Music In Film...Steven Spielberg
Welcome to the first in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article will focus on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.
"No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the rooms of our souls.” ---- Ingmar Bergman
Cinema is an all-embracing experience that synthesizes elements from various art forms. Since the days of silent film, music has played an essential role. At times taken for granted, music adds another dimension that enhances the film’s thematic ideas and artistic content. When utilized discriminately, it facilitates mood, invokes sense memories and threads the emotional context of the film. Music also advances the storyline, ties together characters and events, and serves as a signal to the audience that something is about to happen. Whether through song or orchestration, the composer creates a visual image of the culture and history of an era in the mind of the viewer.
Steven Spielberg is one of the most prolific directors, producers and screenwriters of our time. From the blockbuster adventures of Indiana Jones to the heart-rending masterpiece of Schindler's List, Spielberg’s films carry an emotional weight and classic humanism that are his trademark. The word, “jaded,” is simply not part of his cinematic vocabulary.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
This famous line in Peter Benchley’s Jaws was improvised by Roy Scheider (Sheriff Brody) and not part of the original script. Improvisation was key in dealing with a host of unforeseen production problems, including shooting around the robot shark when it failed to function properly. Despite the mechanical great white’s reluctance to perform on cue, Spielberg intentionally kept the monster lurking in the depths until the climactic scenes at the end of the film.
Composer, John Williams, is superb at combining musical dissonance (harsh and discordant) with consonance (pleasing and harmonious). To signal the shark’s menacing approach, he utilized the ominous, alternating two-note patterns (for example, E to F, F to F sharp). We immediately identify these sounds with the image of the unseen and relentless “perfect eating machine.” These notes ultimately became as famous as Schieder’s ad-libbed line.
This two-note theme is carried throughout much of the scoring in the film. For example, if we listen closely in the following video, we hear them both anchor and punctuate some of the mounting tension and excitement in the music when Brody, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) finally meet the shark -- up close and personal. (The man’s voice we hear on the marine radio talking to Quint is Steven Spielberg’s.):
“Einstein was probably one of them.”
Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind resonates with the playfulness, heart and wonder of the inner child we carry into adulthood. This UFO phenomenon in contemporary America focuses on that rare event when “us” finally meets “them.” The challenge Spielberg faced was in determining how humanity would communicate with the alien species once this encounter was realized. He reasoned that mathematics could be another way of conversing, and that mathematics is also music.(1) Thus, he and John Williams developed a singular “music math” and tonal vocabulary with the famous five-tone motif on which Williams based his extraordinary score: D, E, C,C lower octave, G. Each note corresponds to a specific hand gesture and color:
“Elliot, I don't think he was left here intentionally, but his being here is a miracle.”
A youthful Steven Spielberg once said, “Some people look at the ground when they walk, others walk straight ahead; I always look upward, at the sky.” The miracle and wonder in ET are not intended to convey a spiritual parable. Rather, they surround the inspiring relationship and emotional connection between a troubled young boy and a lost little alien, thereby challenging cynical adult speculations that all life forms beyond our ken are threatening. It was perhaps inevitable that despite this bond -- and an endless supply of Reese’s Pieces – the endearing extraterrestrial biologist could not survive for long on the surface of our planet. Elliot, (Henry Thomas), his siblings and friends help ET to find his way safely home. In the final, poignant scene, the importance of love and home are embraced by both ET and Elliott: “Commme.” “Staaay.”
The wonderful scoring for this film posed a different set of challenges for Williams and Spielberg:
“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.”
The Color Purple marked Spielberg’s first foray into serious dramatic themes and rare collaboration with a composer other than John Williams. Quincy Jones was the film’s composer, music arranger and producer. Adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the film depicts the lives of several African American women living in Georgia from 1909 to 1949. It is a story of oppression and brutality told in a narrative style from letters written by the gentle and kind-hearted Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), the film’s central character. Unable to defend against those who have abused her for many years, Celie eventually finds courage and independence through the support and inspiration of the women in her life.
