Movie magic is nothing without the music

     What would 'Jaws' be without John WIlliams' stirring score? (Detail from 'Jaws' movie poster c. 1975)

    What would 'Jaws' be without John WIlliams' stirring score? (Detail from 'Jaws' movie poster c. 1975)

    I love the movies. From the time we were children, my four siblings and I spent a great deal of time in dark theaters, munching on popcorn, and getting lost in the magic on the big screen. It was a safe place my mother could send us for a break from caring for her five children close in age.

    Musicals were popular when I was growing up, especially those by Rogers & Hammerstein. I can still sing the songs from “Carousel,” “The King & I,” “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” and “The Sound of Music.” The music in these movies drove the story. The costumes enhanced the performance, but the music was more memorable. As dramas became more my style, the music was less obvious but still crucial.

    Actually, according to former Sony VP Ignacio Darnaude, when the score was so subtle that the viewer didn’t always remember it, that meant the music actually did its magic.

    Music has always been part of film, from the very start, even before the talkies. I remember seeing documentaries of piano or organ players sitting on the stage in front of the screen, playing music that matched the facial expressions and action on the silent films. I also learned from my stepson Jay that when these films were being made, musicians were hired to accompany the actions of the performers to motivate and enhance their acting.

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    The first talkie, “The Jazz Singer” (1928), combined and synchronized the music with the performance. Within a few short years (1934), the first Oscar was awarded for music in a movie. It went to “The Continental,” a song I will always remember, because it is linked to the wonderful dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I enjoyed all of their movies, because I love to dance, and watching them was a thrill for me. (When I was growing up, I fantasized about being a June Taylor dancer on television. I did take tap dancing lessons, but that’s as far as I got.)

    Now I cannot imagine even a dramatic movie without a musical score. It heightens our awareness of the action, helping define it as scary, thrilling, sad or happy. My stepson played the opening scene of Jaws with and without the music. Without any music, the underwater scene was serene. With the music, the same scene was as menacing and frightening as it was intended to be. Music does have the power to influence our feelings, sometimes without our realizing the effect.

    Recently my husband and I went to a Philly POPS concert of music from epic Hollywood films. Conductor Michael Krajewski said  the music itself is often “epic,” citing examples such as the theme songs from “The Sound of Music” or “Gone with the Wind.” I am not convinced that the movie music can stand alone. Music from flicks such as “Ben Hur,” “Jaws,” “Avatar,” and “Mary Poppins” may be familiar to movie-goers, but I am not sure how many of them would be remembered if not linked to these larger-than-life extravaganzas.

    But as soon as the POPS began playing the theme from “Gone With the Wind,” in my mind’s eye I could see the ever-handsome Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, and Vivian Leigh as the fiery Scarlett O’Hara, from the 1939 blockbuster.

    Some of the musical excerpts performed by the POPS were so brief that we barely recognized a song before the orchestra was onto the next melody. Not all movie music — “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Lord of the Rings” — is as memorable as the film it accompanies. But I will admit that some Hollywood film scores are so emotionally stirring that they can evoke the same feelings you had during the movie itself.

    The music helps create the magic I feel when I am so engrossed in a film that I forget my surroundings and lose touch with reality. I don’t think they can be separated; one enhances the other — the darkness, the big screen, the larger-than-life characters, the marvelous music.

    CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this commentary, the first talkie was misidentified as “The Al Jolson Story.” We regret the error.

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