Portman and Giacchino: too many notes?

Posted by · 6:55 pm · October 15th, 2010

“It’s quality work. There are simply too many notes,” says the Emperor Joseph II to an incredulous Mozart in Milos Forman’s 1984 Oscar-guzzler “Amadeus.” It’s a delicious critique, and it’s one I’ve found myself remembering a lot over the past few weeks of London Film Festival viewing, during which I seem have jotted down the word “overscored” in more shorthand film reviews than I care to count. (On the bright side, it’s made me all the more appreciative of the minimalist power of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work on “The Social Network.”)

But then I seem to have watched an inordinate number of recent films — be they down-the-middle Hollywood product like “Conviction” or ungainly European art films like Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Loose Cannons” — that suffer to some extent from the sheer conspicuousness of their music scores, scene after scene smothered in swooping strings or plinky piano motifs aimed to telegraph emotion instead of supplementing it.

The two biggest offenders, in my book, are scores from gifted, Oscar-winning composers that have garnered much acclaim and even awards buzz: Rachel Portman’s for “Never Let Me Go” and Michael Giacchino’s for “Let Me In.”

Both are highly skilled, polished feats of composition that nonetheless struck me as counterproductive to the films around them: Portman’s lush orchestrations don’t fit the brittle emotional textures of the romance at the center of Mark Romanek’s film, while Giacchino’s loudly throbbing soundscapes and choral interpolations struck me as too Grand Guignol for a film that aims for slow-burn horror.

Needless to say, however, I’m on a very different page to some of my colleagues on this issue. Anne Thompson wastes no words in her claim yesterday that “Let Me In” “boast the year’s best score.” Kris may not have cared much for “Never Let Me Go,” but he thought Portman’s “gorgeous” score was something of a standout — and a likely Oscar bet.

I wholly agree on the latter point, at least, personal reservations be damned. Following the general principle of “most” equalling “best” in the technical Oscar races, it’s always wise to bet on prestige productions that apply their scores both liberally and prominently. Portman won’t be budging from my predicted five for Best Original Score any time soon, and I’m even flirting with the idea of adding Giacchino when I next update my predictions. (His place in the club is secure after winning earlier this year, and the Academy’s music branch is kinder than most to otherwise shunned genre pics. These are the guys who smartly made “The Village” an Oscar nominee in 2004, after all.)

Where do you stand? Did you feel enthralled or over-instructed by these scores? Do I protest too much, or have any other recent films had you wishing you could turn the music down a notch?

[Photo: Overture Films]

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

29 responses so far

  • 1 10-15-2010 at 7:15 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    80% of films have terrible use of score. Buried being the most shocking offender of the recent crop I’ve seen.

  • 2 10-15-2010 at 7:20 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Haven’t seen it yet — have heard other folks I trust say the same thing.

  • 3 10-15-2010 at 7:22 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Agreed. Buried and Let Me In were simply over scored, just no two ways about it. Every moment of Let Me In there is some brooding, thumping music playing even when NOTHING is happening. Shutter Island also had this issue at certain scenes as well as Love and Other Drugs which I saw yesterday.

    There is an intimate climactic scene between Jake and Anne where this sappy music starts playing. Let the actors take care of the emotion and not the music or ridiculous zoom in shots. I hate when directors feel like they need to conduct the audience.

    The best directors (Aronofsky, Coens) trust their actors to deliver and are not worried about bells and whistles to get a response from the audience.

  • 4 10-15-2010 at 7:41 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    This is why I love Carter Burwell’s work. He NEVER goes overboard, always restrained, and yet perfectly attuned to the material. That he has not received a single Oscar nod is proof that the Academy’s music branch is full of shit.

