Aural Fixation

Aural FixationWhat would your favorite movie be without sound? Try thinking of Jurassic Park without hearing the great John Williams score? It’s not really possible. Music can add untold dimensions to the vision of a filmmaker, and our own Allison Loring is as music-obsessed as they come in the world of movie geeks. Join her as she looks at all the best and most interesting work in the world of movie music.

A24

Alex Ebert‘s score for A Most Violent Year ebbs and flows in a way that proves the composer is not afraid of quiet moments. “Abel’s Theme” sounds almost triumphant, but slowly strips away the brass elements to leave something much more subtle and underplayed. This near silence speaks directly to the film’s lead, Abel Morales (played with steadfast determination by Oscar Isaac). Abel is a man of action and a man who keeps the promises he makes, but it is in Abel’s more quiet moments that you start to see the cracks behind his perfectly crafted persona and life. For a film whose title contains the word “violent,” A Most Violent Year is anything but. Both director JC Chandor and Ebert know how to use, and play into, the silences resulting is a slow burn of a film that causes the violent moments to stand out by not having them constantly fill the screen. As Jack Giroux said in his review of the film, “A Most Violent Year isn’t a brutal film because of its blood. In fact, there’s very little of it in Chandor’s story. The brutality is found in Abel’s dilemma, because it’s often uncomfortable to watch.”

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The Hunger Games Mockingjay

2014 was the year of great soundtracks. Thanks to films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Boyhood, soundtracks full of recognizable songs have never been more important to the movie going experience. But there is one soundtrack that was promoted as much as the film itself – the one curated by Lorde for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. There is always a good amount of hype and publicity leading up to the release of a movie in a popular franchise series, and The Hunger Games is no exception, but along with the expected appearances of the cast at various premieres and interviews, a large part of the promotional focus for Mockingjay Part 1 was put on the film’s music. Thanks to Lorde’s involvement as “curator,” Mockingjay’s soundtrack almost became a star in its own right getting attention from MTV, Billboard, and Rolling Stone. Even Katniss Everdeen herself (Jennifer Lawrence) told the media while doing press for Mockingjay in London, “I think Katniss would be a huge Lorde fan.” And while that may be true, none of the music Lorde selected (or collaborated on) for the soundtrack made it into the final film. (Save for the soundtrack’s one single, “Yellow Flicker Beat,” but that only plays over the credits.) So what was the point?

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Nightcrawler

James Newton Howard is best known for his large, layered, cinematic scores for films like Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Hunger Games series. These orchestra driven scores are perfect for epic tales of good versus evil, intense battle scenes and journeys of self-discovery. But in Nightcrawler, Howard seems to have found his more edgy, electronic side, turning in a score that sounds more like something you would expect from a composer like Cliff Martinez – and that’s a good thing. Changing up your musical style not only helps push boundaries, it can also give us great music we may not have otherwise expected from certain composers. Danny Elfman created the quirky music for films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish, but he also created the dramatic scores for Good Will Hunting and Silver Linings Playbook and action films like Mission Impossible and Planet of the Apes. Randy Newman created the music for some of Pixar’s most popular films like Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., and Cars, but he also created the 1958 styled score for Pleasantville and the 1925 styled score for Leatherheads. John Powell also created the thrilling score for How To Train Your Dragon, a project very different from the pulsating action films he worked on like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Ultimatum. That leads us back to Newton. Unlike some of the more epic sagas he’s composed, Nightcrawler is rough and dirty, telling the story of tenacious videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who takes to filming gruesome crime scenes around Los Angeles […]

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Whiplash

What defines a horror movie villain? Someone (or something) that is emotionless, relentless, haunting and makes you bleed. By this definition, Whiplash gave audiences one of the most terrifying villains released in the horror month of October, but it may not be the character you expect. There is no question that J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher is relentless as he pushes Andrew (Miles Teller) to excel at his chosen instrument. But it is the instrument itself that is the true villain of this story – the drum set. It’s emotionless, relentless, constantly haunts Andrew and (as you can see) makes him bleed. Andrew is drawn to the drums in a way that has him constantly coming back for more – no matter how much pain and anguish the drums cause him. Andrew cannot keep himself from the pull of playing, but he’s not simply in it for the love of the music; Andrew wants to be the best. No matter what Andrew does to fight against the drum set – sweating on it, bleeding on it, punching them out – it survives. If he destroys it, there is always another set, taking its place for him to play. Like a guy in a William Shatner mask, Whiplash’s drum set can never truly be killed.

