I sat near the back with a program folded in my joined hands as composer Jerry Goldsmith took his position before the symphony to a polite flutter of applause.I wore the same dress I’d wear months later to my high school graduation.Ruffles on the cap sleeves, tiny cloth-covered buttons, narrow all the way down.An idea of adulthood I’d squeezed into too soon. Most likely I hadn’t told my friends I was here, but I would be clearing a special place amongst all the rock-concert ticket stubs in my scrapbook to add this one.

I’ve always had a thing for instrumental scores.My little sister and I used to sit in front of the television as our cassette player recorded opening themes straining through the little grate of speakers.As soon as the “stop” button clacked under my fingertip, we’d plan our accompanying dance routine.At our cousins’ house, we’d act out impromptu plays to Hatari’s “Baby Elephant Walk” or “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I knew the Somewhere in Time pieces so well my fingers could tap them out on a tabletop.In my mind, I was a virtuoso on piano.In reality, I plunked through selections from The Sting like someone struggling against a current.

But it wasn’t until Goldsmith’s white hair bounced in and out of his shirt collar in sync with the rhythm of his hands in a blur as Patton played that I considered the composer of a score instead of merely its respective film. It wasn’t until then that I made a point of learning who was who.Now when the names of the likes of Rachel Portman, James Newton Howard, or Michael Giachhino are read on Oscar night I pay attention with a restrained fervor befitting a narrow, button-up dress.

And the nominees are ….

The Social Network

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

When I saw Reznor accepting a Golden Globe Award for this score, I said, “Aw, look!It’s Trent in his big-boy suit!”I’ll be watching to see if he’ll opt to show up at the Academy Awards wearing his “Closer” goggles, dragging an animal carcass behind him, and accepting his award at a be-nippled microphone.My one complaint with techno-driven scores, or any other score that’s too much of its era, is that it can become dated fast.But of course this isn’t a problem if the subject of the film is also distinctly of its era.Such is the case with the Social Network.And what better music with which to punctuate the story of a socially inept mogul-in-the-making orchestrating the means of our online, artificial closeness?This score’s artful thumps and whirs whistle along with the cool detachment of an “unfriend” button.

How to Train Your Dragon

John Powell

Makers of animated films for children, I implore you.Give us all the bodily-function jokes and dead moms you want if you must, but please, please stop skimping on the musical score.Take your cues from How to Train Your Dragon.For it, John Powell composes one of his grandest scores to date.Big swells, lots of brass, it announces “I am a big Hollywood extravaganza” with many exclamation marks even though it’s film really isn’t.No matter.The mere suggestion of that score booming in the background makes me like this film a lot more than is warranted.In fact, I’m convinced this score worked its magic on the Academy as well, thus its nomination in the Best Animated Feature category.

The King’s Speech

Alexandre Desplat

Peppy and proper, this score’s ready for tea and crumpets and its Oscar.By George, I think it’s even wearing an ascot for the occasion.Desplat, one of my absolute favorite composers, has delivered gloriously understated scores for the likes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Syriana, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and The Painted Veil.Even Wes Anderson, who needs no imploring from me, used a pitch-perfect score from Desplat for Fantastic Mr. Fox (good man!).While his work for The King’s Speech is not my favorite of Desplat’s as a stand-alone piece, it fits this film like Colin Firth’s arm in mine.Which is to say like a dream.

Inception

Hans Zimmer

Of all the Inception theories, I don’t think anyone has considered that Zimmer’s entire Inception score might very well be a sentient being, sweeping through this film on a mission to patch its emotional deficits.You want to know if that top stops spinning or not?Ask the score.It knows all.By sheer intuition, it knows all.Mostly it knows what it takes for me to finally sympathize with Cobb’s losses.It takes a glorious, simplistic crescendo in the closing scene.Other notable scores in Zimmer’s repertoire include The Thin Red Line, Gladiator, Sherlock Holmes, and The Dark Knight.