  • 5 10-15-2010 at 7:49 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I am a huge fan of music playing a prominent role in films (which is partly why I am a Tarantino fan and love American Graffiti and The Graduate), but some movies are over scored. Unfortunately, I have not seen either of the films yet, but the worst over scored film I have seen was the score created for Nosferatu. It was so modern, so out of place, and just simply so overbearing that I really question the judgement of the people who thought that adding that score to a silent film would somehow make it better. I would have enjoyed the film better in complete silence.

  • 6 10-15-2010 at 8:05 pm

    Pete said...

    The electronica score for The Social Network adds edge, urgency and momentum to the film. I home the Musicians Branch remembers it some nomination time for the Oscars.

    The score for I Am Love is also an elegant support for the quiet melodrama of the film.

    Any comments?

  • 7 10-15-2010 at 8:11 pm

    Nelson said...

    In terms of minimalism the best score I have ever heard is Brokeback Mountain.

    As for this year, I really think it should be Hans Zimmer for Inception. Back in the day of John Williams it was the sweeping action scores that really got with the Academy. This is such a score, an incredible action movie score. It adds so much to the film and if nothing else Inception should have that.

  • 8 10-15-2010 at 8:22 pm

    Pete said...

    “This is why I love Carter Burwell’s work. He NEVER goes overboard, always restrained, and yet perfectly attuned to the material. ”

    And when he did go over the top (for “Burn After Reading”) – it worked to a hilarious and great effect.

    Also, reading Nelson’s comments made me cringe. On both counts.

  • 9 10-15-2010 at 8:36 pm

    Dan said...


    I am completely taken aback by your opinion of the INCEPTION score. As soon as I started reading this article, the first film that came to mind was INCEPTION. That film is nothing but MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC, to the same extent that the film is all DIALOGUE DIALOGUE DIALOGUE!

  • 10 10-15-2010 at 9:45 pm

    James said...

    I like Giacchino’s score, but I didn’t feel fit with Let Me In all together.

  • 11 10-15-2010 at 9:55 pm

    Lucas said...

    I’m a massive Portman fan, but her score for NLMG is simply disappointing – her penchant for lush, romanticism means she’s not really suited for something so melancholic. And she’s not really a versatile composer who has had success in moving outside her comfort zone. That being said, I will never say no to new Portman!

  • 12 10-15-2010 at 9:57 pm

    Lucas said...

    @Pete – The score is John Adams music from previous works, and I agree, it fit perfectly well in the film. No Oscar eligibility though, even if that last scene’s music was a breathtaking and brilliant choice.

  • 13 10-15-2010 at 10:12 pm

    Alex said...

    Oh, I completely agree about Let Me In. I thought the film was beautiful and an incredible adaptation, but the score was straight up distracting.

  • 14 10-15-2010 at 10:40 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Wait until you see Morning Glory, which must have 30 song cues.

  • 15 10-15-2010 at 10:52 pm

    Silencio said...

    “Which notes did you have in mind, sire?” :p

    Regarding Let Me In music choices, I wonder how it would have worked if the composer had created a muted version of Clint Mansell’s effort in The Fountain. Granted, of course, that Mansell hadn’t done it first. That might have mixed pretty well.

  • 16 10-16-2010 at 12:13 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Harking back to the awesome greatness of The Village being nominated for Best Score is a bit naive, ain’t it”? That was SIX years ago, and they haven’t surprised positively since. It’s about time they’d honor John Powell, Harry Gregson Williams and the likes for something. Something I don’t care what.

  • 17 10-16-2010 at 8:56 am

    Meli said...

    127 Hours has an in your face score, but one that’s absolutely integral to the telling of the story…..as every score should be.

    A score should Let Me In and Never Let Me Go. These film scores literally distracted me from the story and from the images on screen. Sitting in Let Me In, I wanted subtitles and a mute button.

  • 18 10-16-2010 at 9:40 am

    Jim Lochner said...

    I’ve only heard LET ME IN once and will finally see the film next week, so I won’t comment on it yet.

