The Sunday Salon: Film Scores

I’ve talked about musical narratives outside of musical theater before in this very space, but I didn’t talk about the most common form of musical narratives in this day and age—film scores. Despite being tone-deaf, I adore film scores. In fact, the first musical artist I really listened to was Yann Tiersen, whom you probably know as the gentleman who scored Amelie and Goodbye Lenin!. I remain continually impressed by Hans Zimmer’s work and, of course, I love Alan Menken. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame score has been known to make me cry. Not the songs, just the score.) A film score is ultimately a remarkable piece of adaptation, transforming the film—a marriage of script and visuals—into music. It’s telling the story in another way, and the best film scores make it iconic. Who can think of “The Imperial March” without Darth Vader? And, for my tone-deaf self, there’s something so mysterious to me about the musical process that I don’t find in film or literature. To this end, I want to highlight two film scores (from films based on books!) that take two very different approaches to telling their stories.

The Lord of the Rings scored by Howard Shore

Gee, who’d have thought? It’s no secret that I love and adore Howard Shore’s score for these films. There are three soundtracks that never fail to get a visceral response out of me—The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and these. It’s expansive, epic, and, perhaps most importantly, insanely detailed. Each culture receives their own motifs and musical characteristics, from the fiddle for Rohan to the men’s choir for the Dwarves. Lyrics are lifted almost directly from Tolkien’s poems, translated into the appropriate language. And, more astonishingly, these themes have just as complex relationships to each other as the actual characters do. For instance, Éowyn has her own theme, but there are variations of her theme for her interactions with Theoden and Aragorn; the Éowyn and Theoden theme has a richer, more nourishing feel, appropriate for Éowyn Skywalker, who is being groomed to be Theoden’s successor. Her theme with Aragorn is lower and, although not unhappy, a little dark, hinting at how their similarities make them unsuited for each other. And, to continue blowing your mind, Merry’s warrior theme blends the Shire, the Fellowship, and Éowyn—the three main reasons he’s fighting. It’s simply staggering how much love, care, and thought went into each note of this score. Analyzing this score is ridiculously rewarding. I point you to A Magpie’s Nest for more—but trust me, if you enjoy this score, you will spend hours there with your jaw open.

But I’d like to feature one of my favorite pieces among many, many others, “Arwen’s Song”. It plays during the Houses of Healing scene, as Aragorn heals Éowyn and she encounters Faramir for the first time. (It’s not really my fault everything comes back to Éowyn. She’s just so awesome.) It was originally written to play over Arwen’s vision of her son, but was bumped back to this spot. Some people love it, some people hate it. I’m firmly in the former category. Liv Tyler’s voice is lovely and the transition from pessimistic Elvish concerning the supposedly uncrossable boundaries between Elfkind and Mankind to English verses that are more hopeful, but still realistic, lingering on “I wish I could hold you closer”. It also overlays Arwen and Aragorn’s relationship on top of Éowyn and Faramir’s, since the music plays over their initial encounter. It’s just beautiful.

Sherlock Holmes scored by Han Zimmer

In direct contrast is Zimmer’s approach to Sherlock Holmes. After careful consideration, I have concluded that this soundtrack happened over a very crazy weekend. It’s all over the place, it’s wild, and it relies so heavily on the main theme as to sometimes appear almost entirely composed of it—and it’s awesome. It takes all of Zimmer’s glorious bombast and his credibility and goes in experimental and weird places that he can totally pull off. “Discombulate”, which contains the fairly iconic theme (to the point that people accuse Sherlock of ripping off Zimmer’s score, which is okay by me), goes into an odd bare bones section that reminds me of nothing more than clockwork. Although the film wasn’t exactly steampunk, this score definitely could be. “My Mind Rebels at Stagnation” has a second half where the main theme suddenly leaps into proto-Inception territory, all rumbling bass, evil foghorns, and intimidation; it’s unsettling (apt, as it’s used for the villain) and, dare I say it, challenging. (I’m starting to wonder if I sound pretentious going on at length like this on a subject I have little expertise in; I like music, I’m just crap at it!)

