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The power of filmless film music

Film music has always been a pet passion. As a kid, I routinely hunted down the scores of films that had left an impression. With lengthy delays before the VHS release, and limited access to the family player, hearing the music was the most reliable way of rekindling the magic of my favourite movies. The first 7-inch single I owned was the ‘Theme from E.T.‘ (right). And I remember coveting a tape recording of a Star Wars Trilogy LP that we’d borrowed from the local library. (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)

But that was then. These days, the film score landscape is more sophisticated. In particular, companies like Film Score Monthly, Intrada, Varese Sarabande and La La Land have made an artform out of releasing previously-unavailable, expanded or remastered soundtrack albums. And it’s fair to say I’m in their debt. Why? Because I find it exceptionally useful to listen to film music when writing fiction.

No other genre quite does the job. Pop music occasionally works, but it doesn’t add to what I’m doing, and the words are a distraction. The latter also precludes opera, let alone musicals. And while instrumental classical music is good, the architecture of symphonies and sonatas is too self-contained to make them satisfactory companions as I wander through the expanses of imaginative endeavour.

Film music, however, is the perfect soulmate – particularly in the complete, underscore-and-all presentations favoured by specialist labels. It provides the ideal blend of ambience and inspiration, rarely interrupting my focus. Though narrative-driven, the emotional arcs are rarely rounded enough to interfere with the shape of whatever I’m doing. Instead, it provides the best kind of mood music, reinforcing my concentration within a broad atmospheric context.

It’s so helpful, in fact, that I frequently buy scores with no prior knowledge of either the music itself or the film for which it was written. And that lands me in a funny predicament. For once I know a score, shouldn’t I then seek out its associated film? After all, film music – however great – is only ever secondary to the pictures it supports. And since my enthusiasm for the genre was first triggered by wanting to remember the movies I’d seen as a child, surely the experience can only be enriched by watching the film itself?

Well, I’m not so sure. For the one drawback of writing to film music comes when I know the film too well. And when that happens – Alien is particularly tricky – I tend to start writing in the stylistic vernacular of the parent movie; imagining myself in its world, imitating its characters when voicing my own. And that’s too much. Yes I want emotional prompts from the music, but that level of familiarity provides too literal an inspiration.

I mention it now because I’ve just bought La La Land’s expanded edition of John Williams’ The Fury. Written in 1978 for Brian de Palma’s supernatural thriller, the score dates from the heart of Williams’ golden period – a time when he also wrote Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and E.T.

Predictably, the music to The Fury is on a par with those others. Heavily indebted to Bernard Herrmann, it’s rich, varied and intensely atmospheric – definitely the kind of thing I’ll write well to. And yet have I seen the film? Of course not.

So once again I feel that strange obligation, and face my perennial dilemma. Should I track down a DVD of The Fury, or, in the interests of productivity, should I let it be?

The answer is simple. I’m going to let it be. The music must inspire me on its own. I’ve only listened to it a handful of times, but the score is already a valuable asset in my writing process: a prime cut of Williams, uniquely divorced from any specific cinematic associations. Absurd though it may sound, that’s too good a thing to compromise by seeing the actual film for which it was written.


If only A to B were as easy as A, B, C

A weekend home alone gave me a chance to catch up on some overdue viewing. In between the obligatory bouts of hoovering, staring uncomprehendingly at a malfunctioning kettle, and multiple trips to supermarket hell, I watched two films which, in retrospect, feel like natural companion pieces – even if outwardly they couldn’t be more different.

First up was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on Blu-ray. Unoriginally, but at least unpretentiously, this is my favourite film of all-time. My very first date-specific memory is of December 1982, and going to see the movie at the old Cannon Cinema in Woodbridge Road, Guildford. This fact alone probably secures it the foremost spot in my mental Hall of Fame, but each time I revisit it I find that the film really is that good. The storytelling is taut yet never contained, the score emphatic but economical, and the performances – of which more in a moment – infectious in the extreme. As for the Blu-ray transfer, E.T. brushes up grainlessly well, and is complemented by a great new special feature, The E.T. Journals, chronicling principal photography via original behind-the-scenes footage shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll.

The second film was Michael Winterbottom’s latest, Everyday. Reuniting Winterbottom, John Simm, Shirley Henderson and screenwriter Laurence Coriat for the first time since 1999’s under-rated Wonderland, Everyday spans five years, and charts the experiences of a mother bringing up four children while her husband languishes in jail. Some critics have ranted about the lack of incident, but I found that the serial glimpses of the family’s life extremely powerful. Like Wonderland and (another Winterbottom favourite) The Trip, Everyday is largely a mood piece, providing plenty of breathing space for each viewer to fill in the blanks of his or her own volition, developing a powerful personal bond with the characters in the process.

The fascinating thing about seeing these movies back-to-back was the spontaneity of the two young casts. Who knows exactly how this was achieved. Certainly, one of the best things about The E.T. Journals is seeing Spielberg direct his young actors, explaining the action, helping them relate, then looking on with glee as something brilliant and unrehearsed occurs after he shouts ‘Action’. I’m sure Winterbottom adopted a similar approach, albeit with the additional advantage of his kids being real-life siblings, with much of the film even filmed in their own house.

What I think unquestionably helped the two casts, however, kids and adults alike, was that both films were shot chronologically: Everyday over the five year period of its story, and E.T. pretty much from a to b, specifically to enhance the kids’ plot comprehension and emotional responsiveness. In a weekend when I also squeezed in the director’s commentary on the muddled and emotionally confused Prometheus – in which Ridley Scott bemoans the seeming impossibility of ever shooting a screenplay in the right order – the comparable successes of E.T. and Everyday led me to wonder: how much better would all films be if only production managers could find a reliable way of shooting them in sequence? How many dreadful, jumbled messes would be redeemed – and how many masterpieces would be made even better?

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