A wooden piano sits amongst a field of white and yellow flowers, next to a llarge oak tree
Credit: Ben Collins via Unsplash

Licence to trill: should films use licensed music or original scores?

By Jeevan Farthing

Film soundtracks that contain copyright tunes negatively influence the viewer’s experience and understanding of the film.

It’s the intricacy of original film scores that makes them so satisfying. Meticulously crafted with utmost precision, any Danny Elfman or John Williams creation is overanalysis galore as their sudden staccatos and cautious crescendos interact seamlessly with the action on-screen. In King Kong, Max Steiner famously utilises the technique of mickeymousing as he deploys a descending scale in complete synchronisation with the heavy and deliberate footsteps of the sacrificial dance. Alas, the golden age of Hollywood (along with its much debated revival in the 80s) has recently yielded a golden age of licensing, as copyright tunes increasingly pervade our much beloved soundtracks.

“Alas, the golden age of Hollywood (along with its much debated revival in the 80s) has recently yielded a golden age of licensing…”

Films are often afforded icon status when their distinct identity is unflinching. Arguably the success of Psycho is just as much the result of Herrman’s low-budget modernist masterpiece as Hitchcock’s directing. Undoubtedly, the shower scene would be far less mortifying if it weren’t for those dissonant shrieking chord clusters that are even more unbearable to listen to than a five-year old’s first violin lesson. But Herrmann’s score is stably and subtly effective too, providing a tuneless and lushly orchestrated slow-moving lull as the camera pans over Phoenix (Arizona) on a scorching afternoon, and foreshadowing the murder scene as Marion’s largely pleasant cue concludes with a solitary chord cluster. Of course, licensed tracks can construct an atmosphere or function as a structural mechanism too. The employment of Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue doesn’t just pass the vibe check, but provides a false sense of security after Leroy and Grelt’s lovey-dovey excitement, such that the subsequent episode of police brutality is even more shocking and sickening.

Perhaps Gotham City can be relied upon to vanquish the licence. After all, Elfman’s precision in his score for Batman Returns is unbeatable: Batman’s four note motif ascends to depict a righteous and striving character, while Penguin’s four note motif slithers to suggest mischief. Compare this to Joker, in which Frank Sinatra’s version of Send In The Clowns is peppered repeatedly. It, too, serves a structural purpose, taunting the Joker underneath the solidity of the orchestra. Not quite a leitmotif because of its lack of development, it is still a motif nonetheless, and perhaps a more memorable one than subtle deviations to a melody. Whether recognisable tunes actually constitute symbolic meaning to the film itself is another matter though, and substituting “joker” for “clown” is just a bit crap. Indeed, when one mentions Send In The Clowns, it’s Sondheim (or Grace Jones!) that immediately springs to mind, not a demented and nihilistic chaos-inducing villain.

“Perhaps Gotham City can be relied upon to vanquish the licence. After all, Elfman’s precision in his score for Batman Returns is unbeatable…”

Perhaps period drama can provide the antidote to the original v. licence conundrum. The former has two notable manifestations: in The Duchess, composer Rachel Portman replaces diegetic intricacy with symbolic intricacy as her folk-like modal melodies thrive within a modest orchestra of woodwind, strings and horns, while Marianelli’s score for Pride and Prejudice is almost a pastiche of Mozart. But instead of capitulating to copyright, Bridgerton forges a third way, as a string quartet covers pop wonders like Ariana Grande’s thank u, next or Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy. 

Though obviously unworkable for every film, the Bridgerton method nicely compromises the constraints of Hanz Zimmer being an actual living person (not a score-producing machine), and the complete unsuitability of licensed tracks in some situations. Think Schindler’s List: the melody derives its poignancy from appoggiaturas (tension and release) inserted into the melody to incite catharsis, and while Adele utilises the same technique in Someone Like You, simply inserting her music into a film about the Holocaust would be incongruous and inappropriate.

But if Lost in Translation is anything to go by, where Kevin Shields’ avant-garde excellence was overshadowed by The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey plonked at the end, licensed tracks have won the argument. Though lacking in the sweep, glamour and precision of a fresh orchestral concoction, only nerds like myself are truly scarred by such a development. This golden age of recycling can and probably should be embraced (we are meant to be saving the planet after all!). I think I’m just too nostalgic to be ready for it.


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