17 August 2019

What would Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be without the strings? Or “Singing in the Rain” without tap dancing? 9 films in which sound and music play the leading role.

By Daniel Urban

Following the end of the silent film era, sounds and soundtracks became an undeniably defining element of film – sometimes more and sometimes less conspicuously. Yet there are also films in which sound and music play a very particular role: In a sense like one of the main roles around which the screenplay, the protagonists or perhaps even simply the audience revolve. Here we offer an overview of the best sound-film constellations.

Music For One Apartment And Six Drummers

Although, in the age of YouTube, the principle is well-known and gaily put to use for any conceivable purpose and format, this short film has lost none of its charm: In 2001 it offered a fly-on-the-wall look at how a Swedish drumming collective breaks into an apartment, the owners of which have just gone out to walk their dog. In the scenes that follow, glasses are thrown on the floor, cupboard doors are banged, slippers shuffled across the carpet and pills pushed from their blister packs – all within a precisely coordinated rhythm and for the sole purpose of extracting the (supposedly) best possible sound from the objects.

Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers, Image via media-amazon.com

MUSIC FOR ONE APARTMENT AND SIX DRUMMERS

Short film by Ola Simonsson und Johannes Stjärne Nilsson

Berberian Sound Studio

Shooting a film that primarily shows what goes on behind the camera was director Peter Strickland’s aim with “Berberian Sound Studio”, released in 2012. In it, British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels to Italy for an assignment involving, he believes, the sound for a film about horses. As Gilderoy soon finds out, however, the film is actually an Italian giallo – an amalgamation of thriller, horror and mystery elements – which appears to seep into real life in remarkable ways. Strickland’s surreal horror film creates its great sense of dread almost exclusively through the sound and not the image, and thus skillfully highlights the often-ignored art of sound staging and its almost limitless possibilities.

Junun

In his first production for a digital TV provider (MUBI), director P. T. Anderson documents the recording of an extraordinary album: “Junun” is a collaboration between Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, the British composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich, and the Indian Rajasthan Express Orchestra, which was recorded, rehearsed and filmed against the backdrop of Mehrangarh Fort, a magnificent complex from the 15th century. The participants lose themselves amid the thick, red sandstone walls and ultimately so do the audience, while guitars are tuned, sitars and singing rehearsed and anecdotes exchanged.

Singin’ in the Rain

It is certainly not unintentional irony that this film, which ignited a veritable firework in the then beloved musical format back in 1952, is about – of all things – the downfall of the silent film era and the beginning of sound film. “Singin’ in the Rain” is initially a light-footed, well-told comedy about Hollywood in the 1920s, with all sorts of singing thrown in. So far, so conventional. What makes the film truly grandiose, however, is its secret star: the tap-dancing that its principal actors – most significantly Gene Kelly – perform on the parquet. The clicks and shuffles accompany the musical’s very best scenes and are also an essential element of “Good Morning”, the song during which the three protagonists tap loudly throughout the entire duration of the number across everything that stands in their way, from the stairway to the couch.

Films by Jan Švankmajer

The Czech artist and director is considered an old hand at animation films – and where Jan Švankmajer is involved, “animation” can be understood quite literally in the original sense of the word: He brings to life fruit and vegetables, kitchens and cupboards, molded faces and all manner of curious beings and objects so poignantly that they appear to have been given a soul. The result is films ranging from ultra-short to feature formats which all have one thing in common: Their effect is based largely on the skillful use of noises, sounds and snippets of music, which create the illusion of movement and soulfulness in the objects.

Psycho

Just about everybody, whether they’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” or not, will be familiar with Bernard Herrmann’s film music and its atonally screeching staccato-cluster violins from this 1960 cinematographic masterpiece. Herrmann was initially very reluctant to work on the film, since production constraints meant Hitchcock could only pay him a fraction of his usual fee. Yet he made a virtue out of the need for a low budget by composing merely for a string ensemble instead of for an entire orchestra.

And in typical Herrmann style, he fortunately rejected many of the instructions he received from Hitchcock, who wanted a contemporary, jazzy soundtrack and was explicit in stating that the murder scene should not be underpinned with music. The fact that the film works so well even today is due in no small part to the music – Hitchcock himself saw the music as contributing one third of the impact of his film and subsequently doubled the composer’s budget. The murder scene in the shower with Bernard Hermann’s music has meanwhile become firmly established in pop culture.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The curse of any composer of film music, so-called “temp love” – a director’s love for music that is supposed to be used only temporarily in the film editing – has its roots to a certain extent in Kubrick’s masterpiece. For his film about an expedition to Jupiter following the discovery of a mysterious monolith that influences human evolution, the director originally commissioned composer Alex North for his soundtrack. North was working under huge time pressure while Kubrick, as is common today, was already using so-called “temp tracks” (provisional pieces to underpin the film editing) by classical composers.

The altercation arose when Kubrick fell so in love with the combination of the pieces by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss and György Ligeti and his film sequences, that he ultimately decided to use them in the final cut. Tragically, it was only during a studio screening shortly before release that Alex North discovered his music had been removed entirely from the finished film. These days, composers all over the world struggle with the problem of directors’ “temp love”, although this in no way detracts, of course, from the grandiose effect of Kubrick’s use of classical music in the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Space Station, Image via wikimedia.org

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Film clip

Others:

Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (which was screened recently as part of a DOUBLE FEATURE) is certainly an essential in any list about sound in film, since the film is largely about the montage and processing of sound, here in the guise of a thriller based around surveillance specialist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). The film excels at drawing the attention of the observer to the fine nuances in the sound, be it language or indeed the music by David Shire. Fritz Lang’s first sound film “M” is also worthy of mention: Here Lang, unlike many others, did not make naturalistic use of sound while the image remained captured in the silent-film aesthetic, but rather used masterly sound effects such as the murderer’s prominent whistling of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” alongside almost silent-film-like sequences.

Fritz Lang, M, 1931, Image via cloudfront.net