127 Hours

A. R. Rahman

While Best Original Score might be one of my favorite categories of the Academy Awards, the usual presentation of the scores through interpretive dance marks the moment I go refill my drink.Maybe because I can still see a ten-year-old me flashing jazz hands on a pivot to the “Knight Rider” theme.Sometimes the dancing works.Most of the time it’s absurd.Remember the Hurt Locker dance of last year?I can only imagine the stuck-under-a-boulder-hack-your-own-arm-off moves that await us on February 27.But when the moment comes, if we close our eyes we can at least enjoy Rahman’s blend of diverse influences – from world music to techno to traditional score – that naturally insinuate themselves into the textures of 127 Hours, so much so one can’t possibly imagine the film without it.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

72 responses to “We Can Dance If We Want To”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    I so totally and completely want the OST for Social Network to take it out. I listen to that soundtrack all the time. My favourite is track 5, Intriguing Possibilities, which makes me think I’m a genius.

    Also, I loved Zimmer’s work on Dark Knight and Batman Begins. You should check out E. S. Posthumus – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AEU5pBxY6E

    • Ah, I love that track! Thanks for the introduction. I see that it’s the theme to “Cold Case,” so I may set up my recorder by the television for old-time’s sake. And then plan a dance. I have a lovely soft-shoe routine in mind.

      It took me awhile to like the Dark Knight tracks on their own because they were quieter and more repetitious over all than Batman Begins, but now I listen to them all the time. Good writing music.

  2. Lenore Zion says:

    trent reznor has a special place in my heart. i listened to pretty hate machine all through high school and it still holds up for me to this day. i think i just really like angry, bitter music.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Did You Know: the lead singer of Filter, Richard Patrick, who is the brother of Robert Patrick, who was the T-1000, was once the guitar player for NIN? He quit after Trent attacked him live as part of a stage show.

      Or so the legend goes.

      • Reno Romero says:

        I saw NIN in concert. David Bowie opened for him which I thought should be the other way around. Anyhow, that Trent guy is one talented fucker and I can see his shit working on film easily. Courtney Love said he has a little willy. This may be part of his musical genius.

        • Wow, Bowie opened for NIN? Yeah, definitely should have been the other way around. That was probably the “I’m Afraid of Americans” Bowie era. I’ve seen NIN twice, before and after the commercial success hit. Amazing stuff both times.

    • I love, love, lurrrrv Trent Reznor. This one reminds me of some of his work on The Fragile and a little of Downward Spiral. And I hear he’s doing more soundtracks (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), so yay for us. He doesn’t seem so bitter and angry anymore, though. So … bummer.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I love that Trent Reznor keeps pushing the envelope both with his music and how he connects to his listeners. Besides his most famous work, check out Year Zero and Ghosts. I’ll for sure be rooting for him on Oscar night.

        • Dana says:

          I always liked NIN, but was never obsessed. But I saw him acoustic at The Bridge School benefit with a string quartet several years ago and he blew me away. It was just so unexpected. Still a bit angry, but not in a scary way.

  3. Excellent. Musical scores affect a film more than we realize and it’s always a pleasant surprise to listen to them apart. That Reznor music for instance actually sounds better to me here, whereas in the film, during the crew race, I kind of just wanted to turn it down. The Dragon score makes me want to see that one again, while holding the strap to my girls oversized 3D specs.

    Also, this line is spot on “the usual presentation of the scores through interpretive dance marks the moment I go refill my drink.” Unless it’s a South Park number.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Cynthia,

    I don’t hear the music in movies. I hear the dialog just fine, but I never notice the music.
    The only exception is if it’s Dylan. I always hear Dylan.
    I have no idea why I’m like this.

    • I’m with Irene on this. In High Fidelity, I nearly checked out of the story over the first bars of “Most of the Time.” Barely noticed that the father of Cusack’s girlfriend had just died.

    • Huh, that’s interesting, Irene. I wonder if it’s a case of the music doing its job and supporting the film instead of overwhelming it?

