Almost every great movie has a great soundtrack backing it up. From Indiana Jones, to James Bond, to The Pink Panther, to Love Story: if it’s a Top 100 movie of all time, then there’s a good chance there’s a memorable theme song attached to it. Of course, there are the easy themes to remember (mostly composed by John Williams), such as Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, where the average person on the street can easily hum the basic tune without much effort. These musical “hooks” are written in such a way that they stick in a viewer’s brain, making them easy to associate with the movies with which they’re attached – often down to the individual scene.
When “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti plays, people start training like Rocky. When the “Chariots of Fire Theme” by Vangelis comes on, people run in slow motion. When the “Theme from Mission Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin kicks in, everyone becomes a spy. And when either “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield or the “Halloween Theme” by John Carpenter begins to play, people feel a sense of dread. Psychologically, each of those tunes draws us back to a central concept, memory or feeling, which we immediately associate with its movie counterpart.
Looking back on the last 25 years, hit movies have come from every imaginable genre. From big-budget spectacles (Transformers, The Lord of the Rings, everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), to low-budget indie films (Memento, Winter’s Bone, Napoleon Dynamite), to fantastic thriller, horror and comedy films (Jason Bourne, Scream, The Hangover): all have found fame within modern pop culture zeitgeist. Yet if asked, the average viewer might be able to recall only one or two songs from any of the aforementioned films. All were extremely popular, either critically or at the box office, and most have an enormous fan bases – so why do we have a hard time recalling specific songs from their soundtracks?
The answer is more complex than one might think. Simply implying that movie scores today aren’t very good or appreciated by modern audiences doesn’t explain why virtually no one remembers them. It’s not as if all the talented composers from yesteryear stopped working in Hollywood. Many of the same people who wrote the iconic, highly recognizable soundtracks from thirty or forty years ago are the same ones composing the soundtracks for films today. Williams, Silvestri, Elfman, Vangelis, Zimmer – all have been highly admired for their movie orchestrations for decades and they remain popular today.
However, when someone, even a master composer, writes hundreds (if not thousands) of songs over the course of their long career, it can very often lead to creative fatigue. This can make creating something new and memorable extremely difficult. As an example, listen to John Williams’ epic score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s arguably some of his greatest work in the last 10 years but ask anyone to recall a track from it and they’ll inevitably give you something for the first trilogy – because after scoring seven movies, it all starts to sound alike.
Bringing in fresh, new talent doesn’t seem to resolve the problem either. By all accounts, Steve Jablonsky’s score for the Transformers franchise is an excellent piece of musical art, but there isn’t a single memorable track throughout three movies. There’s no musical cue alerting viewers that the Autobots have arrived and, unlike Darth Vader with his “Imperial March”, there’s nothing musically specific attached to the Decepticons that says, “Hey, these are the bad guys.” On the flipside, most people will quickly recognize “Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell from Requiem for a Dream or “Promentory” by Trevor Jones from The Last of the Mohicans, but typically can’t recall which movies they’re associated with until reminded.
Every Frame a Painting explored this hypothesis in detail but focused mainly on the movies and soundtracks within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the issue isn’t limited to just superhero movies, many of their points make sense. They assert accomplished composers like Christophe Beck (Ant-Man), Alan Silvestri (The Avengers) and Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3) are all just “playing it safe” and while the scores for those movies aren’t necessarily bad (which they aren’t), it’s all “bland and inoffensive” – and they’re not wrong. We live in an age when it seems like a new blockbuster movie hits theaters every other week. However, there are only so many trusted composers to go around in Hollywood (many who work almost exclusively with one director), so in order to meet demand, they are often forced to take a few “shortcuts”.
Their video also touches briefly on the growing popularity of using temp music and non-linear editing in Hollywood (you can watch their excellent supplemental video about the topic HERE). During several roundtable interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, composers like Danny Elfman (Batman), Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Trent Reznor (The Social Network), and Hans Zimmer (Man of Steel) all talk about how the current trend for modern musical scores is to purposely go “unnoticed” and how scripts are no longer written with the musical score in mind – something filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone and to a degree, James Gunn do frequently.
And therein lies the biggest problem composer’s face: How do they create something unique and memorable when the directors, producers and studios don’t want them to?
Attempting to walk a fine line between what they want to create and what the director wants is definitely a difficult task. On the one hand, as artists, they have a desire to compose music which will leave an inedible impression on the listener, while at the same time, enhancing the movie it’s attached to. On the other hand, they work for the director and the studio is their customer, so musically, they need to develop what is being asked of them. Like a commercial painter once told me, “If a paying customer says to paint their house bright green with orange stripes, you paint it bright green with orange stripes.” It’s a struggle they all have to walk right now between pleasing their employer and letting their creative juices flow freely.
When we get to the brass tacks of the situation, the real reason modern movie scores aren’t as memorable as they once were: The filmmakers just don’t want them to be – and that’s a real shame. Hopefully there may come a time in the near future when this trend subsides and the industry will return to once again giving audiences memorable theme songs to their favorite movies. Let’s just hope it happens in time for Thanos to get his own “Imperial March”.