Sound Of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies

Wednesday 11 September 2013, 16:45

John Das John Das Series Producer

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Walking into the Californian studio of Hans Zimmer, king of the blockbuster soundtrack, I’m greeted by a series of epic, thundering chords. 

Instantly, I feel like I’ve been transported onto the high seas of Pirates Of The Caribbean, or into the middle of an exploding dream in Inception.

Then the music fades and the illusion ends. It’s just a couple of Zimmer’s assistants testing out the studio equipment. But for a moment…

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Hans Zimmer on a director's dilemma when ceding control to a composer
The extraordinary power of film music is the subject of Sound of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies, the series I’m producing for BBC Four.

Like our presenter Neil Brand and the rest of the production team, I’m a lifelong film devotee, and the series was a remarkable opportunity to meet and hear from some of the greatest talents of modern cinema.

The world of actors and directors tends to be a closely guarded one, but composers rarely get their share of the limelight, and our interviewees proved refreshingly open and approachable.

Amiably holding court in his studio - which resembles a high-class 19th Century bordello with synth components on the wall – Hans Zimmer recalled his own early days working for the BBC (remember the theme to the 80s game show Going for Gold?).

He discussed how comedies can be the hardest films to get right – he "agonises" over every note of a comedy soundtrack.

I was surprised when he claimed The Lion King is the most serious score he’s ever written, until he explained how its story reminded him of the early loss of his own father.
Zimmer was candid about how he still feels vulnerable when presenting a piece of music for the first time. Making the series really brought home to me just how tough a composer’s job can be.

Scripts and actors’ performances can be tweaked and worked on as they evolve; film scores are much more a matter of taste.

Being a well-established composer is no guarantee that your latest work won’t be rejected by a director or studio.

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The director discusses the effect two Hitchcock films had on him as a child

The series is told very much from the point of view of the composers, but we also approached Martin Scorsese, arguably the most musically literate of all directors.

I didn’t hold out much hope, but Scorsese turned out to be so keen to take part that he gave up a rare morning off from filming The Wolf Of Wall Street to talk to us.

He discussed his two classic 1970s films – Taxi Driver, scored by perhaps the greatest ever American film composer, Bernard Herrmann, and Mean Streets, which had no composer at all, just Scorsese’s favourite tracks from his own record collection. 

Scorsese was as sharp and fast-talking as we’d hoped – just like a character straight out of one of his movies. But when he recalled Mean Streets and its links to his own childhood, it brought out a more emotional side of him that I don’t think is often seen.

We were surprised to learn that for someone with such an instinctive feel for music, Scorsese can’t actually play an instrument himself.
We were taking on a huge subject, and we knew from the start that it would be impossible to include all the scores and composers we admired.

At all stages of making the series we faced painful decisions about what to leave out. I’ll never forget when the great Disney composer Richard Sherman performed his classic song Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins in Disney’s own recording studio for us.

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Richard Sherman introduces and performs Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins
It’s one of the most beautiful songs in the whole Disney canon, but for reasons of length we couldn’t include it in the finished documentary. But I’m pleased that you can watch it above although the clip ends before you can hear a crew of grown men, carried back to their childhoods, sniffing away tearfully off camera.
There was a similarly powerful moment when Vangelis turned to his keyboard when we were interviewing him and played us his sublime Blade Runner theme, segueing into Chariots Of Fire.

Hearing the two pieces brought together sent shivers down the spines of everyone in the room.

Like Zimmer and Sherman, Vangelis took us to thrilling, emotional places in just a few notes. Watching the series, I hope you’ll feel similarly transported.

John Das is the series producer of Sound Of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies.

Sound Of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies starts at 9pm on Thursday, 12 September on BBC Four. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

The series is part of BBC radio and television's autumn season dedicated to the composers, songs and film scores that form the soundtrack to the big screen. Please see the Sound Of Cinema season page for details.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Watched this tonight. Really enjoyed it. I love film music, my favourite composers being Barry, Morricone, Zimmer, Powell and Elfman. For me, the series should be 10 episodes!
    One question though. I'm not that good at recognising classical music. Please could you tell me the waltz piece played over the Vienna shots when mentioning Max Steiner. I know it's famous but I don't think it's The Blue Danube.