      I like that you’re particularly attuned to Dylan 🙂

      Nathaniel, love that movie. That’s one of those rare cases where the film adaptation perfectly realized the book as I’d imagined it when I read it.

    • I’m the same as Irene. It always goes over my head unless it’s Dylan. I used to own a couple of movie soundtracks and would always say, “I don’t remember this being in the movie…”

      • I am SO intrigued by this! Really and truly? For example, you don’t notice the musical score in Psycho or Star Wars? Because sometimes the score is a big part of the action. Apocalypse Now? No? Hmm. I kind of envy this ability as it wouldn’t hurt for me to have one less obsession.

        • I’m not saying it doesn’t make a difference, or that I don’t look back later and say, “Wow!” but I think that a good soundtrack is like good camera work or a good script – you don’t necessarily think about it at the time. It just quietly enhances the film, helping to make it brilliant without standing out. Sometimes.

          Of course, now I say this I’m thinking of exceptions… but I’ll keep quiet about them for now.

    • Reno Romero says:

      Irene!

      No music! Huh? Really? So you don’t hear the tense music when there’s tension on the screen? Wow. Wait! This might be a good thing. Can’t say now. I’m stumped. Okay, I’m going to watch a movie and try and shut out the music….

  5. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/chawkins/2011/02/we-can-dance-if-we-want-to/ – view page – cached Cynthia Hawkins reflects on Jerry Goldsmith, jazz hands, and the nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards Best Original Score., Cynthia Hawkins reflects on Jerry Goldsmith, jazz hands, and the nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards Best Original Score. […]

  6. Richard Cox says:

    I’m totally with you on this one, Cynthia, enough that I can overlook your fondness for Inception. I have a whole playlist of soundtrack music I sometimes listen to when I want a more cinematic feel in my writing. I know soundtrack music often lacks the subtlety and sophistication of the best classical music, but sometimes I don’t want those things. You know?

  7. D.R. Haney says:

    Just as long as John Williams and Danny Elfman aren’t nominated, I’m cool with whatever. Though I’m told that Zimmer is on a par with them both.

    No film composer for my money, and that’s not much, can hold a candle to Bernard Hermann or Nino Rota, though I’m also partial to John Barry.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      Oh yeah. Taxi Driver. Nuff said

    • I’m sure Zimmer’s on par with them both. I like the earlier works of both Williams and Elfman, but nothing lately. It’s sort of all the same after awhile. Same for James Horner … whom I cannot stand. That stupid trumpet trill he throws in there *every time* to say “it’s me!!!” Gah.

      I’ve been listening to older Bernard Herrmann tracks today! Someone posted a few links on my FB wall.

      Hey Tom, I think we can always find common ground with Taxi Driver, Herrmann’s score or otherwise. I saw that movie when I was way too young to see that movie. I’ve loved it since.

      • Tom Hansen says:

        Duhn duhn duhn duhn duh duh duh duh dududududuuh boooosh…..I saw Taxi Driver when I was 15 at the Rode Molle theater in Fredrikstad Norway. The same trip I discovered English language versions of Nausea by Sartre and Little Birds by Nin on a bargain table of a bookstore in Tonsberg. That trip was the beginning of the end for Tom haha

  8. Tom Hansen says:

    I’m picky about soundtracks/scores (what else is new, right?) I prefer unobtrusive simple stuff that enhances the mood/emotions, like this, which was used in Heaven w/Cate Blachett.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtFPdBUl7XQ

    Thank god we’re seeing less of that bombastic orchestration haha

    • I *almost* wrote about an ongoing debate a college friend and I used to have. He believed scores were manipulative, distracting, and unrealistic. I believed that while sometimes that was the case, I didn’t want to see all movies stripped bare of musical scores because they’re just that ingrained in my notion of movies. Hmm. Okay, going to watch your youtube clip now ….

  9. Tom Hansen says:

    “He believed scores were manipulative, distracting, and unrealistic.” He was right, they are. Even the pretty ones like the one I posted. I’m just being a depresso

  10. Greg Olear says:

    There’s a story where Hitchcock says, Fuck it, I don’t need a score. Bernard Hermann says, Oh yeah? Tell you what. I’ll write one on spec. Only pay me if you think it improves the film. Hermann, needless to say, got his money.

