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The State of Film Scoring



“Most of it isn't even about composing, most of it isn't even about music-most of it is about the needs of the picture.”

-- Dave Grusin

Dave Grusin has made no secret of his displeasure and frustration over the numerous restrictions and interventions from outside the artistic domain, as well as sometimes from   within it.  Indeed, the measure of successful screen music is how effective it is in supporting a film, or, as he has put it, “to be really 'good music,' it usually has to play a subservient (rather than complementary) role to the dramatic content In the film.”   This can mean the editing out of important, interesting and dramatic cues

After years of putting heart and soul into an art form which is essentially a commercial product, he formed the philosophy that in cinema “music is not an art, but a craft - a craft like set building or cinematography.  The art is the film. The music is really there to support the film, and not to be the element that gets the attention.”  While this may be the case, after the artistic product has gone through the hands of so many non-creative people who control the purse strings, the final result may only represent a truce between creative and administrative forces.

Recalling his earlier attitude to the work, he affirms, “for a long time I would be disappointed by having things either dropped or altered or moved around where they were never intended to go.”  Out of a dilemma of whether to leave scoring or not came a new viewpoint.  

He explains, “finally you say, `that's what the job is.' I try to get the concept of the director, so that I'm not doing something that countermands what that attention is.”   That is, of course, a very subtle and subjective matter, and he adds, “frequently, through nobody's fault, even when you're really conscientious about it, things happen that finally get down to two points of view."

All these changes in approach ironically generated some of his most artistic scores, not only that for “The Champ” in 1979, but also  “The Little Drummer Girl," “The Goonies” and “Milagro Beanfield War” in the 1980s.  

Citing the appearance of occasional inspirational material, he states, “once in a while, there are images that really suggest some kind of sonic response. For me, those are the best moments.”  However, he finds this is not automatically the case, As he has provocatively remarked, “film and music. I don't think they have much to do with each other most of the time, except by association.”

While creative highs add the most to one's work, it is unquestionable that leapfrogging technological progress (not the least of which is the ability to actually have an advance copy of a picture on cassette to work with) have done a lot to make the process flow more smoothly.   Furthermore,  says Dave Grusin, “recording techniques certainly are better, sound is better, digital recording for films is marvelous because you do lose enough generations by the time the picture gets to the theater with transfers and making prints, that it's great to start with as clean a sound as you can get.”

He has worked on films for all the major studios, but in the early days, was particularly enthusiastic about Universal.  “There was a good reason for my coming to Universal in the first place,” he states. "That was Stanley Wilson. He was an executive who was able to bring a lot of good musicians into the studio."  (Such names as Quincy Jones and Lalo Schiffrin come to mind.). "He supported them and brought some dignity and respect into the atmosphere. When he died, there was no one to carry that on.”

Such changes in the executive structure of the motion picture industry have made the scene a downhill slide for many of cinema's most creative individuals in recent years.  However, despite such a climate, in the 90s, Dave Grusin managed to produce such gems as the breathtaking “Havana” score and the innovative one for “The Firm.”  He has openly proffered the declaration that while occasionally, film scoring can be a "pleasurable event," in more cases, it tends to lean in the direction of drudgery.

Such a viewpoint doesn't necessarily make him the ideal recruitment officer for luring new talent into the profession, yet he is nevertheless constantly asked by aspiring young composers, just how to break into the industry.  knowing no two scorers who achieved this in the exact same way, his response is often to advise getting a foot in the door at any level in a film studio, to first see how the business works overall.  It may be an overly fatalistic view, but he believes the moment will come if one would  "just sort of float along  in some kind of passivity and try to keep working, and try to get gigs."

Certainly for the gifted artist, the appeal of working in motion pictures today starts to have les and less of a draw.  In Dave Grusin's opinion, “we have become a TV/magazine society, not literature and not cinema. We're used to so much stuff happening in such a compressed time.”  That this is unquestionably reflected on the screen cannot be denied, and his potential ennui with the medium does not auger well for an ever-increasing output from the composer.

As he has severely cut down the number he composed in the  90s, one never knows which score might be the last.   If “Random Hearts” from 1999 is Dave Grusin's final feature, he could have gone out on nothing more creative and evocative, nearly rescuing an excellent film with problems in the process.

His most recent score, for the HBO movie “Dinner With Friends” is no less reflective.  The inspiration which obviously went into its composition has to mean that grind or not, the sensitivities and flair remain at their peak.

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Photo Credits

3 - Tommy Biondo
4 - Toyoo Mori