Day: June 17, 2008

Music made earlier Indy movie better, too

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For a certain kind of listener (i.e., me), the arrival of a new Indiana Jones movie is a chance to hear another retro score that evokes not only the traditions of Hollywood writing but also the work of full-color late Romantic composers such as Gustav Holst and Ottorino Respighi.

John Williams is one of the most successful Hollywood composers in cinematic history if his work is judged simply by sheer memorability. The huge marches that dominate the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies do exactly what good marches are supposed to do: Set up a triumphant (even when evil) tone, get a strong marching rhythm going, and most of all, implant a powerful tune in listeners’ heads.

This is not that easy to do. John Philip Sousa wrote more than 100 concert marches, but only about a couple dozen have the kind of great melodies that enable them to be heard frequently. In his work for the Lucas-Spielberg team, Williams has written at least two that many millions of people recognize instantly, and at the same time remember what they’re designed to evoke.

The same goes for Hedwig’s Theme, the central music of the Harry Potter films. Although two other composers have picked up scoring duties for the movies in the meantime, they still use Williams’ theme to remind viewers that they’re watching a Harry Potter adventure.

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull has a modest score that is reminiscent of past work more than it is one that breaks new ground, which isn’t really a criticism — the film composer doesn’t have a lot of control over how much of the music he or she writes gets used in the final product. I liked a couple of Williams’ fresh inventions in Crystal Skull: a vigorous Russian dance that would make effective concert music, and — spoiler alert! — a blizzard of Janacek-style brasses that accompany the flying saucer as it ascends out of the Amazon basin.

But what I missed here was what I missed in the movie, though I enjoyed it a good deal and had a hard time resisting its manic energy. What was absent in the film was about 10 minutes of exposition and character development that would give the plot a hint of additional plausibility, even though it was totally implausible.

For instance, I wanted to enter just a bit more into the history of the conquistador-native conflict and the search for El Dorado, learn a little more about the Mayan world view, perhaps get some flashbacks from Professor Oxley and the Ray Winstone character, to make the picture rounder and richer. That way my suspended disbelief can coexist along the actual pages of history, and viewing the movie becomes more of an exercise of the imagination than a workout for my car-chase gland.

A case in point involves my favorite of the four Indiana Jones movies, The Last Crusade. This movie is able to draw on centuries of Christian tradition bred in the bone of Western civilization, but we learn a lot about Indiana and his father through the suggestions of the opening scene: the young Indiana has to speak ancient Greek to tell his father about his escape from the grave robbers.

And in another scene, Williams helps us all get into the figurative if not the literal depth of the events when Indiana is looking at the drawing of the knight suspended in air and he says something about the powerful pull of the quest for the Holy Grail. At this moment, we hear a distant low-brass chorale of semi-modal music — this is the Grail theme, and while it’s more 19th than 11th century, it’s beautiful and supremely effective.

That music returns when we encounter the 700-year-old knight guarding the Grail in the anterooms of the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, and for me it makes a most effective link, and adds a subtle richness to the film that makes its absurdities believable.

I would have liked to hear something like this in Crystal Skull: Ancient Mayan music, maybe; perhaps the music of 16th century Spain — something else to take us into the sonic world its deceased characters inhabited, something that would make the movie more of a journey into the legendary part of history that was there in The Last Crusade.

Music often acts as another character in a drama, and when it can draw on the traditions of the past to fill in the gaps of the script, it adds another layer of meaning and reference for the viewer. The music is more of an afterthought in Crystal Skull, but in Last Crusade, it’s essential. And that’s one of the crucial things that makes it a much better film, too.

by Greg Stepanich