Essays · Movies

Listening To The Greatest Movie Of All-Time

The genius of Nino Rota’s ‘The Godfather’ score.
The Godfather Marlon Brando
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on September 21st, 2016

There’s a brilliant video circulating on the internet right now that attempts to explain why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost entirely devoid of memorable film music. Tony Zhou argues that in the last twenty years many filmmakers have come to believe that music’s role in film is to go unnoticed, to be, in effect, background noise.

If you’ve seen Zhou’s analysis, you’ll agree that this trend is an unfortunate one, that films are better off when they contain great music, films like Star Wars and Jaws, Lawrence of Arabia and the 007 films, Vertigo and On the Waterfront.

Films like The Godfather.

Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece will always be remembered for its iconic performances, its gripping and nuanced story, and its pioneering cinematography. With all of that going for it, it’s easy to overlook the film’s remarkable score, composed by the prolific Nino Rota. An indisputable classic, the score contains some of the loveliest and most memorable themes in film music history, themes that are perfectly suited to the emotion and aesthetic of the film, and that have defined what we think of as mafia music. If the score has a fault, it’s that its themes are now too popular, too pervasive, cropping up in weddings and terrible parodies (really terrible, you’ve been warned).

But like The Godfather itself, the music’s popularity belies a depth and nuance that transcends its mass appeal. Like all good film music, the score enhances the emotional content of the scenes it’s featured in. Consider the Baptism sequence and the way the organ music ratchets up the drama of the carnage as it unfolds. The score also develops the characters, deepening our understanding of their inner lives as only music can. The organ renders the irony of Michael’s false piety all the more disturbing.

But what really sets this score apart is how, rather than merely reinforcing the story, the music actually participates in the telling of it. Like an opera, we can hear the plot unfold in the score as well as the screenplay, one telling the tale through words and action, the other through the language of music.

Three Themes

Rota’s score is made up of three major themes, each a motif representing a character or an emotion. The soundtrack has other minor cues, some source music (music heard by the characters, such as the songs sung at Connie’s wedding), and the organ arrangement in the Baptism sequence, but most of the music we hear is from one of the these themes, which are repeated and developed throughout the film.

The most recognizable and iconic of these is “The Love Theme,” which is introduced in the Sicily sequences during Michael’s courtship of Apollonia. This is probably the tune you hear in your head when you think of The Godfather, even though it’s actually only the secondary, or even tertiary theme. In fact, when the Bay Area rapper Mac Dre tried to channel the Godfather’s swagger in a track called “Mafioso,” it was “The Love Theme” that he sampled, not “The Godfather Waltz.”

While there are plenty of interesting observations to make about “The Love Theme,” I’m going to focus this analysis on the other two themes, which, though perhaps less iconic, are more closely tied to the film’s central conflict.

A quick refresher on The Godfather’s plot: a clean-cut college kid who wants nothing to do with the illicit family business, transforms into the criminal he swore he’d never become and the successor of an empire he will ultimately destroy, along with himself.

The central tension is not unlike that of Star Wars: will Michael go over to the dark side? Unlike Luke, Michael willingly gives in to the seduction of power (this is a tragedy after all), and so the question becomes, will he uphold his father’s noble values, or impose his own?

And this entire narrative arc can be traced in the music, if you listen for it.

Theme #1 – The Godfather Waltz

The film opens, not with the famous “I believe in America” speech, but with music.

Over the opening credits and a black screen, we hear the first theme, an exquisitely beautiful trumpet solo, tinged with sadness, almost mourning. It’s in the key of C Minor, the key of heroic struggle, of Beethoven’s 5th, and of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue (one of the organ pieces in the Baptism scene), and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

The trumpet lingers on the last note, on what’s known as the dominant, a note of instability and uncertainty, like a speech broken off mid-sentence. There’s more to this theme, a closing statement that brings resolution, taking us back to the tonic key, back home. But here in the first moments of the film, the final statement is left out, the theme is incomplete.

Rota called this theme “The Godfather Waltz.” It recurs throughout the film, sometimes sounding sad and elegiac, other times sweet and romantic, but always with a touch of the ominous, or even the sinister. This is Vito Corleone’s theme, it represents him and the ideals he embodies – tradition, honor, strength. Though terrible acts are carried out in his name, the Vito Corleone we see is gentler, dancing with his daughter on her wedding day, playing hide-and-seek with his grandchild. It isn’t violence that motivates him (that’s Sonny and later Michael), but honor and respect for tradition and the old way of doing things.

The music reflects all of this. Like much of the music in the film, it has a sense of Sicily, of the Old World. It proceeds methodically and with dignity, echoing Vito’s line from the garden scene: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless.” And it reveals another important aspect of Vito’s character: his determination. The melody attempts to rise to the high E twice, falling short both times. Not until the third attempt, at measure nine, does it get there, pulling us out of that repeated figure so the melody can proceed to its resolution. Though we don’t actually see Don Corleone’s rise to power until The Godfather Part II, it’s implied in the music from the very first statement of this theme here at the beginning of the saga.

Here in the first moments of the film, the final statement is left out, the theme is incomplete.

And so the very first thing we hear, before a word of dialog is spoken, is this abbreviated, dangling theme, which immediately puts us in a state of suspense. Vito’s legacy hangs in the balance. The tension in the music – will the theme resolve itself?—mirrors and foreshadows the tension at the heart of Vito’s story—can his antiquated, honor-bound worldview survive?