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Purge Anarchy

Horror films live and die by their scores because the music is what helps drive the story and makes us feel anxious. While the images get stuck in the front of our brains, hearing tracks like John Williams‘ theme for Jaws immediately takes us back to the fearful place the film conjured up when we first watched it. In the spirit of the season, I looked back over the horror scores released this year to see which delivered the most frightening music and soundscapes, and discovered a recurring, synth-y theme. First, a little history.

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Gone Girl Tyler Perry

Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” opens with a quote from Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion” saying, “Love is the world’s infinite mutability.” David Fincher’s film adaptation also begins with this idea of mutability as he shows us dampened images of the Missouri landscape while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score whispers against it through moderate instrumentation. This subtle and underplayed approach to the music gives the feeling that you are embarking on a slow burn of a journey – which is exactly what happens in the novel and the film. As Gone Girl begins, Reznor and Ross’ music gives a pulse to the toned down, almost bleak surroundings we’re seeing, but never overpowers them. It’s this balance of having the music present while not overly influencing what’s happening on screen that makes Reznor and Ross’ score so successful.

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The Boxtrolls

For a film about a group of trolls who spend their nights collecting trash (and turning it into treasure), the music should definitely be silly to fit with the goofy attitude of the boxtrolls themselves. But for a story about an orphan raised by said boxtrolls who needs to convince the world they are not something to be exterminated, the music also needs to create an emotional connection to these dirty, box wearing (but also pretty darn adorable) trolls. Composer Dario Marianelli rises to the challenge with his score for the upcoming film, The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow‘s novel “Here Be Monsters!” Snow’s story proves that just because someone may be called a monster (or a boxtroll), it does not mean they are not worthwhile or important, and Marianelli successfully compliments this story with a score that is fun, silly, adventurous, and has just the right amount of heart. This is Marianelli’s first time composing for an animated featured and the Italian composer does not shy away from his roots here, infusing The Boxtrolls‘ score with operatic singers and Italian instrumentation. Take a listen to our exclusive preview of The Boxtrolls soundtrack here:

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Film scores

Film series are a great way to tell a story that cannot be contained to a single film. Successful films usually end up getting sequels, but series are stories intended to be digested over the course of several films. The cast will (usually) stay the same throughout a series, but there is another important element that should remain consistent to help link each film to the next – the music. While it is not a requirement to stick with a single composer throughout a series (and sometimes you have no choice but to change things up due to schedules and prior commitments), having a singular musical voice working on a film series helps keep a consistent feeling from film to film. Most film series have kept the same composer throughout the series, and the few that have changed composers from film to film had it fit the story or ultimately ended up returning to the original composer.

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The Skeleton Twins

In the middle of all the drama and intense suicidal issues that make up The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader’s Milo breaks into song, but it is not Hader’s voice ringing out, it is Starship’s Mickey Thomas explaining that “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s an excellent moment, delivering a greater impact than it would have had the song simply played over the scene. From musicals to pop montages, we frequently see the lyrics of a song say things a character cannot (or will not) say, which allows each film to get a character’s internal emotion across without direct action. But when a character embraces a song by lip-synching to it, it lets the characters play along. What’s more, a character’s awareness of a song typically heightens a song’s impact because it seems (at least) to come from the character instead of the production team. It can be a powerful illusion. There are a bunch of great songs featured in The Skeleton Twins (Blondie‘s “Denis,” Randy & The Rainbows “Denise,” and John Grant‘s “Outter Space), but Starship’s tune stands out because it is a song Milo chose to not only play, but perform to. He could have launched into a funny or serious or moving monologue directed at his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig), but all he really wants to do is cheer her up. Cue the 1980s pop hit.