Although nominated for 11 Academy Awards, Purple was met with a certain level of criticism; for example, it was “so awash in music,” the impact was muted or overly sentimental. This writer disagrees. The music is simply brilliant…it is deeply personal, and deftly combines spiritual, classical, blues and jazz in a way that brings to life the story and images we see on screen with stunning texture and depth:
“It's Hebrew; it's from the Talmud. It says, 'Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.'”
One of the greatest films ever made, Schindler's List is regarded by many as Spielberg’s most stirring and profound achievement. This historical drama won seven Academy Awards, including Spielberg‘s first Oscar for Best Director, and Best Original Score for John Williams. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark, the story centers on how the enigmatic German industrialist, Oskar Schindler (portrayed by Liam Neeson), saved the lives of over a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories and securing their safety through bribes and gifts to Nazi officials.
Filmed in the black and white documentary style of that era, this harrowing film takes an unflinching look at the genocide and unimaginable cruelty inflicted by those who served as Hitler’s willing executioners.
Williams' soundtrack richly conveys the tensions and emotions in the film, and serves as a remembrance for the lives that were tragically lost, and those who survived. The most stirring is the main theme. Williams composed this beautiful and haunting masterpiece in a minor key which accentuates the soberness of the story. Like the film, it is literally impossible for this music to ever fade from relevance, or from the heart. When Williams first played this theme on a piano, Spielberg suggested that he hire virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, to perform it on the violin as a solo for the soundtrack. (2):
“I can’t stop chasin’ you, Frank, it’s my job.”
A furtive cat and mouse game is the reverberating theme in Catch Me if You Can. A change of pace for Spielberg, Catch Me is a whimsical mix of comedy-drama inspired by the true story of Frank Abignale. (Abignale became one of the world’s foremost forgers and con artists by posing as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while still in his teens.) Passing a massive amount of forged checks, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), zig-zags across the globe as he tries to avoid capture by FBI bank fraud agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).The story takes place in the 1960’s. Appropriately, the soundtrack is a creative combination of jazz and hit tunes from that era, and Williams’ orchestral scoring. The analogous music with the opening title sequence immediately reminds us of the entertaining and quirky, The Pink Panther:
“The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century; passed by corruption, and aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Lincoln presents us with another of Spielberg’s Oscar winning historical dramas. What the viewer notices almost immediately is that music is absent from a number of scenes. This was intentional. The richness of the literate dialogue and superb acting convey the full gravity of the final phase of Lincoln’s life as he facilitates the passing of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives to become law, and the cessation of the civil war.
From this writer's perspective, Spielberg does not seek to deify Lincoln. Instead, he does greater honor to Lincoln’s memory and to history by portraying this truly remarkable man -- possessed of an extraordinary understanding of human nature -- in all that he was: pragmatist, consummate and indomitable politician, deep thinker and idealist, and family man. We are gifted with this fascinating paradox, which Daniel Day-Lewis personifies, brilliantly -- from his unassuming and amiable persona to his “thousand yard stare.”
John Williams’ scoring not only reflects the musical syntax of that period in American history, it treats with respect the solemnity of the full context of those times, and of Lincoln, himself. Out of corruption, tragedy and great sacrifice, there emerged an enduring triumph and grace of the human spirit.
Note: My apologies for omitting such films as Jurassic Park, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Spielberg’s entire body of work.
The next installment in this series focuses on director, Martin Scorsese:
Reference End Notes:
(1) Encyclopedia Britannica Blog: 30 Years of Close Encounters: Spielberg, Hynek, and UFI’s ; (One-On-One Chat with Steven Spielberg; discussion notes) November 12, 2007.
(2) Dailymotion.com; Shortfilms – Spielberg Discusses Making Schindler’s List; May 23, 2009.
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna East. All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized for learning purposes.
More by this Author
Welcome to the sixth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on the collaboration between the director and the composers/song writers who create the film soundtracks.
Welcome to the final installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film.