Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Best Composer Working in Hollywood

One of the best films I saw in 2007 was Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The best film of last year was In Bruges. And, the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year have been A Serious Man, the latest effort from the Coen brothers, and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Disparate movies, all of them, but they have one element in common: the music.

The composer is Carter Burwell, and apart from scoring the best films of the last three years, his music has been unrivaled in its evocation of the proper tone and mood in the pictures for which he writes. Bar none, he is the best working composer in Hollywood right now.

I mention it because the new Sandra Bullock vehicle, Blind Side, arrived in theatres this weekend. It performed quite well. You can find my review of the film elsewhere on this page. As you may have guessed, Burwell wrote the music for this movie as well.

Now, Blind Side is not even Burwell’s best work this year, but Burwell shines through the sentiment, works his way through the sap, and comes out clean on the other end. His work on the movie is a wonderful example of how film music can be perfect but not appropriate. Let me be clear, however, this is not a criticism but a compliment.

Allow me to define my terms. When looking at movie like Blind Side, one expects to find hope, uplift, not but a little bit of tragedy, and in the end, happiness. Also, if you were unaware, it is a sports movie. Given these attributes, one would expect to hear rising, swelling strings, full crescendos and decrescendos. This would be appropriate.

Appropriate music lets the audience know how it should be feeling in a given moment. If the main character is being ripped away from his mother, the music should be in a minor key with low horns and an ominous percussive beat. For the moment when the main character makes the big play in the big game, we should hear the strings of hope and the trumpets of triumph. The Flying High theme from Rocky is the perfect example of this kind of music.

There is nothing wrong with appropriate music. If there were, of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But, film music can rise above this level, and Burwell almost always does. Burwell writes perfect music.

While appropriate music guides the audience, perfect music soothes the audience. Perfect music assumes nothing. Perfect music plays to the emotions present on the screen and in the story. It does not add emotion where none is needed or where it is already there.

Burwell’s score for Blind Side shows intuition and restraint, two qualities lacking in so much modern film music. He has written the music for three films that have come out in the last three months. So, here’s hoping he keeps up the pace, and filmgoers get a new Burwell score every month.

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