The Marvel Symphonic Universe...
September 12, 2016 2:25 PM   Subscribe

... or why all movie scores sound the same. Every Frame a Painting on the usage of temp music. Check out the supplementary video illustrating temp music usage.
posted by Foci for Analysis (50 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Those examples of temp music becoming the final music only through a fig-leaf of deviation from the original are appalling.

All the more evidence illustrating that movies generally should not be construed as artistic endeavors, but as the product of an assembly line. The creators of the product sometimes find a way to sneak art into the product, but sometimes they just crank out units.
posted by tclark at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I agree with the forgettable nature of Marvel music... with the exception of Captain America: The First Avenger. Silvestri nailed it on that one.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 2:59 PM on September 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


I thought sure your link praising the music in the first Captain America movie was going to be this.
posted by straight at 3:05 PM on September 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


What a fantastic video! I can't remember the last time I was this captivated by a topic. The other videos from Every Frame a Painting are just as fascinating.

And how sad to see music so devalued.
posted by A hidden well at 3:53 PM on September 12, 2016


Marvel playing it save?!
I would have never guessed from watching the Phase 2 (and 3?) movies!!

kneejerk reaction/disappointments aside, I found these videos to be interesting, and the reference in the title of the second video made me smile. thanks.
posted by bigendian at 4:16 PM on September 12, 2016


I've wondered how directors convey the emotions they want in film music and I am disappointed to hear that they use the words "Make it like this."

Interesting video, thanks (and those kids! such adorable singers!).
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:28 PM on September 12, 2016


The sadness goes beyond the examples given. The filmmaker's own suggestions of variations are also tiresome and cliched. It's as if this stultified universe of music - which isn't confined to Marvel moves - has atrophied everyone's imaginations.

The thing about Bernard Herrmann is that his music not only enhanced the movie - it was also memorable, as Elfman says. It also bore his stylistic mark - it wasn't warmed-over Holst, Copland or Prokofiev, like so much of the stuff we've heard in recent years.
posted by QuietDesperation at 4:54 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Well, even warmed over Holst John Williams can be memorable, as the video shows. The real problems seems to be playing it safe and simply reusing the same things over and over.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:22 PM on September 12, 2016


Isn't a lot of that forgettable nature also due to the lack of musical themes? I mean, all of those memorable John Williams tracks that people sang were distinct to the hero or villain, not just general emotional music, and I think most of that style of soundtrack work has fallen out of favor. (Probably partly because of the interchangeable temp music, but I think it's also a trend, like the movement toward bass-driven music, that'll eventually swing back the other way.)
posted by tautological at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is the orange and teal of music.
posted by Panjandrum at 5:42 PM on September 12, 2016 [17 favorites]


I've been listening to a lot of Elfman, who really goes back to only a few wells, and Desplat recently.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2016


I agree, Tautological. I was just thinking a few days ago that leitmotifs aren't really present in movies -- and that's a good thing, because leitmotifs seem to me to be a childish way of building characterization, like the intro music for a professional wrestler.
posted by rebent at 6:36 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, well now I'm listening to Ennio Morricone, so I win.
posted by RobotHero at 6:39 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Wow, that excerpt from BSG, 'Lay Down Your Burdens' is one of my favorite musical cues ever. I had no idea it was copied.
posted by googly at 6:40 PM on September 12, 2016


I'm shocked when I listen to old movies and I hear elements of Bartok, or even Berg or Carter. Starting in the '60s, in many ways, music took a severe turn to the boring and safe, and we are all the poorer for it.
posted by idiopath at 6:43 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


That was a great video. I hate how music has seemed to replace the laugh track. Now ur supposed to laugh at this. Now ur supposed to boo. Now ur supposed to cheer. Even worse is like the video pointed out when the cue the music gives does a disservice to what's actually going on like with the scene with Thor's sidekicks. As a Titus Pullo fan from way back I hated how Ray Stevenson's character ("and the rest..") was treated in that movie, like the movie was a bunch of Mean Girls and he was the girl showing up to a Halloween party in a Halloween costume.
posted by bleep at 6:48 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've been waiting for this to go live—they premiered this at XOXO and it was amazing. The gasp from the audience as the second Titus clip was palpable. Incidentally, I wish the two of them could do a whole Q & A hour, I could have watched them for hours. So smart and funny.

