August 28, 2006

Viewer Discretion Advised

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I watched the Terry Gilliam classic Brazil last week at Cornell Cinema and much to my (and my apartment-mates’) chagrin, have not been able to get the amazingly catchy theme out of my head. On the bright side, repeating the same song over and over again in my head has at least reminded me of the importance of musical scores in movies. In some cases (like the films listed below) music is what makes a good film great. These aren’t exactly the most famous, but rather, the most helpful in supporting their respective movies. For example, the theme to Star Wars is excellent (and also too obvious), but it’s not critical to the film. On the other hand, Jaws without its memorable two-note theme just isn’t Jaws. Anyway, here are my top 5 musical scores:

5. Psycho Score by Bernard Herrmann (1960)

The emblematic “scree, scree, scree” of violins is so overused nowadays that it’s put to more comedic effect than to scare people. Still, Herrmann’s score is perfect in conveying the feeling of outright terror in the now universally-known shower scene. Pay attention to other parts of the film score too. Herrmann’s un-ending violin-driven score manages to instill an underlying sense of danger throughout the movie. The score’s perfection can be seen when Marion (Janet Leigh) is driving in the rain; her windshield wipers match the score so perfectly, they are almost like metronomes.

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind Score by John Williams (1977)

Like in Jaws, John Williams succeeds through simplicity. By taking a basic five note motif, Williams masterfully expands it into a symphonic meeting of two worlds. In almost a compliment to William’s skill, it is through his music that the climactic contact between man and extraterrestrials occurs.

3. Brazil Score based on “Aquarela do Brasil” by Ary Barroso and arranged by Michael Kammen (1985)

Only Terry Gilliam would think to top off his schizophrenic, nightmare version of an Orwellian society gone terribly awry with such a peppy, upbeat samba song. While the tune seems to fit in best during the wild dream sequences of underachieving bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) it is just as effective when it is played in stark contrast with images of a totalitarian society crumbling under its own bloated and ineffective structure. The song represents a state of mind, even if it’s an insane one at that.

2. Vertigo Score by Bernard Herrmann (1958)

So much of Vertigo is based on the plot’s unavoidable repetition that inevitably ends in tragedy. It is Herrmann’s oscillating score that sets the tone and pace for the elliptic course of the film. Herrmann’s effective use of Wagner-influenced, discordant tones is so powerful, it often takes the place of dialogue. The most important scene in Vertigo, that which has Scottie (James Stewart) see his doomed love Madeline (Kim Novak) return “from the dead” in a green and alluring haze is accompanied by nearly seven minutes of uninterrupted music. Starting out with soft strings, we don’t realize the music’s power until it is bearing down upon us in a full orchestra; just like Scottie’s myopic sense of love.

1. Jaws Score by John Williams (1975)

According to Steven Spielberg, when he first heard the recording of John Williams’s now-famous score, he thought it was a joke. Fortunately for all of us, the music stuck and now Spielberg admits that Jaws probably wouldn’t have been as scary without the theme. Williams’s famous scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones are often known for their flourishes and extravagance. However his best work is magnificent in its simplicity. The basic, almost instinct-like, two-toned theme brings out our most primal fears of impending danger. The music is very similar to the film’s antagonist shark: raw, powerful, and unstoppable.