Monday, March 12, 2012

The Good Score, Bad Movie Syndrome

The Good Movie, Bad Score Syndrome

This post started out as a simple tweet:

"It saddens me when seeing a film causes me to enjoy the score less than before."

I never posted that tweet, because, from time to time, I think about my tweets before publishing them. The more I thought more about this statement, the more I began to wonder why this phenomenon occurs.  Before long, I realized that a tweet would not do the idea justice.

...and (delete)...

Most of us have had it happen.  We are able to listen to a soundtrack before the film comes out and we fall in love with it.  As our imagination fills in the possibilities, we are inclined to envision some spectacular battle or moving personal exchange between the hero and villain or two potential lovers, or a teacher and his/her pupil.  We start to envision just what great characters are helping to drive this or that great motif along...and then we see the film.

When watching the film, we have far fewer or no battles or personal interchanges like those our minds and hearts had conjured up.  The characters are less noble, less conniving, less comical, less...memorable, than we were hoping for.  We've become adept at dealing with such disappointments with so many of the films released these days, but one of our consolations has been to say to ourselves, "Well, at least I have a great score to return to!"

Then, upon returning to said score, we find that something has happened.  The great thief of reality has come in and stolen the joy and expectations our minds ascribed to the music we had previously listened to.  The reality is that the film's characters, story, or execution just didn't satisfy as much as the pre-spoiled score did.

So, we soundtrack-geniuses, have a particular problem.  Not only do we want our film music to enhance the film, tv, or game we are watching or playing, but we also want it to stand alone as a great musical experience on its own (if we are going to shell out our hard-earned bucks for it, anyway.)  Added to this lofty expectation, I've discovered now, that we need the film, tv, or game to be worthy of the score produced for it, as well.  Without this our successive listens become tainted by the negative memories associated with the film or game.  This the GOOD SCORE, BAD MOVIE SYNDROME.

What we really want are good scores to remind us of good films, good television, and good games.

Let me use James Newton Howard's score for THE LAST AIRBENDER as an example.  Imagine, if you will, that Shyamalan's film had been revolutionary, a cultural event...and had captured the magic that so many fans of the TV series experienced.  Without question, his score was one of the top 5 scores of 2010. Yet, Howard's score got very little recognition, save for those who follow the genre closely.  Even then, there wasn't the worldwide buzz that the score, on its own musical terms, should have enjoyed.  I can make a strong argument that it is his best score to date. I'm convinced that had the film been better, more of you reading this would agree with me than those of you who are shaking your heads right now.

Head-shakers or not, I'll go on.  You see, had THE LAST AIRBENDER been a great film or at least good enough to warrant repeat watches, then we'd naturally be more inclined to listen to James Newton Howard's score more often.  We'd want to have that portable experience of the movie, the characters, the scenes, that we loved so much.  (How many of us re-experienced STAR WARS this way in the 70s and 80s?  There were no discs or tapes of it back then, kids.)  Who wants to be reminded of the disappointing acting, writing, and direction of the film?  But listening to the score, for those who dared to watch the film, does just that.

To further make this case, I'll bring up the exact opposite situation, "The Average Score, Great Movie Syndrome."   How many average scores become the most purchased, most played, most awarded due to the fact that the film, tv show or game it was written for reached a high level of excellence?  Countless.  I'm sure there are soundtracks in all of our collections that we love more than we should...if we were to be truly objective about it. Some of those scores just aren't due all the accolades that have been heaped upon them, BUT when we hear the music we have such a fond memory of the characters or story (or even who we saw it with), that those positive emotions spill over into praise for the score.  We simply love to relive those movie moments or that time in our lives.  Many a composer has benefited from this phenomenon, but even more have suffered as a result of its opposite.

So what can be done about this?  Aside from never seeing a film, tv show, or playing a video game that we have already listened to the score for, there's not much we can do.   Yes.  We could avoid this unjust syndrome, but we'd also rob ourselves of those other moments where something average becomes spectacular and memorable.  And we could all use more of that!

When we listen, we aren't simply processing or cataloging the notes, we are experiencing story, experiencing emotion, and if the story and emotion of the score's context were not positive for us, then, on some level, even subconsciously, our appreciation of the score is affected.  A good score is only going to help a sub-par film so much and it's unfortunate that good to very good scores will likely continue to be overlooked by associations and under-played by the common listener.  The best we can do is to go back through our collections and re-listen to some of those scores that we've bagged up because the final context they were put in were not up to our expectations.  We can't eliminate this musically debilitating syndrome, but each of us can minimize its effect upon the innocent score.

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