Theme #2 – Michael’s Theme

Michael is the film’s antihero, the disrupter of the old order, the one who will bring unbalance to the force. As mentioned earlier, the film’s plot is driven by Michael’s transformation from the innocent, idealistic young man we meet at Connie’s wedding, into the brutal, Machiavellian leader of the Corleone family, the new Godfather.

The first intimations of Michael’s fall come during the tense hospital scene, where Michael’s quick-thinking saves his father’s life but also embroils him in the family business for the first time.I’ve always been freaked out by this scene. The music, the editing, the long, stark hallways, it’s all so unsettling, almost like a horror film.

This is where we first hear the “Halls of Fear” theme, what I’ll call “Michael’s Theme.”

Earlier in the scene we hear a high, sustained note in the strings, overlaid with some tense, throbbing chords low in the piano. When Michael realizes that the guards and the hospital staff have abandoned their posts, he begins a frantic search for his father. Here the theme proper makes its entrance, a mournful trumpet, playing a series of descending figurations that mimic the downfall awaiting Michael. Underscoring this point is the solemn drum beat tapping out the rhythm of a death march. The drums continue, with quavering low strings, as Michael locates his father and makes preparations to move him to safety.

Michael shares a tender moment with his ailing father, whispering, “I’m with you now,” and inducing an emotional response in Vito. Is this the moment Michael decides to come off the sidelines and take an active role in the family’s affairs? Is the tear Vito sheds out of pride, because his favorite son is finally following in his footsteps, or remorse, because, as he later confesses, “I never wanted this for you”? It’s a masterfully acted moment that gives us a glimpse at the complicated emotions of these two characters.

What’s the music doing during all this? The moment after Michael says “I’m with you,” the music returns, not with “Michael’s Theme,” but with a reprise of “The Godfather Waltz,” played by warm, reassuring cellos. And yet, here again the theme is interrupted, this time by the creepy strings and the ominous piano chords.

“Michael’s Theme” enters once again after he successfully wards off his father’s would-be assassins. Now it’s carried by the clarinet, a little more insistent and sure of itself. We see Michael coolly take the lighter from Enzo’s shaking hands and light the poor baker’s cigarette – he’s taken his first step toward becoming the new Godfather.

Think about where the music goes in this scene. It starts with “Michael’s Theme” on a quiet, apprehensive trumpet, then moves to Vito’s theme, to reinforce a emotional moment between father and son, only for the theme to be cut off, and overtaken by a more assertive restatement of “Michael’s Theme.” These two themes are closely tied. “Michael’s Theme,” which starts in C Minor but will move to more remote keys later on as Michael spirals out of control, develops out of that third phrase in “The Godfather Waltz.” Instead of climbing up to the high E, Michael’s Theme reaches for it, only to fall back down to a B, setting off the descending figure that characterizes his theme.

This is yet another example of the music participating in the telling of the story. It anticipates Michael’s relentless ambition to carve out his own legacy separate from his father’s, only to be undone by his own hubris.

Later Developments

The key to understanding a musical theme is to listen for how it changes – how it develops – with each restatement. The primary themes we’ve discussed are repeated at key moments in their characters’ narrative arcs.

For instance, during Michael’s reunion with Kay after his return from Sicily, as the two are walking down the street talking, we hear reprises of both the Michael and Vito themes. When Michael starts to tell Kay how he’s working for his father now, we hear an expanded symphonic version of “The Godfather Waltz.” The conversation turns to their personal relationship, Kay asks, “what do you want with me after all this time,” and we get a few strains of “Michael’s Theme.”

And here is where Michael begins to manipulate Kay into taking him back. In response the theme suddenly changes, brightening, modulating to a major key. “Please, Kay, I’ll do anything you ask,” he says. And for a moment we think he might actually mean it, the music has responded sincerely.

Listen to the way the music plays off the dialogue.

We hear the heartfelt, supplicating version of the theme, straining upward as it tries to win her over.

The music hangs on Michael’s pause, balanced between the heartfelt musical statement we’ve just heard, and the indifferent, menacing one.

The indifferent, menacing theme takes over, even more assured, with the statement carried by the strings. The music misled us! Michael doesn’t care about Kay, he’s only thinking about his legacy and about children to carry on that legacy. This episode looks forward to The Godfather Part II when children become one of many wedges in their imploding marriage.

The final scene of the film offers one last example of how restatement of an earlier theme can impart new meaning. We’re in the study where the film opened. Vito has died, Michael has dispatched his enemies, including his brother-in-law. Kay confronts Michael, demanding to know if it’s true that he ordered Carlo’s murder. Michael, lying, tells her it’s not true and she’s initially relieved, appearing to believe him.

This cues a final statement of “The Godfather Waltz,” moving through different orchestrations, starting with just the clarinet and plucking strings, then adding horns, and more strings. When Kay looks back into the study, she sees her husband surrounded by his capos, who pay their respects and call him Godfather, and she realizes that everything she was just told was a lie. The music swells as it moves into the third statement, and then we’re left with just the horn. But as Michael’s enforcer closes the door, the theme is abruptly cut off mid-phrase. Cut to black, roll credits. We never get back to the tonic key, the question posed by the first notes of the score—will the theme resolve?—is answered with a resounding, NO, because Vito’s legacy has died with him, and been supplanted by Michael’s terrifying new order.

In a time when good film music is endangered, and the composer’s role has been relegated, replaced by formulaic “temp music,” it’s comforting to be reminded of a time when music was as essential to the art of filmmaking as locations or costumes. As The Godfather demonstrates, when you have a great film accompanied by equally great music, the result is one of the greatest movies of all time.

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