My granddaughter, Shoshi, is a very talented pianist. Not only does she play well, she also composes some of her own compositions. Whenever I am in the States and visiting Shoshi and the rest of her family, I ask her to play some of her own melodies. Hearing them is a pleasure and the music relaxes me. Life without music seems sterile; with music, it is vibrant.
Music occupies a very special place in cinema. Sometimes it is critically important because it underscores major themes in the film you are watching. It is the soul of the movie, part of the creative vision of the director and actors who want to convey the meaning of a film to those who see it. It is not just filler; rather it is essential to the creative film experience.
One of my first exposures to the power of music in the cinema was watching Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy Award winning film about racing. It begins with a scene of men running along the English beach preparing for the 1924 Olympics. The camera depicts in slow-motion the men running; the music in the background, composed by Vangelis, is transcendent and uplifting.
Score is a documentary that describes the history of motion picture scoring. It begins with a discussion of silent films. In truth, they were not really silent because an organist often played during the film to highlight and punctuate the action on the screen. The game-changer in movie soundtrack history was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933. The music transformed a standard special-effects monster movie into a total cinematic experience.
After this brief historical introduction, the film explores the creative processes of a number of composers whose work in films helped make the films memorable. They include such musical luminaries as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Ennio Morricone.
Some soundtracks still remain with us after many years. They include such classics as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and Titanic. Just listening to the music conjures up images and emotions from the past.
What is fascinating is the technology and new musical genres that influence contemporary soundtracks. Innovation in sound is a hallmark of famous iconoclastic films. The composer does not limit himself to traditional orchestral instruments. Nature sounds and instruments of primitive cultures often substitute for conventional background music to accentuate what is happening on the screen.
Jewish tradition has much to say about the interplay of music, life, and emotion. When the Jewish nation crosses the Red Sea, the people spontaneously break out in song. King David, the author of Psalms, is known in the Bible as the “sweet singer of Israel.” The priests sang in the Temple every day. Prayers are often sung, not merely recited.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it the shorthand of emotion. Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”
Score reminds us that dialogue in movies can take us only so far. The soundtrack, which is the last creative part of the film to be added, is crucial to the overall affect the film has on the viewer. So it is in Judaism. What enables Jewish tradition to pass from generation to generation are not simply the dry words of the Bible and Talmud, but rather the spirit, the music, through which it is transmitted. Song represents the soul within and the soul lives beyond the present.