Callie Petch takes a look at the film scores of Interstellar and Nightcrawler and looks at the effect they have on their respective films.
Question: how many films can you name this year where the score was something that actually caught your attention as you were watching it? And I don’t mean licensed music or songs written specifically for the film by the latest hot band – so exclude Guardians of the Galaxy, The Guest and any musical so far – I mean the actual score that’s sat there helping drive events along. I can count Under the Skin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Double, Gone Girl and the two films I’m talking about today. That’s really about it. Out of 113 films that I have seen from 2014, I can recall the score from only six.
See, the art of the film score is very much receding in general perception nowadays as they become more about mood setting than attention grabbing. Now, admittedly, this is how it should be to a degree: a film’s score should get the audience into the mood of the film, compliment the visuals and the narrative, and be a cog in the machine that helps elevate the whole of the film. The trouble comes from just how… unmemorable and interchangeable a lot of modern day film scores are. There’s no personality there, no individual touch that makes Film A stand out from Film B aside from some half-assed attempt at a leitmotif.
The reason why, say, that distinctive theme from Jaws managed to break into popular culture is because there is personality. You hear that slow, ominous build and you instantly think Jaws, it can’t be anything else. It’s distinctive, but it also builds mood which is why a whole bunch of other media over the years have lifted it wholesale for their own ends. It’s why hearing it come up in Jaws, despite it having broken into the popular culture and used as joke fodder for a lot of the last four decades, one doesn’t burst out into laughter or get dragged out of the film. It fits the mood, it complements the film, but it’s also distinctive and has its own personality.
Too many films nowadays seem afraid to try and add personality to their scores. They see them as just a cog that can be slapped together and forgotten about. That, or they’re afraid that a big, showy, personality-filled score will detract from the experience. And whilst that is true – as I will demonstrate with one example in a bit – it shouldn’t discourage composers and filmmakers from trying anyway, since a score doesn’t need to be big and showy to have personality or be memorable. Although The Double’s soundtrack commands your attention with its loud, melodramatic and darkly hilarious violins played by what sounds like an orchestra held at gunpoint – which is distinctive and perfectly fits the mood of the film itself – Under the Skin manages to be just as memorable with barely anything more than an uneasy discordant drone – again, distinctive and fitting.
A dull interchangeable score blends into the background and neither helps nor hinders the film that it’s attached to. A distinctive and memorable score grabs the attention and can either enhance a film’s positive attributes or highlight its glaring weaknesses. Lots of filmmakers seem to be afraid of the second half of the latter option, and so opt to go for the former instead. Whilst I understand why, I ultimately prefer the second option, because that shows some semblance of an effort, creativity, and personality in proceedings – the most memorable aspect of any Marvel Studios score that I’ve heard in the last six years has been the one that backs their frickin’ studio logo, for example.
So, in that respect, I’d like to briefly look at two recent film scores that are loud, distinctive, and personality-filled and explain how they embody all of the flaws and enhance the positive aspects of their films, respectively. Specifically: Hans Zimmer’s overwrought and majorly distracting score for Interstellar, and James Newton Howard’s off-kilter and bizarrely brilliant score for Nightcrawler.
Let’s do Interstellar first. Now, I seem to be in the minority on this one – yes, I know, you are bowled over in surprise by this twist – but I detest Zimmer’s score for the film. I find it incredibly overwrought, desperate, and ultimately hollow and insincere. His recurrent leitmotif of incredibly loud church organ notes whenever something “epic” is going down comes off like the keys are being manned by a narcoleptic who nobody can bother to remove from the instrument when he does inadvertently nod off. The constant piling on of instruments when they’re not needed, the cacophonous nature that drowns out a lot of the dialogue (although that’s more of a problem with the sound mixing than anything else), the extreme self-consciousness of its attempts to call back to hard sci-fi, and the fake-ness of it all – at no point did I get the impression that anybody involved truly put emotion into this. It’s like somebody who has never actually felt emotions trying to make other people to feel emotions; it doesn’t convince.
