Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The recycling of music in The Artist

There is an ongoing debate surrounding the choice of music in the French Oscar-nominated silent film The Artist. Legendary actress Kim Novak is accusing the French director Michel Hazanavicius of musical rape because of his use of a snippet of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This is an opportunity for me to give my thoughts on the recycling of music in the movies

Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo (1958)

First some background:
In the dawn of film there were no particular scores, theme songs or soundtracks. But as the films didn’t have a soundtrack the air had to be filled with something. Music was of course a natural choice. The smaller houses had a pianist or a couple of musicians at most, maybe a trio that also worked at the nearby restaurant. The bigger cinemas often had orchestras. Sometimes a band of 8 to 12 players if it was a medium sized city theatre. If the cinema also doubled as a regular theater or music hall venue the orchestra could be bigger. The really big palaces that were built after WWI could house a full size symphony orchestra. The Roxy in NYC opened in 1927 had a very large orchestra of more than a 100 players.

The cinema often had a musical director who in most cases also was head of the orchestra. The musical director took bits and pieces of well known classical music that fitted particular scenes or emotions and put together a program of sorts for each film. The use of already existing music was thus commonplace from the very beginning of film history.

The Scala Theater in Brighton UK 1930

With time, the bigger cinemas developed a quite vast musical library to use. Well known pieces by Verdi, Wagner, Beethoven and other masters were used to the extent that they became synonymous with particular moods or scenes in the movies. The more creative musical directors sometimes also wrote transitional music to fill out the gaps.

By 1915 the studios had become aware of the importance of music as it clearly had become a part of the movie going experience. It was at this time the first commissioned scores appears (Read more about the early days of movie scores and theme songs here)

This was also a time when the hit songs were born. Some songs could sell a million copies in sheet music alone. With the portable phonographs of the late teens records became more common. Records had been more or less a luxury item up until this time. A single sided opera record could sell for as much as $6 in 1910. (that would be about $100 today). Then came radio and the modern music business was born. The hit songs now quickly found their way into the movies.

It was more common that the songs went through a music publisher rather than through the movie studio. The studio could often commission the song but didn't own the rights to sell sheet music or records. With the advent of the talkies the music could be nailed to the filmstrip. The studios set up musical departments almost immediately.

Prolific song writers of Tin Pan Alley in NYC were hired and often got very lucrative deals with the Hollywood studios that now had a never ending need for songs and scores.
This is why the early musicals (pre 1934) have so many good songs. Hollywood hired the best composers and lyricists they could find. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and teams like the Gershwins, Freed & Brown or Brown DeSylva & Henderson.

Business as usual at a Tin Pan Alley music publisher in 1929

Most of these songs are still evergreens. There was an avalanche of hit songs that got even more power from radio performances. All this marketing power made the songs stick in peoples ears forever. The movies the songs first were used in were quickly forgotten but the songs themselves lived on and still does.

Incidental music and scores that was not considered stand alone songs however, did not have the same life or commercial value. The songs were usually commissioned from someone like Cole Porter, but the incidental music was written by a staff composer, sometimes using the themes from the different commissioned songs, sometimes not. The composer to the incidental music often never received any credit in the final product as he was on a monthly salary at the studio. It was the stand alone songs that were important.

Marion Davies, Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (1934)

It goes on more or less like this until Orson Welles commissioned an entire score from newcomer Bernard Herrmann for Citizen Kane in 1940. No hit songs, just a great big score by Herrmann alone, including a fabulous aria from a fictitious Opera - Salammbô, written in the strict post-romantic style of Richard Strauss or Giacomo Puccini. Spotify link: Salammbô's Aria from Citizen Kane
To me this is the birth of the modern film score that had begun with the commissioned scores to the silent movies 20 years earlier. The composer now also recived credit, sometimes even on the poster.

Bernard Herrmann in the 1940's

The case with The Artist:
I think it's difficult to re-use a score or pieces of it as this often instrumental music more or less serves as a backdrop to the scenes in the movie. In that respect I give Novak a point. It would be awkward to use really prolific scores like Star Wars or Jaws for other pictures that are not parodies of the original films.

If the composer to a new score use a few bars or a theme from an old score as a nod or homage to the original composer I think it should be considered a nice gesture rather than a rape situation. It's all a matter of style and how it is done. In the Artist it is beautifully done and clearly serves as homage to Herrmann. What is even more important is that Hazanavicius has permission from Herrmann's estate and his publisher to use the music in his film.

Herrmann used bits and pieces from the great masters himself. There is a lot of inspiration from both Mahler and Strauss in many of his early scores. Another great composer, John Williams is often stealing bits and pieces from others to his scores (which I often think are better than the films they were created for). The best example is perhaps Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for Kings Row (1942). If you listen to the main theme you hear a mix of Superman and Star Wars both written 35 years later by Williams. Spotify Link: Kings Row (Main Theme) - Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Songs on the other hand can be used many times in many different films. The important thing is that they fit in. In Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, the filmmaker makes a statement by only using modern hit songs, most certainly to attract a younger audience to a period film. I think that is incredibly cheap! Imagine a 1940's film with a contemporary score by Gaga, Beyonce or 50 cent, it would be totally wrong.

Singin In The Rain from Hollywood Revue of 1929

The use of old songs in Singing In The Rain is a celebration of the first hit composers and the songs that were used in the first talking pictures. Singing In The Rain by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown was a hit in 1929 because of it's inclusion in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but became an even bigger hit in Singing In the Rain in 1952. Many songs used in movies didn't become hits until they were re-cycled in other movies. This go way back, I have no good examples here but an instrumental theme used in a 1942 film could very well get lyrics and be re-used in a 1948 movie and then become a major hit.
I have no problems with that. The difficult task is to use the right music at the right time.

Dear Kim Novak, I’m sorry to say it but the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score in the Artist is definitely not a rape situation. Not even a slight groping to put it bluntly.

A French behind the scenes featurette in color from The Artist 2011

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