On the Music of “Super 8”: How Important Is Score Subtlety?

On the Music of "Super 8": How Important Is Score Subtlety?

As I highlighted in my review yesterday I really don’t like Michael Giacchino’s score for “Super 8.” It did, however, get me thinking. Giacchino is a very talented composer, as he made perfectly obvious with his beautifully whimsical work on “Up,” for which he won an Oscar. I’m also a big fan of his other Pixar work and the bang-up job he did on “Star Trek.” Moreover, I’m not even sure that my problem with the “Super 8” score is completely musical. It’s actually quite impressively written, and there are a few genuinely remarkable moments. I simply have a problem with the role of the soundtrack in the film as a whole, which I suspect has much more to do with J.J. Abrams and his sense of nostalgia than Giacchino himself.

The score of “Super 8” is deeply influenced by those of Steven Spielberg’s classics, fitting into the overall nostalgia of the film. And the hallmark of those sci-fi flicks of the 1970s and ‘80s is anything but musical subtlety. As I explained yesterday, John Williams‘ work on “E.T,” “Jaws” and other movies is the sort of music that almost verbally tells you what to feel. Giacchino has created the same sweeping canvass in “Super 8,” filling the soundtrack with aching violins and sad piano that makes sure there’s absolutely no way you can miss out on the intended emotion of a scene. It just gets grating and obnoxious.

So how did Williams get away with it forty years ago? Simply put, the now-legendary composer wrote more impressive music. The score of “E.T” is iconic because it’s catchy and memorable, the kind of thing that could be (and has been) performed on its own. If you’re going to make a film with a score that avoids subtlety altogether the music itself needs to rise to another level. Giacchino’s score has the same utilitarian purpose as Williams’ work: to boldly inform the audience what to feel. Yet it isn’t the sort of thing that you’ll be humming on your way out of the theater, and does not sufficiently impress on its own merits to legitimate its unabashed conspicuousness.

But then what’s the alternative? Last year I attended a speaking engagement of Toni Morrison’s at the New York Public Library. At one point she mentioned how she loved “No Country for Old Men” because of its almost complete lack of music. There was no score telling you how to feel, your emotions came from the story itself. I was struck because Morrison is of course primarily a novelist, a gifted storyteller in a form that uses imagination as its primary tool. Her work is proof that you don’t need flashy extras to get emotional potency, which got me thinking about what the ideal purpose of a film score might be. I don’t necessarily agree with her 100%, and it’s worth noting that there is some brilliantly minimalist work by Carter Burwell in the Coen’s masterwork. But it’s a fair point that it can be refreshing to watch a film with such an inconspicuous soundtrack.

On the other hand, the vast majority of films made today include much more musical accompaniment than “No Country”. That’s not at all a bad thing. A great example is Giacchino’s much-lauded work in the opening sequence of “Up.” With no dialogue, the music almost replaces verbal expression as we watch the early life and romance of our aging hero. The animation combines perfectly with the florid piano score, which is not only the sort of bravura composition that will stay with you long after the film has ended, but an extremely dynamic accomplishment as well. Giacchino uses melody to create a sort of musical story, which becomes an equal part of the visual narrative instead of simply supporting it. It may seem like a very minute distinction to make, but it’s crucial.

Now, I acknowledge that this is hardly the sort of thing about which one can really make grandiose categorical statements. And I wouldn’t say that a score must fundamentally be subtle in order to be effective or worthy or praise. However, it really is important to remember that the musical score of a film should do more than just subserviently articulate and drive home the emotional content of a scene. I’m reminded of the Oscar-winning scores to “Brokeback Mountain” and “Atonement,” which used creative instrumentation to build up the atmosphere of their films. “Super 8” on the other hand has the kind of generic instrumentation and uninteresting structure that just seems uninspired in comparison. Giacchino can do better. In fact, I’ll let him make my point for me: here’s the “Carl and Ellie” clip from “Up.”

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