Category Archives: The Modern Soundtrack

Closing my eyes during Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’

Viewing/listening context: Laptop (From File)

Written by The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin, HBO’s The Newsroom is one my favourite new television shows this year. Starring Jeff Daniels as news anchor Will McAvoy, it’s the story of…drum roll…a newsroom. A television newsroom to be exact – an important distinction.

McAvoy is the hard-hitting main man at “News Night”, which screens on the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. The show is trying to rediscover its place in the news landscape and establish an identity that is in line with traditional news values. But it’s easier said than done. News Night’s producers face constant pressure from “above” to sacrifice journalistic integrity in favour of the network’s commercial interests.

The Newsroom‘s soundtrack is, for the most part, naturalistic – rich (not heavy) with well-written, perfectly recorded dialogue and context-driven ambient noise when appropriate. Music doesn’t play a huge role, but occasionally a pre-existing song is used to add something extra to a scene. Notably, the use of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” in episode three and Coldplay’s “Fix You” in episode four.

Because the narrative is so dialogue-driven, and despite the fact that the show is about making television news – a profoundly visual beast, I think the program would still have meaning if presented in a solely audio format. It’s a big call, one I arrived at after (as was suggested in the first ‘Modern Soundtrack’ class) closing my eyes and “listening” to portions of episode four of The Newsroom. 

The only thing I found disconcerting was when elements of the soundtrack undergo changes in sonic quality that are driven by a change of shot. When only listening to what was going on, the changes were confusing because I didn’t know what motivated them.

The best example of this from episode four was McAvoy’s presentation of a story about the lies of the Tea Party. McAvoy and various audio grabs are heard from a variety of locations (the control room, out of a television, from in the news studio etc.). His address is cleanest in the news studio. In the control room, it’s played back in mediated form through what sounds like television speakers. Sometimes McAvoy’s voice fades into the background so that those behind the scenes can be heard. Without the accompanying visuals this sequence would be hard to follow in sound alone.

Now, those rare inclusions of well-known songs.

Not only does “Burning Love” set a robust, high energy pace for the sequence it accompanies, its lyrics symbolically encompass much of what is onscreen. The words trace the physical feelings often associated with being “in love” – namely an increase in body temperature to “flaming” and heart palpitations.

The song begins as McAvoy’s boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) lights the proverbial fire within the anchor by anonymously supplying him with provocative polling data from Utah. The sequence that follows shows McAvoy grilling a variety of politicians and spokespeople in an attempt to reveal what he calls the “radicalising” of the American Tea Party. This becomes the hot issue for numerous editions of News Night. McAvoy is angry, things are heating up. “Burning Love” evokes that.

To a lesser extent the song may be interpreted as referring to McAvoy’s feelings for the woman who broke his heart, News Night producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer). She’s hard not to love…pity about that whole cheating thing.

I’m going to dedicate an entire post to the use of “Fix You” – watch this space. Until then, although it’s not strictly relevant to sound, I have got to get something of my chest regarding The Newsroom.

I’m five episodes in and already hooked. That said, most of the characters infuriate me, particularly associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), departing producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and News Night newcomer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.).

Maggie, Don and Jim remind are members of that frustrating breed who love to flaunt their current affairs knowledge on a regular basis. They are intolerably self-centred most of the time and painfully familiar. They are satisfyingly annoying. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

My favourite character is…the news. It’s dynamic, layered and what the show is all about. The other character dramas in the narrative become peripheral.

Sonic Spacialisation and Mediation in ‘Terri’ (Dir. Azazel Jacobs, 2011)

Viewing/listening context: Television (From File)

Featured at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, Terri follows the story of the eponymous 15-year-old (Jacob Wysocki) as he attempts to come to terms with his challenging life circumstances.

At the most basic level, Terri’s character can be read as neatly fitting the mould of the classic “social outcast”. He is heavily overweight, lacks any true friends and revels in alone time. But it must be noted that he doesn’t seem to mind that much.

Forced to care for his mentally ill uncle (Creed Bratton) in the absence of his parents, Terri is on the brink of becoming completely alienated by the world around him. His grades drop and he starts to wear pyjamas to school every day.

Enter Mr Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the principal of Terri’s school, who establishes a unique brand of friendship with the teen. The rapport that develops between the pair is one of the great joys of the film as they quirkily work through each other’s issues.