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Get On Up

It is hard to believe summer is almost over, but as we look back on a season that gave us surprise hits (who knew Edge of Tomorrow would be so entertaining?) and surprise misses (Let’s Be Cops didn’t quite capture the buddy comedy magic it was looking for) the most interesting trend to emerge was how this summer’s soundtracks were all about the past. From 1920s jazz to 1960s funk to 1970s pop rock, this summer felt more like a music history lesson than the expected barrage of radio hits piped into every blockbuster looking to generate box office heat. (Granted those were there too – looking at you Transformers: Age of Extinction and Imagine Dragons.) And audiences were into this change of pace. So much so that a soundtrack full of songs from the 1970s made it to the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Kiss

Over a century old, superheroes are inextricably rooted in nostalgia. We usually meet them first when we’re kids, growing up with them and building memories – which character we first rooted for, which villain we first hated, who we first dressed up as for Halloween (or any given Tuesday). While it’s exhilarating to see characters from the page brought to life in a modern faddish flurry, something almost always gets lost in translation when some of them are “updated” for our modern world. Acknowledging that these are beings of another time, even ever so slightly, helps make these films feel like an experience instead of just another blockbuster. A prime example? The Guardians of the Galaxy, which figured out a way not only to combine action, drama, humor and heart, but also figured out a way to infuse a great sense of nostalgia thanks to a soundtrack full of funky beats from the 1970s.

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Michael Giacchino

Coming up with song titles for a score or soundtrack can be a tricky business. The music for a film is usually released before the film itself to get audiences excited, but if the track listing reads like a spoiler list for what happens in the film, the music can end up being more upsetting than enticing. Other times the titles that make up a film score can be boring and forgettable (even if the music is not). However composer Michael Giacchino has taken a different approach by making his track titles stand out by giving them funny (even pun-y) titles.

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The Purge Anarchy

Watching gruesome scenes over and over seems like a symptom for someone battling serious demons, but when you’re the composer on a horror film, this practice is just part of the job. Nathan Whitehead returns to The Purge series with a brand new score full of the tension cues you’d expect, yet he’s also included enough unexpected musical elements to keep your ears guessing throughout The Purge: Anarchy. Unlike the first movie, Anarchy takes audiences out of the confines of a single home to go out into the streets and explore what it really means when laws are lifted and chaos is allowed to reign supreme. I spoke with Whitehead last year about his score for The Purge, and he explained that the hybrid nature of the film as both horror and thriller “really steered the music into these grittier textures and more processed sounds,” whereas with his score for Anarchy he looked to “explore the action moments more.” “But there are also opportunities to explore more emotion,” he said when I talked to him again about scoring the sequel. Now that the series is moving further into the fray, the violence is sure to get amplified as the story goes from cat-and-mouse to all-out nihilism. I wondered about the psyche of someone tasked with having to watch these scenes repeatedly to get all the elements right. How does that weigh on a person? The short answer: perspective helps.

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Screen Gems

Christopher Young knows horror. After 32 years in the business and countless horror movies under his belt from Hellraiser to The Grudge to Drag Me To Hell to his latest, Deliver Us From Evil, Young is a wealth of information when it comes to talking all things fear. A composer, but also a big fan, Young’s appreciation for the genre has in turn helped him give it some of its most terrifying scores. Young didn’t seek out the horror genre, it just happened that he was coming up in the business when films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Freddy the 13th reigned supreme. Deliver Us From Evil marks the third time Young has worked with director Scott Derrickson, and Young is clearly a fan of the rising filmmaker, noting that he is one of only a handful of directors whose specialty is horror.  “He’s one of two or three horror directors that I’ve worked with who are extremely intelligent and concise about what it is they’re trying to do with their movie as a director, but equally — and more importantly from my perspective — is what needs to be done with the music,” Young says.

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dashes

The montage that opens every episode of Dexter is an interesting example of how showing every day images from certain angles can make innocuous actions suddenly look like potential crime scenes. Paired with composer Rolfe Kent‘s creepy theme full of Asian and European instruments like a ukulele, bouzouki and saz, Dexter‘s open is the perfect way to prepare to dive inside of the mind of a serial killer who ties his shoes just like you or me. But the violent images in the open (and the show itself) also bleed into Dexter‘s score as created by composer Daniel Licht. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) prefers a surgical approach when dealing with his victims, and Licht reflects this preference in the show’s score by taking surgical instruments and turning them into musical instruments that pair surprisingly well with the more classical orchestration. Using scissors and knives as percussive elements helped Licht give Dexter the ominous feeling that something sinister was constantly lurking in the background. If you ever wondered how all these different sounds come together on the show, Licht created a behind-the-scenes video to show how he created the sound of Dexter. You can see how Licht shifts from conducting an orchestra of classically trained musicians to create bone-sawing percussion that makes you feel like something isn’t quite right.