    I thought the soundtrack for Social Network was excellent. Good background music, and great selections for the songs used. NIN!

  11. Dana says:

    Cynthia, I think it’s awesome that your love for all things cinematic really IS all encompassing. One day I fully expect to see your tribute to gaffers, or grips.

    I promise to pay more attention to movie scores from this day forward.

  12. Gloria says:

    The How to Train Your Dragon score really is great. And it’s a good movie.

    Fun walk through the musical score category, Cynthia. I rue the fact that we can’t watch The Oscar together. I can’t imagine how unbelievably fun that would be. 🙂

    • Oh, that would be fun! I’m always wanting to host some kind of Oscar-watch party, and I never do. Probably because I don’t know enough people to invite who would actually *watch* it.

      • Gloria says:

        I had one once. It was a White Trash Oscar Party. I served vienna sausages, black pearl olives, canned cheese, and Chicken in a Biscuit Crackers. I had cheap bottled beer (but just couldn’t bring myself to get the cheapest.) I wore mom jeans with a shirt with shoulder pads and I curled my bangs. I had on way too much make up. I had one friend come. He didn’t dress up at all.

        • Ha! That’s a fantastic idea! The anti-Hollywood glamour Oscar party.

        • Gloria says:

          It was the year Brokeback Mountain lost for best picture, too. I felt totally deflated and completey ridiculous in my sad little costume after that. Kind of the way those guys who paint their whole entire upper bodies the colors of their favorite sports team must feel when the team is defeated and they have sulk off, defeated, battling hypothermia and feeling ridiculous as they drag their limp little pennants behind them out of the stadium.

          The Oscars = The Superbowl For the Non-Athletic

  13. Tawni Freeland says:

    “Give us all the bodily-function jokes and dead moms you want…”

    It’s true! What is up with killing off the moms in so many kid movies? It’s like they decide, “Hey! What’s the most horrifying fear of every child? Losing their mommy? Great. Let’s go with that plotline staple for this kiddie movie!” I had never noticed this phenomenon until someone recently pointed it out, and now it completely freaks me out.

    I loved How to Train Your Dragon too. (But… surprise! NO MOM.)

    This was a cool look at the musical side of movies, Cynthia. Thanks!

    • Thanks Tawni! When Hannah and I were watching Finding Nemo with Chloe several weeks ago, I pointed out the whole dead mom incident in the beginning. Hannah said, “Well, they got rid of the mom because the dad makes bad choices for the son, and that’s the whole reason Nemo’s lost. So, if the mom wasn’t dead there wouldn’t be a movie because moms don’t make bad choices.” So there you have it. 😉

      I DO like when the dad makes the kid a helmet out of half his mom’s breast plate.

    • Gloria says:

      Is it just boys, though. Do little girls lose their moms as much? I feel like it’s a theme that they use in films that are largely targeted toward little boys.

      Now I want to research this. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what they pay me for here and my lunch break is officially over.

      • I think this is research worthy! I’m guessing it’s mostly little boys because little girls aren’t usually the main protagonists. Hmph. And that’s a whole other story.

        • Gloria says:

          Let’s just save ourselves the time and money and data analysis and go ahead, throw our hands up, and just accept that, yes, it’s just boys. Or, mostly boys. (Now, if there were **actual** funding for this, I’d research the shit out of it.)

  14. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Scores do make a difference. T. and I watched a movie recently—can’t remember which one now!–but I recall that the music was decidedly odd, not at all congruent with the feel or time period of the film.

    Enjoy Oscar night!

    • Will do!

      Oh, I hate when they pair contemporary music with historical films (as in Young Guns or The Knight’s Tale). It really throws me. I’m curious to know what that movie was!

  15. Becky Palapala says:

    Why do you even tease with Downward Spiral-era Reznor imagery?

