Tuesday, 8 July 2014

How to Score (in the Movies)

How many movie themes and music can you recognise? The Bond themes? The “Psycho” shower scene? “The Wizard of Oz”? But how many film composers can you name? John Williams? Any others? Unless you are a big film buff you may not know any others. The world of the big screen has been a surprisingly prolific canvas for lgbt composers. 

Today’s article takes a look at film music written by some lgbt composers. Because film music in general is such a big area to cover I’ve restricted myself to music written specifically for a film, be it the main theme, background music or featured song. I won’t cover musicals today as that is a whole subject in itself. Film music is not just about the composer. The arranger and orchestrator are just as important to the final cut as anyone. 

There’s no snobbery in composing for a film, a lot of contemporary classical composers have written film scores. And there’s an art to writing music for a film, as the gay American composer Aaron Copland explained in this essay he wrote in 1940. I don’t think the process has changed very much since his time. Copland’s film music earned him an Oscar for “The Heiress” in 1950 and last October was featured in a festival of his film music in New York. 

Another Oscar-winning classical composer is John Corigliano, who also won Best Original Music award for “The Red Violin” (1998). 

Perhaps the most surprising combination of composer and film comes with Sir Malcolm Williamson who, as well as writing ballets, symphonies and choral works, composer the music for several Hammer horror films (that’s as incongruous as Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra in “Carry On Cleo”). More on horror films in October! To counterpoint this he also wrote the title theme for “Watership Down” (1977, but not the song “Bright Eyes”). 

Female lgbt composers have also written for film. In November 2011 I wrote about Angela Morley, one of the forgotten heroes of British radio. Not only was she responsible for arranging the rest of the score for “Watership Down” but she also arranged, orchestrated and supervised the music for “Schindler’s List”, “The Slipper and the Rose”, “ET”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, and many others, most of them uncredited. In fact, if you see a film featuring John Williams’ music you’re more than likely hearing Angela’s orchestrations. Although nominated for 2 Oscars Angela missed out both times. But she did win 3 Emmys for her tv music. 

Most female composers wrote for tv, probably because of a male bias in the film industry. Several other female composers who have made a mark in film music include Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Both were band members of The Revolution with Prince. Their disillusionment at being under-rated by Prince led to them leaving the band. Since then they have formed their own band, and then turned to writing for film and tv. Their most famous work is in the film “Purple Rain” from their Revolution years, winning a Grammy in the process. 

Wendy and Lisa brings to mind other popular music performers who have composed for film. Sir Elton John has written for Disney (“The Lion King”), and Freddie Mercury penned music for “Flash Gordon”. 

Which leads us on to individual songs. A lot of films include songs, but it doesn’t’ make them musicals. “Shrek 2” and “Bambi II” are borderline cases. These two films included songs written by Dean Pitchford, more famous for his songs for “Fame” (1980), for which he won an Oscar, and for the screenplay of “Footloose” (1984). On 19th September 2008 he married Gay Games multi-gold medallist Michael Mealiffe. 

One of the most creative film-making teams of recent years includes 3 gay men. Composer John Ottman met film director Bryan Singer and orchestrator/conductor Damon Intrabartolo at the University of Southern California in the 1980s. The trio didn’t work together on a project until 1995 when Singer made the film “The Usual Suspects”. John and Damon worked closely together on many later films, Damon providing the orchestrations for John’s scores. John also edited “The Usual Suspects” to make a more symbiotic element to the film, and he was rewarded with a BAFTA for Best Editing. 

Perhaps the biggest films the three worked on are all recent superhero blockbusters – “Fantastic Four”, “X2: X-Men United” and “Superman Returns”. Such film-making teams have become more prominent in the past 50 years and weren’t so evident in the Golden Years of Hollywood. Unfortunately, this particularly well-matched team was broken up last year with the sad death of Damon Intrabartolo as the age of 39. 

With only a little space left I’ll just give a brief mention to other lgbt film composers and their most well-known films. Richard Robbins was a member of another 3-gay-man film team, working with Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory on most of their films. He was twice Oscar-nominated for “Howards’ End” and “The Remains of the Day”.  

Marc Shaiman’s most recent big hit was the remakes of “Hair” (2007) but his work goes back to the 1980s with films such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Broadcast News”. He was Oscar-nominated for “Sleepless in Seattle” and “South Park”, among others. 

Arthur Benjamin was (like Sir Malcolm Williamson) and Australian composer. Arthur worked with Alfred Hitchcock on both of his films “The Man Who New Too Much” (1934 and 1956). He also wrote the music for several documentary films, including “The Conquest of Everest” (1953).

More film music will be featured later in the year, the next being a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the lgbt community’s most iconic film. I hope this all too brief look at film music by lgbt composers has whetted your appetite to go and see some of the films mentioned – you may see them in a new light. 

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