Consequently, this actually ends up being emblematic of Interstellar’s faults at large. The film itself is so cold, so clinical, yet so desperately trying to stir up emotions within its audience that it comes off as phony and awkward. The script lacks characters, but has plenty of time to over-explain every little bit of science that goes on in the film – like it’s worried that Neil deGrasse-Tyson is going to burst in through some nearby window and demand to see the Nolans’ science credentials. Nolan’s filmmaking style, and I’d like to note that I don’t consider it a criticism as long as he’s working within that wheelhouse, is very removed, emotionally distant and intellectual. Unfortunately, he took on a project that doesn’t play to those strengths at all and so spends a lot of the film failing miserably at emulating the style of Steven Spielberg (whom this project was originally meant for). Nolan creates moments and images of wonder and beauty, but fails terribly at making those coalesce in a way that feels genuine or is even sustained for more than a minute or two at a time.
Therefore, since the film is so detached emotionally even though it is trying so hard to grasp that human concept, the job of getting the audience emotionally invested falls on the score. Hence why it goes so all-out so frequently and so heavily. Every second of the thing is trying desperately to pick up the ball that the film drops, trying to overwhelm the audience in the hopes that the kitchen sink will finally elicit some semblance of an appropriate emotional reaction. Like the film itself, it does work in fits and starts, but it can’t keep it up for any longer than a minute or so at a time. For every pretty little dancing synth in the background, there’s seven separate segments where the foregrounded strings and organ are noticeably straining under the weight of the task placed upon them. Hence why the overall product feels thuddingly manipulative and insincere.
Again, I realise that I am in the minority about this. I expressed my thoughts on Interstellar’s score in one of my Film Studies classes shortly after release and one of the guys I know on it looked at me like I just admitted to eating puppies. He tried to counter by stating his belief that the score could tell the story of the film by itself, but I think that just bolsters my view even more. The score has to do the hard work because Interstellar itself fails at its end of the deal, so the score ends up swinging for the fences in order to try and make up for that. The score is certainly distinctive, but it just adds to the distractingly fake nature of a lot of the film and only ends up making its shortcomings more noticeable.
Contrast with James Newton Howard’s score for Nightcrawler. Now, in theory, this thing really should not work – our own Owen Hughes certainly didn’t think it did – and should be one of those soundtracks where you just sit there and go, “just what in the blue hell were they thinking?” Nightcrawler, after all, is a dark and occasionally darkly funny satire about capitalism hidden within a brutally angry takedown of 24 hour commercial news networks. I think the very last thing anybody expected to be backing key scenes was a distractingly out-of-place reverb-soaked guitar that makes it seem like Louis Bloom’s adventure is one that is hopeful and worthy of success. Or take the ending with its strangled Jimi-Hendrix-rendition-of-“Star Spangled Banner”-reminiscent overdriven guitar riff. Or even the scene before that which is backed by something that belongs more in a light-hearted comedy drama than Nightcrawler.
This is not a score that one can tune out, either. Its atypical and ill-fitting nature is constantly calling to the viewer’s attention. Not blatantly, in the sense that it is screaming for your attention, but in the way that one is having a conversation but keeps noticing something abnormal in the background that just won’t stop distracting you. And that, essentially, is the point. Nightcrawler’s score is purposefully atypical and ill-fitting because it wants to be, because it reflects the state of mind of the person whose viewpoint we are experiencing the narrative through at that moment in time.
For example, Owen cites a section around the film’s midpoint where Lou makes a speech towards Nina about his goals in life. It seems genuinely heartfelt and completely sincere – even though we the audience already know that Lou is pretty much incapable of sincerity due to his sociopathic nature – and is the kind of speech that, in a different film, would be a life-affirming inspirational moment as the scrappy underdog outlines their Big City ambitions and desire to win at the game of Capitalism. So that is how the scene is scored. Because the person we are experiencing this scene through is not a detached third party – it’s through Lou. And for Lou, in the film of his life, this is that moment.
