspects of feature filmmaking is music. Everybody talks about visuals. Almost nobody talks about sound. But film scores are a complicated art form. A film score must operate as a coherent work, with its own thematic texture. It must also accentuate the film, servicing it if you will. And so, there is less writing done about film scores than nearly any other aspect of the filmmaking process. There are hundreds of books on cinematography, screenwriting, production design, and so on and so forth. I own a few of these myself. But I own exactly one book on film music. There are soundtracks available on CD for films that nobody in their right mind would own a copy of, but how many people know anything about the music they are listening to?
In short, film music is the thing nobody talks about. This leaves open the possibility of an entire untapped niche for behind-the-scenes documentaries on Hollywood history. And director Joshua Waletzky is there with "Music for the Movies," a series of explorations of cinematic scoring. His first entry, on the iconoclastic Bernard Herrmann, snagged an Oscar nomination in 1993. His second entry, The Hollywood Sound, is a broader survey of the influence of European Romanticism on the music of the great studio pictures of the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
Waletzky intersperses live performances of classic musical themes conducted by John Mauceri, along with Mauceri's comments on each piece. David Raskin muses on his love theme to Laura, and he even tells the famous tale of how he actually came to compose it: Raskin was stuck trying to write a theme along the lines of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" when his wife asked for a divorce.
But apart from Raskin, we learn little about the background of the musical pieces or their composers…at first. We hear the most famous fragments of several scores, see how they play in context, but the documentary as a whole is too meandering to be more than a cursory overview of classic Hollywood music. We jump from one Max Steiner piece (Gone With the Wind) to raskin's reminiscences about Laura, then back over to Steiner, this time with Casablanca. Detours into things like Franz Waxman's score for Bride of Frankenstein, for example, seem to go nowhere.
After a fragmented first act, the documentary begins to settle into a solid, if overly generalized portrait of how the "Hollywood sound" worked in the 1930s and '40s. Various musicians and production people discuss how scoring worked during the period. Raskin, as a survivor of those days, offers occasional first-hand accounts of the studio system. The next section deconstructs Max Steiner's music for a scene from Casablanca, followed by a section on Erich Korngold, who cemented the influence of German Romanticism (he was a pupil of Richard Strauss) on film music by creating the now-standard formula for Hollywood action movie scores. (Steiner's score for Johnny Belinda is examined later.) Alfred Newman is represented by The Song of Bernadette (his personal favorite), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the 1939 version), and How Green Was My Valley, although Wuthering Heights would probably have been a more well-known choice. Dimitri Tiomkin also gets squeezed in with Red River.
With so many composers, there is little time to develop much depth or detail about any one of them, and any given score is just given a quick examination, often just focusing on a key scene or musical motif. If you don't already know much about film music, you will find Waletzsky's documentary disjointed and confusing. He expects you to know who Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and other composers are. And with only a little time devoted to each figure, the portraits are sketchy. Waletzky took much more time to elaborate on a single composer, Bernard Herrmann, in his first entry in this series. So why dance around the topic here?
Music for the Movies: The Hollywood Sound takes a while to get its footing. But once it does, there is enough interesting material here to make it worth checking out of the library if you come across it. However, even fans of classic Hollywood music will find the approach too superficial to warrant replay value. Still, in the absence of other discussions of such an important topic, we should be thankful that Waletzky is treading where few documentarians have yet to travel. I hope to see more entries in this series.
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