A friend of mine recently lent me several film scores that have a rural sound and/or story to them. What I found after listening to them was interesting. There were several commonalities over a large span of genres while each score defined itself indifferent ways. The focus of this post will briefly discuss these findings. I hope that you find them as interesting as I did. I’d encourage you to take the opportunity to give one or two of these a listen or two. Keep in mind that these thoughts are about the music on album and don’t necessarily reflect my opinion about the films themselves.
I’ll start with one of my favorites from this list though they are alphabetically arranged by title.
A River Runs Through It - The peaceful and flowing score by Mark Isham is very simplistic in nature and makes effective use of solo folk instruments and tunes. The title theme is fairly memorable. It reminds me of the old cowboy song, The Streets of Laredo.
Avalon – A sentimental score by Randy Newman. He often uses piano as the dominant instrument with an orchestra to back it up. Newman has a knack for putting a tear in your eye that continues to this day. Put on top of that his wonderful usage of jazz as period pieces. What fun!
The Babe - More of a parody score, this Elmer Bernstein OST is more comical than serious and who can blame it? John Goodman’s character as a famous baseball player is indeed comic. Some interesting usage of a capella men’s groups. Another of my favorite scores by Bernstein that better represents his work would be his classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Cobb - WOW! I wasn’t expecting this to be so wonderful. Elliot Goldenthal says it just right in the CD’s incipits: “Cobb’s classical, scientific approach to baseball both collided and cohabited with his irrational, almost transcendent abandon in the game. These opposing forces in him gave [Goldenthal] the key to composing the score: composition as collision.” Fascinating! A fun recording of Sister Wynona Carr singing The Ball Game is also featured at the end of the score. Add this one to my list of must-get recordings. (Oh, and the main theme is taken from an “old Baptist hymn“!)
Fried Green Tomatoes – Thomas Newman is a master at getting unique sounds from instruments. Any and everything is able to produce a musical, especially percussive, sound. The slides on his guitars are so amazingly hic. They make me smile. Throughout there are vocal period pieces that obviously have a place in the film, although they occasionally they detract from the listenability of the album. He sets up just the right emotion for each scene. Several cues feature a ragtime, Scott Joplin sound. Honky-tonk is in.
The Man in the Moon – This is an older James Newton Howard score. I unfortunately have not heard much of his pre-2000 scores… but I’m working on that. (I’m super pumped about his score for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender but I digress). There are some amazing solo instrument passages featuring the fiddle, steel guitar, pan-flute and hammered dulcimer. Needless to say, this score has some spectacular bluegrass grooves going for it. I also have grown to appreciate Howard’s sensitive string arrangements and his surprisingly simple solo piano. The integration of all these musical elements (and more) provide for a very enjoyable listen and, undoubtedly, for an enjoyable film.
Miller’s Crossing – I’m not that familiar with Carter Burtwell but this score was pleasant. Many period pieces with singers and jazz throughout. Rather short (under 30 minutes).
The Natural – The only academy award winner in this group! Randy Newman once again provides the musical landscape to a baseball film. Though I can’t help but think that it mimics close behind then success of Chariots of Fire with a couple cues implementing that ‘catchy’ beat that has become so famous. The most exciting cues are during the game where the heroic theme plays. It really catches the spirit of the game and is quite memorable. Wish the film were as much.
Of Mice and Men – A classic tale. I love Mark Isham’s ear-pleasing folk sound. The music was likely very effective in the film, but can’t judge from experience considering I haven’t seen it.
The Whole Wide World – Hans Zimmer and his colleague, Harry Gregson-Williams, put this score together. Of the scores in this list, The Whole Wide World is the most varied and different sounding by making much use of organic and synthetic combinations and/or mixing techniques. It is also the most heavily-mixed score in this list making it feel less folksy and more in your face, despite it’s various solo passages and folk rhythms. At the same time, this is also not a stereotypical Zimmer score either, the vast majority of the music being rather subdued in nature. Whenever there are two names on the front of a Soundtrack, I often wonder who had the most weight in deciding artistic direction, obviously in this case, Zimmer had the most say while Gregson-Williams arranged and orchestrated the cues that came from Zimmer’s hand.
Basically, each composer makes different artisic descisions based upon his training, personal experiences and needs and limitations of the film. In spight of various composers scoring the music for these films, several elements remained constant: the use of folk, jazz, bluegrass and period pieces all strengthening the core of the message of each of these rural scores. (Solo instruments and simplistic orchestral instrumentation were also a common characteristic.)