It’s why multiple sequences where he watches his footage back on TV are backed by jaunty, bouncy tunes. To us, these are horrifying examples of a complete sociopath exploiting the trauma and fragility of those victimised by our morally bankrupt society in order to raise his own standing within it. To him, these are moments of victory where the people involved are secondary to his own accomplishments, him having that little empathy for those whose tragedy he is filming. It’s why the sequence where he screams into the mirror has this dark foreboding music; for Lou, this is his low point, where he is being unfairly kept from success by bigger people than him. The whole film could have been backed like that, to help scream to the viewer that this is wrong and to keep us at a very comfortable observatory distance from the people and events on screen. But that’s not what happens, and that in turn makes the deployment of those ominous synths carry that much weight.
Or, to case study real quick, there is a reason why the two segments of the sequence that make up “Horror House” are scored so differently. The first, when Lou is shooting it, is given this rather urgent and tense synth rumble – something that combines with the purposeful lacking in focus on the bodies and the violence to show how Lou sees the sequence: a tense race-against-time to document this once-in-a-lifetime footage before the cops show up; the victims being incidental. The second, as the footage hits the air, replaces the urgency with ominous darkness which, coupled with the focus on the bodies and the almost fetishizing of said violence, paints the scene as something from a movie. Fitting seeing as we are experiencing this scene from Nina’s perspective and she’s trying to conduct the sequence into being Must See TV.
Again, the film could have stuck with that the whole way through. It could have backed every scene with ominous synth bass rumbles, to add a few exclamation points to the idea that this is absolutely not something to idolise or aspire to. But not only would the film have lost the impact of when those times do appear – such as just before the film’s action sequence where, coincidentally, we switch narrative perspectives to Rick for a short while – it would also have lost its character study angle. Nightcrawler gets its messages across through its characters, showing how utterly warped their sense of morality and worldview has to be to win at their various games, and that idea would have been lost if the score were endlessly generic and repetitively ominous – much like my usage of that word. Such a prominent and attention-calling score was undoubtedly a risk, because it is so off-beat, but it ends up working gangbusters and elevates the rest of the film as a result.
So, now that we’ve done that, allow me to ask and answer a question: what do the scores for Interstellar and Nightcrawler have in common besides being very noticeable and memorable? Honestly, nothing. One works, one doesn’t, one overcooks proceedings whilst the other seasons them just right, one has to make up for its attached film’s flaws and only ends up making them more glaring whilst the other compliments the excellent film it backs and highlights its strengths even more. In the sense of their being scores, there’s really nothing linking them together, except one key thing…
I’m talking about them. I may hate Hans Zimmer’s work on Interstellar, but I’m talking about it. I’ll know it when some part of it inevitably breaks through into pop culture. I love Nightcrawler’s score, and I find the score such an integral part of that film’s feel that I can’t picture the film without it. Same with Interstellar. Meanwhile, you could switch the soundtracks for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Transformers: Age of Extinction and I honestly would likely be unable to tell the difference. Too many films are afraid to try crafting a score with a legitimate personality nowadays, instead settling for a fun licensed soundtrack and Generic Blockbuster Score #264 to trundle proceedings along, and that disheartens me.
Just because you may fail, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t even bother to try. I am of the firm belief that the worst thing a film can do is leave me with no reaction whatsoever. A film can make me angry, offend me, upset me, repulse me, but at least it got a reaction and isn’t that what films are supposed to do? To get a reaction out of us? I prefer a vehemently negative reaction to a shrug of total indifference, because then I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time. I’ve felt something, and way too few scores nowadays are willing to take that risk because they believe that the risk of a negative reaction far outweighs the reward of a good one.
I’d like to see more film scores try. Try to have some personality, some noticeable thing and quality about it that lends the overall film a specific feel that it can’t get from any other score. Something that does its part to help brand a film as That Film. I want them to try. I want a reaction, more than anything else. Interstellar and Nightcrawler do this. Under The Skin, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Double do this. I’d like that list to be longer in today’s films. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Callie Petch is overqualified for the position.