Aural Fixation: The Past vs. The Present – ‘Hugo’ and the Landscape of Modern Day Film Scoring

This year has brought us back to classic filmmaking from the silent film era with The Artist to the fantasy adventure Hugo, which recalled classic film moments (as The Film Stage rounded up here). The New York Times has even gotten in on the classical score action, drawing on booming horns and frenetic strings to help create horror and unease in their portraits of various actors’ impressions of classic film villains. It is an almost surprising turn in a year that awarded Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic influenced score for The Social Network the Oscar for Original Score and saw electronic duos The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx creating the scores for Hanna and Attack the Block, respectively. Film scoring seemed to be going the way of the electric guitar, swapping out full orchestrations for synthesizers, but as 2011 comes to a close, it seems classic orchestration is not on its way out just yet.

Full orchestrations of horns, drums, strings, and wind instruments filled theaters in films like The Artist and Hugo, taking us back to a time when live orchestras would play along with films. Their electronic counterparts tend to turn up the volume (who wasn’t rattled when Reznor and Karen O’s booming “Immigrant Song” in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s teaser trailer came on screen?) while classical scores are able to gain that same power from the sheer number of instruments called upon and layered together. Both work to draw an emotional reaction out of audiences. The more classic films work to make you feel almost at ease surrounded by such warm sounding, familiar music whereas electronic scores work to do the complete opposite, driving you to the edge of your seat and hitting you with unexpected sounds and noises.

Where The Artist relied solely on music in lieu of dialogue or any other sound, Hugo utilizes its soundtrack in much the same way as the music punctuates certain moments and follows along with character’s reactions. This method of using score is usually left to animation (or the silent film era) and it was almost refreshing to see it used here in Martin Scorsese’s highly stylized world which also served as an homage to older filmmaking. Music becomes as much a part of Hugo’s world and story as it was in The Artist, filling each scene and moving right along with the action (rather than only accompanying it).

Hugo‘s composer, Howard Shore, certainly calls upon Parisian influences to reinforce the film’s location (although the close-ups of freshly baked croissants also help) and while his score is full-bodied, it still has a wonderful sense of whimsy. The story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is not all fun and adventure (look to The Adventures of TinTin for that) as it also features moments of great sadness which Shore does not ignore in songs such as “Hugo’s Father” and “The Message.” This is not to say that more modern films like The Social Network or Hanna do not create a layered, emotional experience, they just seem to do so more through shock and surprise, while these more classic sounding scores look to romance and court audiences into the emotion. Electronic scores can feel more like a race whereas more classic scores are like a dance – both entertaining and powerful, but in different ways.

The music for films like The Social Network and what has been released so far for Dragon Tattoo engage and thrill because they are unexpected and new, but this look back at classic filmmaking has been just as refreshing. Just like you can feel like rocking out to loud music one day, you may prefer more subdued music the next. Certainly these are different films with different styles from different filmmakers, but I found it interesting that in a time when it seemed film was becoming electrified, we also got new releases that could have been pulled off screens in the 1930s.

As filmmaking has (and will) continue to change and evolve, the music which accompanies these films will as well. It is an exciting time in film scoring that is allowing for new, unexpected and innovative artists to push styles forward and challenge audience’s expectations while not closing the door on the past and the fundamentals that got us to where we are today. I, for one, am a huge fan of electronic scores, but this resurgence of classic sounding films has reminded me that although I love where we are going, I still enjoy hearing where we have been.

Have you enjoyed this look back into a more classic era of filmmaking? Or have you preferred electronic scoring that seems to be coming to the forefront?

The soundtrack for Hugo is available through HOWE Records.

  1. “The Thief”
  2. “The Chase”
  3. “The Clocks”
  4. “Snowfall”
  5. “Hugo’s Father”
  6. “Ashes”
  7. “The Station Inspector”
  8. “Bookstore”
  9. “The Movies”
  10. “The Message”
  11. “The Armoire”
  12. “Purpose”
  13. “The Plan”
  14. “Trains”
  15. “Papa Georges Made Movies”
  16. “The Invention of Dreams”
  17. “A Ghost in the Station”
  18. “A Train Arrives in the Station”
  19. “The Magician”
  20. “Coeur Volant” (performed by Zaz)
  21. “Winding It Up”

All the songs on this soundtrack composed by Howard Shore.

Allison has always been fascinated by the power music has when paired with an image – particularly its effect in film. Thanks to a background in recording and her days spent licensing music to various productions (including, of course, movies), Allison can usually be found sticking around to see all the songs noted in a film’s credits and those listening to her iTunes inevitably ask, “What movie is this song from?”

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