“Your teachers are telling me you won’t participate in the lessons, you’ve begun to wear pyjamas every day. Do you understand, from my perspective, how those things could be categorised as red flags?” (Mr Fitzgerald to Terri)

Designed by Julia Shirar and mixed by Eric Thomas, the film’s soundtrack is a lesson in sound spacialisation and is a hub of mediated sonic moments.

Set in large part in a school, the film lends itself to interesting and diverse use of sound. Quiet, warm sound environments are repeatedly juxtaposed against those rich with brisk tinniness and ambience. In a general sense, Terri is most comfortable in the quiet spaces.

Silence plays a crucial role in the pacing of the film, giving it a “slowness” not unlike its protagonist – a plodder if ever there was one. Not that Terri is unintelligent. The sometimes sparse soundtrack is instead a reflection of Terri’s measuredness and the film’s small town context.

Some of the film’s key sound spaces are:

  • Terri’s house: Terri’s home life is quiet, he likes it that way. His uncle James is asleep for much of the time and there’s no one else to be heard talking. This location is returned to again and again and becomes a familiar sonic location.
  • The woods: The shifting gravel of an unpaved pathway, birds tweeting, wind blowing, trees rustling. This is the domain of common sounds of the outdoors, but it by no means “noisy”. For me, these sounds connote the freedom and openness not afforded to Terri at home (he is constantly required to care for his uncle) or school, where his teachers misunderstand his shyness for stupidity. I read this sound space as symbolising Terri being released from entrapment.
  • The school gymnasium: Terri’s state of alienation is most evident during PE class. I loved sports class in high school, but the reverberation and hollowness of  the sound in the gymnasium space triggered poignant and negative psychoacoustic connections in me. I hated the space and everything in it. I hated it for Terri as he sits unaffectedly and receives a barrage of verbal abuse from his blunt battle axe of a PE teacher. The sonic environment of the gymnasium is depicted as strange, alien to Terri’s sedentary sensibilities.
  • School Hallways: As with the gymnasium, sound portrays the hallways seen in Terri as being dangerous places. Even the smallest sounds reverberate against the hard, cold floor, walls and ceiling.
  • Mr Fitzgerald’s office: Terri is safe in this office. Speech is not warped and instead    “thuds” soothingly and intimately. It is a space where Terri can share things with his primary father figure in confidence, Terri’s “home away from home”.

There is an abundance of mediated sound in the film, including speech emitted from a PA system and sounds coming from Terri’s television and record player. Instead of being enjoyed, these sounds are tolerated.

The school PA announcements are either ignored by students or borderline inaudible. Terri “tolerates” what he hears (and sees) on television in the absence of other activity options. The kids are bored and these mediated sounds are used in the film to symbolise their collective disillusionment.

As seems to be a trend in films that classify themselves as “indie”, the music in Terri is mostly mellow and features acoustic guitar. At least that’s how it felt. There is a marked shift in how I emotionally connected with the same style of music at the beginning and end of the film.

At the start of movie, the tunes with soft melodies have a sad, depressing effect. At the end they made me feel content, largely due to effective narrative and character development. There is probably a term for that…

I wouldn’t rush to go to this film for its soundtrack alone, but it’s certainly interesting to compare it to films like Goodfellas or Beverly Hills Cop, which both employ “song scores”.

Patch Adams (Dir. Tom Shadyac, 1998)

Viewing/listening context: Laptop (From File)

Don’t get me wrong, I love Patch Adams (Tom Shadyac, 1998), but while watching this Robin Williams classic last week I just about hit the roof when the mellow synths descended following the tragic death of a character. It’s supposed to be sad. I get it.

In class this semester there have been a number of discussions about prescriptive film soundtracks – prescriptive in that they encourage (nay, demand) viewers to feel a particular way at a particular moment. It’s a technique often applied heavy handedly and one that is standard practice in Hollywood.

Patch Adams hears the bad news

In Patch Adams, the death of Carin (Monica Potter) is revealed in a “death knock” style, with Patch (Robin Williams) called to the office of his medical college Dean (Harve Presnell). In the moment after the Dean informs Patch of the tragic news, quiet synth music permeates a beat of shocked silence.

The shot remains a medium close-up of Patch’s shattered expression as the music begins to increase in volume. A fast, outward breath of anguish from Patch acts as the trigger point for the beginning of a slow fade to an establishing shot at Carin’s funeral. I have become very conscious of this as a common function of sound in film, whereby filmmakers employ sound FX and music as “sonic transitions”.

The tone and timbre of Dean Anderson’s speech should also be noted. He has a very deep and resonant voice reflecting his position of authority and connoting a degree of wisdom. His words take on an almost “God-like” quality when they come from off-camera after the camera has locked off on Patch. Aside from a few mumbled greetings, Patch is rendered “speechless” and sits in silence for much of the sequence.