    Those days are gone. He’s sober, he looks like a linebacker, and he married that…thi…woman.

    That said, I’m forced to root for him.

    Because he’s the only one of these people whose music I know anything about.

    • Ha ha. I know. I thought of that when I wrote it. But wouldn’t it be great if he reverted to his old self for just a little while? For just a glimpse? Ahhh. *sigh*

      Did you see him on the Golden Globes? So, Joe (my Joe) and I are watching as they read the nominees, and we both look at each other at the same time and say, “No way he’s there.” Because the old Trent would have thumbed his nose at all of this. And then, bingo, there he is … in a tux! A tux! It’s all so weird.

      But I am trying to teach you about all of those other people’s music. Well, in a mini Cliffs Notes version, granted. Maybe root for A. R. Rahman. He’s the Slumdog “Jai Ho” guy. And if he’s good enough for a Pussycat Dolls cover, well then ….

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I looked up the pictures.

        Oy.

        What can he do? He’s someone’s father now, I guess. Parenthood, like old age and death, comes for everyone.

        Or not everyone necessarily. But most people.

        I never would have guessed it would come for Trent.

        But there you have it.

        I heard he met that woman on twitter.

        I am still talking about Trent Reznor because I don’t know how to talk about movie scores.

        • No! He met that woman on Twitter?! I did not know this. In fact, I did not even know they had a child. This is worse than a tux. This is a strange new Trent indeed.

          And fortunately for you, talking about Trent *is* talking about movie scores! I remember he selected songs for soundtracks before, like Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway — so I guess he was already headed in this direction way back when.

          I have an old poster of Trent you would like. He’s wearing fishnets. Rawr.

          • Becky Palapala says:

            And The CROW!

            Oh yeah. He’s married and everything. She’s a total YO-KO.

            Twitter is only a theory. No one is sure how they met and they won’t say.

            I’m pretty sure I have that poster. He had his own wall in my bedroom when I was in high school.

            It was covered in heroin-era Trent–crawling, skulking, slithering, looking out from under his hair and otherwise sexin’ up the place.

            re: JMB’s comment–slightly perplexed.

            I thought every NIN song was the sexiest one ever? :-/

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEW8riKU_tE

  16. J.M. Blaine says:

    I like Trent’s
    score very
    Moroder.

    A stripper
    once told
    me that
    “Closer”
    was the sexiest
    song ever made.

    The alt rock station
    here plays it
    on Sunday afternoons.

    • I think it possibly is. And you know what’s slightly more odd than playing the sexiest song ever made on Sunday afternoons? Playing it for my children in lullaby version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz0YtbDpWwI I just don’t sing along.

      • Richard Cox says:

        no No NO!!!

        At least there aren’t kids singing along with sanitized lyrics. Have you ever heard of Sandbox Rock?

        It’s like listening to madness.

        • No, I have not heard of Sandbox Rock. Blech. I’ll take your word for it. So, the above link is from the Rockabye series which also has versions of Metallica, Tool, and Radiohead, among others, all on toy piano. Crazy, crazy stuff.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Sandbox Rock’s worst song, hands down, is Crazy Train.

          A bunch of six year-olds call out “All aboarrrrrrrd!” And then they giggle. And the melody is played on a Xylophone.

          Here, go listen to it. You know you want to. I followed your link, after all. Your turn.

          Edit: Okay, maybe Sister Christian is worse. It’s a dead heat. Whichever adult recorded this horrifying “music” should never be allowed to be around children again.

        • OH okay. Done. “Sister Christian,” heh heh. That cracked me up. But shiza! I really couldn’t listen to that for more than a few seconds before drilling a hole in my head.

  17. Matt says:

    Film scores are like seasoning added to the soup: when they’re just right they enhance the flavor in remarkable, unexpected ways, but just a few degrees too much and they overwhelm everything. Though that feeling is also sometimes the fault of the projectionist, since the audio track run on a different reel than the film, and they can screw it up with too much/too little volume adjustment. Had it happen to me more than once.

