What’s the score . . .

InsideThe theme from The Persuaders. My favourite John Barry pick. Without a doubt. I mean, obviously his arrangement for the Monty Norman 007 theme in Dr No, and then all the subsequent Bonds – the Conneriad – From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever. But there was something about the theme to The Persuaders that really just got me – that intriguing split-screen title sequence juxtaposing the early lives of Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair. I haven’t seen it in (cough) forty years, but it’s alive in my mind right now, and is taking me back . . . back . . . the exciting visuals and that pounding theme . . .

The gift of sound and vision.

The death of John Barry recently sees the passing of one of the great practitioners of a peculiarly modern art form – the composition of music for film. Ever since the days of the nickelodeon, stories told with moving pictures have had music accompanying them. They don’t necessarily need it, of course, as shown very effectively by Hitchcock in The Birds, and more recently by Michael Haneke in such works as Hidden and The White Ribbon. But there’s a certain austerity here that, let’s face it, we mightn’t want to see replicated everywhere. Because a good movie score provides colour and emotional commentary. And what a truly great score does is become an integral part of the movie itself. Works its way into the very fabric and texture of it. Such a score makes the movie it accompanies incomplete – unimaginable without it.

Try to imagine, for example, Vertigo without Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing score. This music doesn’t just tell us what to think, it is an objective correlative of what we think – of what we feel and experience at a visceral level when we are watching the movie. Its tones and moods are inextricable from the movie’s layers of emotion, from its colour and depth, from its narrative complexity. In the same way, try to imagine Chinatown without Jerry Goldsmith’s score. To Kill a Mockingbird without Elmer Berstein’s score. The Godfather and Amarcord without Nino Rota. 1970s paranoia without David Shire and Michael Small.

Bond without Barry. Everyone can make their own list.

Sometimes a score can even give a fairly ordinary film a bit of a lift. I watched State of Grace on TV late one night recently, Phil Joanou’s 1990 westies gangster flick. It’s pretty good and has a great cast, but Ennio Morricone’s achingly beautiful score raises the bar considerably and infuses the movie’s themes of regret and lost youth with a poignancy that they might not otherwise have achieved.

An alternative to the original score is the mixtape approach, where a movie co-opts existing music, usually classical, and redefines it with new imagery (and occasionally threatens to spoil it, through overkill, as is the case with the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th used in Visconti’s Death in Venice). The master of this form was surely Stanley Kubrick, who had an uncanny ability to pair existing music with whatever personal vision he was committing to screen at the time. In this regard, my own favourite of his is Barry Lyndon, a film in which music and imagery, lighting and colour, are held in such perfect balance that you are literally transported to a previous century. Okay, not literally. But if feels that way.

A more recent and very successful example of this type of soundtrack was Shutter Island, for which Robbie Robertson made an impeccable selection of modern classical music that perfectly matched Scorsese’s astonishing visuals. It almost seemed as if Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ (from The Blue Notebooks) was just floating around in the ether, waiting for Scorsese to come along and appropriate it.

HitchcockBut on balance I think there is something more artistically satisfying about an original film score – music composed for and inspired by a specific story and sequence of images, the composer playing an essential part in the collaborative process.

And there have been plenty of great composers for film. From Hollywood’s Golden Age, think of Eric Wolfgang Korngold, Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman. Most of these guys were classically trained and wrote music that was heavily influenced by the composers of the Late Romantic period. But with the arrival of Bernard Herrmann a new complexity entered the equation. There was a new depth of engagement with the material, as the music began insinuating its way more and more into the DNA of the story, and it was from this revolution that the likes of John Barry and Ennio Morricone emerged. Here were young composers creating a sound that was uniquely their own but which also managed to capture the heart and essence of whatever film they were scoring.

Of the established composers of today (no list will be complete, of course, but here are a few: Thomas Newman, Howard Shore, John Williams, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Powell, Alexandre Desplat) I imagine that many of them started writing music because of what they experienced in movie theaters when they were kids – the sheer visceral shock of first hearing, say, the theme from Goldfinger or from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I imagine that many of them today feel they owe a huge debt of gratitude to John Barry and Ennio Morricone.

From the above list, Alexandre Desplat (for my money) is one of the most interesting. Like a lot of his contemporaries (and Barry and Morricone), he tends to overproduce and some of his scores can seem indistinguishable from others, but his back catalogue is littered with some fairly powerful work. Check out his scores for Birth, Syriana, Lust, Caution and L’ennemi intime. And if there is anything to look forward to in 2011 one thing must surely be Desplat’s score for Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

But there are new developments too. These come in the shape of some really interesting blow-ins from other musical genres, people such as Jonny Greenwood (There Will be Blood), Jon Hopkins (Monsters), and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). All of these are fabulous, exciting scores that broaden the parameters of what film music can do and give us a sense of where we might be going from here.

Which is a long way from The Persuaders. Though I always wondered how John Barry managed to get that sound in the signature tune for the title sequence. It sounded a bit like a harpsichord, or a Moog synthesizer. What was it? I’ve just read somewhere that he used, apparently, a combination of a cimbalum, a Finnish kantele, a mandolin, electronic keyboards and a rhythm section.

Talk about broadening the parameters.

Alan Glynn is the author of two novels, The Dark Fields, which has just been filmed starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro and will be reissued by Picador in March (the film will be called Limitless), and Winterland, which was published last year by Minotaur and Faber & Faber. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.