Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Colorizing movie music

So what's the biggest obstacle to modern viewers loving the movies that those of us who were young in the '80s loved when we were growing up?

It's not the plots, which are obviously good, otherwise they wouldn't keep remaking these movies in the droves they've been remaking them. It's not the actors, many of whom are still cinematic treasures today. It's not even the bad fashion.

Nope. It's the music.

I watched Midnight Run for the first time on Monday night. I'd seen parts of Midnight Run before, but unlike some other movies I suspect I have only seen parts of, I had never previously credited myself with a full viewing of the movie. Given that it's a cultural touchstone for a lot of people in my generation, I figured it was time I finally corrected that.

Naturally, the first thing I noticed about it that made it feel dated was the score. Funnily enough, the score is by Danny Elfman, but it's not what we typically think of as an Elfman score. It doesn't have the ethereal singers and the storybook quality of his collaborations with Tim Burton -- which is not entirely surprising in a buddy road trip movie featuring a bounty hunter and a corrupt accountant. No, as in many other movies made around 1988, the score relies heavily on electric guitars, saxophones, other horns, and the kind of synthesizer that sounds almost as much like it grew out of percussion than that it grew out of a piano. It's a score any hack could have cooked up, but Elfman was the hack who cooked up this particular one.

And yeah, it's cheesy. Cheesy enough to undermine the quality of the movie? No, but I grew up in the 1980s and love a lot of movies with similar scores. In fact, when I recently rewatched A Fish Called Wanda -- which came out the same year -- I was almost driven to distraction by its similarly dated score. And Wanda is in my top ten movies of all time.

But what about people who didn't grow up in the 1980s, but may still be candidates to love these movies? How can we help them get past being put off by a hopelessly outdated score?

This is not a real suggestion, but it does make me wonder why no one has tried to do it before:

You simply update the score.

You obviously can't redress the actors in better clothes or give them modern hairstyles, but you can update the score -- can't you? I mean, it's just an audio track. Some complication might arise with dialogue that's concurrent with the score, but with today's sophisticated audio editing equipment, I can't imagine it would be too stressful to separate the dialogue from the music behind it.

It would be akin to colorizing black and white movies. That was done in an attempt to modernize them and make them more accessible to audiences trying to appreciate these movies a couple decades after their release. And, lo and behold, it's been a couple decades since the release of Midnight Run. Jesus, it's been nearly three decades now.

I guess a problem would arise with the fact that you would theoretically need to keep doing this, since tastes are fickle enough that a new score for Midnight Run recorded in 2000 would already be hopelessly out of date by 2015. But at least it would be less out of date than the 1988 one. And as long as it wasn't too expensive and there weren't too many rights involved, it is something they could keep doing over time.

Of course, updating a movie's score would not have a whiff of legitimacy as an artistic venture. Everyone thought Ted Turner was an idiot for trying to colorize black and white movies, and anyone with an ounce of cinematic self-respect would turn their nose up equally at modernizing the score. However, just because people with good taste oppose a certain thing has almost never stopped someone from doing it.

The problem you'd run into, I think, is that the score -- while announcing itself far less as a slice of '80s cheese, and therefore providing less of the distracting element that takes a viewer out of a movie -- would still seem off, because it would be out of sync with the movie around it. The other thing my wife and I noticed as we watched it is how many people smoked in this movie and how many times they said "fuck." Both of those things are almost gone from movies that are trying to appeal to as many different people as Midnight Run would have been trying to appeal to. A movie where everybody smokes and says "fuck" needs electric guitar, saxophone, and a bunch of synthesized beeps and boops to keep everything feeling normal.

The question you may have is: Did the dated score -- which is similar to other scores I've absorbed, but still new to me just as the movie is new to me -- keep me from loving it the way my friends growing up did?

It did not, as I gave Midnight Run four out of five stars even without relying on nostalgia to bias me. It's a movie whose funny performances and smart dialogue rise above the now-embarrassing trappings of the era in which it was made.

And if others can't realize that, well ... they just don't know a good movie when they see one. A good movie should be more seen than heard.

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