Music as Character!
I’ve watched Interstellar a couple of times now and still think it is a (possibly flawed) masterpiece of film-making. It has drawn a variety of different opinions and, like any good movie, seems to be loved and hated in equal measure.
I’m not, however, writing about it to try and argue the case for it’s status as modern classic, or to try and change people’s minds about it. If you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t – that’s the nature of the beast. If everyone liked the same things, then cinema going would soon become an increasingly uninspiring experience.
No, what this post is about is the soundtrack; that sometimes invisible component of a film that we may not always take notice of, and the importance of the soundtrack to our experience of film. When I am writing I listen to soundtracks. Partly because they are lyric-free and less distracting, but also because they help me get into a filmic frame of mind. At the moment I am polishing a family-friendly script and find myself listening to a lot of Pixar Soundtracks to get me in the mood. If I am writing something more dramatic then I may chose more appropriate music for that project.
And that is the beauty of a great soundtrack. It works well with the genre and type/style of film and also becomes synonymous with that film so that any hearing of that soundtrack instantly stirs the same feelings you had watching that movie. The soundtrack is a big part of generating the emotions we feel during a film.
When we hear the theme music from Star Wars
or Jaws, for example
we are instantly transported back to those film-worlds and the emotions that came with them; that first note of Williams’s Jaws theme is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck. While theme tunes can be memorable in this way, whole soundtracks can have a massive impact on the viewer, even if each part is not as instantly recognisable as one of Williams’ classics.
Take Under the Skin for example, Johnathan Glazer’s beguiling sci-fi that follows Scarlet Johansson’s alien experiencing (and occasionally killing) the inhabitants of Earth and what it means to be human. The film is odd and unsettling, permeated with an atmosphere that makes you uncomfortable helped, in no small way, by Mica Levi’s stunning soundtrack.
The film is unsettling and her soundtrack cements this with eerie strings and unexplained sounds that echo some of the strange sounds found on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Under the Skin is a marmite film, but well worth checking out.
The Under the Skin soundtrack is eerie and confusing, mirroring the unsettling nature of the film and the confusion experienced by the lead character. Because of this it is easy to see how the soundtrack of a film can behave like a character itself, developing emotion in the audience and offering an important contribution to the overall experience.
Which brings us back to Interstellar and Hans Zimmer’s glorious soundtrack.
(There are some major plot points related to the music – you have been warned!)
What I noticed as I have listened to it over and over again is how closely the music mirrors the action onscreen, swelling with the emotional highs and lows, and echoing the more sensitive moments with softer, more plaintive melodies. So, I thought I would discuss a few of these moments. While I appreciate that a lot of soundtracks do this, there was something about Interstellar that just “worked”. The first thing my father-in-law commented on after watching it was the music.
Early in the film, there is a scene with Coop telling his daughter, Murphy that he is leaving, and could be gone for a long time. She is upset and doesn’t want him to go, he is upset as she won’t say goodbye. As the scene plays out, the track STAY plays over the action.
Building up slowly through the tender, initial moments of the scene, it builds and builds slowly as the emotional impact increases and we share the feelings Coop and Murph are experiencing. This intensity increases as Murph’s anger increases, the whole thing reaching a crescendo of music and emotion as Coop drives off in his car, without the goodbye he wanted and as Murph tries to follow when it is just too late. The crescendo mirrors the explosion of the shuttle launch that the film cuts to in the final moments of this scene.
Later in the film as the exploration team arrive at the first planet on the other side of the black hole, looking for signs of Dr Miller, Zimmer again starts small with the track MOUNTAINS, beginning with just a simple ticking to reinforce the importance of time on this planet where 1 hour of time costs 7 years on Earth.
Again the intensity builds as they find wreckage, realise that Miller is dead, that they need her data and, at 2:00 in the track that, “…those aren’t mountains”. The “reveal” explodes onto screen with the high point of the track reflecting the height of the enormous wave bearing down on the shuttle – and all the while the ticking continues in the background as a reminder.
Thirdly, there are two tracks that work together that I keep listening to. COWARD and DETACH which play into each other and cover a later stage in the movie.
COWARD covers the scenes when Dr Mann’s character strands a confused Coop and tries to save what he sees as the most important mission, Plan B, the new Earth Colony – no one is going home.
Leaving Coop for dead, he strikes out for the Endurance to carry out the mission, chased by Dr Brand and the rescued Coop. The scenes are cut with images of an older Murphy as she starts to figure things out – the building temp mirroring the race against time for everyone. Again Zimmer starts out quietly and builds as the severity of the situation dawns on Coop and Brand and, at the same time, the audience. There is a moment of silence as the airlock is blown out – we share the shock of Coop and Brand and the silence of Dr Mann. Then the music builds and builds again as they try to dock with the endurance and stabilise its spin. The frantic notes adding to the white-knuckle emotion of their last chance.
After COWARD, DETACH takes us towards the black hole and to a big decision for Coop.
The music builds as they slingshot around the black hole, all the while permeating the scenes with the same motifs as the STAY track. Then silence as the fuel runs out which builds again to the final fanfare as Coop detaches and says goodbye to Brand. The build up with the reflections of STAY remind us of his daughter, Murphy and his relationship with Brand. This is the point he realises he is never going to see his daughter again but he has a chance to save another woman he cares for and, potentially, the human race if he makes his sacrifice…
Interstellar isn’t the only film that uses it’s soundtrack so well but I obviously don’t have space to discuss every soundtrack I like here – I barely have enough space to discuss Interstellar and there is so much more to be said than my simple interpretations! However, I think it is one of the most powerful soundtracks I have listened to in recent years and it stands on its own feet even without the onscreen images. When it is coupled with the movie it was written for, the two elements combine to give the viewer a visual and auditory feast of epic proportions. Every last ounce of emotion is wrung from the story by Zimmer’s soundtrack, without which, I doubt there would have been as many goosebumps.
With that much impact on the viewer, the music really is another character, dragging the audience into the story, generating empathy and emotion along with the onscreen characters.
As writers we are told not to make statements about music or dictate what the soundtrack to our story should be, and I am not trying to suggest that we should or shouldn’t, but it can’t hurt to be aware of the importance of the soundtrack and the extra character it can lend to any film.