Establishing shot of Carin’s funeral

As was mentioned in our first class, the importance of sound in film is often trumped by an obsession with visuals. If there is one thing I’ve learnt during this class it is that, when examining a soundtrack, one must always consider the relationship between sound and image.

In the aforementioned moment,  a change in the music accompanies the visual transition (slow fade) between shots, with soft piano introduced to underscore the solemn voice of the priest delivering his final blessing. The density of the soundtrack increases in accordance with the number of people featured onscreen. Bird tweets and murmurs and cries from Carin’s family and friends are heard underneath the subtle woodwind part that builds the music for a brief time. Carin’s family and friends are seen vacating the cemetery in cars and on foot. As they do so, the piano and woodwind in the tune disappear, encouraging viewers to concentrate on Patch’s dialogue as he speaks to Carin at her grave site.

For me, the music is a little too much – a bit too cheesy for a substantial duration. The moments of silence between dialogue in the Dean’s office prior to the music kicking were heart-rending. Silence is empowering.

An absence of sound can have a variety of effects on a viewer (or should this be “listener”?). Most importantly, I think, it promotes thought. Even if it’s just at a subconscious level, silence always asks something of me: “How do you feel during this moment?”

Being herded along with the mood of a cookie cutter instrumental piece is getting old, fast. Sometimes I like being given a choice by silence.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)

Viewing/Listening Context: Television (DVD)

Having been brought up by two India-philes, I am not unaccustomed to a little taste of Bollywood in the Harvey household.

Lagaan is my favourite Bollywood film by a stretch, partly because of its cricket-rich subject matter and partly because of its masterful score, which is composed by Indian musical icon A.R. Rahman.

Amir Khan leads a motley crew of poor villagers in a do-or-die cricket battle

I would go so far as to say that the film’s soundtrack is so evocative of its time and place that you need only see the film once. Thereafter, the soundtrack brings everything rushing back in a torrent of sonic associations.

It is actually an emotional experience to listen to the score. I’ve done it so many times that I can now sing along to some of the songs in hindi.

A unique aspect of the Bollywood industry is that the film musical is the dominant form. In line with the typical Bollywood process, the songs in Lagaan are recorded by established artists and dubbed over the onscreen action. Actors mime and dance along to these songs using a technique not unlike the recording of a standard music video. The difference is that their miming skills are next to flawless. At more than three hours in length, the film contains 13 individual tracks and numerous “overture” style instrumentals.

The sound of the sitar, although a feature of the soundtrack, takes a back seat to powerful (often group) vocals. It’s hard to single out one song as best evoking the Lagaan experience. This one, “Ghanon Ghanon” is one my personal favourites. It is a serenade of gratitude to the Hindu gods for bringing dense, grey rain clouds to a drought-ridden desert environment:

No words can quite describe it. I don’t need the visuals to get enthused. I’m not quite sure how to put it in words but the sonic quality of this song has a positive “dryness” to it. It’s not saturated with constant sound and the heavy percussion element creates distinct “gaps” and a “sparseness” that connects with the state of the open and arid landscape where the film is set.

Like “Ghanon Ghanon”, “Chale Chalo” is a song that artfully establishes a mood using an elongated gradual build up to create an ethereal effect. Essentially, it is Bollywood’s answer to the “pump up” song, used to great motivational effect by the village cricket team.

In the video below, the track begins at about the two-minute mark. Enjoy:

Already a fan of the film, I was lucky enough to see A.R. Rahman and his orchestra play the soundtrack live at Rod Laver Arena when they toured in 2005. I have not been to a concert like it since.

My Favourite Film Themes

Specially-written theme songs have always interested me. They need to tick a lot of boxes. The criteria that immediately spring to mind are that themes should:

  • Be memorable (catchiness is a common feature of many themes that I’ve heard!)
  • Encapsulate what the film/TV show is about
  • Capture the energy and mood of the film/TV show
  • Sometimes feature explicit references to the film/TV show

In no particular order, here are five of my all-time favourite themes and the reasons why:

1. James Bond films (1962-)

Although each Bond film has its own theme song (e.g. “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey, “Skyfall” by Adele), one familiar tune resurfaces again and again. It just wouldn’t be a Bond film without the signature 007 theme tune. I can’t count the number of times I have suited up, hummed along this masterpiece and felt 200% cooler than my usual self. Monty Norman is credited with writing the track, which was arranged by John Barry 11 Bond films, including the first, Dr. No, in 1962.

