Walking the Line between Re-released and Overdone

Film composers are not given much credit for the music they write. So often it sits as a secondary character in the film, not really there to be highlighted, but rather to enhance the performances of the "stars" on the screen. The result is music which tends to run pretty close to boring for the most part and even those times when it is exciting, it is often a pastiche of something else we're already accustomed to - as it is designed to kindle thoughts (play on our memories) or fill in gaps in the emotional landscape of the film.

This is not saying film music is poorly composed - quite the opposite. Film composers have to understand the culture of the audience for a film and capture not only the feeling of the images on screen, but toy with the memories and attitudes of the audience.

A great example is the newly film "Young Victoria." Much of the music is pretty straight-forward romantic music. It might be newly composed, but it could easily have been composed by Schubert or Chopin and worked just as well. The purpose of the music in this film was to set the scene, and it does that very well.

Previously, I reviewed the music for "Benjamin Button." In this film the point was to highlight the era of the action. Before any image would identify what decade of the 20th century we were in, the music was already setting the stage. For the most part it did this really well.

Other films, like "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Arc" attempt to instill some sense of excitement, to create more tension than the action alone will accomplish. Few people my age can listen to the dun-dun of the string basses in "Jaws" and not get shivers up our back. The music set the scene so perfectly it has become part of our cultural identity.

John Williams made a fortune on these scores and deservedly so. Through the 80's, 90's and into this century, Mr Williams has been at the forefront of film composition. Many of his pieces have been converted to performances in the concert hall, allowing concert goers a chance to hear their favorite film music live (and get shivers all over again, without images of shark teeth and bloody water).

One of the reasons for success of moving from film to concert hall is the depth in the music composition. Mr Williams' music is not just pastiche of an era, but original themes that strike a chord with the listener (as well as playing on our emotional memories). "Schindler's List" is a great example. The theme is original, but it also sounds so Eastern European Jewish that we are transplanted into the era of the film.

But when does it become too much? When do these themes stop being great pieces of music and become just another profit generator for a man who already charges hundreds of millions of dollars just to put his name on the film credits as composer. (One of the reasons he was not the composer for the last "Harry Potter" film is his heavy price tag.)

It becomes too much when the original film recordings are re-dubbed and re-released. They were good recordings initially and certainly sound engineering has sufficiently improved to make these original recordings better in re-release. However, why not just re-perform them? Surely we don't just re-release old recordings of Mahler's symphonies or Beethoven's symphonies, even though they've been recorded hundreds of times - and could probably be remastered to improve some of the older recordings. No, we get new conductors and new orchestras to record fresh versions of the music.

John Williams is re-releasing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." The marketing spiel is saying these are re-mastered and better quality. But the real reason is, they don't have to pay musicians or a conductor again - and so the record company (and John Williams) can pocket more of the profit.

No matter how much I enjoyed the films and the music the first time around, these are not CD's I am going to purchase. Mr Williams, do something new. Or if you're going to do something old, do it with a new orchestra and new musicians. Give it a new feeling to it. Otherwise, it's just the same old thing.


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