L13FC: The Music in Animated Films

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. Traditionally, a co-host joins me, and we approach a topic of the film industry and talk to visitors all day on the thirteenth of the month. It’s great to hear from one and all, so add to the conversation. Would you like to lead a discussion you are passionate about? Let’s figure out a topic together and select a month that works for you. It’s easy and fun. Email me with your idea:  cbruchman@yahoo.com. 

For the last four years, I’ve been reintroduced to animation after a twenty-odd year hiatus. That was the time frame from when my kids were too old to watch animated films to when it took them to have kids of their own. Then I became a grandmother and started revisiting old favorites like Pinocchio (1940) and The Jungle Book (1967) and tried to catch up on the newer ones like the Toy Story set or Shrek. In fact, I watch more animated films than I do adult films these days. For example, I know every line in Frozen and Moana and Trolls is fast approaching the how-many-times-can-one-possibly-watch-a-film?

I’d like to introduce to you my co-host, Milly, who is the orchestrator of entertainment when we are together. While her articulation skills are developing, she has definite opinions about animation in films.

Shooting a bow and arrow after watching Mulan. Again.

Milly’s thoughts:

Grandma, Walt Disney cartoon movies are musicals and I like to sing. How can I sing the songs to you in the car if I don’t watch them over and over? They make me happy and you are my best friend like Pumba and Timon when they sing “Hakuna Matata”. I am Elsa because I wear my Elsa dress all day long. For two years and counting. I have magical powers. For example, I can sing all the words of “Your Welcome” in Moana. Not bad for a four-year-old girl. All the songs in Trolls are fun to dance in my socks. But Bridget the scullery maid cries because she loves King Gristle and he doesn’t love her yet, so not that one. Grandma, I know you would rather watch other cartoon movies, but they don’t have much singing. And you cry at the sad parts. I don’t like to see you cry, so let’s watch the ones I want. Over and Over. I will love them forever.

Grandma’s thoughts:

Some animation films these days are just too loud and silly for my liking. While Disney’s Cinderella is my all-time favorite princess, I like to remind Milly when she’s acting more like the step-sister Drisella, and she giggles at the thought. I must admit, some recent animated films have moved me to tears. I don’t mind watching them over and over.

Let’s talk about the two music styles in animated films. There are the Shrek films that have a great time with pop music, but I find I appreciate animated films that take advantage of creating a mood with orchestral scores like John Powell‘s How to Train Your Dragon 

and Michael Giacchino who has racked up beautiful scores for UP, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.

Proportionally, I don’t hear sophisticated scores in adult films as I do in animated films, and that seems ironic that I have come to rely on a Pixar film take me away on a magical adventure or exotic location with music.

Do you like your animation with songs, or do you like your animation with a solid score? 

Winter Project: More Steve McQueen

steve-mcqueen-1-jpegoriginal

The annual winter project is underway. I’ve assigned to myself, actor Steve McQueen, because I knew little about him or his filmography. Catch the first post HERE. Biographer, Marshall Terrill, who wrote Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon provided the interesting backstories to the actor combined with the psychological explanations of what made this complex man tick.

Nothing came easily to Steve McQueen as a child. Both parents abandoned him. Adults administered physical and verbal abuse frequently in the fog of alcoholism. He had learning disabilities that kept him targeted and punished at school. Jostled from one faithless home after another, these circumstances created one tough juvenile delinquent, a rebel without a cause with deep trust issues. Two factors kept him on the fringe of acceptability. Uncle Claude’s farm where Steve learned how to ride horses and complete the exhausting chores of maintaining a farm, and the Boys Republic, a boarding school where he learned to lead with ethical consequences in a penitentiary type setting. Steve McQueen characters were on the backs of horses, busting out of prison, and seemingly detached but intense leaders; he was always a step away from the ensemble cast, and that was how he cultivated his screen power. 

1956 photo by Roy Schatt
1956 photo by Roy Schatt

Steve McQueen’s fearless, inquisitive nature made him a jack-of-all-trades. He ran away and joined the circus. He enlisted in the Marines at seventeen. He hitch-hiked to Greenwich Village in the early fifties, staying for a time with his mother’s friend who worked in the world of the theater. Acting offered exposure to beautiful women, and Steve McQueen exercised his insatiable sexual appetite. After acting lessons, a play, and the help of his accomplished first wife Neile Adams, he got his break as the star of a hit television Western series called Wanted Dead or Alive. Director John Sturges should take credit for advocating McQueen in essential roles that transitioned him from television and secured his superstar status (The Magnificent Seven & The Great Escape). 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

An American Western directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, and Elie Wallach. The film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai. They are seven gunfighters hired to protect a small village in Mexico from a group of bandits and their leader (Wallach). Elmer Bernstein composed the famous score.

