We all have our hearts broken at some point in our lives.
Heartbreak is necessary. It is a part of the human condition. That doesn't make it any easier to bear. The only hearts that don't break are either too hard to crack or too protected to be gotten to. Needless to say, we would rather experience heartbreak in music, movies or poetry than through real losses in our lives. Nashville songwriters know this. So do those who produce three-hanky movies.
My Nashville friend, Bruce Michael Miller wrote a song with Rand Bishop about heartbreak. It reminds us that love enters the heart through the cracks where its been broken before. "My heart's been battered and cracked/It's taken some bruises but keeps coming back/Right at those places it's mostly worn thin/That's where your love comes in." Heartbreak and loss are never far from us in this life.
We in the film music community had our hearts broken during the summer of 2004. Some towering film music greats have left us. There will be no new scores from Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith or David Raksin. That's a sad fact, but not the heartbreaking part. The heartbreaking part is not being able to see and speak to any of them ever again. Three beautiful human beings that we all loved and cherished are no longer among us to council, encourage, enlighten and enrich us. Jerry, David and Elmer were personal friends and mentors to most of us working in film music today. Not being able to look into their eyes and hear their voices leaves an unfillable void.
At such a moment, the idea of greatness in film music is unavoidable. What qualities made these men great? What made their contribution to our art so special and enduring?
Greatness is an illusive quality. Excellence is quite common in film scoring today. There is very little greatness. To be great, a film score must be more than excellent. It must rise above the others. How does this happen? As many times as we may have asked this question of our three recently departed colleagues, the best answer still lies in their work. There seem to be certain traits and values that show up again and again in all great scores. This might be the right time to look into the heart of greatness.
First of all, it is rare indeed to find a Goldsmith, Raksin or Bernstein score that lacks a powerful melodic theme. Why are great melodies so rare these days? Probably because melodies that really capture the heart of a film are hard to write. Most composers would probably prefer a root canal to writing coherent melody. We hear excuses from Composers about this. Some say that melodies are unfashionable in a era of minimalism and Hip Hop. This is, of course, demonstrably untrue, as Jerry, Elmer and David have repeatedly shown us. The second most common excuse is that the filmmakers are actually happy with some pad, texture, rhythm track or motif. So, why rock the boat? Jerry never fell for this sort of thinking (thank God) when he struggled with Paul Veerhoven to craft the wonderful melodic material for Basic Instinct or in his soaring elegies for Phil Alden Robinson's The Sum of All Fears. Throughout their careers, Elmer, David and the other greats certainly needed no excuses to avoid melodic writing. They thrived on it.
Another quality of greatness is making a commitment. What does this mean? It means that the composer must decide in advance what themes will be developed in the course of the score. I've spoken to probably every great film composer in our lifetime, and all of them understood this principle. Making such a commitment is crucial. It's like choosing a mate. It means that you will be living with this musical material, day in and day out, for the duration of the movie. You will, in effect, be married to it. A series of one night stands is so much easier. That means scoring the film one scene at a time, cue by cue, without regard to overall structure and thematic development. Committing to melodic material in advance is so painfully difficult that very few composers are consistently up to the challenge. Why is it so hard? First of all, because its just plain difficult to write a really good melody. Secondly, it is even harder to write one that is fresh, innovative and worth repeating for two hours. Furthermore, it isn't easy to create a melody that acts as a vehicle for character, or that can enhance a given dramatic or comedic story. On top of that, it takes the skill of a symphonist to develop, adapt and vary a theme over the course of a film. No wonder so many composers approach a film one scene at a time. Scoring scenes is easy, scoring films is difficult. There are only a handful of composers who have been consistently up to that task, and three of them are now gone.
There are other attributes of greatness in film composing that are worth thinking about. As we have just noted, all of the film music greats have demonstrated commitment to melodic material and structural development. But so many of them have also been bold innovators. When Jerry gave us Planet of the Apes, he broke new ground in style and concept. Elmer's great jazz scores of the 1950s sounded like nothing before them. David Raksin was one of the few composers working in film that could truly hold his own in the world of avant garde concert music. The same innovative spirit can be found in the works of many other true greats of film music. Ennio Morricone came up with unprecedented inventions in his collaboration with Sergio Leone. Henry Mancini, a true master of melodic writing, was also given to innovative experimentation in films like Wait Until Dark and Arrabesque, and his inventive addition of cool jazz to the TV world in Peter Gunn. John Williams, perhaps the greatest of the great living film composers, has been as experimental and unconventional as anyone working in the field. His 1972 score for Images is just one wonderful example of this.
Other aspects of greatness? Perhaps a composer's "personal stamp" is an essential quality that all great film composers seem to bring to their work. There is a unique imprint that tells us that a score was written by a particular artist. When we hear a major Goldsmith, Bernstein, Raksin, (or Williams, Morricone, Mancini, Jarre, Herrmann, etc.) score, regardless of the genre or style, we feel the distinctive personality behind it. There is evidence of individual identity in the writing. We begin to understand the sense of taste, the special choices, the quirks and winks coming from a certain creative mind. This brings up an interesting question. What if a team of great film composers were to contribute cues to a film? Could those pieces add up to a "great" film score? It would certainly be well written. It would sound terrific. It would obviously work well to picture and, with a strong directorial hand, it could even make some sort of stylistic and cohesive sense. Would it achieve greatness? Seriously doubtful. The composers that we love are great because we marvel at what they can bring to a film, and we know exactly what that is. It is their unique personal vision, their special approach, not just their product, that makes them our heroes.
It is heartbreaking to think that our small community now has significantly fewer great film composers than we did at the beginning of the summer of 2004. But heartbreak, as we have noted, can be an opening, and not a closing. There are still some bona fide great composers among us. There are also a large number of talented, brilliant, successful "potential greats" working today. This is promising. We know exactly what qualities might be standing between the potential greats and our immortal greats: thematic brilliance, willingness to commit, ability to innovate, being courageous, consistent, sharing a very personal identity and vision, and of course, having the strength of character to stand up for these things when all the forces in the film universe are saying "give in or give up."
It is possible to achieve the kind of greatness we have been talking about, and it is possible to elevate, evolve and preserve film music as a living art. Jerry, Elmer and David, who carried the tradition of other beloved composers before them, have taught us this. They have left this world now and we are forever heartbroken, and forever grateful.
© Charles Bernstein 2004, 2005