When I was nine years old, I REALLY liked “The Phantom Menace.”
I loved it so much as a snot-nosed 4th grader at the time that I dragged my father, who later told me when I became a teenager how much he HATED the movie, to see it three more times during its initial theatrical run. At the time the movie was everything a burgeoning nerdy kid like myself wanted in a movie; extremely fanciful storytelling, explosions galore, epic battle scenes, and everything I knew Star Wars to be at time. Hell, I even liked the pod-racing.
As I grew older, of course, I began to see the film’s many warts. The bad script which translated into bad acting did not age well to say the least. It’s convoluted plot involving the “taxation of trade routes” still is difficult to make heads or tails of. And even child me noticed Palpatine and Sidious were obviously the same guy. But what stuck with me after all these years and influenced me more than anything as a filmgoer in my adolescence can be summarized in this climatic moment in the film’s third act.
This scene influenced me in two major ways. 1) it sowed the seeds of what would eventually become a deep passion of mine later in life with martial arts, as the lightsaber choreography in this sequence is still the best this series has ever seen in my humble opinion. But more importantly, 2) it began a lifelong obsession with one critical, and sometimes overlooked, tool of film-making.
The musical score.
This was hardly the first time I had heard composer John Williams’ mastery on the big screen, of course. I had heard his work plenty in the older Star Wars films and a number of Steven Spielberg pictures I had seen growing up. But something about this moment changed the way I saw film music forever. Williams’ work with “Duel of Fates” captured my imagination in a way that film music had never done for me previously. It raised an already intense, action-packed, and dramatic film sequence to 11 and I was enraptured by it as a child. “The Phantom Menace” became the first album I ever purchased for myself (yea, I know) and from that day forward I became a huge fan of the film music genre.
While most of my friends were into the latest 90s and 2000s pop and punk rock, I was downloading and torrenting the works of Don Davis (“The Matrix”), Hans Zimmer (“Batman Begins”), Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings”) and of course, more John Williams as a teenager. I loved plenty modern/mainstream musicians and singers too, but film music just hit different for me but why? What is it about film music (and by extension TV, anime, and video game music) that just lifts my soul in a way that other genres of music don’t quite do as well?
Well, there are multiple ways to explain this but to start, the simplest explanation is quite simply that movies are about feelings and few tools of the craft can convey feelings better to the audience than the music.
The reason I say movies are about feelings, and most certainly not about logic as some neckbeards would have you believe, is that you ultimately will always love a good story based on how it makes you feel no matter how many “plot holes” might be spliced in between. Now a good story can you make you feel something deep within yourself in a multitude of ways. It can convey tension by letting us know the hero is rapidly running out of time as the camera pans back and forth between him and a rapidly ticking clock on a bomb. It can make the audience feel like they are in the middle of a battlefield by upping the cadence of the explosives on the battlefield to create feelings of shock and terror. And it can make us feel happy and light by use of colors and framing in a wide-open field with two beautiful-looking people sharing a romantic moment.
But often the glue that holds the scene together, the part of it that conveys those feelings the most scene to scene, is in fact the music. The reason “Duel of Fates” was so profound for me as a kid is despite there being little to no dialogue throughout this fight scene the music tells us everything we need to know about it. The stakes, the intensity of the duel (which is in rhythm with the clashing of sabers), the direness of combat with this deadly foe in Darth Maul, the tragedy that occurs when Qui Gon is slain by this Sith apprentice are all featured in the music. The score is as much the story as the film itself because it tells us what is going on as much as the actual lines of dialogue do. I listened to this piece over and over again as a kid because it replayed this epic duel to me through my ears and imagination each time I put the album on. It’s why it resonated with me so much, as I’m sure it did for many fans back then and still today.
