Soundtrack and Motion: An Essay about Music in Film

 

By Tyler Ham Pong, Film Columnist

 

I once had a debate whether movies could live independently of their soundtrack and still carry the same weight. That if you stripped a movie of its score or music selection, it could evoke the same emotion from the audience. To some extent it would be an exercise in restraint for filmmakers who rest on the laurels of a hit song. Ultimately, I believe that sound and motion are most successful in harmony. By the same token, Chinatown is considered the template for the perfect screenplay, but I wouldn’t say it should live independently of the movie. So, let’s talk about music in film.

Two of my favorite filmmakers are equally iconic for their soundtracks. Quentin Tarantino, often considered to be one of our generations most important filmmakers, is someone who makes and breaks his own rules. His early movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are musically iconic for their jukebox feel, a style that carries through to his contemporary films. Why his song selection is important is because of his successful integration of pop music into film in a way that doesn’t seem like cross-promotion. Without his ironic and irreverent selection of music, his films might have lost that sharp bite that comes from self-aware storytelling. Filmmakers by the truckload followed suit, shaping the MTV generation of cool cinema. Imitation is the sincerest form of flatter, as they say. But it all stemmed from Tarantino’s fusion of music and film that wasn’t just meant to sell records — at least not for him.

A few years later, he flipped the switch for his Blaxploitation-inspired film Jackie Brown starring Pam Grier. To save money on the soundtrack, Tarantino used Miramax’s library of past Blaxploitation film soundtracks that influenced the film itself. Super meta, right? Well buckle up, because here’s another layer. The music he chose to recycle from The Big Doll House and Coffy both star… Pam Grier. By using the music from his lead actress’s previous films, it adds a sense of nostalgia for the 70’s while subconsciously reintroducing this character as a more matured, nuanced version of herself. In this case, music is very important to the development and digestion of this film. Even today, he references past soundtracks, including those of legendary composer Ennio Morricone best known for composing the score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The other filmmaker I reference is Tim Burton, who gives a completely different example. Early in his film career, he asked musician Danny Elfman of new wave band Oingo Boingo to score Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman had little experience writing music for movies, and jumped in headfirst. Ultimately it switched Elfman’s career path from Oingo Boingo front man to Hollywood household name. His use of vocal chorus over instrumentation became Tim Burton’s defining “sound” for most of the 90’s and ‘aughts.’ I can’t imagine Edward Scissorhands without a crescendo of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ leading up to that last snowfall.

On the other hand, the absence of music can be just as impactful. I didn’t even notice until the end credits of the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men that the film didn’t have any soundtrack whatsoever. This intentionally added to the bleak existence of the world they were creating, adding another iconic film to their already iconic filmography.

These filmmakers made me realize the importance of music and soundtrack in film. Much like when French novelist Marcel Proust famously relived childhood memories when eating a madeleine dipped in tea – I realized that all senses are connected. Memories are tied to sights, sounds and smells. When you feel a certain way about a song, it’s because it triggers something buried deep within your thoughts and feelings. To neglect music limits your access to the audience’s subconscious.

 

 

Tyler Ham Pong started performing at a young age, first appearing onstage as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the National Arts Centre in Canada. In addition to training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, his New York City achievements have included producing Moony Mercury (theatre), producing the award-winning Two Days ’til Dawn (theatre), and producing the short film Sawaru, winning him a Best Actor Award at the AAIFF. Currently he’s based in Los Angeles, and you can follow him @tylerhampong or go to http://www.tylerhampong.com and www.killthepigproductions.com.

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