Talking Movies

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

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December 22, 2017

More Moore, Roger Moore!

ITV 4’s recent decision to screen all 7 of Roger Moore’s Bond movies in prime time from Monday to Sunday as a dementedly late in the year tribute has been a fascinating exercise in nostalgia and re-evaluation.

The great paradox is that while Moore is remembered as the supremely nonchalant Bond, the films in which he appeared were themselves supremely lacking in confidence. Live and Let Die tries to cash in on blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun tries to cash in on kung fu, The Spy Who Loved Me desperately tries to remake You Only Live Twice with added megalomania, Moonraker tries to cash in on Star Wars, and A View to a Kill shamelessly recycles the ‘criminal mastermind uses explosion in San Andreas fault line to contrive earthquake’ plot of Superman. And then there’s the music. Coming across Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me on the same Sunday that A View to a Kill aired it was very noticeable that Jay Roach and Mike Myers were plundering John Barry’s 1960s Bond scores for their parodic purposes. Barry sat out a number of Moore’s films, and even when he was there he seems to have been on autopilot.

Watching The Avengers on ITV 4 recently it was hard to miss their plundering of Barry’s 1960s Bond sound to a point where you expected Steed and Mrs Peel to have start fending off Eon process servers. Yet the Moore era witness a weird degeneration from being so confident that other peopled copied you to being so insecure all you do is copy instead. Marvin Hamlisch quoted Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker sees John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind five tone melody appropriated, and ‘California Girls’ takes over the soundtrack for comedic purposes in A View to a Kill, while the 1970s scores are awash with funky wah-wah music and then disco beats in a desperate attempt to sound like the hit parade. The SPECTRE themes of the 1960s are entirely absent, Barry’s dashing secondary Bond theme only appears in Moonraker, and there is no readily identifiable Moore signature music whereas Connery’s body of work has at least five recognisable suites of music. Indeed when the music improves in Moore’s final outing, it is because Barry has wheeled out a reworking of a 1960s idea with brassier instrumentation than his string-drenched Octopussy compositions.

My mother’s contention that action sequences could be transposed from Moore movie to Moore movie without affecting coherence overly is strengthened when you realise that not only do Moore’s film bring back characters between films simply to observe mayhem and be gobsmacked by it, and begin a tradition of random hopping about the globe compared to the more located Connery films, but also Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me; simply switching out start a nuclear war, kill everyone, and live underwater for bomb the earth from space, kill everyone, and live in space. This becomes funnier and ever more meta when you consider that their shared ur-text You Only Live Twice was itself a self-confessed rehash of Dr No by a desperate Roald Dahl who had little to fill his blank screenplay pages other than the setting of Japan and an instruction to have three Bond girls: a bad one who dies, a good one who dies, and a good one who lives.

 

July 8, 2015

Kids’ Films at the Lighthouse

Films You’d Love Your Kids To See, a season of classic 1980s movies back on the big screen, kicks off in the Lighthouse cinema tonight.

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During July and August you can relive the golden age of kids’ films of the 1980s, with a brace of detours to the 1970s. The Lighthouse promises films which drew audiences into worlds filled with magic, adventure, thrills, and frights, courtesy of goblins, spaceships, pirates, muppets, friendly aliens, flying dragons, cars that could go back in time, and imbued with a sense of awe and optimism that can now be relived and enjoyed once more by new and older generations. If the last clause about awe and optimism causes bad flashbacks to Tomorrowland fear not. Film-goers are invited to experience the original spectacular sci-fi of Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, as well as the fantasies of Jim Henson’s LabyrinthThe Dark Crystal, and The NeverEnding Story, and the tongue-in-cheek derring-do of Indiana Jones and The Goonies.

Special events include Lighthouse Book Club screenings of Willy Wonka and Stand By Me (both of which will have special Kids’ Book Club screenings), as well as a Jim Henson Double Bill, and an  Indiana Jones Marathon. There will be late-night screenings for adults and matinees for families to enjoy. So whether you want to re-live one of your old favourites on the big screen or introduce a whole new generation to these wonderful films, the Lighthouse invites you to escape into these magical worlds this summer on the scale they were originally intended – for a big screen with hundreds of people groaning at Indy being served monkey brains. It must be noted that the split-focus of the season, between 1980s kids who now have families, and 1980s kids who just want to relive their childhood is kind of interesting…

Your children cannot have the same childhood you had; the world has moved on, unless of course we’re talking about the seemingly indestructible world of Transformers. But even Transformers proves the point, my memories of those toys are inextricably bound up with an accompanying British comic and its staggeringly Shakespearean storylines, not a series of Michael Bay films whose screenwriters probably never heard of that comic. But the desire to introduce children to the 1980s classics Lucas & Spielberg et al suggests something more than nostalgia, it says something about the current state of cinema – and it’s more or less a white flag. Omnipresent CGI that can render anything you can imagine just so long as you imagine looking it like CGI will never capture the imagination the way that the last stand of practical effects did in the 1980s.

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E.T.

WED 8TH JULY, 3PM & 8.30PM | SAT 11TH JULY, 3PM & 10.30PM

Science fiction when visualised by Spielberg and scored by Williams is an emotional wonder to experience on the big screen. E.T. asks the question ‘are we alone in the universe?’ and allows the audience to believe that if we’re not, then there’s a universe of adventures to be had and friends to be made. A film that can make grown men cry, Spielberg’s early masterpiece has an innate sense of wonder that is unequalled.

