Major motion pictures almost always have music, and that music usually comes composed especially for the movie. Every moviegoer knows this, of course, and most of them will by now be humming their favorite film-score music to themselves: themes from Star Wars, Jaws, The Godfather, the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies, and so on. But what about the music from more recent cinematic franchises? What about the music from the still-coming-out Marvel Comics movies, the most successful such franchise of all time? Why no memorable themes come to mind, much less hummable ones, constitutes the central question of the new video essay from Every Frame a Painting.
Its argument points to several different factors, including Marvel and other modern movies’ predictable use and overuse of music, as well as their tendency to put distracting layers of noise and dialogue on top of it. But the deeper problem, which has become systemic in the world of film scoring, has to do with something called “temp music,” which is what it sounds like: music temporarily used in a movie during editing before its real score gets composed. That sounds innocuous enough, but this video features a clip in which no less a prolific and respected composer than Danny Elfman describes temp music as “the bane of my existence,” and after watching it you’ll surely see — or rather, hear — why.
Temp music usually comes from the scores of other movies. With modern nonlinear editing technology, the director or editor can pick out tracks that approximate the envisioned tone of the work in progress and simply insert them into their scenes. But after hundreds upon hundreds of hours of watching the project scored with the temp music, the temp music starts to sound like the one true score, especially if the editor has cut tightly to it. “Make it sound like the temp music,” insist the orders too often given to the composer working on an “original” score for the film, which soon winds up as temp music itself on the next blockbuster-to-be in the editing room.
This musical ouroboros, which Every Frame a Painting demonstrates by playing a variety of scenes first with their temp music and then with their final score (with more such comparisons to watch in the supplementary video just above), has robbed even Hollywood’s highest-profile pictures — especially Hollywood’s highest-profile pictures — of an essential tool of evocation and emotion. But only a truly risk-taking filmmaker could break this cycle of blandness: a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick who, working on 2001: A Space Odyssey, refused to use its commissioned score that (in Roger Ebert’s words) “like all scores, attempts to underline the action — to give us emotional cues.” Instead, he decided to score the movie with the likes of György Ligeti, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian and (speaking of memorable themes) Richard Strauss — all of which he had, of course, used as temp music.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.