Film composers understand this, of course. Many moons ago, I attended a panel at Comic-Con hosted by one of my favorite composers in Bear McCreary. He managed the event by playing clips from shows and movies he had worked on but with a small twist added in. He would start first by playing a scene without the music in the background, then the next would be the same scene with the score he composed for it. After the first clip he would turn to us and ask “Tell me how we should be feeling in this scene?” Audience members raised their hands and would say things like “tension,” “powerplay,” “hope,” “mystery,” etc, then he played the same scene again with the music to see how those responses matched what he created. He told us after that typically the only thing he ever asked of the director or showrunner before composing the score was simply “how is this scene supposed to feel to the audience” and he would play around with all the descriptors he was given until he arrived at the finished product.
It sounds simple but film composers create feelings through this that lasts with audiences forever. Think of your favorite film scene ever and more than likely you’ll also be hearing the musical score boldly playing over it as well. Your favorite film scene is likely not as sharp without it. A good film score can lift the most mundane moment in a film and turn it into something iconic.
To rewind back to John Williams for a bit here, without his music in “A New Hope” Luke walking out to watch the two suns set over Tatooine is pretty boring and doesn’t really say anything special to audience. Without the music it’s simply watching some punk kid stare into the suns for a moment before returning to his hut.
But with the music, it’s about how Luke feels stuck. It’s about how Luke laments that he can’t escape his mundane life. It’s about how Luke desires to join the fight against the Empire but just can’t escape the life and responsibilities he has here. Luke doesn’t say a single line in this scene because he doesn’t have to; the music does it for him.
The greatest feature of consuming a story in book form is that it can convey the unspoken to the reader. Unless a movie has a lot of inner monologue in the script, such as a noir, we don’t really get to know what a character may or may not be thinking scene to scene. But with film music, we get to hear it. Not directly perhaps but clearly in a way that only this medium of storytelling can convey. It becomes a conversation with the audience. The music conveys to us what the scene should feel like and our reaction to it whether it is crying because the violin play tugs at our heart strings, or our hearts beating faster to the cadence of the drums, or simply the trumpets getting us to feel strong or proud in the moment, is how we speak back to the film.
And the people who compose these fantastical scores have so many ways of speaking to the audience too.
Hans Zimmer, to me, is the master of composing film tension and anxiety. In movies where he has collaborated with Christopher Nolan for instance, they all tend to have a ticking clock structure in both the script and the music. “Dunkirk” which could’ve been made into just another WWII movie with Spielbergian-esque grounded action set pieces is more about how our heroes, across multiple stories and places on the battlefield, are rapidly running out of time and the music helps us understand this message. Zimmer keeps this thread going through all these stories by using a method in the music called “shepard risset-clissando.” Basically, Zimmer keeps the tension of the film strong by playing music that feels like its constantly climbing but never hits its zenith. It creates this anticipation of a climax that never quite gets there until the film’s end and the result makes the audience member anxious to say the least (in a good way!). It’s a brilliant use of just one of the ways composers like Zimmer know how to get his listener’s heart’s racing.
Composers don’t just do high-stakes drama though they also know how to create comedy too using conventional orchestral music. When director John Landis conscripted legendary composer Elmer Bernstein to create the music for his comedy classic “Animal House” he specifically told him to compose the score as if he were composing for a more serious movie. Why would Landis want that? Because the effect of a more serious score being played over scenes of frat boy debauchery is hilarious. The conflicting juxtaposition of Bluto and the men of Delta House causing chaos and pandemonium set to Bernstein’s Faber College theme creates melodrama and irony in the best way for the audience.
It becomes more memorable because it feels so out of place yet so right at the same time. The humor comes from the seriousness of the music just as much as the comedy stylings of the late great John Belushi.
But again, film music more than anything, for me, tells a story and the way an entire score ends adds an exclamation point at the climax of an already great movie.
When I listen to a soundtrack, it’s almost like I replay the movie back to me through my ears. A good score in many ways tells the story from start to finish almost as well as the movie in its entirety does. But the score is what we end up remembering most at the end for many of us because it reminds us how we felt throughout the film when we listen to it again.
