Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How I Lost the Soundtrack

Movie soundtrack were a big part of how I enjoyed films in the past. My mother was a music teacher for decades, and was forever bringing home soundtracks for Disney movies and other kids' media that she could use for her classes. There were a lot of long car trips that involved listening to movie and musical soundtracks on repeat. I didn't have much exposure to popular music, so soundtracks were often what I listened to casually. I got attached to certain ones like "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Velvet Goldmine," and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." I went through a Cirque Du Soleil phase. And when I got to college and discovered the wonderful world of file sharing, I admit I went a little nuts hunting down old favorites and obscurities that I'd never had access to before.

And now, fifteen-odd years later, I am as massive a media fan as I've ever been, but I've almost completely stopped listening to soundtracks. Frankly, there aren't many recent films that are associated with musical themes or numbers that I can actually hum a few bars of. Most of the time I simply don't notice the music, and it's a major exception when I do - "Inside Out," "Far From the Madding Crowd," and "Star Trek Beyond," are some favorites from the last few years. Michael Giacchino has been a standout. However, it didn't really hit me until I was watching a run of older films and found myself really enjoying the music in each of them. All three of the Dracula movies I marathoned and Spielberg's "1941" have fantastic, memorable scores that lingered in my memory for days.

There's been extensive discussion recently about why film scores have lost so much ground, especially with the biggest, most expensive tentpole movies. Tony Zhou recently did an "Every Frame a Painting" video about this, pointing out that there weren't memorable themes associated with any of the Marvel movies. Well, except "Guardians of the Galaxy," which borrowed its soundtrack from the 1970s. He pointed to changes in filmmaking and the use of temp tracks as the biggest culprits, resulting in more generic music. Everything sounds like everything else. Also, the big, bombastic scores of my childhood have simply gone out of fashion. The films that really want to emphasize a musical element, like "Suicide Squad," tend to go the jukebox route, and license previously established hits.

This isn't true of all films, of course. It's been a growing trend to use a film's soundtrack to promote new releases. A few prominent songs and tracks are often offered as free digital downloads. Disney put the "Let it Go" scene from "Frozen" up on Youtube while it was still in theaters, recognizing that the song was becoming a phenomenon. Also, soundtracks have been making a big comeback in another venue: television shows. Thanks in part to bigger budgets and web services like Netflix ditching fixed running times, television themes are back in a big way. The gorgeous "Game of Thrones" title sequence started a trend, and now just about every ambitious series has one, and some memorable music to go with it. Some of my recent favorites include "True Detective," "Halt and Catch Fire," and "Westworld."

And while we're on the subject of television, I should acknowledge that the biggest reason why I fell out of love with soundtracks, has nothing to do with any of the music, and everything to do with my own media consumption habits. When I was younger, I had more time to really listen to music, often the same music over and over again. These days, given the choice, I'd rather be listening to a podcast, and there's very little that I watch or listen to more than once. An exception, or course, is television title sequences, which I don't skip when watching a new episode. So I remember the television themes more often, simply because of repetition. I know I wouldn't have remembered the "Penny Dreadful" or "The Americans" themes if I'd only heard them once.

Still, I haven't been able to get the march from "1941" out of my head for weeks. John Williams always was my favorite, and I miss his big orchestral scores and rousing fanfares. The modern action film may be doing fine without them, but a memorable score is such a good tool for a franchise's arsenal, I don't know why you wouldn't want them. That's the only thing that Iast year's "Batman v. Superman" got right. Whatever you want to say about Wonder Woman, she's already got the best superhero theme out of anyone in the last decade.


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