2. Star Wars Episodes: I, II, III, IX, X, XI (George Lucas 1977-2005)

The Star Wars theme is perhaps the most iconic film theme ever written. Composed by John Williams, it never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Epic is the understatement of the century. Come at me Vader!

3. The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963)

Composed by the one and only Henry Mancini, this theme makes me want to own a black catsuit. It’s a dream I’ve yet to realise, but there is still time. It’s a pity I’m not very stealth. Plus I just love the word “heist”. Heist.

4. Back to the Future series (Robert Zemeckis, 1985-1990)

Back to the Future (BTTF). It even has its own acronym. Words cannot describe how much of a “pump up” song this is for me. Written by Alan Silvestri, there’s nothing quite like it. Some people listen to rap when they jog, but this is my go to track. “Great Scott, Marty!”.

5. Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984)

Written by German musician/composer Harold Faltermeyer, the Beverly Hills Cop theme, “Axel F”, has been remixed (butchered) many times over the years. Nothing can beat it in its original, pure form (no Crazy Frogs).

Beverly Hills Cop (Dir. Martin Brest, 1984)

Viewing/Listening Context: Television (DVD)

The Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984) soundtrack features a “song score”. That is, it employs popular songs in its soundtrack as opposed to a specially-written film score. The film’s theme “Axel F” is the only exception, but it quickly soared to the top of the charts after Beverly Hills Cop was released. The song reached number one in two U.S. Billboard categories in 1985: Hot Adult Contemporary Chart and Hot Dance Club Play.

Eddie Murphy is a policeman with attitude in “Beverly Hills Cop”

Immediately noticeable is the abundance of drum machine beats present in the songs in the film. As was discussed in the screening of Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988), the punchy “SMASH” sound made by electronic drums is akin to gunfire. This sonic symbolism is also applicable to Beverly Hills Cop, a cop movie with more than its fair share of gun fights. The volume levels of the music, like in Colors and Some Kind of Wonderful (Howard Deutch, 1987), are very high – the music becomes a focal point.

As a stand-alone CD it rates highly in my list of personal favourites. The track listing features songs by The Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle, Glenn Frey, Danny Elfman and Rockie Robbins. All are evocative of a particular time and place – 1980s America. Song selection also illustrates the divide between the geographical and social realities of inner-city Detroit and an idealised Los Angeles in that decade.

The best example of this can be seen/heard by comparing the establishing sequences for each city. The film’s opening is a montage sequence with shots of the “streets” of Detroit – the area’s rundown buildings, ramshackle homes, busy factories, and large African-American population – paired with “The Heat is On” performed by Glenn Frey. Superficially, it’s an energetic, upbeat sounding track featuring Motown-esque saxophone, electric guitar and a heavy drum beat. The lyrics tell a different story though, one of hard labour and pressure to survive:

“The heat is on, on the street
Inside your head, on every beat
And the beat’s so loud, deep inside
The pressure’s high, just to stay alive
‘Cause the heat is on”

The Motor City montage ends with a cut to the alleyway setting where Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is working as an undercover police officer. Sure, the heat’s on him because he’s trying to bust potentially dangerous criminals, but it’s also on everyone in the urban areas of the blue collar city.

Shot from opening Detroit sequence – the heat is on!

Conversely, the affluent suburb of Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and Axel’s transition there, is marked by a dance song with more synthetic instrumentation – “Stir It Up” by Patti LaBelle. It is a prime example of sound being used to trigger a change of shot, with a medium close-up on Axel in Detroit cutting to a mobile shot of sunny blue skies and palm trees in LA.

“Stir It Up” is a song about escape – moving away from the dreaded confines of a negative urban environment to a more carefree existence. Given forced time away from policing, Axel is going away and taking what he hopes will look like a “holiday”. The truth is that he is actually conducting an informal investigation into his friend’s murder. Like “The Heat Is On”, Axel’s trip is outwardly fun and happy-go-lucky but quite dark on closer inspection.

Axel living it up in sunny Beverly Hills

The song’s synthetic composition is symbolic of how Beverly Hills is represented in this sequence, the first time it is seen in the film – a utopian city filled with trendy, young, fit people who are obsessed with appearances. That is an idea that is critiqued and broken down somewhat as the film progresses. Crime and sadness are still a fact of life in Beverly Hills.

I’m proud to own the CD of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack – It’s in my CD player as I type. I’m glad that I had the chance to bring it up in class discussion (more than once).