The recent death of composer Marvin Hamlisch made me stop for a moment to appreciate how important musical scores are to motion pictures.
Hamlisch, whose screen composing credits included the scores for Ordinary People, Sophie's Choice, as well as his Oscar-winning adaptation of Scott Joplin ragtime music for The Sting, left an indelible impression on film audiences. Toss in a little ditty entitled The Way We Were (has there ever been a more evocative song from a movie?) and you have an idea of the contributions made by Mr. Hamlisch. (He also excelled outisde of the film industry, picking up both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the music that he wrote for the seminal stage production A Chorus Line. He wrote the music for Broadway's They're Playing Our Song, too. And he was the conductor of numerous renowned orchestras across the country.)
Even before the advent of "talking pictures," moviemakers understood the importance of using music to underscore what was happening up on the screen. Silent films were projected for an audience while a pianist played "live" music right there in the theater. This reliance on musical scores to accompany the action on the screen, to suggest something ahead that the audience could not yet see, or to convey a depth of emotion or feeling within the story, continued unabated as movies embraced the new sound technology.
Think of the wonderful scores that have graced movies throughout the decades: Max Steiner's sweeping score for Gone With The Wind, the memorable Bernard Herrmann scores for many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, Maurice Jarre's majestic, outsized scores for epic David Lean-directed movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, or Ennio Morricone's evocative music for Clint Eastwood Spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Even hearing just a few memorable bars from these scores instantly brings images from these films to our mind's eye; a great score should fit hand in glove with the movie for which it is written.
I challenge you to think of the following movies without the music composed for them by John Wiliams: Jaws perhaps? Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, anyone? E.T., the Extraterrestrial or Schindler's List? Are there any of you out there who have seen these classic films who do not know their musical scores?
Music and film are so indivisible that one is hard-pressed to think of the one without the other. Movies are most assuredly collaborative efforts: director, producer, cast, cinematographer, production designer, costumer, editor... and the composer of the musical score.
Rest in peace, Marvin Hamlisch. You join a long line of composers who have, in many ways, through film, provided us with the soundtracks to our lives.
Until next time...