To Cinema, With Love: Music in Films – Siddhant Chandak

Films are may not be art and they’re not simply entertainment either. What they are, for sure, is an experience.

When you want to watch a film, you make a plan with your friends or family or sometimes with just yourself. You buy the tickets, get some popcorn, get in the seat and enjoy the show–even if you merely open up your laptop and watch the film, it still is an experience for you, whether good or bad. That experience can make you laugh, cry or maybe even think. This series is a homage to that very experience.

This is a homage to cinema.

|| Note :- Now, I have not seen every movie ever made (I wish I had, I really do) so my information primarily comes from the films I see, which is why whatever I write might be totally meaningless in context of other films (TL;DR: Whatever I say doesn’t matter. Not really.)

I have linked all films to places where you can watch them, like Hotstar, Netflix, etc. ||

 

To Cinema, With Love

Episode 1: Music in Films

“Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”

Wallace Hartley, Titanic (1997), dir. James Cameron

Music in films has been around for a really long time. Even some of the first silent films had background music so that the audience doesn’t become tired, bored and starts talking (It is incredibly hard to watch silent films with no music. Trust me, I’ve tried). Slowly and steadily, films changed: we got dialogues, we got colour and most aspects transformed in terms of filmmaking as a whole.

One of the only thing that did remain the same, however, was the music.

So, why is there music in films?

I think the best way to truly answer this question would be to explore the different ways music is used in films. Mainly, there are two ways:

#1: Background Scores

Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer is probably one of the best composers out there. His soundtrack for The Dark Knight’, the second instalment of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy on Batman, is one of his finest works. Of the entire soundtrack, the best track has got to be the track for the Joker.

[ Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zyhQjJ5UgY ]

Now, this entire track is played on only two notes, but there is something deeply unsettling about it. Just listening to it makes you feel awfully horrible and disgusted, which is exactly how the Joker’s acts are supposed to make the audience feel. Hans Zimmer himself talks about this when he says “I didn’t want to write a summer blockbuster, happy, indulgent score; I wanted something that was truly provocative, and people could truly hate.” (The guy is a fricking genius, but for some reason sounds extremely sadistic.)

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Let us consider another example, that of a recent Indian film produced by Karan Johar Kapoor and Sons‘.

Kapoor and Sons is a family drama, and consequently, there are several fights that spawn across the entire film. It is common practice in most dramas to use dramatic music to increase the overall tension of a scene, but Kapoor and Sons’ director Shakun Batra does not take that route. In his own words, “I didn’t want to rely on tools of drama, which is dramatic lighting, dramatic lensing or even dramatic background music”.

This doesn’t mean that music is not used in the film. Right after each high-strung family feud, the music composed using pianos and violins sets in, to make the audience look at the destruction left in the aftermath; it’s like similar to how being in a tense situation triggers an adrenaline rush, but when it gradually wears off, that is when the actual emotional response comes out.

John Williams with C3PO

In Star Wars (I would have added the link to watch this, but netflix has removed the star wars films), John Williams only adds the music during the battle sequences to increase the intensity of these scenes.

Hans Zimmer does something similar in the war film Dunkirk. (Nominated for the ‘Best Original Score’ accolade in the Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards and many more– including the Oscars.)

In the American psychological thriller Taxi Driver, the sound of the saxophone shows the entire theme of the film, loneliness.

The considerable use of the accordion and the violin in Barfi! is another great example.

Which brings me to my main point: Background Score helps manipulate the audience.

Happy music or sad music literally pushes our buttons to feel a certain way. It also helps set the tone of a scene, a character or sometimes the entire film. Many a time, a singular track is used with its tempo changed according to scenes.

This is why original soundtracks are even more important. When a piece is created specifically for a particular project, it helps elevate it to another level. Not doing so is akin to adding garam masala in noodles (I am almost certain our canteen does this): it won’t be terrible, heck it might even be good, but it wouldn’t be…

Special.

#2: Background Songs

While comparing films to other mediums such as books, a common problem that people have is that we do not know how the character feels or what they are thinking internally. There are several ways to do that: there is narration as seen in Goodfellas or moments with the character as seen in the Lunchbox, but a great way to do this is by using background songs.

Now, a majority of songs are written from a perspective, for example:

There’s a lady who’s sure

All that glitters is gold

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

  • Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin

Even though it talks about a broader subject, this song is still from the perspective of someone as it’s written in the second person. It shows how a certain character feels about the situation.

This is the exact way how background songs are used in films.

Consider Fight Club as an example. In the end, when our lead character is standing on top of the building having realised the craziness of his alter ego being unleashed, the song that plays in the background is ‘Where’s My Mind’ by the Pixies, whose lyrics go:

Where is my mind

Where is my mind

Where is my mind

Way out in the water

See it swimmin’

[The scene with the song: https://youtu.be/E1d5VvCa8Fo?t=29s]

Pixies – Where’s my Mind

If you have seen Fight Club, you would realise that this song fits the moment like a glove. David Fincher, the film’s director, uses such pop songs incredibly well.

(more about that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ozbGJQelUY&t=214s)

This style of using songs is known as exposition, to give a peek into what a character is thinking or feeling, and is extremely common in Indian films. The next time you are watching a Hindi film and a song plays, try and pay attention to the lyrics and see how it exposes to you any character or the dynamic between two or more characters.

A few examples to help you visualise the above points:

Celine Dion’s voice in ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in Titanic, is from the perspective of Rose.

‘Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’ in Dum Laga Ke Haisha is from the perspective of the lead, Prem.

The poster for Barfi

The sweet and whimsical ‘Kyon’ in Barfi! is from the perspective of Ranbir Kapoor’s mute character, showing him finding happiness in the simplest of ways along with the autistic Jhilmil.

And the recurring ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land is from the perspective of Mia and Sebastian. It aptly conveys the changes in character and situation through its varying moods each time it plays onscreen.

This same style can be used in the form of singalong songs as well, where instead of the songs playing the background, the character sings the lyrics. In this type of scenario, the actor has a huge role in bringing out the exposition in the song through their portrayal of emotions.

Carrying forward the example of City of Stars, [ https://youtu.be/FJjPdUagmKM?t=1m10s], in this song despite never having seen the film, you can easily tell what Ryan Gosling’s Seb is feeling/thinking. How? From the lyrics and the expressions on Ryan Gosling’s face.

That said, background songs are extremely tough to use. Which is why sometimes they can seem like they came out of nowhere. When the latter happens, more often than not, it takes you out of the film as opposed to immersing you deeper.

Conclusion

Although this article kind of sums up what and how music is used in films, these are not the only ways it can be used. Even though cinema can be studied, it is still extremely subjective and same goes with music.

There are several ways to use music in films, and even though they might serve different purposes, after all their main purpose is to serve the film– to elevate it, to make that 2-hour viewing engagement of yours please your ears too, and all in all to make that film…

Cinema.

BONUS

Here are couple great lists I found of musicals on IMDb:

Here’s a youtube mix of some of the greatest soundtracks in my (humble) opinion:

Here’s some other cool stuff:

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