The second Captain America movie does have some great cues, but they're mostly buried at the end credits. (Which are still my favorite.)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:13 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


A score as memorable as Star Wars is no easy feat. The fact that John Williams managed to do it so many times over the last fifty years is the real anomaly. Maybe the temp music problem stems from the fact that so many young directors and editors today got their start making music videos, so they feel lost without a backing track to cut to. I used to do some film editing and while I enjoyed cutting to a music trick I think it often led me to bad choices, like multiple cuts synced to the beat (which is ok for a music video, but not a narrative film).
posted by wabbittwax at 8:33 PM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]




I was going to say--there's a lack of the motifs that made some of the "good" genre soundtracks memorable. I would hesitate to call motifs "childish"; after all, the most well-known user of them is generally regarded as one of the greatest Western composers. And, in more modern times, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes heavy use of motifs (e.g., "Al-ex-an-der Ha-mil-ton" and "Are you Aaron Burr, sir?") to stitch together the disparate genres in Hamilton. They're just a tool, like any other.

The one Marvel franchise that does have a reasonably memorable, if not really great, soundtrack is X-Men. (At least, it popped into my head while watching this video.) But of course that's a different studio.

Remarkable how much better that one scene from Captain America was without the narration.
posted by praemunire at 9:29 PM on September 12, 2016


The generic bland wallpaperism and completely blatant ripoffery is almost enough to make you pine for the days c.2000 when everyone just used Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" and called it a day. I'd blame Clint Mansell for starting the rough-approximation racket, but Requiem for a Dream was a much rougher approximation than any of the examples here. Yikes.

Oh! And speaking of Orff, watching that second video, I notice the American Beauty (Thomas Newman) —> Transformers (Steve Jablonsky) one and think, Hmmm... Hmmmmm... (Thomas Newman -- incidentally, of the Hollywood Newmans, son of Alfred, cousin of Randy, etc., not that that's relevant but it's neat that there's a whole family of film scorers I mean seriously there's like fifteen dozen closely-related Newmans in that line of work -- would drink from the Orff well again the following year for Pay It Forward.) Not that Orff should have a monopoly on odd-timed percussive melody or anything, but, like, seriously, you can probably just license the original for a whole hell of a lot cheaper than commissioning a ripoff of a ripoff of it, and it would fit just as well. Sure, it won't be eligible for awards, and it has the stink of Nazism all over it, but still.

I guess my point is that even the "originals" aren't exactly all that original, and filmmakers might be better off hiring a music supervisor who'll dig up the real shit instead of a composer who'll just reheat it a tenth time and hope nobody sues.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:47 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


The second Captain America movie does have some great cues, but they're mostly buried at the end credits. (Which are still my favorite.)

I heartily approve of this trend of end credits with boldly stylized allusions to events and characters in the movie that color your memories of things you liked in the film to make them seem even cooler than they actually were. It's a trick, but it's a good trick.
posted by straight at 10:18 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


So Tom Tykwer has a technique where he scores the scenes before they're even shot. The idea is to give the actors something to work from when they're preparing the scene, as well as to avid the issues with temp music.

He did that with the Wachowskis on Sense8. I remember that I liked the music on that show; I couldn't hum any of it, though. But I can damn sure still sing the music to Run Lola Run all these years later!
posted by Banknote of the year at 10:40 PM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Who's strong and brave
Here to save
The American Waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy...
posted by RakDaddy at 10:40 PM on September 12, 2016


during the trailers once, some kind of tripe came on, maybe a mummy movie or some shit. i commented - half to myself and half to my daughter - "you hear those drums. that's how you can tell a shit film." cracked up some nearby film-goers.

and you know i'm right, because you're hearing 'those drums' in your head right now. you know the ones.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:04 PM on September 12, 2016


Minor nitpick, but I would say that the Avengers theme is pretty darn memorable, at least as memorable as Harry Potter, which I couldn't remember until the person in the video started singing it.

But, setting that aside as the nitpick that it is: yeah, there's a whole Marvel universe with Iron Man and Captain America and Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy (and Thor and Hulk, but fuck 'em) but all combined they've only got one memorable theme, the Avengers theme.

Anyway, that video was absolutely fascinating. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Bugbread at 11:53 PM on September 12, 2016


A score as memorable as Star Wars is no easy feat.

