Film Music Friday: Matters of Style

Aaaand we’re back.

A few days ago Watertower Music (the soundtrack arm of Warner Bros.) posted a cue from Daniel Pemberton’s new score, for Guy Ritchie’s take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. I was already pretty keen to see the film, as I’m a sucker for old-fashioned spy-fi, and listening to “His Name Is Napoleon Solo” pretty much sealed the deal for me:

(Side note: I’m really digging the embed code Soundcloud uses. Doesn’t it just look cool?)

The thing I love about this cue is that since Pemberton’s trying to capture that 60s vibe – and with those guitars and percussion, he succeeds very well at it – he’s playing right into a certain strain of film music I’ve always loved.

There’s always been a strong classical influence in film music. For one famous example, the “soundtrack” for the Lugosi Dracula was a piece from Swan Lake. And ever since, film composers have continued to draw from that classical tradition. Listen to James Horner’s Field of Dreams or Thomas Newman’s Little Women, and you’ll hear strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst and Wagner have made their way into more than a few soundtracks. And there’s the mass of John Williams’s career.

But there’s another school that came of age in the 60s and 70s. Composers in that era tried to bring more contemporary influences – pop, jazz, R&B, rock – into their scores. Henry Mancini was a master at it…

So was Jerry Goldsmith…

Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye had it all figured out…

Dave Grusin made it his own…

(h/t to Ross Ruediger for reminding me of that wonderful soundtrack)

Lalo Schifrin built his career on it…

And then, of course, there’s Bill Conti’s most famous theme…

I’ve always been fascinated by composers who can pull contemporary idioms into a more traditional form, like these examples. And I think what really gets me about it, when it’s done well, is the incredible balancing act a Schifrin or a Conti has to pull off.

Think about it. These scores have to have that contemporary sound for anyone who wants to hear a single. But it’s not as easy as just assembling a collection of songs (and that’s not easy at all, if you want it done well). They still have to support the film. They still have to underline the story, touch on the character moments, drive the action – all the things a film score is supposed to do.

And these scores don’t just serve their stories and characters. They serve their eras, and so become timeless in their own way. And when that happens, attention must be paid.

So, these are a fraction of a handful of my favorite examples. It’s definitely not a comprehensive list, but I hope it inspires a few playlists along the way.

And with that, I’ll call a wrap on Film Music Friday. Thanks as always for following along – until next time…

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