Sounds of cinema

Oscar win: A still from Parasite

Oscar win: A still from Parasite  

Since the Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite is the flavour of the season, let me talk about a personal experience. I was glued to the film’s plot and sub-titles. And always, I also paid attention to the background score. Suddenly, a few minutes before the (unwanted) intermission, my entire attention shifted to a beautiful and long stretch of music.

Enhancing the narrative

It seemed as I knew the tune, but couldn’t quite place it. It was very much in the 18th century baroque style, and could have been by Bach, Handel or Vivaldi. It lingered as an earworm, and it was only after checking Spotify later that I discovered it was ‘The Belt Of Faith’, an original tune by Jung Jaeil, who's composed the film's score. Based largely on western classical technique, Parasite has, one of the most powerful soundtracks in recent times. Barring a portion from Handel’s opera seria Rodelinda, most of it is original. Strangely enough, while the film got all the big Oscars, Jaeil’s music wasn’t even nominated. That's not to say that Hildur Guonadottir, who bagged a clutch of awards for Joker, was less brilliant in any way. Her cello-driven ‘Bathroom Dance’ and pathos-filled ‘Defeated Clown’ had the same stunning effect.

Instant recall

These weren’t new experiences. Often before, some pieces of instrumental music in a film have succeeded in taking over my senses. Recently, it happened with Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy ‘Up The Down Trench’, at the beginning of the war film 1917. A few years ago, Steven Price’s Gravity title tune did it with its sudden burst of screams. Alexandre Desplat’s ‘The Mission’ from Argo, and his appropriate use of Beethoven’s work in The King’s Speech were stunning. Hans Zimmer's ‘S.T.A.Y.’ from Interstellar is a gripping listen with its dramatic build-up, and Clint Mansell’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in Black Swan was outstanding. Ludovic Bource's music was literally the backbone of the silent movie The Artist.

Among popular and older fare, there are tunes from Love Story, The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, Titanic, the James Bond, Pink Panther and Alfred Hitchcock movies, and spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Audiences universally immediately associate the music with the film’s narrative and characters.

Emotional pull

Instrumental music has the power of enhancing the cinematic experience, and we’ve seen it happen in Indian cinema too. In her book, You Are The Music, music psychologist Victoria Williamson talks of how a film’s music can bring about romance, help react to different emotions, lead to tears or simply find meaning in relation to the plot.

While watching a horror film, for instance, some people tend to close their eyes regularly. According to Williamson, another section would cover their ears. This is because highly emotional music is more likely to have an impact on the amygdala, a part of the brain, which triggers activity to our sympathetic nervous system. Williamson says sad music can lead to nostalgia, often related to heartbreak or loss of a loved one. She also talks of how film composers use leitmotifs or recurring themes to help viewers relate to a particular character, classic examples being James Bond and the Superman movies.

Second fiddle

The question, of course, is how many viewers actually absorb the music soundtrack in connection with a film, unless they are familiar with a tune. One would assume musicians, sound engineers and ardent aficionados would pay attention to the intricacies, because their analytical approach works differently.

But in the case of the majority, it would at best be a superficial and temporary experience, if at all.

Several film scores are available on streaming platforms but only a few check them out, unless they have lyrical songs. Many remember Celine Dion’s Titanic song ‘My Heart Will Go On’, but the rest of the film’s music was forgettable. In post-viewing discussions, film buffs talk of plot, performances, cinematography, dialogues, editing and screenplay, and very often, the background score plays second fiddle.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:11:41 PM |

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