March 1, 2017

Music on the Big Screen: An Interview with Joby Talbot

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I want you to imagine your favorite movie without music. You have dialogue. I’ll even give you sound effects. But no music.

Imagine James Bond slinking around corners without his ever-present surf-guitar riff. Imagine Psycho without that single screeching violin highlighting the violence. Imagine Indiana Jones jumping from ledge to ledge without his iconic theme rising in the background.

If a movie is a house, it’s music isn’t just the window dressing. It’s part of the foundation.

I’d call myself a “movie person.” I love to watch movies. I love to talk about movies. I love to write about movies. So why is it that so often I take the music in movies for granted? Maybe sometimes I’ll throw out a “yeah, that music was pretty good” if asked about it but that’s usually as far as my appreciation ever goes.

I’d venture to guess I’m not alone here. Aside from a couple months during awards season, I barely hear anyone talking about composers. More often than not, directors and actors get all the buzz. Maybe that’s not how it should be.

There’s an old saying that says the best film score is the one you don’t notice. I’ve got a feeling I know of someone who would disagree.

Joby Talbot just finished scoring Illumination Entertainment’s affable musical comedy Sing, and I was given the chance to ask him a few questions about his career in music composition for film.

Talbot was born in Wimbledon in 1971 and fell in love with music at a young age. Although he was playing piano by age six, Talbot’s access to music was limited until his teens and 20s. He remembers listening to his mother’s record collection, which he described as a “motley collection of light classical music.”

Later in life, Talbot came into his own in the musical world. He played keyboard and bass guitar in various bands and remembers liking all different kinds of music — from folk to pop to rock. He went on to earn his Master of Music degree in Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Talbot’s public career began after he meet then-music-video-director Garth Jennings, who at the time was hired to make a 90-second television ad. Talbot, who was then in his eighth year with a rock band, was asked to write the music for the spot.

Talbot was later commissioned to compose the music for BBC Two’s show The League of Gentlemen. For that project, Talbot remarked that the studio wanted to focus on real music made by real musicians—not “normal television music.” He described the music he composed as cinematic and gothic.

I found it funny that a composer with his Masters would find his first big shot on a TV show; it seems far more logical to me that he’d have gone to the orchestra pit instead of the screen.

After he forayed into other areas, Jennings came calling again, this time with a film: 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Not only was this Talbot’s first opportunity to compose for the big screen, but the first time Jennings had someone compose for him on a feature-length project. Talbot, a self-professed Hitchhiker’s geek, said these songs weren’t just noise in the movie’s background, but an integral part of the film’s overall imagery going past the screen.

Two years later, Jennings and Talbot were at it again with Son of Rambow, which Talbot called a “labor of love” for the director. Talbot said this film got “lost in Hollywood” and didn’t receive as much success as it deserved. It’s hard to say he doesn’t have a point. Despite good reviews and various award nominations, Son of Rambow barely grossed 10 million dollars worldwide (for reference, Iron Man, released on the same day in the US, made almost nine times that in its opening weekend).

Obviously, the pair worked well together, and Talbot himself is a “fan” of Jennings. After even more ventures on the stage and in the pit, the duo would reunite to bring audiences an animated work, Sing. Since we’ve already reviewed it (see David Gouldthorpe’s review online), I won’t focus on the film’s particulars but will say I enjoyed it. Talbot thinks Sing will be the piece to finally put Jennings’s work in the spotlight.

One of my burning questions for Talbot was whether or not he got any facetime with the absurdly star-heavy cast of the movie which includes Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly and so many more. Blatantly deviating from our conversation about his music, I groveled for any stories about the big stars he would divulge.

Surprisingly, to me at least, he had none. My somewhat-silly question actually turned into an enlightening experience about the production of animated movies.

Talbot met McConaughey for the very first time at the premiere of the movie they both worked on! He described the process of making an animated film as a bunch of amazing people “all hidden away.” He, and I, always assumed all the voice actors would be recording in the same room at the same time. Because of this, Talbot remarked, “nothing is real.”

Additionally, Talbot added that the music he composed plays into making the animated movie look like a real movie. It works with how the imaginary camera is placed to “shoot” the scenes.

Because of all this, Talbot found himself more constrained in what he could write for the score. In a simple scene with a real actor walking across a room, he could write 100 different pieces of music to ever so slightly change the moment’s tone. However, he explained, for that very same scene in an animated film, there may be only 1 way to write the music that’s appropriate. He described the process as trying “not to derail a fine balancing act.”

Not only was writing for animation new to Talbot, but he had to venture into some new styles of music. He was familiar with the deeper, emotional moments, but was challenged by the more contemporary and upbeat pieces that the movie demanded.

Talbot said that his workload was lightened by the people he had the opportunity to work with. He recalls writing a piece for the first time and having his musicians be able to play it seamlessly on first read.

“These people are machines,” Talbot said.

Talbot said that writing an animated movie was very different than writing for an opera or ballet. “Music [in movies these days] is more about sonics than musical grammar. Music school is useless [now]!” he joked.

Especially in some blockbuster films, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, scores are ritualistically simplistic. In many cases, movie music has become so well done that it can exist without ever being noticed by the average audience member.

To demonstrate, I could ask you to whistle both the Star Wars theme and the Avengers theme. The latter isn’t so easy, right?

Even in Sing, which had audiences more tuned in to the music than usual, Talbot said he felt less pressure than he would composing for a more intimate setting like the stage. For a concert or something similar, the composer often receives the greatest praise or worst scrutiny, whereas in cinema that’s rarely the case.

When asked if he prefers one medium or the other on that account he responded that “he’s quite happy to take a back seat or a step forward.”

This type of content flexibility is characteristic of Talbot’s career. One week he’s rotting away in solitude in his studio and the next he finds himself ready to snap at the flurry of people on a movie set.

He’s scored commercials, shows and movies and composed ballets, operas and concerts across a multitude of countries and continents. He’s worked with Paul McCartney and Tom Jones and even arranged an album by The White Stripes for a chamber orchestra.

As a bastion of “real” music in movies, we’re sure to be lucky enough to hear more of his work in the coming years. Talbot is a relentlessly dedicated worker with seemingly little regard for outside commendation. Cinema could use a couple more composers like Mr. Talbot.


Nick Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]