    As for Portman, I’m a big fan of her music and I think NEVER LET ME GO is lovely, if not top-tier work. But I agree that it didn’t fit within the film. I’m not sure if it was the balance (and I can’t believe I’m advocating for dialing it down a bit) or it simply didn’t work with the film. Part of it has to do with the flaws of the film (the acting not being one of them). I don’t think Portman will be nominated. I think the movie will sink from everyone’s sight and disappear by then.

    I personally think the INCEPTION score worked well and it will definitely be remembered come nomination time.

    So far, the best score I’ve heard this year is John Powell’s HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. If it gets left out for some other subpar animated score, like Randy Newman’s TOY STORY 3 (though that has its moments), I won’t be pleased. :)

  • 19 10-16-2010 at 9:59 am

    Lev Lewis said...

    Very much agree. Haven’t seen “Let Me In”, so I can’t comment on that, but “Never Let Me Go” was very much burdened by Portman’s relentless score.

    And this isn’t uncommon, by any means. Score is one of the most consistently overused elements in modern film. There are exceptions of course, but I find music to exact considerable more power when the film earns it, and like you said, when it’s supplementing a films’ emotion, not telegraphing it.

  • 20 10-16-2010 at 11:22 am

    Edward L. said...

    For my money, while it may be the composers who have provided too much score or a score that doesn’t suit the film, its use in the film is ultimately the director’s failing.

  • 21 10-16-2010 at 11:56 am

    Pete said...

    “If it gets left out for some other subpar animated score, like Randy Newman’s TOY STORY 3 ”

    Randy Newan’s score was perfection. This is another case of taking a great work for granted.

  • 22 10-16-2010 at 12:01 pm

    Jim Lochner said...

    “This is another case of taking a great work for granted.”

    I’ll have to disagree with you, Pete. I think Newman’s score worked very well in the film with, like I said, some lovely moments. But is it great music? I don’t personally think so, where I think Powell’s is. Either way, I’m not taking Newman’s, or any other composer’s work, for granted. Constructing an effective film score is bloody difficult. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. :)

  • 23 10-16-2010 at 12:58 pm

    Ben M. said...

    I really liked these scores and found them to be effective. But I certainly can see why some might disagree, I know I disliked the scores for Secretariat and Inception because I felt they were “overscored”.

  • 24 10-17-2010 at 2:00 am

    Fitz said...

    I would like to see the score for The Town get some consideration. It didn’t beat you over the head and the music for the heist scenes was fantastic.

    And Reznor and Ross re-doing In the Hall of the Mountain King? Excellent.

  • 25 10-17-2010 at 10:02 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Saw your tweet Guy and am really glad you recognized Keegan’s incredible score for Cold Weather. Any just world would see him awarded by somebody!

  • 26 10-17-2010 at 10:37 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    After sleeping on it (and having the score rolling around in my head all day), I can decisively say that Cold Weather has my favourite score of the year. Amazing.

  • 27 10-17-2010 at 3:47 pm

    Brady said...

    I Am Love’s music was stunning and I wish the music branch would create a new category for reuse of existing music just to award it. Easily the best part of the film.

    The one score this year that stuck out in a bad way was Shutter Island. Those extremely loud THUNK THUNKS in the beginning were nauseating. And the whole movie just had distracting screeching violins to create tension. Awful.

    The best score of the year easily goes to Desplat’s work in The Ghost Writer. It only ever added to the mystery of the story. And I’m sure that will be overlooked by the end of the year like all wonderful things.

  • 28 10-17-2010 at 3:54 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Shutter Island’s “score” — really a collage of samples and interpolations — is actually my favourite thing about the film.

  • 29 10-17-2010 at 5:09 pm

    Pete said...

    ” Either way, I’m not taking Newman’s, or any other composer’s work, for granted. Constructing an effective film score is bloody difficult. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. :) ”

    That’s fair enough, Jim. Just out of curiousity, what did you think of that Gipsy Kings cover?