I’m going to leave you with my favorite interpretation of the main theme—“I’ve Never Woken Up in Handcuffs Before”, which is essentially Irene’s theme. I can’t put it any better than Amazon user mikey mike, who compares it to a bad middle-school orchestra rehearsing the main theme in an Indian bar. It’s absolutely insane and off-kilter, which is perfect for Irene, with the basis of Holmes’ theme to connect the two. Sure, Ritchie’s Holmes might be antisocial, clingy, and… I suppose eccentric is the nicest way to put it, but the decision to be a criminal makes someone even crazier than he is. Plus, it’s tons of fun.

My week has been spent readying my anthology, Hic Sunt Dracones, which will be up on Tuesday. Now that I’m done with that, my next summer project is sewing my Éowyn costume for both Dragon*Con and the Extended Edition showings this month. So, two weeks. Awesome. At least I’m working off a pattern. In bookish news, I finished The Hero with a Thousand Faces and A Tailor-Made Bride, and have started on A Discovery of Witches (which is absolutely underwhelming so far) and A Princess of Mars (which is good so far).

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What’s your favorite film score?

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Film Scores

  1. I’m OBSESSED with film scores 🙂 You’ve already mentioned two of my favorites – the Lord of the Rings scores and the Star Wars scores (ever notice how Anakin’s theme in the newer movies ends with an echo of Darth Vader’s march? BRILLIANT). Another John Williams score, very different, that I adore is the music from Schindler’s List. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Also, James Horner’s scores for Titanic and Braveheart.

  2. I love much of Hans Zimmer’s work. His INCEPTION soundtrack is a masterwork, not only serving as a film score, but also as a presumed dream level, trying to convince the viewer that they are also inside the dreamscape. Zimmer’s contribution to THE DARK KNIGHT was even more experimental, consisting initially of 14 hours of various musical noises that were purely chaotic. From that, we get the Joker’s theme. I’m also partial to his work on THE LAST SAMURAI and GLADIATOR.

    Speaking of Ridley Scott movies, Vangelis’ score for BLADE RUNNER is absolute magic, creating a mirage of minimalist images. I’ll sometimes take in the soundtrack for THE MATRIX, though it’s more a collection of songs from rock and techno artists.

    Most of the soundtracks I listen to are from anime. If you’ve never heard anything from Yoko Kanno, you’re missing out. She’s one of the most diverse, studied, and enjoyable composers I’ve ever heard. Her work from WOLF’S RAIN perfectly evokes the beauty of a dying world, her GHOST IN THE SHELL: STAND ALONE COMPLEX themes are amazing and carry a great rhythm, and her COWBOY BEBOP score will make you fall in love with jazz.

  3. I’ve discovered many excellent musicians who create beautiful soundscapes – especially composers of world music – through film. Yann Tiersen and Seu Jorge (who did music for The Life Aquatic) are two of my favorite finds.

  4. I love this! Obviously as a music major I’m all, CLARE, HOW CAN YOU BE TONE-DEAF IT IS A MORAL FAILING. But.

    I of course love these two, I also love Dario Marianelli who did Pride and Prejudice and Atonement etc.

  5. Love the Lord of the Rings film score. On the FOTR score, my favorite part is in “A Journey in the Dark” when Gandalf says I think we can risk a little more light, and the fellowship sees the fallen grandeur of the dwarves in Moria. The score right there (I think it starts somewhere around 2:19) is so evocative of the majesty of the place and yet also evokes the tragedy that underlies its abandonment and emptiness. Also that Annie Lennox song at the end of the Return of the King score made me cry before I’d even seen the film.

    I too love the Amelie score. Brilliant. Another favorite is Zimmer’s Gladiator score. I used to put “The Barbarian Horde” a approximately twelve-minute long track on repeat in my Discman on late nights in college while trying to finish a paper due the next day.

    Other favorites: Rachel Portman’s Chocolat score, George Fenton’s score for Ever After, James Horner’s Land Before Time score (seriously), Thomas Newman’s Little Women score (sweet use of the oboe), and Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek score, especially the closing credit track which combines the old Star Trek theme with Giacchino’s new themes.

    Great post!

  6. Wow, I love the Hans Zimmer score excerpt! I’d take issue with the ‘Indian bar’ description, though – it sounds more like the Hungarian gypsy music of Taraf de Haidouks, particularly with the violins scurrying around like that…

    I wasn’t actually a big fan of Shore’s score for LOTR – I thought it was a bit too Celtic-y – and I hated the Annie Lennox song at the end.

    The score I’ve really liked (enough to buy the soundtrack album) was Alexandre Desplat’s for ‘The Painted Veil’.

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