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Movie Music: Is It Becoming Hit Or Miss?

January 05, 1986|STEVEN SMITH | Smith, a Times intern from USC, is currently writing a biography of Bernard Herrmann. and

Item: After disappointing previews, director Ridley Scott and Universal Studios drastically cut an hour out of his $30-million fantasy-epic "Legend" to suit American audience tastes. Universal also commissions a new score by synthesizer-pop band Tangerine Dream to replace "Legend's" original symphonic score by Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith.

Item: In an apparent attempt to corral both "art" crowds and MTV-saturated youth audiences, Taylor Hackford's "White Nights" mingles pop rock, American ballet and Russian folk dance. Critics aren't impressed, but first-week audiences made a hasty jete to the box office. (As of last weekend, the film had sold more than $22-million worth of tickets.)

Item: Director Walter Hill tosses out James Horner's percussive "Streets of Fire" score in favor of Ry Cooder's more commercially exploitable music. Likewise, director Ivan Reitman sees visions of gold and discarded portions of Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein's tongue-in-cheek "Ghostbusters" score for potential hit records.

The writing--make that composing--seems to be on the wall: As long as teen audiences shape the ways and means of studio executives, film scores increasingly will be heard in three-minute increments, with a steady techno-pop beat and co-vocal by Phil Collins.

Ten years ago, the pulsating rhythm of cellos and orchestra helped send moviegoers screaming out of theaters in Spielberg's "Jaws." The commercial success of Williams' music was a timely reminder that the symphonic idiom had not worn out its welcome on movie sound tracks, sparking a widespread renaissance in film-music appreciation.

But in the wake of "Flashdance," "Footloose" and MTV--all facets of the same demographic face lift from older to younger moviegoers--the second "golden age" of movie music is again becoming the platinum age.

"The art of film scoring is in dire danger today, the greatest it's faced," said Elmer Bernstein, composer of scores for "The Ten Commandments," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and more than 70 other films. "The problem is one of pure ignorance. To the studios, film music is just a sort of wallpaper. If they don't like what they bought, they just paint over it.

"In the days when studios had music heads like John Green at MGM and Alfred Newman at Fox, composers had people who would fight for them if necessary, who would educate the executives. Today, the composer has no one to protect him. It's a very disturbing situation."

Bernstein feels that film music's ills are symptomatic of a larger problem in Hollywood: the mass-market movie maker.

"Socially, we're going through a plastic, corporate kind of culture; everything's very superficial. Mass media is great, but you can't have real progress in the arts if everything you make has to be liked by everybody. You tie yourself to the lowest common denominator every time. An art form can't survive that way."

A seeming majority of film makers would respond that numbers, not art, remain the target. With a teen-age audience worth millions at the box-office, the argument goes, what's so wrong about hit-oriented movie music?

"There's a cross-pollination between movies and records and MTV," lyricist screenwriter Dean Pitchford ("Footloose") noted after his film's success. "If all the elements click, you have the most powerful marketing push imaginable."

Reaching the masses through movie music is hardly a new innovation. In the days of the silents, producers regularly incorporated well-known melodies into film scores; with the advent of talkies, movie musicals delivered the latest song hits amid highly secondary story lines.

But it was Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar-winning score for "High Noon" in 1952, with its recurring use of the theme "Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darlin'," that forcefully showed producers the commercial potential of songs in non-musical films.

By the 1960s, with the explosion of pop groups like the Beatles and a growing awareness of the American teen-ager's buying power at the box office, the first wave of soundtrack-mania struck. Soon, veteran composers like Bernard Herrmann ("Citizen Kane"), Max Steiner ("Gone With the Wind") and Miklos Rozsa ("Ben-Hur") found film offers on the wane as producers put their stakes on pop-oriented scores.

After a brief return to the symphonic idiom in the mid-'70s with "Jaws" and Williams' hugely successful "Star Wars" sound track, the hit mentality has returned--with a subtle and disturbing new wrinkle, according to Bernstein.

"In the '60s, it was strictly a matter of commerce," he said. "I think executives still knew what a good film score was. But now, we have a new generation of businessmen who are so used to synthesizers and electronic sounds that they've forgotten what real music sounds like."

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