Most lovers of Westerns know the story about McQueen and Brynner jostling for screen time. Although McQueen had only seven dialogue exchanges in the film, his presence was felt throughout. Sturges granted McQueen generous close-ups and downstage placement. Steve did his best to make you watch his character, Vin. He flipped up his bandanna like an erection when señoritas sat near. Contemplating their next move, McQueen twirls his hat or sits higher on his horse to grab attention away from stoic Yul Brynner, the star of the picture. Steve’s physical prowess with a gun and a horse stole the limelight from the others. Having said that, it was Charles Bronson’s role as a tender father-figure to the children of the village and James Coburn’s silent knife-throwing cowboy who stayed in my mind long after the film was over. 5/5

The Great Escape (1963)

Following up on the success of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges brings back Elmer Bernstein for another iconic score and Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Add James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance to form an exciting male ensemble. Based on the true story of a Nazi POW camp built for uncooperative Allied soldiers, the tunnel escape and the relationships between the key characters make the film engaging 54 years later. Charles Bronson gave his character claustrophobia, James Garner and Donald Pleasance stole a plane to fly away, and Richard Attenborough’s RAF “Big X” masterminded the escape. Steve Mcqueen’s natural ability with the motorcycle and that classic jump over the barbed fence — it was fourteen feet high, and while McQueen loved racing cars and motorcycles and generally performed his own stunts, this jump was done by his loyal stunt double, Bud Ekins. Everyone has a buddy in the film, but McQueen stands aside. He enters the prison last, he is locked up with his baseball in solitary confinement, and he escapes alone.  4.5/5

Accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he infused his personality into his acting style, that is, saying little but commanding a central presence. Which stars today emulate that kind of Steve McQueen cool? Daniel Craig? Ryan Gosling?

Bullitt (1968) 

This highly popular Steve McQueen film featured all the components that made Steve the “King of Cool” in the 1960s: the sexy car (green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT), the sexy girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and the great chase scene shot in San Francisco. Why is it great? The camera is put in the car and the audience becomes a passenger. Bouncing up and down the streets of San Francisco, the Ford Mustang vs. the Dodge Charger eventually hit the highway and race at speeds over 100 mph. Nine minutes of film time is a thrilling ride. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the plot is interesting. As an emotionally detached police detective, Steve McQueen plays the lone hero effortlessly. With him again is co-star and friend, Robert Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven as the suspicious official. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a solid blind spot choice for anyone. 4/5.

IMO: Film Scores

When I select “film scores” on Pandora, I try to guess the film and the composer while I write, grade papers, or blog. Do you play that game? John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith utilized full, melodramatic orchestras with a signature sound that echoed in your head long after the film was over. Just playing the main song links the film to history. High-handed manipulation? You bet.  How many mediocre story lines are elevated because the musical score became a character itself, going along with the ride, telling you how to feel at every turn, alerting you to upcoming doom? Star Wars IV is a prime example.

Before those two heavy-weights, excluding musicals, classic films such as Gone with the Wind (Max Steineror The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) had their signature sound but there was enough intermittent silence to allow the actors to speak. The score was saved for the opening, transitions, and the end. This was expected and pleasing.

In my opinion, there has been a shift away from full orchestral compositions in the last, say, 20 years. Now more than ever contemporary songs fill in as background music to the events. Second, dramatic films are increasingly not using much music at all. The effect is a stark and unsettling as the silence fills the space. Third, instead of full orchestras, now we hear more lighter chamber music such as string quartets, duets or singular instruments. Fourth, urban-mechanical grindings and hammering simulate apocalyptic or the robotic presence. All of these changes have intruded the orchestra.

To claim one style is superior than the other is subjective. I can tell you my favorite all-around composer who did all styles was James Horner. However, my favorite scores of all time do not belong to Horner, they belong to Leonard Bernstein, Alexandre Desplat, Philip Glass, and Rachel Portman. 

I miss the full orchestrations and the effort to sweep me off my feet. I enjoy it when the music and I attend the story. I also think it’s best to stick to one style instead of including part orchestration, part contemporary song tunes. My least favorite style is when there’s very little music at all.

Who’s your favorite composer? Your favorite score? Here’s mine by Rachel Portman. It’s breathtaking.

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