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    Comment number 2.

    Watched last night, loved it but have a little issue...
    John Williams, the man who has given cinema arguably the most recognisable and iconic scores from the mid 70s to the 80s was skated over and (dare I say it) sniffed at. There was no interview (something that maybe wasn't the fault of the series) and no real insights except to say that Star Wars came from a 1930s tradition and that it was actually not much more than a copy of Korngold...
    Williams came up with JAWS for goodness sake! Why was this (the most incredible use of minimalist score since Psycho) not even mentioned? How about Close Encounters? Not only a magnificent score but also the theme of the mothership? ET? Indiana Jones??
    Maybe it's because I'm in my mid 40s and I grew up in the cinema watching these incredible movies and marvelling not only at their visual spectacle but also the incredible scores but I do think he was largely sniffed at as a magpie composer who simply stole from the 30s to write his music.
    Whatever the case I shall be most interested to watch the rest of the series

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    Comment number 3.

    1 Norma.

    The music is from Johann Strauss - overture to his operetta "Die Fledermaus".

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thankyou Soulman1949.

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    Comment number 5.

    I very much enjoyed the first program, but I have a big concern: apart from an analysis at the beginning of the music for the opening credits of "The Ipcress File", this was a totally Hollywod-centric account; no mention of Sir William Walton or Richard Addinsale, Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone; there will, I know, be two more programs, but program 2 appears to be devoted to the influence of pop music. Contrast Mark Currie's series on film, which was focussed on world cinema, and repeatedly contrasted what went on in Hollywwod with what went on elsewhere.
    I also agreed with Tim Armitage; ; and why was precious time expended looking at the original score, the piano, and Korngold's baton? More analysis would have been good; was Korngold really greater than Steiner? I have frequently heard that he was. the section on Film Noir was good.

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    Comment number 6.

    Theimportance of film music to the narrative, characterization, and the film-going exoerience is all too rarely acknowledged by the general public. I loved this programme. A slight quibble: I am not convinced that the through-composed classically-based cued film score sprang fully-armed from the head of Max Steiner in the 1930s. Think of Meisel, Gottschalk, Saint-Saens to name a few. Gottschalk worked with D. W. Griffith, composing a score for Orphans of the Storm (1921). Other major films for which he contributed scores include The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Three Musketeers, Little Lord Fauntleroy (all 1921), and Romola (1924). When the ZDF revived classic silent movies for TV such as Storm ove Asia) in the 70s and 80s, they were at pains to find the original orchestral scores, on one occasion commissioning a replacement score from the original composer, by the aged 90. Incidentally, the advent of sound threw hundreds if not thousands of cinema musicians out of work across Europe and the US.

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    Comment number 7.

    Having just watched the new series about the cinema and the impact that music has upon the storey telling of the movie.
    Neil Brand excellent explanations about how the music is built up to produce a subliminal effect on the audience, and how there is a cinematic orchestral sound.
    Never mentioned, though was the limited recording technology of the early film sound.
    If my sound theory lesions were correct. Neil mentioned that the early soundtracks were recorded on to discs.
    Like the early gramophone recordings, the conventional orchestral recordings of the time sounded dull, as the frequency response was partially unkind to the violin and many high pitched instruments. To boost the sound instruments with a bit more oomph were added (Brass) to compensate the lack of volume from other instruments.
    It makes me wonder if, as technology improved This full bodied sound stuck, and hence forming the high impact soundtracks of today.

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    Comment number 8.

    In my previous post, I wrote Mark Currie, instead of Mark Cousins.
    The more I think about it, the more dissatisfied I feel; I could have done without the reverent handling of relics (Korngold's scoe and baton) which benights so many documentaries; Steiner was represented by King Kong, the soundtrack of which is of such poor quality that it made Steiner's abilities hard to appreciate; where were Gone with the Wind and Casablanca? Barely mentioned; and why is Korngold so venerated? Is really he so much better than everyone else?
    But worse was the Hollywood-centeredness, the total lack of a worldwide perspective which made Cousin's series so good; admittedly Channel 4 committed far more resources; yet they must have far less money than the BBC; and Film 4 regularly shows World Cinema, which is now almost totally absent from the BBC.
    Unfortunately the Beeb gives one person the resources to give their idiosyncratic perspective; so we had Howard Goodall's blatantly prejudiced and ill-informed program on Wagner in his series earlier this year.