 

LABYRINTH

TUE 14TH JULY, 3PM & 8.30PM | SUN 19TH JULY, 4PM

Part Muppets, part Monty Python, this dark fairytale was directed by Jim Henson and written by Terry Jones. Starring a very young Jennifer Connolly and a very wicked David Bowie, Labyrinth is a rock’n’roll fantasy whose dark heart is cheered up by a colourful cast of Muppets who aid Sarah in her attempt to free her baby brother from the clutches of the Goblin King.

 

THE DARK CRYSTAL

WED 15TH JULY, 3PM & 8.30PM | SUN 19TH JULY, 2PM

In a world divided between the malevolent Skeksis and the benevolent Mystics, two ‘gelflings’ must quest to find the shard of the Dark Crystal to ensure the world doesn’t fall to darkness. Muppets mastermind Jim Henson and Frank Oz (Yoda himself!) co-directed this striking and beautifully crafted, yet sometimes rather dark fantasy.

 

THE DARK CRYSTAL & LABYRINTH

FRI 17TH JULY, 8.30PM

Are you a Gelfling or a Goblin? Celebrate the genius of Jim Henson by going back to the fantastical worlds and characters he created in The Dark Crystal and getting your Chilly Down (doing the Magic Dance) with David Bowie’s Goblin King. That’s right, it’s an 80s cult double bill in the shape of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

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THE NEVERENDING STORY

TUE 21ST JULY, 3PM & 8.30PM | SAT 25TH JULY, 3PM & 10.30PM

Upon discovering a mysterious book, Bastian enters a magical world of Fantastica and is called on to help the Child Empress and young warrior Atreyu to save the world from terrifying non-entity ‘The Nothing’. But for every wish he makes, Bastian loses a memory from his real life. Fairy-tale action of the highest order – who hasn’t dreamt of flying on their own luck-dragon!?

 

WILLY WONKA

MON 27TH JULY, 6.30PM | SUN 2ND AUG, 1PM (FOR KIDS)

Keeping up the annual Roald Dahl summer book club, this year Lighthouse book club invites you to join them for a screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, Roy Kinnear, and a host of Oompa-Loompas. For the first time ever, there’ll be both an adult book club in the usual slot and an extra Sunday afternoon children’s edition.

 

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?

WED 29TH JULY, 3PM & 8.30PM | SAT 1ST AUG, 3PM & 10.30PM

It’s difficult to say if Robert Zemeckis’ film was intended specifically for children or not. With its film-noir stylings, the ludicrously sultry Jessica Rabbit, and its knowing winks at the ego and corruption at work in Hollywood, there’s as much to love in this live-action-animation hybrid for adults as there is for children as Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd clash.

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

TUE 4TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM | FRI 7TH AUG, 10.30PM | SUN 9TH AUG, 3PM

Time travel has never, ever been this much fun. Michael J Fox is 1980s teenager Marty McFly who, stuck in a time-travel jaunt back to the 1950s – courtesy of his mad-scientist friend Doc Brown – must ensure that his parents end up falling in love so his existence is ensured. Mind-bending in the greatest way and full of spectacle and adventure, as all great family films should be.

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THE KARATE KID

WED 5TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM | SAT 8TH AUG, 3PM & 10.30PM

Everyone on your street did at least one karate class as a kid and there was probably some kid with a black belt who seemed like the coolest person in town. That is thanks, to a huge extent, to this film. Probably the greatest pairing of master and student in sports movie history, Daniel and Mr Miyagi throw poses like nobody’s business in this classic coming-of-age sports film.

 

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

WED 12TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM | SUN 16TH AUG, 3PM

Spielberg’s first foray into the world of extra-terrestrials, Close Encounters is not only a wonderful film, but one that has hardly aged at all despite its heavy use of special effects. The trademark Spielberg sense of wonder, channelled through man-child alter-ego Richard Dreyfuss, makes this a marvellous big-screen experience for both young and not-so-young. Although children might not be so enamoured with the idea of dad simply abandoning the family to hang out with ET.

 

INDIANA JONES TRILOGY

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg put their blockbusting heads together and came up with the ultimate family-friendly adventure. A throwback to old 1930s cliff-hanger serials, Harrison Ford is the perfect charismatic, quipping leading man. These films have everything – action, romance, face-melting, whips, running from a giant rolling boulder. Not only does each film get its own daily screenings but there’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch all three back-to-back in the Indiana Jones Trilogy Marathon. What do you mean there were four films?

 

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

TUE 18TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM

WED 19TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

THURS 20TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM

INDIANA JONES TRILOGY  MARATHON

SAT 22ND AUG, FROM 2PM

For €21 TRILOGY DISCOUNT PRICE – call 01 8728006 or book in person at Box-Office.

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THE GOONIES

THURS 27TH AUG, 3PM & 8.30PM | SAT 29TH AUG, 3PM & 10.30PM

Goonies never say die! Get your treasure maps out and come along to screenings of The Goonies, one of the most beloved of 80s cult classics. The ultimate kids’ adventure tale sees a group of friends trying to save their homes from being demolished and in doing so discover an old treasure map from the legendary One Eyed Willie, but they must battle the weirdest family in America for the hidden treasure. Pirate outfits and truffle shuffles encouraged.

 

STAND BY ME

SUN 30TH AUG, 1PM (FOR OLDER KIDS) | MON 31ST AUG, 6.30PM

Based on the short novella The Body by Stephen King, Stand By Me is a masterful adaptation of a very brilliant book, with Rob Reiner reining in King’s customary tendency to go just a bit too far. Pushing the definition of kids’ films to its limits this coming of age thriller starring the future Wesley Crusher and a fully-formed villainous Kiefer Sutherland is the perfect discussion piece for the YA Lighthouse Book Club.

 

Tickets are now on sale at www.lighthousecinema.ie, with free online booking for members.

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