In the early silent era, pianists patched together swatches of prefabricated music to accompany the onscreen action —furious chases, passionate smooches, banana-peel pratfalls, and so forth. During the succeeding century, film scoring evolved into a unique, largely unappreciated art. Today’s reader is likely to be educated in musical history, theory, composition, performance conventions, as well as cinema technology. Skill at apt quotation of music from every nation and category, past and present, classic to rap is also a requisite.
Hans Zimmer (Gladiator , Crimson Tide ) scored most of the music for Christopher Nolan’s magisterial Dunkirk (2017). The film’s central theme, however, was originally written by Sir Edward Elgar. It’s from the famous Nimrod movement of Elgar’s Enigma Variation, repurposed by Zimmer’s lesser-known but no less accomplished collaborator, David Wallfisch.
Wallfisch retained Elgar’s quintessentially British bell-like clarity and stateliness. But befitting the dire, inglorious circumstances of the 300,000 soldiers stranded on the bloody beach, Wallfisch re-orchestrated the theme, endowing it with a somber, attenuated quality. In musical terms, the music has also been augmented, extending throughout the pivotal scene when a fragile flotilla of weekend sailors materializes out of the murky mist to rescue the wildly cheering multitude.
On each of 2 viewings, Wallfisch’s poignant reinvention of the Nimrod motif brought unaccustomed tears to my eyes. And made me realize —not for the first time —how less powerful a scene like this would be without music. Hence the following examples of the devices used by film composers to stir our emotions.
Cinema scholars theorize that audiences are swept up by a movie by paradoxically effacing the very means of its creation. Resulting from cunning manipulation of camera, lighting, etc, the picture seems to be unspooling from somewhere back in one’s head, instead of being projected upon the screen.
The technology and aesthetics involved in this curious erasure were perfected in Hollywood’s golden studio years. Most films still employ them. A familiar example is “shot-reverse shot” lensing: when 2 characters are speaking together, each is alternately perceived from a camera angle over the other’s shoulder. Unobtrusive “background” music likewise facilitates the “suppressed” process that sweeps a viewer out of his comfortable seat and into a movie’s realm, as it were from the wings.
Wittingly or otherwise, I think we bring some sort of ego-ideal to the multiplex, preparing us in advance to identify with positive qualities in a film’s character —notably, a hero —we want to own. Identification, even a temporary dose of introjection may be evoked via a musical “signature,” the equivalent of a Wagnerian leitmotif that encapsulates a hero’s virtuous intentions or virtuoso kung-fu talent.