    I love film scores, waaaay more than I do soundtrack albums. To me, most soundtrack albums never sound quite as good on their own as they do when those songs are played during the movie (there are exceptions, of course – Cameron Crowe has always assembled great soundtrack albums, for instance). And I hate when the “pop song of the moment” is used, as seems to happen with increasing frequency. I realized not too long ago that I tend to find pop music soundtracks off-putting unless it’s something I can believe the characters in the film would be listening to on their downtime.

    Love the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, and I hope they win. Two of my recent favorites have been the scores Nick Cave and Warren Ellis did for The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Tracks like “Song for Bob” just cut me right to the quick.

    • “Song for Bob” is my favorite one on there. That’s an amazing track — and perfect in the movie. I also like the score Cave and Ellis did for The Road. You know, I only recently figured out that Warren Ellis is from Dirty Three. Saw them once at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, and they were fantastic. Now I want to go dig my old Dirty Three cds out of the attic.

      Cameron Crowe always assembles good ones, yeah … as does (I think) Wes Anderson and Tarantino. Most of the time, though, I’m really disappointed when there’s no real score. OR there’s a great score, and they only release a soundtrack with the songs used in the film instead of the score. Did you ever get to see Blue Valentine? I actually don’t think that one had a score, but they used several Grizzly Bear songs which really worked. So, I suppose there’s always an exception.

  18. James D. Irwin says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen any of those films.

    Which kind of makes sense, as I hardly went to the cinma at all last year.

    True Grit is out on Friday. That’ll probably be my last trip to the cinema until the summer.

    Which reminds me. You’ll probably know this. If Jeff Bridges wins best actor at the Oscars he’ll A). have won it two years in a row proving beyond any reasonable doubt that he is the most awesome man alive. But will he B). be the first actor to win the award in the same role as a previous best actor winner?

    I vaguely recall someone at least being nominated in that position, but I don’t remember and I’m not exactly a frequent film goer…

    • Tom Hanks won two years in a row, but I’m not sure I can think of who might have won for the same role as a previous best actor winner. I might get curious enough about that one to do some googling ….

  19. Richard Cox says:

    I like to add that all day long, this has been playing in my head:

    “S-S-S-S-A-A-A-A-F-F-F-F-E-E-E-E-T-T-T-T-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y Safe safe safe safe dance dance dance dance.”

    And it’s all your fault.

  20. Jessica Blau says:

    This is great! I LOVE when people like you force me to look at and focus on things I don’t normally think about. I’m going to netflix some of these films now and I’ll reread your post before I watch them.

  21. pixy says:

    trent reznor is only 5’6″?!?! he’s tinier than tom cruise! oh trent, i shall love thee from afar otherwise i will tower over you in my chucks.

  22. Joe Daly says:

    A good movie soundtrack sticks to the brain, doesn’t it? Love that you tipped Hans for his myriad contributions to chase scenes and drug deals. Chariots of Fire was the first movie whose soundtrack grabbed my attention (and pocketed Vangelis a few dollars more, presumably). I’ve often found it effective when the score trickles through the movie in bits and pieces, only to come together at the end. The score in Bubba Ho-Tep was a great score as well, with a nice mix of Tex Mex, Elvis, and orchestral sounds producing an eerie, unforgettable soundscape.

    Now that I’m armed with some better info, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this award plays out.

    • Joe! It’s so funny you bring up the Vangelis score. A little back story: I made a gravatar account for my parents under my dad’s name so they could comment here at TNB, and for some reason they’ve decided they must refrain from doing so. Maybe they fear they’ll go comment happy or something. I don’t know. But anyway, every day since I’ve posted this piece I’ve gotten a call from mom saying, “I *almost* just commented about what a great soundtrack Chariots of Fire had!” Every day. Now you’ve brought this to light for them. Thank goodness for you Joe Daly!

  23. Gregory Messina says:

    Hi Cynthia,

    I’m so far behind on my reading.
    Kudos for originality of talking about movie scores. Nobody does that.

    Gregory

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