Opinion: Art In The Background—Why Increasingly High-Profile Musicians Are Scoring Movies

By Ayla Shiblaq

Film soundtracks are often overlooked by most. They are in the background, of course, and the foreground is the film you are watching.

Like many, I was one to overlook scores and soundtracks myself until my outlook was drastically changed. As I was doing my yearly pilgrimage of scrolling through the “best of” lists in and around the New Year, I found one list recommending the soundtrack of the movie Drive. I listened to it, fell in a deep, undying love for it, played it on repeat (and still do), bought it on vinyl, and from then on, film soundtracks became a large component of my music library. However, what separates the Drive soundtrack from every other soundtrack is the fact it is the forefront of the film. Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the film, made sure the dialogue throughout the film would be sparse to let the soundtrack shine – an interesting artistic choice for something that is typically only used in specific scenes and not in an entire film. So, why would any artist volunteer their work to be the background and not the foreground?

Removing one’s art from the foreground comes with a new set of rules that in many ways disrupt conventional creative processes. Musicians are no longer the centre of attention and are restricted to the background, where the feelings they hope to express in song are only setting the mood for the characters in the film. The music is no longer establishes a relationship between the artist and the listener, and its purpose is to instead set the tone for the viewer and the characters, essentially acting as a mere accessory. Then why are artists recently — especially big name artists — volunteering to be an accessory?

Famous musicians volunteering to make soundtracks for films is not unknown to the music industry. In the past, The Beatles have recorded their own soundtracks to their own films including Yellow Submarine. Then, big name artists recorded soundtracks for films they had no relation to, including the legendary Simon and Garfunkel scoring The Graduate and Queen’s soundtrack for Flash Gordon. In many cases, some of the artist’s largest successes came from movie soundtracks, such as Prince’s Purple Rain.

First of all, who volunteers to be an accessory? Recently, Jay-Z recorded “100$ Bill” for The Great Gatsby soundtrack, after a special screening from the director, Baz Luhrmann, and a suggestion that he should produce the soundtrack. After the success that both the film and the soundtrack garnered, it is pretty obvious as to why Jay-Z would agree: he was given the opportunity to set the mood for the Jazz Age with a modern day twist with an incredibly well-known director. But not all artists have the same opportunity to work in such an environment where their work will be publicized the way The Great Gatsby was.

Ayla Drawing (1)The Canyons, a film directed by Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame, and a script written by Bret Easton Ellis, the genius behind American Psycho and Less Than Zero, had an incredible score created by Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning with Ryan Kondrat and John Le Magna, who are referred to as Me&John on the album. Unfortunately, this score was not one that received the popularity it deserved. First of all, the film was not well-publicized, and the people who actually saw the film did not particularly like it. Of course Brendan Canning was not too pleased, and with good reason. He volunteered his art to be in the background of a film and did an incredible job of transforming the way the viewer would see the film. Canning, in an interview with Exclaim!, expressed pride for his work, but acknowledged that if the film is not a hit, then it is difficult for your score to get noticed. With this risk in mind, artists still continue to compose scores.

Daft Punk often have a visual accompaniment to their music, one of the reasons why they agreed to compose the Tron Legacy score. Jon Hopkins is a frequent composer of soundtracks, including ones for Monster and, more recently, How I Live Now. Hopkins composes scores because he finds enjoyment in collaborating with artists including Brian Eno, as he says in an interview with Futuresequence. However, both Daft Punk and Hopkins could never make a living out of soundtracking movies. It seems as though the common theme between all artists who compose scores or produce soundtracks for films is simple: scores and soundtracks are an occasional project chosen as a different kind of outlet. It is a change to escape the constant pressure of releasing independent work and working with new mediums as well as new people. The risk with this new realm of work, unfortunately, is it may not be appreciated or even discovered.

The soundtrack realm is a mixture of two extremes: extremely well-known, or extremely ignored. In the music world, it makes sense — as listeners, we are already exposed to music that is meant for our listening pleasure; the music is made solely for the artist and listener experience. If you are not a music connoisseur who seeks out good soundtracks, then they are pretty hard to come by unless they are recommended to you by others. Personally, I would have never discovered the Drive album or The Canyons if I hadn’t read about them. Then, the differences between scores and soundtracks must be taken into consideration. For many listeners, instrumental music is not as appealing as lyrical music, unlike soundtracks, which are modeled more in accordance with that of a playlist containing primarily lyrical music. This would explain the popularity divide between albums like Tron Legacy and The Great Gatsby — lyrics will attract more listeners than instrumental tracks.

Despite the many factors and the possibility of failure, I would say that without a soundtrack, a film is bland. It has no pizzazz or character, and I feel as though this is the underlying reason as to why musicians relegate their art to the background of a film. Yes, they will be commissioned by directors to create the soundtrack, or in some cases, volunteer, but why scoring soundtracks is a growing trend is the ability to add something important to a film — something that is under-appreciated yet so important it could change the course of how any viewer sees a film.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.

Ayla Shiblaq is a first-year student from Victoria College studying political science. She enjoys long walks to the fridge, sifting through record bins, and avoiding any conversatins regarding the Broken Social Scene hiatus. If she’s not at a concert, she’s probably looking for a way to get into a concert. She hopes one day to learn how to play the banjo and start a folk band or just going into politics – whichever comes first.

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