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(Musical score documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary hits theaters today)

The documentary Visions of Light, in 1992, gave us an in-depth and entertaining look at the history of cinematography up to that point in time; Side by Side, in 2012, brought us up to the digital era, comparing the worlds of film and pixels in a vibrant conversation. The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, in 2004, offered an equally compelling glimpse at how movies are assembled. Since filmmaking is such a collaborative process, there remain many untapped potential subjects for the intrepid documentarian to tackle if s/he wishes to further deconstruct the art form. Enter young Matt Schrader, who with Score: A Film Music Documentary, his feature debut, presents an enjoyable analysis of the music that accompanies the movies we love (as one would expect with such a title). If it doesn’t quite have the breadth and depth of a masterwork like Visions of Light, it still makes for absorbing and informative viewing.

The best part of the film is when the film composers of today break down their various techniques, as well as their thoughts on why music matters. Among the many such artists interviewed we find David Arnold (Casino Royale), Christophe Beck (Frozen), Marco Beltrami (The Homesman), John Debney (The Passion of the Christ), Danny Elfman (American Hustle), Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road), Joe Kraemer (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo), Heitor Pereira (The Angry Birds Movie), Rachel Portman (Race), J. Ralph (The Cove), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), and Hans Zimmer (Inception). A few faces of color float around here and there – such as Mervyn Warren (A Walk to Remember) and the great Quincy Jones (The Color Purple) – but this is really a collection of mostly white dudes, with Portman the one significant gender exception. In some ways, this is merely a reflection of the overall imbalance of the industry, but it is still noticeable. That aside, watching these guys discuss how and why they do what they do is fascinating, and we are right there with them as they record.

We start with Beltrami, as he describes the reasons why he chose a weathered piano – placed on a hilltop, outdoors – to use for the main theme of The Homesman. We then move through various other composers, who work with all sorts of instruments, orchestras and software to create the sound that is most appropriate for a given project. Along to help us with an academic perspective on how music affects our mood are experts such as Dr. Siu-Lan Tan of Kalamazoo College, who explains that music releases the same kinds of dopamine as chocolate or sex. No wonder we enjoy it! I love the way Schrader builds his story, introducing us to each composer early on and then returning to him or her (usually him) at later intervals once we have additional information on either the overall topic or his/her specific work.

The historical part of the movie could be strengthened. It is there, for sure, and we hear the names of titans like Max Steiner (King Kong) and Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo), guided along by film-music historian Jon Burlingame and general film historian Leonard Maltin. Somehow, no one ever mentions Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven), which I find extraordinary. We do, however spend an inordinate (to me) amount of time celebrating the work of John Williams (Jaws), whose influence on our modern era is strong, to be sure, but … well, he receives a lot of attention. Interestingly, all the interview materials with Williams appear archival, which only heightens the mystery of why he features so prominently.

What flaws there are cannot take away from the sheer delight of seeing these inventive souls at work. Schrader has done the world of cinephiles a real service by bringing these good folks together into one movie; we are privileged to learn from them. Score: A Film Music Documentary may not be perfect, but it’s loads of fun and enlightening in the best way.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)


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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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