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'Play it again, Sam.' The returning sounds of Hollywood

Scores, soundtracks and playlists. Kaylie Finn takes a look at the evolving jams of Hollywood and how viewers (or listeners) are responding, plus insight from Whitney: Can I Be Me producer Marc Hoeferlin.


Opening credits. A canvas of mosaic tiles. Jackie Brown coasts into frame to the soul beats of Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street. She is the epitome of cool, and it’s a hero musical moment by Tarantino.

The affinity between audio and film has been constantly evolving since the first pictures of the twentieth century. Music changes in sync with cultural trends, audience tastes, and cinematic technology. Regardless of its guises, it continues to hold a prominent role in contemporary media.

Throughout Hollywood's silent movie era, music was a necessity in representing character, mood, and narrative direction. Without synchronized recorded sound or dialogue, live theatre bands played a functional role in masking the ticker-tape thrum of early projectors, whilst closely reflecting on-screen exploits. Theatre audiences also needed an emotional supplement to their viewing experience, and we're still the same today.

As motion pictures and filmmaking technology have progressed, music too has developed within stylistic, psychological and societal dimensions. Brassy sounds, which have a historical association with the military, feature heavily in the Star Wars franchise to express notions of heroism. In Titanic [1997], the late composer James Horner used principal leitmotifs in his score-making to represent themes of romance and tragedy. Synth choir vocals, uilleann pipes and orchestral violins are deployed as emotive levers to steer viewer sensibilities. In sci-fi drama Gravity [2013], heroine Dr. Ryan Stone touches ground against the climactic build of Steven Price's symphonic track of the same name. In that moment, both character and audience share a renewed appreciation for planet earth.

Instrumental scores arouse viewer emotions, but also hypothesise a change in narrative. Importantly, scoring comprises of original music and is designed to enhance a story cohesively. It doesn’t compete or overbear. By contrast, soundtracks – particularly pop culture mixtapes – resurrect bygone eras of well-known music. Used effectively, it can emotionally redirect the audience into a moment of introspection – it's sentimental.

Marc Hoeferlin is producer and editor of acclaimed documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me [2017]. Directed by renowned filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the feature goes in search of the forces that made and then destroyed Whitney Houston. After its successful cinema release in June this year, the show made its television début on Saturday 2nd September on BBC 2 (still available on iPlayer for those who missed out), blending archived footage, interviews and music.

Hoeferlin reflects on the intrinsic relationship between familiar soundtracks and original film: 'The use of pop culture music in films is nothing new – traditionally Hollywood has long married the two together, at times for necessary commercial cross-promotion. The best example of this would probably be The Bodyguard [1992], which was accompanied by Whitney Houston’s title track I Will Always Love You, with both film and song further helping the other to greater success.

'I bring this up as an example because the recent documentary we made, Whitney: Can I Be Me, about the life of Whitney Houston, uses many of her songs as part of the soundtrack. Besides being used to narrate the timeline of her story, we realized the effect of hearing these songs in a film today creates a sense of nostalgia – I think at one point or another most people remembered a specific time where they heard those songs. That can be a powerful device to help create empathy, or draw you in to your central character and story. Of course, the caveat here is that in order for this to work, the song must be popular enough for many to have heard it, or else that sense of nostalgia is lost.'

Hollywood is further experimenting with pre-existing music in a bid to create new conversations. Director James Gunn uses soundtrack albums to great stylistic effect in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy [2014]. Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) 'Star lord Dance' to Come and Get Your Love by Redbone has become an iconic movie scene. The character listens to a collection of pop music on Walkman cassette. It creates a new sensory experience where music is infused rather than layered. As a commercial spin-off, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1, and its subsequent follow-ups, were marketed as standalone albums.

Director Edgar Wright emulates a similar jukebox mechanism in car-chase thriller Baby Driver [2017]. The soundtrack is described by US Variety magazine as a 'music nerds dream', during which 30 songs play out almost to full length. British GQ dubbed the film 'a new kind of musical in the sense that the characters are aware of the music.' In the movie, getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) suppresses his Tinnitus condition with eclectic songs played on iPod. In selected sequences, stage direction and action are timed exactly to the beats of featured songs – a game changer for soundtrack structure. The effect? As a viewer, you are inter-connected with the character more dynamically. As a studio, the music sells the scene, which sells the movie to domestic and overseas markets. It's breaking creative and commercial challenges.

'I think over the last 25 years or so, the use of such popular music in film and television has evolved from being used as a marketing tool, to giving scenes and characters meaning,' Hoeferlin says.

'A few years ago, we made Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a documentary about a serial killer who had been killing in South Central Los Angeles for 25 years. In one scene, we show a large number of stills which were taken at the killer’s house by police. They have a certain voyeuristic quality, and as such, we looked for a piece of composed music that could help further this. We did not find one. After trying many things out, we discovered a song by Massive Attack, which completely drew you into the scene. It had such a lasting impact, we opted to use it for the credits too. It was the only popular music we used in the entire film, which otherwise was composed, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not replicate the Massive Attack track.’

'Ultimately, it is the needs of the scene, the character, and the narrative, that will dictate the music that is used. There is no one rule. It all depends on the desired effect. What is true, and has always been the case, is that the right track can amplify the impact of a scene, or a moment in film. At times, it is the very thing that makes an audience remember the scene – and in some instances, brings a whole new meaning to the song.'


You can follow Marc Hoeferlin on Twitter: @MarcHoeferlin

You can watch Whitney: Can I Be Me on BBC iPlayer.

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