Monday, November 15, 2010

Secretariat In Search of a Score

For me, “Secretariat” (2010) is a textbook example of what’s wrong with movies today – lack of emotion.

The story of the famous Triple Crown winner, and the obstacles overcome to make him a champion, should have been lump-in-the-throat terrific, inspirational and capable of sending us out of the theater on a wave of happiness.

Instead it just sits there, never reaching the heights it should. The acting is wonderful (Diane Lane is a standout, but then she always is), but there’s something missing. What is it?

What “Secretariat” needed was something considered taboo today: a good old fashioned, rousing, gloriously in your face, celebratory musical score.

It’s been said a good score can’t save a bad movie. True enough. But a good score can enrich a movie in so many ways and a good score can make a good film great. And a bad or mediocre score can seriously harm a movie, more than the audience may realize.

If there’s any genre that requires a surging and rousing score, it’s the triumphant sports movie genre. Confident directors know that and, to use an obvious sports metaphor, allow their composers to take the ball and run with it. Director David Anspaugh knew what we he was doing when he hired Jerry Goldsmith to score “Hoosiers” (1986) and “Rudy” (1993). You want those big musical moments in sports movies. These movies are still celebrated. I know guys who worship at the altar of “Hoosiers” and they wouldn’t have that emotional connection to that movie without Goldsmith’s efforts.

The smartest thing director Barry Levinson ever did was hire Randy Newman, who composed a landmark score for “The Natural” (1984). Newman’s musical treatment of each home run and baseball victory could raise goose bumps on a corpse, and is it little wonder Major League Baseball licensed portions of it to score highlight reels?

Director John Huston gave Bill Conti free rein to score every soccer kick, lunge, block and save in “Victory” (1981) for maximum effectiveness. Conti obliged and scored these sequences like he was composing a sports symphony. It’s thrilling beyond words.

I still remember the audience applause when all the above movies were over. The music was a major catalyst in providing that emotional release.

Alas, when Secretariat lunges forward to win the Triple Crown (hardly giving anything away here folks), there’s no surging, triumphant music to quicken the pulse and jump the heart beat. Instead we get some generic, non-rousing gospel music. It’s almost as if the director Randall Wallace, was afraid of overwhelming the audience, and told his composer, Nick Glennie-Smith, to tone down the music as much as possible. While I was able to admire the scene, I was never swept up in the emotion of it. The whole movie is like that.

Heaven help Mr. Wallace if he’d be called manipulative. We can’t have that, could we? It would never do. When did having an honest emotional response become something to be ashamed of?

I remember reading an anecdote from composer Randy Newman about his work on the period football drama “Leatherheads” (2008). He said director George Clooney didn’t like a particular cue he had written, because Clooney felt the music was overplaying the emotion in the scene, which meant he had failed as a director because he was not able to get the point across sans music.

I’ve never felt it was the music that was telling me what to think. Instead music is there to deepen the ideas and emotions that are already there. The music is providing that last link, just like lighting or photography can do in a scene, to make it a total all-encompassing experience.

Watching a lot of contemporary movies, I get the feeling that many directors feel the way Clooney does. While music is one of the most effective tools a director has at his (or her) disposal, many directors are afraid to use it, or are sparing with it.

So for me, a lot of contemporary movies just sit there, pleasant, but hardly memorable. Like “Secretariat.”

The folks at Pixar know the importance of a good score, God love ‘em, and that’s one of the main reasons why the Pixar movies are so consistently alive.

Composer Bernard Herrmann was quoted as saying, “I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.” (From “Film Score, the View from the Podium” by Tony Thomas, AS. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1979).

Truer words were never spoken.

Thanks to a thoroughly mediocre score, “Secretariat” will never enter the starting gate of great sports movies. Such a champion deserved better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stuff like this, however, is anything but mediocre. It's original and I love it. When they were racing in the Belmont, the music really gets you (not Oh Happy Day, dear God that song is awful). It's very dramatic.