With another Star Wars film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), gracing our screens in just a couple of weeks (pause for excitable clapping and jumping), many of us will not only be excited to see the Empire have its asses whooped by a few more rebels, but people will also be anticipating the sound of that iconic John Williams score. Well... we actually won’t be hearing that at all because as many of you are probably also aware, Michael Giacchino (Up (2009), Star Trek (2009), The Incredibles (2004), pretty much every awesome movie ever...) will be the one composing the music. In fact, a few days ago it was revealed that the guy had just four weeks to write the material in his hectic schedule, and that he doesn't really know anything about the infamous reshoots scenario (and the dropping of original composer Alexandre Desplat). For many though, a Star Wars without John Williams is an outrage, but I'm personally very pleased about it indeed. Why? Well yes, I am looking forward to hearing this amazing sound library in new and well-experienced hands, but mostly I'm elated that it appears to have shown a brief public spotlight on the film music world.
Now, I love film music; I listen to it all the time. I love the way it often has the unique musical power to make you smile, cry or shiver with all your defenses down without a single image shown. It's a beautiful thing and I often worry that unless there's a really memorable tune in the soundtrack (like with Star Wars) people will think the music is (to quote my cinema-going friends when seeing Doctor Strange (2016)) 'rubbish.' And that brings me onto my main point after a grotesquely long intro: what makes film music good? Well, now is an ideal time to discuss that, and I figured I'd take Star Wars and compare it's music to a score that I doubt many people have talked about that just also happens to be my one of my favorites of 2016: John Ottman's X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) soundtrack.
So, if I asked a random person in the street to tell me which soundtrack they thought was better, Star Wars (1977) --lets take the original movie-- or X-Men Apocalypse, they'd say "duh, Star Wars." And they could sing the melody and they'd tell me it was one of the best film songs they knew, because they could remember it. That's fair enough I suppose. Why would a score you couldn't remember be a good one? Well, whilst I adore John Williams' work on Star Wars, I think we're overlooking something rather crucial here.
For me, the true point of a soundtrack isn't to etch its way into your brain like that, it's to make the audience 'feel' what's on the screen. If you've ever had the rare chance to see a movie without its music, you'll know what I mean--virtually every moment feels slightly dead and emotionless and you have virtually no attachment to what's going on. Music is there to guide the viewer down the emotional path that the creators wanted. That's why film composers like Hans Zimmer bang on about knowing their story, as without that, they wouldn't know what the hell to do. Music makes you feel something, and when you attach it to a film, that's its primary job.
But surely that doesn't make a soundtrack extra special; all film music does that right? Well, yes to some extent, but I'm going to stop arguing with myself now and answer my question. What makes a good soundtrack great to me is just how well it does that job and immerses you in the world on the screen. Sometimes soundtracks are so good they even immerse you in their world when you listen to them on their own, and that is definitely the case with John Ottman's X-Men Apocalypse. I thoroughly advise you have a listen; the first two tracks are a rousing and goosebump-inducing collection of brass, strings and choir, whilst the third is majestic and exciting. Beyond that there's a period of touching beauty and calm before another storm hits (X-Men pun, thank you) with more action and pulse-racing adrenaline. It's awesome and I could listen to it for hours. But, I can't say I 'remembered' any melodies (perhaps bar the iconic X2 theme) when I came out of the theatre.
Despite that though, there was definitely something familiar I felt whenever Apocalypse was around, and it did 'sound like' an X-Men movie... What? Does that mean I remembered the Apocalypse theme and recognised it when it came back? Were there melodies or patterns I recognized from years ago in the whole X-Men Universe? Well, whilst I'm not sure I could hum them, there definitely are sounds and melodies I recognize when they're played and adapted, and I'm pretty sure you're exactly the same Mr or Mrs reader. It's clever. One way composers make us feel is to bring back melodies to trigger feelings in our subconscious mind. Obviously the Star Wars theme brings immediate nostalgia or fear with the Imperial March, but there are many more examples that are less melodic (and therefore, less hummable). For example, Zimmer's Joker 'theme' or that note used by Henry Jackman for the Winter Soldier (or similarly the pattern for Zemo) in his Marvel work; both of these sounds bring instant fear and a sense of impending doom from somewhere in the subconscious brain. Even more subtly, Marvel uses a set of digitized chords to suggest Vision's arrival - notes first established before he even came into existence in 'Iron Man 3's 'War Machine' by Brian Tyler. This kind of thing litters cinematic composing, and its one feature that means a soundtrack can do its job to the best of its ability.
But in the end, it's all about 'feeling.' Sure, one way to bring this is to play an iconic or sub-conscious melody, but simple texture or beauty or in-the-moment sound can create some incredible audience emotions too. If Giacchino manages to make his Rogue One work an in-the-moment feeling grabber, that also sounds like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, he'll have succeeded in my eyes.
I have one more needless, insignificant thing to say ladies and jellyspoons, next time you watch a movie, have a listen to the score on its own, and you may find yourself in a puddle of tears of sadness or joy, or with your heart racing. I certainly did with X-Men Apocalypse (and many other great Soundtracks this year) and I hope we can all do the same with Rogue One.
What are some of your favorite film scores?