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An edifying peek behind the composer's curtain and how music brings cinema alive

The center of the Venn diagram that corrals music lovers and film buffs is surprisingly large, but unsurprisingly fervent, as evidenced by Sunday evening’s sold-out showing of Score: A Film Music Documentary at the Milwaukee Film Festival. The title is probably enough to convince those at the center of these intersecting circles to go see it: as promised, you’re in for a charming joyride through cinematic history via the touchpoint of music, followed by a broad, though not necessarily deep, dive (dog paddle?) into the magic that is the modern composer’s workflow.

Score opens with a brief history of the movie score, whizzing us past the Wurlitzer organ of silent films, which were in fact not so silent, all the way to Trent Reznor’s synth-heavy score for The Social Network. And we make brief pit-stops along the way to enjoy the introduction of the orchestral score (credit goes to King Kong), the first foray into jazz-as-score (hat tip to A Streetcar Named Desire) and the marvel of modern technology exemplified by Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg’s computer-mixed drums in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Perennial favorites are revisited and dissected, alongside clips that both illustrate their utility and sate the audience’s Pavlovian ear-worm formation: the ominous two-note phrasing in Jaws, the iconic Superman theme, the triumphant Indiana Jones score and the transcendent James Bond melody, etc. A cadre of movie-music legends and lesser-known composers provide commentary in equal parts insightful and gushing. To name a few: John Williams, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, John Debney and Hans Zimmer (whose voice, it should be noted, is every bit as melodious as the orchestral scores he describes).

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The bulk of the movie’s joy is born from its subjects’ obvious passion for their work. The audience gets a fly-on-the wall peek at the process of creating what James Cameron refers to as “the heartbeat of the film.” Rachel Portman composes in real time behind a piano; Mark Mothersbaugh shows off his collection of alternative instruments and shares the story behind a long-lost toy piano on which he composed the Rugrats theme; rhythms are discharged via metal bowls and marimbas; an Abbey Road Studios orchestra delivers a pitch-perfect sight-read of the Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation theme…

Essentially, Score is a love letter to those whose job is to compose love letters to film.

But for all of its merits, the film stumbles over its own ambition, and the small tastes that the audience enjoys never move beyond the amuse-bouche. With a topic so broad and a fan base so ardent, it would be nearly impossible for a single film to fully articulate the mysterious alchemy of film and music. Perhaps a series of sharper-focused films, documenting in turn the history of the film score, the psychology of musically-induced goosebumps and the creative process of great composers would have better served the ambitious subject matter. If you enter the theater wondering why a movie like this hasn’t been made before, you’ll likely leave with the hope that this won’t be the only one. 

For those who might find DVD featurettes interesting but lack the inclination to cue them up, Director Matt Schrader’s admirable and entertaining curation will be music to your ears. Score is a jaunty and accessible introduction for the cinema dilettante, though it might be too elementary for serious film enthusiasts, and certainly too technical for those who just enjoy losing themselves in a bucket of popcorn.

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Go See It:  Score: A Film Music Documentary

  • Wednesday, October 4, 4 p.m. (Fox Bay Cinema Grill)

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