Monday, January 25, 2016

Useful in context, useless out of context

I've never been one to spend a lot of my free time listening to movie scores, and the Birdman score has just reminded me why.

Out of the context of the images, they can seem completely devoid of meaning. Completely devoid of, well, anything.

The Birdman score is probably a particularly extreme example of that, as the score consists only of percussion -- and fairly spare, indistinct percussion at that.

Don't get me wrong -- I thought Antonio Sanchez' music worked like gangbusters in the actual film. It was a perfect accompaniment to the project Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was trying to pull off, and not just because the drummer would sometimes actually appear on screen, as one of many semi-hallucinations of the main character (or is it just our hallucination as the viewer?).

Which is why, when I saw the Birdman score at the library, I figured "Hey, why not?" Since we now have a car, and since I now have a new computer that doesn't choke on discs from the library, I now have two ways to give it a listen, whereas just three months ago I would have had none.

But I was almost laughing as I listened to this score over the weekend. There's so little to it, I cannot imagine anyone -- even intense fans of jazz percussion, of which I am not one -- purchasing this and feeling like their $15 to $20 would have been well spent.

Nearly every track is under two minutes long, and they all seem to start up hesitantly before dissipating uncertainly. There's nothing distinctive about any of it as a standalone piece of music. Crucially, there are also no moments when you can say, "Oh yeah, this is that part when ..." Or none that I got to in about the first 14 tracks, anyway.

While I'm choosing to slam the Birdman score in particular, these are definitely more generalized feelings. And even my favorite musician of all time is not immune to them. When Trent Reznor delivered his brilliant score for The Social Network -- a score I've listened to at least ten times -- it was not a sign of things to come for him. I found nothing even remotely rewarding about slogging through all 37 tracks of the score to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl connected with me only slightly more, a benefit of at least having a couple "oh yeah, this is the part when ..." moments.

However, this does not mean that musical scores are always useless out of context. Just recently I've been thinking fondly of Michael Giacchino's music in Inside Out, and was thunderstruck by Ennio Morricone's epic score for The Hateful Eight. Not only do scores sometimes immeasurably enhance a film, they do frequently make a good independent listen.

Or parts of them, anyway. I think with most scores, there are a signature song or two that you remember, while the rest basically feels like filler. And truth be told, filler is probably what scores regularly should be. You don't want a score to dominate a film. Sometimes you just want it to be background.

So I think what would really work for me as a listener of scores would be to extract individual songs, individual significant moments from films and put them together in a complication. In order to keep it from being discordant, the task would then be to find movies with scores that strike a similar tone, so you aren't jumping from Giacchino to Morricone and back again.

However, from the Birdman score I would extract nothing. Nothing in those first 14 tracks, anyway. If I listened to the rest of it I might feel differently. In fact, I kind of remember that moment near the end when the superheroes are dancing around on stage and the jellyfish are flopping around on the beach, and that comet is falling from the sky, as possibly being distinctive. Maybe.

It's not a conclusion I reach with any relish. After all, Birdman was my #1 movie of 2014. Ever since it won best picture last year, though, I've been finding reasons to have buyer's remorse about my choice. As Birdman backlash has kicked in full time, I haven't been immune to it. And this is just one more example.

Regarding Birdman, ignorance -- in other words, the time when it was just a good movie and not an Academy standard bearer -- was indeed a virtue.


Kidz Zone said...
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Wendell Ottley said...

Very good post. I am not one for listening to scores on my own. Without the films they belong to, I also find them pointless. After all, they were made specifically to enhance a certain narrative. Soundtracks are different because we're talking songs that should stand on their own and still might conjures up flashbacks to some scene or another. Scores? I'll pass.

Derek Armstrong said...

With a few exceptions like the one I noted, I'm in complete agreement with you. What can work quite well is if you have a combo soundtrack and score, which includes not only the songs that were employed so effectively in the movie but also signature moments in the score. I guess this is somewhat unusual but when done well, it can have a much sought after "best of both worlds" aspect to it.

Thanks for the comment, Wendell!