Celebrating the art of film music | Music | DW | 05.01.2018
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Celebrating the art of film music

The music to James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars films is immediately recognizable, even if one doesn't know the names of the composers. "Score – A Film Music Documentary" pays tribute to its creators.

"The music is the heartbeat of the film," says director James Cameron in "Score – A Film Music Documentary," in which the late Superman actor Christopher Reeve is also shown praising composer John Williams: "Without the music, Superman's powers are highly diminished," said Reeve. "If you try to fly without that melody, you get nowhere."

Screened at various festivals since last  year, the crowdfunded documentary has now been released in German theaters.

At under 93 minutes, "Score – A Film Music Documentary" exhaustively recounts 100 years of film music, beginning in the era of silent films, when an organist seated at a Wurlitzer theater organ had the job of drowning out the noise of the film projector while generating emotional tension to go with the moving pictures.

Much of the documentary is dedicated to modern production methods, with composers working at computers and studio orchestras then sight-reading their scores.

A glimpse behind the scenes

The nearly 60 persons interviewed include film composers Danny Elfman, Rachel Portman, Howard Shore, John Williams and Trent Reznor, giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the trade, where the composer customarily joins the production team only after the final cut and then has to meet high expectations. In one instance, a composer recounts seeing his name on a poster announcing a premiere with the music only half finished.

The tremendous pressure is felt even by a master of the trade, German composer and Hollywood resident Hans Zimmer: "I have no idea where the music is coming from. You're afraid that somebody could turn off the tap."

Read more: Hollywood's legendary composer Hans Zimmer turns 60

One director actually worked in reverse order: Stanley Kubrick selected the music first and then perfectionistically expected his actors to act on the beat, often driving them to distraction.

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (imago)

"2001: A Space Odyssey": Stanley Kubrick was not only a visual perfectionist

Kubrick's use of Richard Strauss's tone poem "Thus spake Zarathustra" and of Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz" in "2001: A Space Odyssey" has iconic status, and in his epic "Barry Lyndon," Handel's Sarabande and Schubert's piano trio practically take on starring roles.

Paving the way

Even Richard Wagner (1813-1883) deserves a mention among film composers. Although he lived before the era of moving pictures, his music as a means of dramatic expression set the score for those to follow — and 109 years after it was first heard, his "Ride of the Valkyries" thundered forth in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic "Apocalypse Now."

Still from Apocalypse Now Redux (picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN)

In "Apocalypse Now," Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore blasts Richard Wagner's music from his helicopter to scare the ennemy

Arnold Schönberg and Dmitri Shostakovich also dabbled in film music in the early 20th century, but one composer who perfected it in the 1940s was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had fled fascism in Austria.

Click on the gallery above to see some of the composers who've created the music that intensifies, complements or even acts as a foil for the visuals. Their melodies and rhythms have entered the collective consciousness, even if their names sometimes haven't.

Read more: 'Star Wars' composer John Williams turns 85

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