Sparse bass motifs or grandiose saccharine melodies, quietly panting beats or loud, steady, pounds, melodies that barely claw their way out of the background or melodies that hammer out irony. The way music interacts with moving image is vital to a cohesive understanding of any dramatic story. Music acts as a call-and-response to the action of the story, helping to create an immersive atmosphere that sweeps the audience into a different world, the world of the characters they are watching. Recurring motifs represent different themes or characters, fast beats often signal action, and texture illuminates the lives of the characters we see on screen. Whether we are consciously deciphering this or not, music is a signal.
The way music is placed in films is no accident: the chosen accompaniment is meant to aid the film on its journey of storytelling. In a trailer, it becomes obvious the film is a thriller the second you begin to hear pounding drums, like a heartbeat, and see someone running, maybe in the rain, maybe at a payphone making an urgent call. Generic electronic dance music accompanies the summer’s commercial comedy, frat boys and red solo cups in hand. The music works symbiotically with the image to create an atmosphere to its fullest extent.
Music’s interplay with film comes about in extremely different ways in two of this year’s films: Beautiful Boy and Burning. The first uses music overwhelmingly, while the second uses it sparingly. In both films, the music is impossible not to notice, to one’s detriment and the other’s triumph.
Beautiful Boy, a poignant and raw story of addiction and its effect on family, has been rightly lauded for superb acting from Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, but criticized for its overly sappy atmosphere. The music is what causes this failing. The film regularly features montages that serve as flashbacks to Nic’s childhood with his father, before falling ill with drug addiction. These flashbacks are accompanied by overwhelmingly saccharine music, that loudly and awkwardly enters the fold and disappears just as quickly as it enters. The music itself is not necessarily of a low quality, but its sappy nature, a massive orchestra interrupting the heartbreak that comes with loving someone who deals with addiction, ruins practically every moment. There is such a thing as too much, especially when it is emotion that does not fit with the moment and does not highlight the underlying intention of the story being told. The choice to make this film’s soundtrack so incredibly loud takes the viewer out of the story’s atmosphere, making it impossible to be fully immersed in the world the film is creating. If the music chosen had better emphasized the situation, one of despair, fear, struggle, and longing, it would be a much more effective creation.
In complete opposite, Burning, a South Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, uses music sparingly and silence is suffocatingly noticeable. The film tells a tale of a mysterious man whose work is burning greenhouses, with metaphors abound regarding wealth disparity, masculinity, and, of course, numerous impossible answers. There are endless meanings to unpack — but one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its use of music, or lack thereof. From the beginning, there is a sweeping bass note that mysteriously arises out of nowhere, and throughout the film this note returns, usually indicating action. A film that champions every meticulous detail to create its narratives, like how a room is tidied and yawns are uttered, the conscientious use of music fits directly with the way the story unfolds before us. In one scene, which may be the most breathtaking shot of the year, Haemi, the object of the central love triangle, removes her shirt in a marijuana-induced haze and dances to Miles Davis as the sun sets over an open field, burning red, before she breaks down into tears. Everything about this scene is encapsulating. Miles Davis is mentioned as a party soundtrack in Murakami’s story, and in this film adaptation, it is expertly placed to create a moment in which we all want to escape into the sunset like Haemi, music and dance consuming us into a greater beyond. While much of the film is silent, when music comes into the fold, it enters with poise and grace to bring us along and into the insane world shown before us.
These are two cases on opposite sides of the spectrum of the implementation of film music. One fails to immerse us, and the other uses sound so sparingly that in the moments it is implemented, it matters deeply.
There are numerous ways to accompany a story through sound — but in order to create a universe that an audience can’t look away from, it is vital to use music in a way that illuminates the story at hand, and not in a way that works against it.