Tag 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”.