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    Comment number 9.

    Exploring this topic is an excellent idea, some of the most creative music currently written is done so for movies. Like most people my list would have been different, however, I think it may be better to distinguish between the music as 'Original soundtracks' - music written specifically for the individual film and separately 'Songs added' to a movie. Also I thought musicals, i.e. 'The sound of music' and 'West side story' originated on stage?

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    Comment number 10.

    Watch this guy making silent movie music on the fly on an old photoplayer...
    The emotional range might be limited but of you want happy it can't be beat

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    Comment number 11.

    Gil Melle's avant-garde soundtrack to the original Andromeda Strain (1971) is a masterpiece. It underpins the disturbing nature of films narrative, bring an urgency and terror to the movie.

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    Comment number 12.

    To be fair to the BBC, Williams was a Composer of the Week in 2012. the highlight for me from that excellent and comprehensive overview was the score for A I, a (?)Spielberg film I had never heard of

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    Comment number 13.

    My favourite film music was written by Mark Knopfler for Local Hero.

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    Comment number 14.

    I enjoyed the first program too, but as a Vangelis enthusiast, I'm looking forward to ep. 3. In this episode, the synth master talks about his famous score Chariots of Fire and you can watch him play. So, I'm very jealous about the makers of this program ;-)

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 16.

    The series surely has to include Howard Shore for Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Basil Poliderous' Conan The Barbarian, Danny Elfman's Batman, John Barry's Bond scores, Dances With Wolves/ Out Of Africa, Nino Rota's Godfather, Vangelis' Bladerunner and all of Williams other best scores, including Superman, Indianna Jones and Jaws.
    Some "soundtracks" you can vote for are odd, why has Django's soundtrack been hand-picked when its not even top 3 Tarrantino soundtracks. The same applies for The Dark Knight Rises which isn't the best score from the Batman films.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The series executives/writers/organisers should be able to distinguish between "SOUNDTRACKS" which is music chosen to appear in films, common in all Tarrantino pictures, whereas a "SCORE" is music written specifically for the film.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Like John Dakin, I'm also disappointed by the Hollywood centrism of many of the programs so far. I agree with his list of omissions and would add the wonderful Georges Delerue, The limited and often curious soundtrack choices you're inviting listeners to vote on are especially frustrating. In particular, I'm amazed not to see two magnificent scores: Gottfried Huppertz's for Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Prokofiev's for Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. Produced through intense composer-director collaborations, I believe these are among the greatest examples of compositions that both perfectly enhance the film and also live as stand-alone classics.

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    Comment number 19.

    Alima, I am so glad that you agree about Hollywood centrism: the music of Alexander Nevsky is wonderful; my point is, not just that non-Hollywood composers are left out, but that the story is very distorted if told from the Hollywood point of view; one of the things which I admired about Mark Cousin's series was its global perspective. But the BBC neglects World Cinema anyway; 20 years ago, that was not the case, and I remember watching films from all round the world late at night on BBC2. BBC4's predecessor BBC Knowledge also showed foreign language films, as well as an extensive interview with Ingmar Bergman. However since BBC Four started, it has hardly covered filmsat all; silent film also is simply not there.

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    Comment number 20.

    John, I'm interested and disappointed to hear what you say about the UK. As a Brit with a lifelong passion for music and film who's been living in the US for two-thirds of a long life, I thought the lack of global and historical perspective on film was an American phenomenon. I'm glad to report that the tide may be turning here. Turner Classic Movies, founded to present classic Hollywood, is increasingly showing international classics, including silent films, and independent channels are trying to expose viewers to contemporary world cinema.

    BTW, I just heard a Radio 3 presenter describe Max Steiner as the originator of opera-style character-related themes in film scores. Huppertz did that brilliantly a decade earlier.


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