I went to see Open Range on Monday, and somewhat to my surprise, I liked it very much. Kevin Costner still isn’t much of a director, but the screenplay and cast were so strong that it worked anyway. Robert Duvall can do no wrong, of course, and I was scarcely less struck by Annette Bening, in part because she made no effort whatsoever to pretend that she was anything other than a middle-aged mother. Her beautiful face is now visibly careworn–you can count the lines–and that made it look even more beautiful, at least as far as I was concerned. Bening is an odd duck, a remarkably gifted actress whose career never quite seemed to catch fire, but who doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered by that fact. (I guess there’s something to be said for being married to Warren Beatty.) At any rate, she now looks as real as Emmylou Harris, and Open Range profits incalculably from her lived-in presence.
Michael Kamen, on the other hand, did everything he could to make Open Range trite by smearing his banal music all over the soundtrack. Film scores are far more important than most non-musicians realize, especially when they’re no good, and Kamen’s mishmash of Aaron Copland and John Williams was notable mainly for its odious ubiquity. He underlined each and every significant glance in the movie, laying on the sentiment with a trowel.
As I say, most people don’t think all that much about film scores, which is both normal and proper. The best ones are largely (though not always) unobtrusive, supporting the emotions of a scene in the same subtle manner that a lighting designer helps to control the way you see a play. Generally speaking, a score is something you shouldn’t notice until the second time you watch a film. If the score jumps into the foreground on first viewing, it might mean the film isn’t good enough to hold your attention.
I love first-class film music, of which there is both not nearly enough (it’s surprising how many important films have lousy or unmemorable scores) and much more than you might think (it’s just as surprising how many mediocre films have wonderful scores). A number of the best scores have been recorded separately from the films they adorn, and I thought it might be fun to point you in the direction of some albums that can help you hear how much good music adds to the immediate experience of a good film. You can purchase the CDs by clicking on the titles:
Elmer Bernstein, The Magnificent Seven
Leonard Bernstein, On the Waterfront
Aaron Copland, The Heiress
Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown
Bernard Herrmann, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Bernard Herrmann, Vertigo
Erich Wolfgang Korngold, The Adventures of Robin Hood