It was silence that got me thinking about music in the movies. Absorbed in the long final action sequence of Zero Dark Thirty that follows the men of the special forces as they whisper, gingerly tread and strategically explode their way into Osama Bin Laden's secret lair, I suddenly noticed an itch: anxiety enhanced by the cessation of Alexandre Desplat's score. Barely noticeable up to that point, Desplat's distinctive "archaic" orchestration revealed itself as a source of equilibrium, balancing the movie's mood and quietly propelling its plot. Its absence during the film's climax made me uneasy and excited, more so than did the darkness or even the fallen bodies lining the path of the soldiers' march.
The full symphonic soar of America's most beloved movie themes — duh duh duh DAAAA duh, sing it with me now — can sometimes overshadow the subtleties of the sounds that guide us in the flickering dark. This year's Oscar-nominated scores mostly go for that glory (hello again, John Williams!), and Desplat himself is nominated for his more aggressive work in Argo. But outside that category, music in the year's most lauded films functioned in many other ways.
In Silver Linings Playbook, pop songs direct much of the plot, with Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" playing a particularly pesky role in one character's arc. Beasts of the Southern Wild weaves elements of rural Southern music into a melodic membrane that encircles and upholds the movie's parallel universe. Quentin Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos do the meta thing in Django Unchained, playing film-historical roulette by juxtaposing Ennio Morricone excerpts with soul power anthems and one very unexpected cameo by a Jim Croce song. And then there's Les Miserables, meta in a different way, giving Hollywood faves like Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway a chance to kill or be killed in a game of big-budget costumed karaoke.
Even in the most conventional popcorn flick, music often becomes the experimental element, because it's sound that works in real life, too, as something that veers from and changes conventional storylines. Sound reorders our days, or at least our moods. It wafts out from storefronts, enticing us in; it pushes through the neighbor's wall, driving us batty. The wrong song on the radio can ruin sex; the right one can inspire a declaration of love. The best composers and song-selecting music supervisors highlight music's function as part of the autonomic system of daily life, influencing what happens and how we feel about it, even when we don't even (seem to) hear it.
Petra Haden evokes cinema music's mystical allure on her engrossing new album Petra Goes To the Movies. Following up on her groundbreaking a capella tribute to The Who, the L.A. alt-pop mainstay recasts her favorite film scores, mostly using multi-tracked choruses of her own versatile voice. Only a few tracks here qualify as theme songs, the best being her take on the melancholy "Calling You," from Bagdad Cafe; most are instrumentals. Singing every swoosh and crackle of these excerpts from Psycho, A Fistful of Dollars, Taxi Driver, 8 ½, The Social Network and others, Haden recreates the feeling of being awash in the sound worlds of master composers like Morricone, Bernard Hermann and Lalo Schifrin — and, yes, Williams, since her favorite film as a kid was Superman.
Haden could have chosen more familiar material from the movies — sticking with songs, there's everything from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to "Skyfall." Instead, she gives us a cinephile's emotional autobiography, written through her uncanny imitations of the surging overtures and jumpy incidental music that made her fall in love with this particular batch of films. She's said in interviews that she's drawn to movie music that helps tell the story, but the original versions of these excerpts, representing scenes that stuck with her, do only half of that task. The rest happened through her process of listening, of discovering sorrow in a slow piano part or horror in violin screech. Haden's gift to us is the reminder that an art form primarily considered visual is as much, sometimes more, about what we hear — and how we interpret each film's so-called background music.
There's a dazzle effect to Haden's work. How did she and producer Justin Burnett figure out how to invoke the nonmusical qualities of Hermann's Taxi Driver score, or the subtle electronics of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's set for The Social Network? It's fun to pick at Haden's arrangements, identifying which of her vocals is the cello, the trumpet, the analog synth. But it's more rewarding to employ this music as a mnemonic device — a way back into cinematic experiences that thrilled, moved or sometimes possibly infuriated us, through the rhythms and threads of melody that fed those films' nervous systems.
Whoever takes home the golden guy on February 24 (I'm predicting Desplat), composers and filmmakers will undoubtedly continue to find new ways to make us think about how sound interrupts, upholds or utterly transforms the scripts we view onscreen, not to mention the ones we create to understand our own lives. I'm excited about a few new ones: the Stoker soundtrack features Emily Wells, whose work I've long admired, and there's the Sound City documentary, with its Grohl-powered all-star band. On the other hand, Haden's got me wanting to watch Psycho again. I bet I'll see — actually, hear — that classic differently this time.