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Pitch Perfect

Film music can't be too sharp or too flat. And each score requires a different touch. These composers strike the right note.

December 05, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

THE composer Igor Stravinsky once described film music in terms of its "wallpaper function." It should have the same relationship to the drama, he said, that "somebody's piano playing in my living room has to the book I am reading." A film score is, almost by definition, background music, but Stravinsky's formulation grossly understates the role of music in advancing, enriching or even transforming a narrative.

The first rule of film music is that the music must above all serve the film. The best scores, in the tradition of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, do exactly that, while asserting their independence as self-contained compositions. The thing about great background music is it functions equally well in the foreground.



Clint Eastwood has composed the score for four of his films (among them "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby") and contributed songs to many of his own soundtracks, but "Grace Is Gone" represents a rare first in the career of the 77-year-old multi-tasker -- the first time he has written music for someone else's movie.

Harvey Weinstein called Eastwood a few months ago and asked if he'd consider re-scoring "Grace," a film by writer-director James C. Strouse that the Weinstein Co. had acquired at Sundance this year. (When the film played at the festival, it had a score by Max Richter.)

Eastwood sat down with his wife one night to watch the movie, a tear-jerker starring John Cusack (who also executive produced) as a former Army man who can't bear to tell his two young daughters that their mother has been killed in action in Iraq. "We were quite moved," he said, "so I called Harvey and said, 'I'll come up with something. See if you like it. If not, no hard feelings.' "

Eastwood's music for "Grace Is Gone" is in the vein of his other scores: spare, subtle and elegiac. "I think they came to me because they wanted something on the restrained side," Eastwood said.

So does this mean Eastwood, who has directed nearly a film a year this decade (he's now shooting his 28th feature, "The Changeling"), is taking calls for scoring work? "I'm not actively soliciting," he said. "But if the material's interesting and if I could be of some benefit, I would consider it."



Even by his prolific standards -- nearly a hundred film scores in the last two decades -- this has been a busy season for Mark Isham, who wrote the music for four high-profile fall releases: Terry George's "Reservation Road," Frank Darabont's "The Mist," "In the Valley of Elah" (his second collaboration, after "Crash," with his old friend Paul Haggis) and "Lions for Lambs" (his third time composing for Robert Redford).

Isham conjures a mood of restrained mournfulness for "Reservation Road" and "Elah," both of which deal with parental grief.

"At first, I thought the scores would end up similar," Isham said. But the films, in both form and content, suggested different approaches.

For "Reservation Road," which opens with its catalyzing tragedy, "the story is one of healing and aftermath," he said.

"It's easy to know where to start; the question was where we end up. The storytelling is quite traditional, so it's a more traditional score, with themes for particular relationships and emotions, whereas in 'Elah,' the themes are more general, almost philosophical."

For Haggis' film, he said, "A big decision was to keep the music organic, with very few electronic elements." The emotional moments are often quiet, even wordless, he noted, and "the score has to let them resonate."

"The key was to understand Paul's decision to move to a more intimate style," Isham said.

"In 'Crash,' the emotions are so thrashing and violent that the score had to almost float above the film. Here the score has to pull you in so that you're right next to the characters. It was an interesting balance: intense emotions done in a minimalist way."



Film scoring is one of the final pieces of the moviemaking puzzle, a process that typically begins when a rough cut is in place, but for "Atonement," director Joe Wright got composer Dario Marianelli involved even before there was a screenplay.

"Joe asked me to read the novel by Ian McEwan so I could start throwing ideas at him," said the Italian-born, London-based Marianelli, who earned an Oscar nomination for "Pride & Prejudice," his previous collaboration with Wright.

Marianelli, whose other credits include "The Brothers Grimm" and "V for Vendetta," focused on the character of Briony, the precocious writer who both sets the plot in motion and serves as the questionably reliable narrator. "I saw her as a kind of machine, a car with faulty brakes," he said. "She couldn't stop using her imagination." With Briony in mind, he wrote a piano-based theme with "a momentum that doesn't want to stop."

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