Recently, there have been two very interesting videos that have surfaced regarding music from modern blockbusters, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Zhou in his series ‘Every Frame A Painting’ created a video about why the Marvel music isn’t particularly inspiring and that it heavily relies on temp tracking, and Dan Golding created a response with ‘A Theory of Film Music’ that extrapolated further that films have been temped for a long time, notably using the example of the classical temp created by George Lucas and Paul Hirsch for Star Wars.
Both videos make interesting points, with the first essentially boiling down to “Marvel music isn’t memorable and this is why”, down to standard Hollywood formula and the temp, and the second going further to say it’s the fault of Hans Zimmer and his sample library. I guess my main question is, why Marvel? The Hollywood film scoring landscape was undoubtedly changed by Zimmer and his MediaVentures/Remote Control Productions, where computers were used more than ever to be in control of the construction, manufacture, and from that sound of movie scores. Zimmer’s sound itself is less John Williams than Tangerine Dream, a more textural European sound that eventually evolved into a hybrid of the two. But there’s something that both of these videos don’t necessarily pay attention to, something that John Williams does spectacularly, Hans Zimmer less so.
The clips used in the Zhou video barely address this, only really surfacing in the pop-vox videos where he asks people to hum film music, and a re-score of a Thor scene where Patrick Doyle’s Asgardian theme is used (it doesn’t really work for me, but that’s besides the point). The Golding video brings out the tried and trusted King’s Row to show its similarity to the Star Wars main title (the actual piece used in the temp was Miklos Rozsa’s Ivanhoe), but most of the music examples used are for underscore. Just a theory – what would the public opiners say if you asked them to sing underscore from Star Wars or Harry Potter?
Again, I’m wondering exactly why Marvel is the target here. There are certainly accuracies in both videos about safe choices, although the question of a larger continuity is absent. And while many of Marvel’s scores are average and pretty uninteresting, there are some exceptions, especially in regards to themes. Patrick Doyle’s Thor, while frustratingly attuned to Zimmer standards in terms of orchestration, has the wonderful Asgardian theme mentioned previously, while Bryan Tyler pulled double duty with two big themes for Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World, with a bridge between the Zimmer sound and something more traditionally symphonic.
Alan Silvestri’s contribution is ignored completely, a strange thing considering his scores for Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, both exuding three very strong main themes re-used across later films, as well as Danny Elfman’s new Avengers theme from Age of Ultron. Both Silvestri scores also have a sound less endemic of the Marvel formula, perhaps why he’s been asked to come back for Avengers: Infinity War). For future films such as Doctor Strange, Marvel have already tapped Michael Giacchino, one of the strongest theme writers around today, perhaps suggesting a shift in their way of viewing film music across the MCU.
But what about DC? The Dark Knight trilogy is shown, as is Man of Steel, and they’re given as examples of the Zimmer sound, but as snippets when perhaps this a more interesting question. Zimmer is the overlord of film music at this time (he’s even started being credited as “Executive Music Producer” in some cases such as the recent Lights Out), so why did it take a response video to bring him up in the first place? The DCCU so far has over three movies produced some pretty average score, with Steven Price’s Suicide Squad probably the best of it, but it sounds heavily like being tailored to the Zimmer sound. Man of Steel is a very good audio experience but a terrible overbearing film score, and Batman V Superman takes that to the Nth degree.
So John Williams good, Zimmer bad? It’s not quite that simple, as Zimmer has shown that he can create some wonderful music, not just in his usual style. But his tendrils reach far and wide, and you have composers like Lorne Balfe and Steve Jablonsky and Henry Jackman who are being given prime opportunities for blockbusters like Terminator Genysis and Transformers and Captain America: Civil War (the latter of which features heavy use of Holst’s Neptune) and applying the Zimmer trowel, underwriting and overmixing to the point where even the orchestras sound like samples. Again, these composers can write some fantastic work, but only if they’re allowed to.
So it’s not Marvel, it’s not even DC. It’s Hollywood in general and its attitude to film music that needs to change. One can’t help wonder if one eye is on the soundtrack sales opportunity, with Zimmer being essentially a film score rock star who I imagine sells buckets of deluxe coloured vinyl. What Hollywood needs is a cultural shift, maybe akin to what happened with Star Wars in 1977 and the way it made symphonic classical into pop music. Where can this come from?
I don’t know. Jerry Goldsmith once said “Good films have saved bad music, but even a great score never saved a bad film.” We have to understand that to the general public, film music is invisible, and what matters is the film itself. And as long as movies like Transformers make huge amounts of money, we’re not going to see any kind of sea change in mainstream film scoring.
The focus isn’t franchises, it’s studios. The system. Perhaps there should be a video called ‘The Warner Bros. Symphonic Universe’? -CB
Note: I also take a bit of umbrage with the introduction of Hans Zimmer in Golding’s video. It’s a quick mention of Zimmer’s use of electronics and mentions the word “Pioneering”, which I think is very misleading. Certainly Zimmer helped popularise the use of sample libraries in mainstream scoring, but electronic synth had been in place since the fifties, with Bebe and Louis Barron’s Forbidden Planet and through to Wendy Carlos, John Carpenter, Vangelis etc. I get the intent, I just feel more context was perhaps needed.