We listen at the movies. As we watch the screen we hear sounds that complement the visuals from dialogue to background detail, from nature to special effects. And these sounds and the movie itself, would feel incomplete without the music score to let us know what to feel and how to react.

Consider the pulsating rhythm that warns us something will happen in Jaws. Or the electronic sounds that introduce the tech revolution in The Social Network or the natural sounds that welcome Julie Andrews to sing about music in the hills. Remember the melodic strains of As Time Goes By that underscore the romance in Casablanca and the melody of The Way We Were as Barbra Streisand bids Robert Redford goodbye. And imagine the lonesome sound of Moon River as Audrey Hepburn arrives at Tiffany’s one morning for breakfast.

Film composers create magic under tight schedules and rigid demands. They know music, and they learn their films, so they can produce the right notes at the right moments. As the father of a composer I respect what music men and women accomplish. As a fan of film, I savor what music contributes to a movie. How could Kevin Costner roam the cornfields in Field of Dreams, or Janet Leigh step into the shower in Psycho, without music to prepare us for what happens next?

Score: A Film Music Documentary explores how the music in movies are made through interviews with contemporary composers.

Score: A Film Music Documentary pays tribute to film composers by lightly reviewing the history of music on film, slightly detailing the process a composer follows to score a film and somewhat considering what music can add to a film. If this makes Score sound like a light movie, that’s because it is unnecessarily light, a real missed opportunity. As entertaining as the commentary from contemporary film composers may be, their observations describe their own work on movies rather than help us absorb the overall topic. Only when we hear from Hans Zimmer, the Oscar winner for The Lion King, do we get a real sense of what a composer goes through to make magic with movie music. Otherwise we learn more about the composers, themselves, than the music they create for the films.

And that’s too bad. This topic offers so much to pursue. But Score avoids exploring what happened in Hollywood’s past that enables new composers to continue to innovate. We barely hear about the boundaries Max Steiner pushed when composing Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. We breeze by the bravery in Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock. And we hear nothing about such multiple Oscar winners as Henry Mancini, Marvin Hamlisch and Maurice Jarre. Instead filmmaker Matt Schrader favors spending time with new composers. Only in the comments from Thomas Newman, the son of legendary composer Alfred Newman, do we connect the present with the past. But it’s minimal. Even John Williams, with more Oscar nominations than any composer, is short changed. And, without the history, there’s little context for present-day observations.

Movie music could be a great story for a movie if the leading characters could be the giants who taught film audiences how to listen. But Score forgets about them.

Film Nutritional Value: Score

  • Content: Medium. Taking a look at the magic music can create for the movies could make for a wonderful film. But this one falls short.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Because the film focuses on what’s current in film music, rather than celebrate the past of movie music, the visit feels incomplete.
  • Message: Medium. As familiar as we may be with the music we hear at the movies, the film does help us see what this essential element can add.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to learn more about making movies can be interesting to people who enjoy movies.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie offers a meaningful opportunity to discuss favorite moments in movies that music inspires us to remember.

(Score: A Film Music Documentary, running 93 minutes, is rated PG, and is available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes after showing in area theaters. 3 Popcorn Buckets)

Stephen Sondheim: The ultimate composer

By Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

While Score: A Film Music Documentary celebrates how composers enhance movies, those of us who love theater and film savor every opportunity to celebrate the work of Stephen Sondheim. While primarily known as a composer and lyricist for the Broadway stage, his work has enhanced movies for almost 60 years.

Of course, Sondheim’s first musical, West Side Story, was so beautifully filmed in 1961 by Robert Wise that it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Even though Sondheim contributes some of his most touching lyrics, this musical belongs more to the driving melodies of Leonard Bernstein and the remarkable dances of Jerome Robbins. More than 55 years later, the film still amazes with the energy in its movement and the depth of its emotional content.

One year later, Sondheim experienced what can happen to a show when the Hollywood experts cast the wrong star. On stage, his lyrics — to the music of Jule Styne — detail the turbulent backstage life of Gypsy Rose Lee in a show that many consider the Broadway’s best. While the role of Mama Rose has been played on Broadway by such names as Ethel Merman (the first), Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone, the screen assignment went to Rosalind Russell. And while she is touching in some later scenes, Russell never establishes the character’s drive to make stars of her children. That makes it difficult to sympathize when her fortunes change.

While Sondheim experienced his first success on Broadway as a composer and lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, it suffered its way to the screen in 1966 when director Richard Lester decided to cut a lot of music to focus on the story’s comic elements. What he overlooked, though, is that a musical is all about music, and a musical without the necessary music doesn’t always make sense. Despite a funny performance from the reliable Zero Mostel, and strong support from Phil Silvers, those who wandered into Forum in a movie theater may have wondered what all the fuss was about.

Musically, A Little Night Music features one of Sondheim’s most ambitious scores with the songs written in 3/4 time to create a collection of lovely waltz melodies. The composer brings those melodies to life with some of his most insightful lyrics as he examines the follies of human relationships. While this show can be an intensely theatrical experience, it begs for a visual treatment, especially when the narrative shifts to the country in the second act. But there’s nothing visual in this stage-bound adaptation directed by Harold Prince who also directed the original on Broadway. While Hermione Gingold and Lou Cariou effectively recreate their stage roles, and Diana Rigg makes a saucy appearance, the casting of Elizabeth Taylor in the role created by Glynis Johns is a bit of stunt casting that backfires. Taylor looks bored with the dialogue, uncomfortable in the costumes and intimidated by the score. Her rendition of the magical Send in the Clowns is painful.

Leave it to Tim Burton — perhaps a surprising choice to direct a Sondheim musical — to create a most effective screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the tune-filled exploration of a man who seeks revenge in unusual ways. With Johnny Depp revealing surprising musical sense, and Helena Bonham Carter using her little voice in a big way, Burton creates a world that would make Sondheim proud. While the score had to be cut to fit the running time, the magic of the work shines through. We get from the movie what Sondheim originally intended.

Like Burton, Rob Marshall demonstrates a real respect for Sondheim, and an appreciation for what makes his work so special, in the film version of the fairy tale musical, Into the Woods. On its inspired journey from stage to screen, this musical retains all of its magic from the stage as it transforms into a rich visual experience. Rather than recreate the theatricality of the original, director Marshall reimagines the material. The result is a musical dream from start to finish. For Sondheim, the man who reinvented the Broadway musical, Into the Woods preserves the essence of a work that reveals so much of his heart. With lovely melodies — and lyrics that shine with humor and understanding — he makes us wish we actually could live in those woods. If only we could sing.