All the good tunes

Unscientific thoughts on the strange demise of the iconic movie theme.

I’ve spent the last few days at a science conference for my day job, so I should know better than to cherry pick data to make a point. But all the same, here’s a shaky hypothesis to throw some objections at.

Film soundtrack composition has arguably never been stronger, more varied or imaginative.  Alexander Desplat, Dario Marianelli, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Max Richter, David Arnold – just a few favourites at the top of their game. And although minimalist and moody sometimes tops melody – think The Hours or Inception –there’s still life in the hummable tune, from The Artist to the X-Men. (Sorry, couldn’t think of a recent film starting with Z.) But, and this is my proposition, after a golden age lasting from the 1950s to the late 1980s, the last couple of decades have seen the demise, or at least the significant diminishing, of the iconic theme tune.

I’ll expand by defining what I mean by iconic. I mean a tune that is both immediately recognisable by a general audience and associated specifically with the film from which it comes. In other words, when you hear it, you can only think of the film or character that it represents. Hear the Imperial March and try not to think about Darth Vader; or the Jaws theme without thinking of the shark. I for one can’t even hear the full 20th Century Fox fanfare without wanting it to immediately prolong into the Star Wars main theme.

A handful more examples of iconic themes that spring to mind:

  • The Dambusters (1955)
  • The James Bond theme (1962)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • The Great Escape (1963)
  • The Pink Panther (1963)
  • The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  • Born Free (1966)
  • The Godfather (1972)
  • Rocky (1976)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – just five notes!
  • Star Wars (1977)
  • The Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • E.T. (1982)
  • Back to the Future (1985)

This list could have been three or four times the length, but try to think of examples since the early 1990s and they become much fewer and further between – and probably with much less impact with the non-aficionado listener. A handful of John Williams themes – Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter – but John Williams has always been a bit of a special case when it comes to tunes, and more of him later. Perhaps Lord of the Rings at a push, but I’d struggle to pick that out on my own. Titanic? I’ll come back to that.

But what is it about a film theme that can make it so indelible? Not wanting to drift into musicology, but just taking quality as a given, there are composers that recur in any comprehensive list – Hermann, Morricone, Williams, among others. Hummability is usually a prerequisite, which is why the songster composers – Henry Mancini, John Barry – also figure well. But it’s not essential: think Psycho’s shower strings, even Jaws to an extent. Sure, that durr-dum-durr-dum might be easy to imitate, but tuneful it isn’t: when Williams first played it to Spielberg on the piano, the Director thought his composer was spoofing him.

Of course it was Williams who did much to re-establish the use of the classical leitmotif in film soundtracking in the 1970s after a brief period in the 1960s when the pop and jazz inspired soundtracks predominated. This idea of a distinct characteristic theme linked with a specific person or idea hints at another factor that’s often important in creating a theme with sticking power. Big tunes love big characters – heroes and villains. The cultural impact of the character lends itself back to the music, and the status of both is reinforced through endless reference, homage and parody. (Which, for related reasons, is why music connected with the Second World War gets a good showing.) Bryan Singer and John Otman were smart enough to use William’s theme as the heart of the soundtrack to Superman Returns – even though you can hear the joins between the two Johns. I suspect next year’s Man of Steel will musically try to strike out anew, but I don’t imagine whatever they come up with will supplant the original in the collective hum-bank.

So is the demise of the big tune linked to an absence of iconic characters? Well, there have been no shortage of new superhero adaptations and even the occasional iconic non-super-hero – but can you sing the Iron Man, the Spiderman, the Bourne theme? Even Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) persists better than the Zimmer / Newton Howard collaboration (2005). I’ve just watched Avengers Assemble (disappointingly not two hours of Emma Peel and John Steed playing with Meccano). Surely this would have been an opportunity for a bit of leitmotifery. But Alan Silvestri’s score is all bombast and little catch. (And he’s a man who can write a tune even if it’s syrupy enough to be a risk factor for diabetes.)

So maybe we still have the big characters, but do we still have the same event movies? With one big, noisy Hollywood productions crashing heavily after another like so many Decepticons, we no longer have blockbusters with the power to define a generation of filmgoing like Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. David Arnold pulled out all the thematic stops for Independence Day, but I don’t know how many people could name that tune. If any film since the early 90s has claim to an iconic theme, it is Titanic – which was nothing if not an event movie – with the added benefit of having a hit song version of one of its themes. But this year’s 3D re-release reminds me what an irritating score it is and how Celine Dione’s hysterical rendition makes me want to stab myself in my own ears. I suppose being remembered for the wrong reason is better than not being remembered at all. Put it this way, I can’t remember much about the music from Avatar beyond the fact that James Horner has something of a… uh… signature motif.

Perhaps the iconic theme is simply a victim of the increasingly fragmented media landscape – with viewing and listening  fractured across genres and outlets. A corollary is the must-see television programme: compare the single programme viewing figures achieved in the three or four channel past with today’s multichannel universe. Indeed, it’s not even clear that television is doing much better on the memorable music front. Immediately recognisable themes from the 60s, 70s and 80s: Doctor Who, Hawaii 5-0, The A Team seem all but gone now in a world where the prolonged musical title sequence has in many cases been squeezed by increasing advertising time to a title card and a sound effect (24, Lost).

And meanwhile, TV quickly appropriates film soundtracks, placing them out of context as cheap Mickey-Mousing. The Artist was still in the cinemas when they were using George Valentin’s theme to illustrate some or other comic japes on The Apprentice. And of course The Artist itself harked back to Hermann for its climactic scene, much to Kim Novak’s ridiculous annoyance.)

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. For one it’s quite hard to tell what’s universally recognised when you’re geeky about these things. Maybe some tunes just take a long time to become canonical. Golden ages are usually a myth put about by nostalgics remembering an imagined past. So maybe I’m just getting old, and there are a generation of Harry Potterites who respond to Hedwig’s theme the same way that the Force theme still gives me goose bumps. But, again, both of those are from John Williams. Maybe that’s the answer. What are we going to hum when you’re gone, John?

2 thoughts on “All the good tunes

  1. Pirates maybe, but Joker’s theme, hmm. I suppose it’s a got a solid riff, but hardly sing-along. But like I said, maybe it’s just me. It would be a fun and interesting little survey to play a dozen of these themes to a randomly selected group of listeners and see if there is any drop-off in familiarity over the years.

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