Film is so axiomatically regarded as a visual medium that it’s easy to forget that sound came first. At least that was the order of things for Thomas Edison, who only invented the kinetograph so that people might be able to watch something while they listened to his phonograph. That factoid is at the heart of Midge Costin’s “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” an erudite and impassioned documentary that does its damndest to prove that we experience movies with our ears as much as we do with our eyes — perhaps even more so.
This is a simple but righteous work of score-settling, made by someone with real skin in the game. Costin’s long career as a sound editor spans Hollywood features as disparate as “Hocus Pocus” and “Armageddon,” and the deep love she has for those who pioneered and appreciate her part of the filmmaking process allows this historical corrective to be more than a plea for attention from a community that has always been difficult to silence.
Costin isn’t coy about her intentions; from the very beginning, the lucid and straightforward “Making Waves” is determined to reaffirm the role that sound plays in the cinematic experience, and to inspire a newfound (or deeper) appreciation for the people who craft it. In the film’s myriad interview clips, that mission often assumes a defensive posture; one talking head reminds us that sound is the first sense that gets turned on in the womb, making it our first connection to the outside world. At other junctures, Costin relies on more concrete and self-reflexive evidence, using the tools at her disposable to directly illustrate her points. She mutes an iconic scene from “Star Wars” to show how crucial sound is to that movie’s special magic; later, she moves from mono to stereo to underscore how technology has allowed film to emulate the way we hear the real world.
But “Making Waves” is at its best when it strikes a harmony between those two disparate modes, often by asking visionary auteurs and iconic sound editors — they exist! — to discuss the specifics of their work, and of the films that inspired them. A sidebar about “Citizen Kane” (specifically about the techniques that Orson Welles borrowed from radio dramas like “War of the Worlds” in order to assure that each room in his first movie had its own aural signature) leads in to Walter Murch discussing how American Zoetrope was conceived in an effort to blur the border between picture and sound.
Soon, he’s talking us through the subjective audio of the scene in “The Godfather” when Michael Corleone murders Sollozzo and McCluskey. Murch points out how the scene takes viewers inside Michael’s head, and makes them feel as though they’re listening to the chaotic sound of the young mafioso’s neurons firing at each other.
That lesson tees up George Lucas to wax poetic on how the tones of Chewbacca’s voice were the first thing he created about the character, which complements a detailed segment about the genius of sound designer Ben Burtt. In a film that’s teeming with great archival footage, none of it beats the clip of Burtt and his team whacking a powerline with a wrench in order to create the sound of a blaster. It’s only a matter of time before Christopher Nolan shows up, because that guy — God bless him — has a pathological inability to pass up a chance to celebrate the analog pleasures of filmmaking.
However, of all the auteurs who appear in “Making Waves,” it’s the less expected ones who leave the greatest expression, and enjoy the most screen time. Chief among them: Barbra Streisand, who — as an actress in the 1976 “A Star Is Born” — demanded that Warner Bros. execs ditch mono for stereo sound, and invested $1 million of her own money to ensure that the sound team would be afforded the four months required to get it right. The studio loved the final results so much they didn’t even make Streisand pay up, and Hollywood movies were never the same.
That is but one of several opportunities that Costin finds to call attention to the crucial role that women have played in the evolution of cinematic sound. Female filmmakers seldom get the credit they deserve, and female craftspeople even more so, which is part of what makes “Apocalypse Now” and “Blue Velvet” sound editor Pat Jackson’s presence such a necessary counterbalance to the egregious John Lasseter cameo that Costin would have been wise to cut, not just because he’s a disgraced creep but also because he has nothing of value to say. He squeals at one point? It’s discomforting.
Beyond that snafu, “Making Waves” is smartly articulated and arranged, with Costin breaking the film down into the various disciplines of sound design in order to illustrate just how much thought goes into every decibel. That approach may give the documentary an educational bent, but — thanks to the passion that practically vibrates off the screen — it never feels even a little bit like homework. If anything, the film cheats a bit towards the sentimental side of things, as Costin’s insistence that sound carries emotion is galvanized by a climactic highlight reel that feels like the kind of montage you might see in an Oscars telecast. By that point in the movie, Costin has so thoroughly convinced us of her craft that such openly manipulative tricks seem unnecessary; the clips are cute, but “Making Waves” leaves you eager to go hear a favorite movie for the first time.
“Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.