I’ve talked many times before about how much I love and feel “The Matrix” is a perfect movie between its ground-breaking action set pieces, its tight script, and a story that still resonates greatly with myself today. But what will always stick with me too, is the music Don Davis composes for the film, which is frankly not nearly talked about enough.
The theme of “The Matrix” is beautiful as it conveys perfectly to the audience in just the film’s opening credits a sense of mysteriousness through minimalist motifs, then steadily raising the intensity of these beats before we see Trinity drop kick her first cop in the now iconic action scene that we all know her for.
These motifs, or perhaps theme music, is featured heavily from scene to scene. When Neo starts to slowly uncover the truth of the world he lives in, Davis’s scores also conveys it with its long violin strings. When Neo wakes up in his pod the soundtrack beautifully conveys the shock and horror he feels at seeing the real world for the first time. When Cypher betrays the crew, Davis again steps in to let us know of the very real danger Neo and Trinity are in.
But the score starts to take new turns as Neo develops as a person. Where the soundtrack began as mysterious, perhaps even confused, it gets more sure of itself just as Neo does throughout the film.
When Neo dodges those bullets the first time in that iconic scene that earlier motif with The Matrix theme begins to play more proudly in the background.
When Neo saves Morpheus and then Trinity from the crashing helicopter the theme plays even stronger, building on this character as he begins to assume his true identity. And I know some people complain about the love story being a focal point in “Resurrections” but if you listen closely to the soundtrack in this scene, it’s letting you know there is real chemistry going on there between Neo and Trinity which is call back to earlier musical motifs in interactions between the two characters.
But the exclamation point at the end of this movie, the reason musical scores are just so important to me in my consumption of film, is what really lifts this movie from simply great to even greater. In the final scene, Neo’s attempt to escape The Matrix seems to be thwarted at the last minute when Agent Smith shoots him before he can reach the phone in time. The music stops for a minute as he looks down and sees blood from the bullet hole. Smith then unloads the entire clip into him seemingly killing our hero once and for all. Don Davis’s score becomes somber as our heroes all hit their lowest point at once and it feels truly like everything is over in this moment. Then Trinity leans into Neo and whispers her true feelings to him and the music begins to change. The score builds on this, again echoing that same romantic motif from the helicopter scene and the moment feels earned because partly the music has done a great job of telling us this throughout the film. And when she kisses Neo, and he becomes reborn as The One, Don Davis’s score hits zenith as we finally see Neo become who he always was deep down. A Neo who is finally sure of who he is in the world. The Agents unload their bullets again at him, but they all harmlessly fall to the ground in front of him as his powers take control. Tank turns to Morpheus and asks “What is happening” and he simply replies back “He is The One” as the mysterious themes, motifs, and beats of the music are removed and only its triumphant parts remain exemplifying the fully realized hero that Neo has finally become.
In this beautiful, final, climatic scene both Neo and the music show to the audience that “Anything is possible.”
Film music is more than just a soundtrack for these movies it’s music that has ended up describing what feelings themselves sound like. We know what tension sounds like because scores by guys like Hans Zimmer in films such as “Dunkirk” and “The Dark Knight” show us. We understand how movies can feel funny because guys like Elmer Bernstein know how to create melodrama and irony with his music in “Animal House.” “Duel of Fates” resonated with me for years as a child because it made me feel like I was living a real fight to death between Jedi and Sith in “The Phantom Menace.” And Don Davis helped show me in my favorite movie of all-time what the journey to self-actualization feels like in “The Matrix.”
These composers in many ways create feelings that end up being the soundtracks of life itself and it’s why these movies can feel so real to many people no matter how fanciful they get on the big screen. Whether it’s stories about space knights, men dressed as bats, or hackers turned fabled messiahs, film music creates feelings that resonate with us forever because of the complementary role they play in telling these epic tales.
The genre of film music may not be as mainstream as others, and that’s fine, but I’ll always enjoy blasting it at home, work, or in my car because of the way they replay all these favorite movies of mine into my ears each time.
Besides, just like life, movies can be rather dull without music. You may as well set a soundtrack to it.