Which has a lot of nods to other composers. Gustaf Holt, William Walton, Sergueï Prokofiev to name a few.
posted by Pendragon at 2:00 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yet if you ask someone to hum John Williams music, it's never the stuff he borrowed that they hum; they hum his fantastic melodies.
posted by straight at 6:30 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Great video - those side by side comparisons were very eye-opening (and incredibly well researched). He is however perhaps a little guilty of confirmation bias, especially in his use of quite an incidental scene from Iron Man. All the blockbusters referenced seem a little generic and I doubt their narratives diverge far from the Blake Snyder approach, why should we really expect their music to be any different?

And anyway, try seeing how many people on the street could hum you the score from 'There Will Be Blood'...
posted by Shatner's Bassoon at 6:33 AM on September 13, 2016


I mean, maybe Williams stole the idea of having a gorgeous soaring melody from Jupiter in Holst's The Planets, but ypu sure aren't going to hear anyone humming anything from Mars the way the hum the Emperor's Theme that supposedly rips it off.
posted by straight at 6:38 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Isn't a lot of that forgettable nature also due to the lack of musical themes?

To an extent, but at the same time think of "Duel of the Fates" from Phantom Menace, which isn't a character theme and is the most memorable music from that film. Or "The Asteroid Field" from Empire Strikes Back, which isn't a theme either but instantly memorable. Or the entire extended Battle of Endor musical sequence in Jedi, which accelerates the excitement as the battle hits its fighting-in-three-locales editing mastery towards the end. Or any action sequence in the Indiana Jones movies, where Williams chooses the music to give the scene the appropriate feel - the airplane fight in Raiders is dramatic, the train chase in Crusade comedic, etc.

John Williams writes scores to emphasize the meaning of a scene. That matters a lot.
posted by mightygodking at 6:40 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Tony Zhou and Every Frame a Painting previously
posted by mbrubeck at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2016


MonkeyToes: "I've wondered how directors convey the emotions they want in film music and I am disappointed to hear that they use the words "Make it like this." "

I wondered the exact same thing last night watching this video. Without any experience in film, I thought there would (ideally) be some discussion between director and composer about the theme or feel of the movie and scene. Maybe even, if you really know/trust the composer, just let him do his thing. This feels a bit like micromanaging in the worst possible way.

It's also true that many film scores are not memorable, but this is, IMO, because the truly memorable are like the truly famous: few by definition.
posted by andycyca at 10:11 AM on September 13, 2016


I heartily approve of this trend of end credits with boldly stylized allusions to events and characters in the movie that color your memories of things you liked in the film to make them seem even cooler than they actually were. It's a trick, but it's a good trick.

To be honest I often enjoy the credits more than the movie itself.

My personal favorite thing is when they also match the job being credited.
posted by fleacircus at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not just the music, the effects are all the same too. Most people who make sample libraries end up making those because that's where the money is. There must be hundreds of libraries of "whooshes and impacts" and they all sound the same.
posted by bongo_x at 10:39 AM on September 13, 2016


I mean, maybe Williams stole the idea of having a gorgeous soaring melody from Jupiter in Holst's The Planets, but you sure aren't going to hear anyone humming anything from Mars the way the hum the Emperor's Theme that supposedly rips it off.

??
posted by atoxyl at 1:12 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I kinda want to say that this is a faithful translation of what Marvel's storytelling is founded upon.

If you read a Kirby/Lee comic from the sixties, you will see a lot of panels that tell you what is going on with the image, the dialogue, and the captions. You'll see, say, Thor punching some dude made of wiggly lines, with a caption saying "But lo! As the mighty Asgardian fist swings, Hogar becomes vapors!" and maybe a word balloon of Thor saying "Hogar has become as the winds themselves!". Here's what's happening. No, really, here's what's happening. Did you miss it? We'll say it again one more time in case you did. We don't care about explaining how this action relates to previous actions - we care about telling it to you in three different ways so you get it, because these comics do not assume their audience has much of an attention span.

Looked at from a modern eye, these comics are impossibly awkward and unsubtle. But it's the root of all of Marvel's properties.

So now we have huge, expensive films. We can't have caption boxes telling you what's happening. And having someone narrate the whole film isn't an aesthetic choice anyone's likely to make. But we have music. And we can make the music always focus on what's happening in the current moment. This is a mildly silly situation, let's put in Generic Silly Music. This is a sad moment, bring in the high violins.

Consequences? Memory? The Marvel Way cares nothing for that. Neither does it care for the memetic power of a good leitmotif; it just wants you to know exactly how you should be feeling about every single scene, and it doesn't really assume you're any smarter than the kids who needed an image and two different kinds of text telling them what happened in a panel.

