Home > Reviews > SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY – Film Review

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY – Film Review

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I haven’t written and published a film review, as opposed to a film score review, for more than 20 years, ever since I put some of my first, faltering attempts at entertainment journalism on the University of Sheffield’s website around 1995. However, considering the focus of this site, I thought I should make an exception here.

Score: A Film Music Documentary is, as far as I can tell, the first theatrically released film about the art of film scoring. The brainchild of writer-director Matt Schrader, who is himself a long-time film music aficionado, the film was first conceived many years ago, and was largely financed by online fundraising; it was subsequently filmed over several years, prior to finally being completed this year. I was fortunate to see the film at its European premiere during the 10th Krakow Film Music Festival in Poland in May, with composers Brian Tyler and Howard Shore, among others, in attendance.

One thing that needs to be made clear from the start is that this film is for the layman. Virtually everyone reading this will be more well-versed in film music history, the concepts that govern film music, the personalities of the composers included, and the scores mentioned, than the target audience for this film; so, if you want a film that is a more in-depth, detailed, possibly even critical analysis of soundtrack history, then this is absolutely not the film for you. Schrader aims it squarely at the general public, people who maybe like a bit of film music, and who know who John Williams and Hans Zimmer are, but couldn’t tell you any of the names of the Newman family, and have no clue what happens at a spotting session, or even how a score is recorded.

With that caveat out of the way, I personally found Score to be a charming and well-researched jaunt through film music history, from the silent era to the present day. Schrader’s visual style isn’t particularly interesting from a filmmaking point of view, but what he lacks in panache he more than makes up for in content. Virtually every major composer working in Hollywood today appears in the film, and simply for managing the logistics of getting all those composers on camera, Schrader should be applauded. The sound-bites and talking heads each provide little nuggets of information and insight about the way they work, and their thoughts on the art, and there is plenty of candid footage of composers in their natural habitats – writing rooms and recording studios – explaining their process, and even playing instruments.

The film opens with some fascinating footage of Marco Beltrami at his studio high in the mountains above Malibu, explaining how he came up with the unique sounds heard in his score for The Homesman. After a whistle stop tour through the development of film music out of the silent era via Wurlitzer pipe organs, Schrader then launches into the interviews. Among the highlights for me were David Newman speaking candidly about the Golden Age score for King Kong and how Steiner’s score essentially invented much of the syntax we take for granted today, and a long sequence in which the spotting session for the film Mother’s Day is recorded, showing the detailed musical conversations that took place between John Debney and director Garry Marshall. Another long sequence follows Joe Kraemer as he records his score for Mission: Impossible –Rogue Nation at Abbey Road in London. Fascinatingly, another segment is devoted to Dr. Siu Lan Tan of the University of Kalamazoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has spent a great deal of her career looking at the psychological and physical link between music and emotion, and who compares the emotional quality of film music to the endorphin rush experienced when eating chocolate or having sex.

A lengthy section in the middle of the film is appropriately dedicated to the career of John Williams, who appears only in archive footage. Most of his classic scores are touched upon – from Jaws, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to Star Wars – and the footage shows him working with Steven Spielberg and composing the theme for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial while viewing the dailies on an old-fashioned moviola. Many other composers appear to provide anecdotes and snippets of wisdom, including Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, John Powell, Bear McCreary, Tyler Bates, David Arnold, Rachel Portman, Heitor Pereira, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Christopher Young; other industry professionals appear too, including journalist Jon Burlingame, ASCAP executive Shawn Le Mone, agent Richard Kraft, and producer Robert Townson. The whole thing moves along at a rapid pace, jumping from composer to composer, and it’s all very surface-level, but it’s certainly interesting to see the personalities and voices of so many well-known names.

The film does concentrate a little bit too much on contemporary composers for my taste. There is way too much time spent listening to people like Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Junkie XL, time that could have been put to better use on someone like Alexandre Desplat – who is in the film for literally 10 seconds – or talking more about people like Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, or Alex North, who are all featured, but who I felt were not really given enough credit for being the groundbreaking composers they were. Not only that, I don’t remember Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, or Georges Delerue being mentioned at all, and on the whole the film did seem very America-centric, with little to no mention of anything involving the film music worlds outside Hollywood. I understand that this is a tricky balance to achieve, and Schrader has to cater to his intended audience, but some of the omissions were head-scratchers. Perhaps the most disappointing omission of all was that of James Horner, whose only mention in the entire film comes right at the end when he is briefly eulogized by director James Cameron.

These issues aside, Score: A Film Music Documentary is nevertheless an interesting and long-overdue look at the men and women who, speaking for myself, write the most complex, emotional, but undervalued and misunderstood music in the world today. Casual film buffs will get much more out of it than hardcore soundtrack aficionados, but there are enough moments of magic and wisdom for it to appeal to both.

Score: A Film Music Documentary is currently playing theatrically in Los Angeles and New York, and will be released on DVD later in the year.

Running Time: 93 minutes

Gravitas Ventures/Epicleff Media (2017)

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY
Directed by Matt Schrader
Produced by Mubarac Al Sabah, Lincoln Bandlow, Dan Gabriel, Nate Gold, Kenny Holmes, Robert Kraft, Damien Mazza, John Savva, Ryan Taubert, Trevor Thompson and Jonathan Willibanks
Written by Matt Schrader
Cinematography by Nate Gold and Kenny Holmes
Edited by Kenny Holmes and Matt Schrader
Original score by Ryan Taubert

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  1. Kate
    June 30, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Very good and accurate review. I had very similar thoughts about this film. Yes, Desplat, and Elliot Goldenthal for a whopping 7 seconds (estimate).

  2. Anson Dible
    July 3, 2017 at 5:49 am

    The university mentioned in Kalamazoo in the review is Western Michigan University; not Kalamazoo University. Although Michigan is somewhat “directionally challenged” when it comes to university naming; there are 4: Northern, Western, Eastern, and Central. Western, in Kalamazoo, does have a Superb music program however.

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