Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Main Title: James Horner

I think I have to give a co-author credit to this week's LF.  This one is borne of a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine who is a band director.  I won't include his name in order to protect the innocent, but if he actually reads this and wants credit I'll gladly edit this to reflect it.

So, our conversation was centered around movie scores and how much new ones tend to suck pretty bad.  We were working on a project in his garage and he had a Pandora radio station for movie soundtracks going, specifically those relating to Star Trek.  A few cycled through and then came the JJ Abram's reboot score by Michael Giacchino.  We both agreed that the melody of the main theme was really well done, but we both fell short of calling it a masterwork.  It has all the ingredients that make up a good sci-fi flick score:

1. Lot's of French Horn in SPAAAAACE
2. It's pretty loud
3. Bass trombone (see #2)

But the problem we had with it really centered around the simplicity of the theme.  It didn't really go much beyond what you heard at the beginning of the movie.  Texturally, rhythmically, spiritually it kinda when stagnant.  Without saying it got repetitive, I have to say it said a lot about the same thing. Now, I'm really not knocking Giacchino too much here, because the guy obviously gets work.  He's also responsible for "The Incredibles", which quite frankly that score set the tone for the movie.  The Hollywood studio orchestra revival thing puts you in the driver's seat of an Aston Martin and says to hell with the gas prices.

But overall, I never felt like he did enough with his beautiful melody there either.  Yeah, we get it. Incredibles!  West-coast Jazz! Robots!  Give me another theme I can sing on my way home though.

The new Trek scores seem to have a lot of the same flaws.  Great melody, no development.  There are moments where he chops it up a bit to kind of go with the action more, but it still sounds like one note. And in my humble opinion, by dissecting it in this manner it then became more of a sound effect than that of a musical score.  It became less of a character in the movie and more of ambiance.

And I think if we compare movies within the past 20 years or so to movies that are 20-50 years old, that's a big part of the difference.

Suspension of disbelief is a phrase that is kicked around in creative circles, especially the visual arts. The whole goal of any work of art is to really transform the viewer into whatever the artist is wishing they could be. Some do it better than others. The suspension occurs the moment you stop realizing that you're not actually sitting in a stinky movie theatre next to an old lady and a fat guy, eating popcorn that tastes like motor oil and drinking flat soda.  You become part of the action, you care about the characters on the screen and genuinely understand and empathize with their plight. John Williams, whom we've discussed, believed that the score was a much a character as the leading lady. Without a strong, motif-laden track, the movie wouldn't fully engulf the viewer into that magic space between reality and fantasy.

Then there's those happy few who choose not exist in either...
So, old movies and newer movies both rely on suspension of disbelief, but I think the difference in how they do it is important to note.  Older movies cling to the era of live performance.  You walk in, the band's playing light house music.  As we get close to curtain, they bring on the overture.  From there as each character is introduced we hear motifs that attach a multi-sensory approach to defining our impression of each person.  As they grow and struggle, so does their theme.

Newer movies don't work this way.  They are much more immersive and follow more of the ride on rails approach to cinema.  In the previous model, the audience is treated like an audience.  Tacet participation is all that's required. When we watch a movie today though, we are pulled into the film and made to believe that we are actually sitting within the action itself.  The fourth wall still exists, but it is more transparent and flexible than ever before.

Now, I'm not getting out my curmudgeon cane and banging my fist on the table claiming that back in my day it was better.  Because in many ways it was not.  However, with this newer style of filmmaking, I don't think the old style of composing film scores completely jives with what's going down onscreen.  The motif model is dangerous, because if done poorly it can much more easily fracture the suspension of disbelief and then the fourth wall becomes an iron curtain.  In bad movies it makes us feel like Aunt Gertrude playing "Oh Danny Boy" at the Sopchoppy Elementary School Fall play.

The risk though, is worth the payout, because when it's well-done- it can make a movie great.

Such is the case with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  James Horner (b. 1953) was a young composer at the time, but was tasked with creating an environment within which a franchise would venture beyond its television birthing ground. This was important because the first Star Trek movie was pretty terrible.

And did they let George Takei design this poster?
From my research, the only criteria given to Mr. Horner was to make it sound nautical. If Star Wars was cowboys in space, then Star Trek was to be sailors in space.

Of course there's Mel Brooks...
It's fitting, because even in the earliest days of the original series, Star Trek has always taken a certain nautical quality to it, harkening to a naval tradition adopted by it's many space-going vessels. It works I suppose on many levels, but the last time mankind really was in an unknown world (before space that is) was when we were mapping the open seas in sailing vessels.

So with Mr. Horner, he did in fact generate a pretty ocean-going score without going all Cole Porter. He also managed to build the theme into a broad swath of color as opposed to one line that sits around and is punctuated by a lot of percussion and attacks.  He also developed character themes, that grew and developed much as the characters did themselves on screen.  I would argue that the closing scene between Kirk and Spock would not have had the same dramatic impact without the underscoring to bring us to that point.

C'mon Spock...Scotty's looking, don't make this weird.
So, sit back and enjoy it.  Immerse yourself in the music and see what springs to mind.

Homework: Put on some good headphones.  Close your eyes.  Write down what your mind shows you.

See you next Friday.