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.

Rachel Portman and The Duchess (2008)

Her film scores are feminine and fanciful, haunting and magical. Fifty-five year old English composer, Rachel Portman, was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1997 for Emma. Her personal stamp as composer is behind an eclectic mix of films and television which illustrates her wide range ability to adapt to differing directors. Known for her strings and wind instruments, several of her scores evoke longing and represent a female protagonist. Her long career is impressive. She epitomizes the importance how a score can elevate the audience’s appreciation of the film. Her scores coat your sensibilities with a creamy, nostalgic emotional residue, and it is easy to forgive whatever shortcomings the film contained because the score echoes in your head long after the credits are gone. These are few of my favorites:

The violin solo grabs my heart and won’t let go.

The flute gives the score its fairy tale flavor. Is Vianne (Juliette Binoche) a good witch or a bad witch?

Whimsical, full-bodied orchestra lifts and floats your emotions like a bird drifting on a breeze. 

The romanticized view of golf as an analogy of life (better than boxing!) and Jack Lemmon? I’m hooked. Director Robert Redford capitalizes on the beauty of nature, and this film is no exception. Despite the stereotype of the “Magical Negro”, it’s a charming tale. The score ties in the mysticism and the nostalgic 30s jazzy-feel of the time. 

This is one of Johnny Depp’s best performances; as Buster Keaton, he was brilliant. The piccolo solo in the score pays homage to the silent era and compliments this 1993 dark comedy. 

If you missed this 2009 HBO biopic/drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, you can catch it for free on YouTube. About the reclusive, quirky relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is a sad story that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have penned. Listen how the oboe and piano melody accentuates the theme of lost dreams from a bygone era of wealth and prestige.  A must see! 

Here’s a BAFTA composers interview where you can learn more about Rachel Portman:  

The Duchess 

I learned a lot about the The Duchess of Devonshire from the blog of Rachel Knowles found HERE. Or, I recommend reading Amanda Foreman’s account of Georgiana Cavendish in Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire.

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Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806)  was an English aristocrat who married at the age of 17 to the Duke of Devonshire. She possessed a charming, passionate personality; her complicated marriage and the role of women during the Enlightenment period is the focus of the biopic directed by Saul Dibb and stars Keira Knightley who represents “G” over a span of ten years.

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With lavish costumes, balls, bedrooms, and the salons of the British nobility, all the drama of a soap opera plays out of this royal family. The Duchess showcases a superb acting performance by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke who exudes power and tyrannical rule, but manages to convey a sensitive, human side that only Fiennes could deliver. Georgiana’s affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, (Dominic Cooper), her complicated friendship with her husband’s mistress, Bess Foster, (Hayley Atwell), and the quest to bear a son for the Duke are the primary points of the plot, while the theme of liberty and the limited rights of women are conveyed throughout. Some critics thought the pacing slow, but I did not. I enjoyed the score, the production design, and the multi-faceted personality of Georgiana expressed through Keira Knightley’s acting.

Georgiana Cavendish Devonshire was a progressive feminist, a politician of the Whig party, and a devoted mother as well as a vain, self-absorbed party-girl and gambler. Colorful and charismatic, the film is worth watching to absorb a sense of the dynamic personality of the Duchess of Devonshire.  7/10.

Are you a fan or foe of the film?

What are your favorite Rachel Portman scores? 

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