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True Detective Titles

One of the best things about True Detective is the complicated relationship between detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) with McConaughey’s Rust working as the perfect philosophical foil to Harrelson’s gregarious man’s man. The two have the ability to rub each other the wrong way personally, but they also make each other better detectives. Viewers who love the relationship between Rust and Marty (and McConaughey and Harrelson) were likely disappointed when the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, announced that not just two, but three, new detectives would be taking the reins in season two, leaving Team Rust/Cohle behind. True Detective will not only be changing up the cast, but also leaving the bayous of Louisiana to explore sun-soaked California. These changes may be less than great news for fans of season one’s location and character dynamic, but this approach is an exciting way to keep the series feeling fresh and expansive from season-to-season. For a series rooted in unraveling mysteries, it makes sense that certain elements need to change to keep viewers on their toes, always guessing and always questioning what may happen next. But there is one element of True Detective that should remain constant – the music.

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Mad Men Best Things Bert

Don Draper is losing his mind. This is not a new theory, but after last Sunday’s season finale (for this half of Mad Men’s final season) it looks like it is becoming a fact. A season that has had Don fighting to keep everything – his job, his marriage, his family – finally allows our battered protagonist to end things on a high note with Don back on top at SC&P, letting go of a marriage that seemed only to weigh him down, and building an honest relationship with his kids (well, Sally at least). But then the true cracks start to show.

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Paul Walker in Brick Mansions

If you are an aspiring composer, a musician, or simply a music fan interested in how a song actually comes together before you see it on the big screen, we have a peak behind the curtain for you. Composer John Fulford specializes in creating music for productions and has worked on shows like Breaking Bad, Glee and Enlightened as well as indie films like The Sunset Limited, studio releases like American Reunion and, most recently, Brick Mansions. Fulford knows how to work within tight deadlines (thanks to the weekly schedule of TV) and this discipline of constantly creating has helped train his ear in recognizing track elements that would work perfect on screen. Fulford was looking to get some music on Shawn Ryan’s The Chicago Code and figured the best way to achieve that goal was to work with Chicago-based artists. That led him to the artist N.E.P.H.E.W. Fulford and NEP began working together and created the track, “Nephgroove.” Unfortunately the song did not end up being used on The Chicago Code, but when Brick Mansions was looking for some authentic rap, they were sent “Nephgroove” and, as Fulford puts it, “the rest is history.” In this video (as created by Louis Mayo @Viewbility), Fulford takes you through his process of writing the song and highlighting the elements that ultimately stood out to the producers.

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Jesse Eisenberg in

Have you ever wished a fantastic song struck up the moment you walked into a room? It’s something that happens in movies, never in real life. But there are sounds that do accompany us in our every day lives. The ambient sound of the wind, cars driving by, idle chatter, coffee brewing. We rarely notice these noises because they are simply a part of the background, but what if suddenly all these unnoticeable noises were amplified? A subway car rushing by so loudly you’re forced to cover your ears. The chatter in a coffee shop becoming deafening. A copy machine sounding like gun fire. And no one else seems to notice. You would think you were going crazy, right? This is exactly what seems to be happening to Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Double. Simon seems like an ordinary guy with a boring job, a small apartment, and a crush on a girl, but his world also seems off-kilter thanks to the film’s choice to turn up all the ambient noises that usually help give a scene a sense of grounding reality. Then again, Simon may not be living in reality, and The Double‘s ambient assault helps convey this idea without needing to explicitly say it. When Simon is introduced to his new co-worker, James, who happens to look exactly like Simon, it makes sense that Simon would start to feel like he is losing his mind — especially when no one else seems to agree that their similar appearance is striking and more than a little strange. But director Richard Ayoade creates a world that seems to live […]

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Movies live orchestra

Would bringing live music back into theaters improve your experience of watching a film? Or would it feel like an old timey distraction? Eight-seven years ago, before movies were able to synchronize sound to the actual picture, having live musicians and orchestras perform as the film played was the norm. The Artist showed audiences how silent films relied on the music to convey the feelings and emotions of the actors on screen in lieu of dialogue. But as film (and the film industry) moved into 1927 – film technology began to advance and recorded dialogue and sound synchronization became the way of the future as theaters began swapping out orchestras for speakers. But should theaters bring live music back to the movie going experience? We say yes.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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