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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 (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)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.

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If Shakespeare were alive today…

In my last post on the gestation of So Long, Shakespeare, I recounted the search for a fictitious solution to the seemingly unanswerable Shakespeare authorship conundrum. Inexorably, I arrived at the idea of using Shakespeare’s DNA to bring him back from the dead. Someone, somewhere, would devise a genetic means of transferring one person’s creativity into the body and mind of another. In so doing, they would discover – or at least, so it would seem – that the ‘man from Stratford’ was indeed an impostor.

The question was: who would achieve this world-changing feat, and why?

One option, clearly, was to make the cloning of Shakespeare’s DNA exclusively a question of authorship attribution – something designed to prove the point once and for all. But since my whole conceit was about disruption – shaking up the existing foundations of the authorship debate on all sides – this felt a little obvious. Instead, I wondered what would happen if the DNA resuscitation occurred for other reasons, in a totally different environment, and the associated authorship discovery were made entirely by accident? Wouldn’t that shake things up a treat?

I began thinking who else might want to harness Shakespeare’s talent, if such a thing were possible – and the answers came cascading in. Foremost in my mind was memory of that perennial debate: What would Shakespeare be doing if he were alive today?

The most popular answer is also the one to which I subscribe: namely, that he’d be in Hollywood, or at least big budget TV, writing for the masses, rather than a theatregoing minority. The stage, after all, was the mass culture of Shakespeare’s time. Like the great baroque composers, our latter-day perception of him as belonging to ‘high culture’ is not only precious but anomalous. First and foremost, he wrote not to enlighten but to make a living. The profound, life-enriching power of his plays was secondary to the requirement of entertaining as many people as could be attracted to watch them. Given which, it’s no surprise that many of his dramas explore precisely the same themes as the grandest Hollywood blockbusters – history, family and romance. The affinity, in many ways, is absolute.

But even if I hadn’t agreed with all this, Shakespeare-in-Tinseltown was still an irresistible fit. Here was a setting where talent talks, meaning the demand for his manifestly incomparable services would be automatic and unthinking. Moreover, it was a world where the financial firepower and hubristic imagination required to engineer such extraordinary genetic magic was readily available. In every sense, it was a credible scenario: Hollywood mogul tries to harness Shakespeare’s writing power for profit and artistic gain – only to discover, inadvertently and inconveniently, that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays. His next step, quite naturally, would be to round up the DNA of the alternative candidates – which would require the assistance, in some form, of the established authorship fraternity. Soon enough, a fascinating mix would be coming to the boil, and we’d be well on our way to changing the flagship face of western culture.

There was just one big choice left to make. What kind of films would my mogul be making – and why would he feel the need to enlist Shakespeare’s help?

It was at that point that the two dominant Hollywood franchises of the time fused in my mind: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Death Star Globe

Hat-tip to Framescourer (framescourer.blogspot.com) for this Episode 7/So Long, Shakespeare-inspired piece of fan-art.

George Lucas’s original trilogy had given me some of the happiest moments of my childhood, and I didn’t think the prequel series was that bad. The design was glorious, the storyline wasn’t bad, and John Williams’s music was as powerful as ever. The problem, purely and simply, was with the prosaic, lifeless and entirely earthbound dialogue. That, and the impact it had on the acting.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s epic re-telling of J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was ticking every box, dialogue included, such that, by the time Return of the King came around, the popular demand for Oscar recognition was met by precisely that.

So I set to wondering: what if there were a sci-fi auteur, whose films were terrifically successful but who harboured an over-riding yet unfulfilled ambition to have his populist achievements recognised by his establishment peers with victory at the Oscars? And what if the barrier to achieving this wasn’t, in fact, the snobbery of the elite, but the quality of his screenplays’ dialogue? Wouldn’t such a man be more than a little keen for some help with his writing? Wouldn’t he just love to have someone of Shakespeare’s calibre come to his aid, and help him attain his dream?

The answer, quite obviously, was yes – and so, indeed, it was to be.

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