(I'm not saying that having emotional wallpaper instead of memorable music is a good thing or a bad thing. I'm just saying it kind of feels faithful to how these characters started.)
posted by egypturnash at 2:22 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's not just the music, the effects are all the same too. Most people who make sample libraries end up making those because that's where the money is.

Sort of. I think a lot of scores sound very similar not because they're copying other scores, but that they're using similar libraries. For example, a whole bunch of libraries come with Native Instruments' Komplete for the Kontakt sampler. I spent too long (about two and a half hours with dinner in the middle) making this piece I've just sullied MeFiMu with - it's not very good, and I don't really think it proves anything, but there it is. It's the same chords fed into different Kontakt patches (Evolve Mutations, Damage and Action Strings with Rise and Hit for the, um, rise and hit bits and the default Brass and Choir patches) chosen more or less at random, but they should demonstrate that a lot of the colours we take for granted in scores are just under the composer's fingers. A lot of real scores are people doing much the same thing with more time, more musical technique (and they are actually often highly trained composers who can do tricks with manuscript paper if you ask them to), some restraint, more exclusive libraries and a proper mixing suite. And they could probably do a lot more with the same gear and a better knowledge of what's in all the different loops. And of course there are other libraries that make the kinds of sounds that are expected for different kinds of scenes. But I suspect a lot of the composition of many modern scores is effectively loop-based rather than note based.

Perhaps the notes eventually get transcribed and actual musicians play them, I don't know.

That said, I don't dislike it on the whole. Making these sorts of movies is an industrial process and I'm neither surprised nor upset that industrial techniques are used in their manufacture. Marvel movies are highly refined industrial products that work very well. It's interesting that the vocabulary of out-of-the-monoculture scores make their way into the monoculture (Thomas Newman's score for American Beauty was fairly left-field at the time, and he quotes the use of Mica Levi's score for Under the Skin as a source), and I very much enjoy the music that the Hans Zimmer factory comes up with. I enjoyed the score to Dark Knight Rises an awful lot more than the film itself, and now I've got the soundtrack album I never have to see the film again.

Movie music has always been derivative, it's just that for a long time the derivativeness was enacted through pastiche.

There's something about the linked piece that annoys me in ways I can't quite put my finger on. There are several occasions where it seems like he's imposing his expectations on the movies, particularly regarding the way he thinks emotion should be represented. Look, look, he says, they're doing it wrong! No, they're doing it right, you just don't like what they're doing. Personally, I think the score in these movies is more like the colouring in the old comics. It was never art, or surprising or challenging, but it was always inside the lines, because it wasn't the most important bit.

Anyway, bad bit of cod soundtrack music uploaded to MeFiMu, largely just because I've done it. Very exciting.
posted by Grangousier at 2:43 PM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Really, it's iconic about comics that the printing was often shoddy, and the colors would often be offset wrong (and thus outside the lines). I'd love that touch of industrial wabi-sabi to be reflected in the movies.
posted by idiopath at 5:50 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


Dan Golding has made a response video. Tony Zhou is excited.
posted by RobotHero at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


I disagree that the computer or synthetized scores are to blame for the sameness.

Look at Carpenter, who was very early into synthetized scores , and them himself. The throbbing bassline of Assault on Precinct 13 is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of score ever written. Same with Escape from New York. Wendy Carlos did fantastic soundtracks, first with the synthesized classic music in A Clockwork Orange, and then with TRON. Or what Vangelis did in Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. All these were recorded with very early (and in Carpenter's case, cheap) synthesizers a lot more limited than what you could get with a laptop and some reasonably priced VSTs.

The problem is directors want shitty, samey scores from Zimmer and Johann Johannsson, who won a nomination for a film I didn't even realise had a score (now, ask me how I feel he was picked for Blade Runner sequel). They're not interested in music that stands out or is evocative, but in setting mood for the scene with fog horns and heavy percussion that sound immense and intense on a cinema for action scenes, and tinny, "emotional" strings for that Oscar best actor/actress moment. Not saying Zimmer and JJ are hacks, but if they never scored a movie ever again, I wouldn't care, and most wouldn't notice.
posted by lmfsilva at 2:31 PM on September 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


They are hacks. It's a hack's job. Big budget movies are written by hacks, directed by hacks, scored by hacks. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a hack. Shakespeare was a hack. John Williams is a hack. A hack is someone who is employed to achieve a specific end, in the manner required by the circumstances of the brief, as efficiently as possible. Often that requires a lot more intelligence and technical accuity than merely being an artist.

