Even indie movies avoid experimenting with their sonic foundations.
Composer John Williams' Star Wars music is tangibly memorable: its soundtrack release became a Platinum selling album, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra booked a “Star Wars in Concert” world tour, and at the height of its popularity, producers re-arranged Williams' cues into marketable disco songs. What, you're not a fan of Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk?
Unless a composer rides the coattails of a hit pop song jointly released on one stuffed album — see: Frozen's Billboard chart-climbing earworm “Let It Go” and Christophe Beck's Norwegian-rooted interstitial themes — rarely will a contemporary musical score hit the public consciousness like Star Wars. Part of it is the competition, part of it is the music is meant to be felt, not heard. Williams' Star Wars themes became iconic because they entered a scene with as much fanfare as Darth Vader. George Lucas established them with a nearly blank slate — the legendary expositional title crawl — and Williams went full-Gustav Holst in accord with the film's otherworldly imagery.
Toady's scores have more subdued intentions. Modern blockbusters ride in on blanket scores of timpani beats and string clangs that pulsate through the body when blasted through surround sound. “Dramatic music” is typically an assortment of delicate piano triads and concerto riffs. Even indie movies avoid experimenting with their sonic foundations; The advent of post-rock made electric guitar, manic pixie dream girl vocals, and fading drum kit noise the identifiable soundscape of the no-budget generation.
A risky film score needs a risky story to enable it. Star Wars had unprecedented, highfalutin special effects opening the door for Williams' extravagance. The Double, the latest from The IT Crowd actor and Submarine director Richard Ayoade, isn't a blockbuster in that vein, but it's equally striking, begging for music that echo its off-kilter alternate universe and existential stakes. Composer Andrew Hewitt happily complies.
Based on a novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double finds Simon James (The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg), a lowly corporate cog in a 1984-like society, struggling with his company's latest employee: James Simon, a mirror image of Simon (also played by Eisenberg). In The Double's heightened noir world, the idea of a long lost twin stepping out from the shadows isn't all that surprising. It's James' personality that causes friction between the two. The introverted Simon watches as his life is stomped down by his conniving other. He steals Simon's ideas, romances the object of Simon's affection, and prods Simon's fragile psyche until he's downward spiraling into a Hell of frustration. Ayoade's cheeky humor and dreamworld aesthetic make the slope even slipperier.
And then there's Andrew Hewitt's accompaniment, the orchestral equivalent of a Russian epic. The composer's music is like another character standing in the room with our main character. As we watch Simon watch James, there's another mirror image standing behind the character, Simon's inner monologue manifested into the thunderous bellowing of a piano's deep registers. Ayoade and Hewitt work together to pull off the operatics. Simon is often seen zipping through pools of light, captured from high above or in spine-tingling close-up. Hewitt's score emphasizes the self-aware craft. The music chases the raw potential of each instrument in his arsenal. The clanging of a piano key stroke, the screech of hitting a horsehair bow against metallic strings. To allow these elements to take the foreground is to show the mechanics of cinema's slight of hand trick, as if to acknowledge that God himself is pulling the strings of Simon's mental breakdown.
The Double takes twists and turns accentuated by Hewitt's score. As it falls down the rabbit hole, narrows in on James' mysterious agenda, the music expands and opens up the world. The music of this weekend's unbeatable blockbuster Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes a similar approach, composer Hans Zimmer blowing up the comic book bombast to an unfathomable scale (because bigger is always better in the world of superhero movies, apparently). Zimmer's score is less successful than anything found in The Double, but it's the rare case of a major studio movie using music like it would its special effects budget.
To concoct a sound that would compliment the hysteria of webslinging Spider-man fighting Jamie Foxx's bolt-shooting Electro, Zimmer recruited his “The Magnificent Six,” a jam band that includes himself, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr (of The Smiths, Modest Mouse), Michael Einziger (of Incubus), DJ-turned-film-composer Junkie XL, and two other Zimmer apprentices. The result of their experimentations produce another of 2014's opera-inspired film scores. Electro's main theme (hear it below) has the usual rip-roaring instrumentation, but with a twist: a layer of grumbling back up vocals that externalize the character's subtextual plight. These are actual lyrics: “HE LIED TO ME / HE SHOT AT ME / HE HATES ON ME / HE'S USING ME / FRAGILITY / ELECTRICTY / HE'S DEAD TO ME.” It is appreciated lunacy.
Zimmer's attempts to enliven the background with vocalization ultimately fails. Movies need more of failures like that. Spastic horror movies with hyper-editing and lighting of every color prove audiences can stomach directors maximizing each element of filmmaking. So why not music? The 21st century deserves cinematic tunes worth obsessing over (and if they're turned into disco tracks, so be it).