I don't know much about his film music, but I love Johann Johannson's albums, desperately elegiac and melancholy. Especially IBM 1401 - A User's Manual and Fordlandia. If elegiac and melancholy is what you want, he's likely your man.
posted by Grangousier at 3:01 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Fair point on hackishness.

JJ is perfectly fine on his records. But his scores are so... bland, and the movies would barely change without them. But that's not exclusive to him - I've watched a few movies and listened scores / soundtracks with artists I liked, and most of them are just beige. It's like they want the big name associated with the project, but tell them to avoid everything that makes their work unique.
posted by lmfsilva at 3:30 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


That may be true, but it's a part of the process. If the score wasn't noticeable, the filmmakers may have thought it necessary for the film that it wasn't. Indeed music that's too noticeable might be said to have failed - it supports and accentuates the action , but isn't necessarily action in its own right. Although it can be. It very much depends on the particular production.

Composers apparently being denuded of their idiosyncrasy is something that's gone on for a long time: what you say about JJ could also be said of the soundtracks of Philip Glass or (post-Greenaway) Michael Nyman. Or check out the career of John Barry from Goldfinger and The Ipcress File to Dances With Wolves, which is perfectly nice, but not especially John Barry. The creation of a movie demands either that the movie conform to the wishes of the filmmakers (and that would be true of Indie or more auteur films) or that the work of the people creating the film conform to the expectations of the audience (which is mainstream). Someone idiosyncratic would be brought in to give a flavour of something different but not necessarily a very strong flavour. On the other hand, I expect the money's very good.

It's sort of like being an accompanist - the singer's the main thing, and what the accompanist plays should be supportive of what the singer is doing, so tasteful chords and probably not too many of them. If you put a busier, flashier player in there, no matter how awesome they might be, if they distract or overwhelm the singer, then they've failed.
posted by Grangousier at 5:02 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Indeed music that's too noticeable might be said to have failed - it supports and accentuates the action, but isn't necessarily action in its own right. Although it can be. It very much depends on the particular production.

Right. It's an artistic choice. John Williams's themes are front and center in Star Wars, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark because that's the feel and the style the directors wanted. And it works. But there's also lots of good movies with music that doesn't call attention to itself, that is more accompaniment than soloist, and it seems silly to call that music bad or boring if it's successfully doing what the director wanted.
posted by straight at 12:04 AM on September 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think also, when your incidental music is already full of brass orchestra, then it's easier to slip into a theme naturally. Here's the helicopter scene from Superman and during the start of it, it's not like anyone is going to be singing that off the top of their head, either. It's only after Clark Kent shows up that it starts playing anything that people would sing along with, and when he opens his shirt that it goes all out.
posted by RobotHero at 10:05 AM on September 18, 2016


Love this, and that video response by Dan Golding is great, wow.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:35 PM on September 19, 2016


All these were recorded with very early (and in Carpenter's case, cheap) synthesizers

John Carpenter used, among other things, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 ($4445) and an Elka Synthex (£2500). That's early eighties money; in 2016 money they'd be approximately $12,000 and £11,000 respectively. Nowhere near Fairlight prices, granted, but not exactly chump change.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:47 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Then maybe they weren't exactly in ideal condition, as in early analog synths required a lot of maintenance and care to get going because oscillations in power supply, radio interference or room temperature affected sound? I recall one time reading an interview where he mentioned on occasion things wouldn't sound as intended and he had to do a whole new take. This was before MIDI trackers, too, so it wasn't just pressing play and monitoring the output until it came out right.

Another thing that crossed my mind, another thing that plays against the "computers ruined it" theory are videogames. In the early years of cartridge systems, composers had a few kbs of memory to squeeze out something to a handful of channels, and even work out around those limitations like SID composers.
Once VG composers started having liberty to do "epic" (*ughn*) orchestral soundtracks and themes, a lot of them fall into the same problem as those movies: sameness.

But both eras (chip and post-red book) produced memorable and forgettable scores and soundtracks. Same thing happened with orchestral and post-synthetizer scores. So, blaming technology is ridiculous. You put an hack doing score, you get hackneyed results, regardless of using a bunch of orchestral samples and loops, synths, rock band or a philharmonic orchestra.
posted by lmfsilva at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, make no mistake, the early analog synths were unreliable, terrible about staying in tune, very limited, and also extremely expensive.
posted by idiopath at 5:12 PM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


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