It made me think about the current state of film music aesthetics, and how the “deejay” approach—manipulating sound design in the computer—has completely taken over.
This sounded familiar to me...because I predicted it! And the inspiration was, of all things, The Fifth Element by Eric Serra (which I rather like).
I remember thinking, back in 1997, that the “Serra approach”—the deejay approach—worked quite well cinematically. Thus it was likely to be emulated by others, and while it had a lot of interesting possibilities, it was also possible, if not likely, it would lead to a lot of crap.
So I wrote about it in Film Score Monthly!
I dug up the article, in Film Score Monthly Vol. 2, No. 4, June 1997, and I think I was pretty accurate in my prediction. (Hard to believe it’s been 25 years?!?)
I’m not exactly a fan of my old writing, which sounds like an obnoxious kid (I was 23 and fresh out of egghead college), but I wrote it, so I’ll live with the consequences.
Here’s a scan (all of our print backissues are available for free, by the way), followed by the text for easy reading.
The Fifth Element: The Final Frontier?
The future of film music is here, and its name is Eric Serra. (Like it or not.)
By Lukas Kendall
Film Score Monthly Vol. 2, No. 4, June 1997
The Fifth Element is a visually dazzling potpourri of past genre offerings, uninvolving action, and flat humor. On the one hand, it is a stupefyingly simplistic tale of good vs. evil, but on the other, it’s a thrilling and fully realized prediction of the future. The movie’s problem is that it slyly critiques a very ’90s future that is fast-paced and short-attention-spanned. But, the movie’s plot, characters and presentation are just as hyper and ineffectual—it is a product of its own vision.
Lue Besson’s film has been called a French Star Wars, but there are differences. Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: The Fifth Element takes place on Earth
in the 23rd century. Star Wars features a John Williams score that is forward-moving, past-tense and traditional; The Fifth Element features an Eric Serra score that is filmically new,
mood-oriented, present-tense and cutting-edge.
It’s fitting that The Fifth Element is coming out almost 20 years to the day of Star Wars, because if John Williams set the stage for the last two decades, Eric Serra is mapping the territory for the next two. Fans may be horrified to hear that, but it’s true! Yes, his music for GoldenEye is abominable, but even that has ended up in temp tracks to several pictures—and The Professional and La Femme Nikita remain pretty darn good, imitations of bad French accordion music and all.
The reason why is because for the first time since blaxploitation, what is hot in pop music (the new dance/hip hop/techno thing) is finding its way into dramatic underscores. Film has always absorbed from pop and world styles—for example: jazz in the ’50s with Alex North and Elmer Bernstein, then Henry Mancini; the jazz-flavored James Bond scores by John Barry and the spy-genre rip-offs; the Lalo Schifrin masterworks like Bullitt and Enter the Dragon (with blues bass lines and rock instrumentation—and even the 5/4 Mission: Impossible is a descendant of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”); and the aforementioned blaxploitation scores by the likes of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, film and pop diverged: for cinema, the classical, white, European tradition was revived by John Williams, and symphonic scores again dominated films that in the early ‘70s would have had either no music; sparse, modernistic music; or ironic music (unsynched classical a la Kubrick). But pop music since the mid-1970s has been only sporadically integrated into film: first there was disco and discofied versions of black-oriented soul—beat-heavy music that worked in film as a novelty (Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express). Then in the ’80s there was mostly white-oriented, electronic pop as black artists spun off into rap and hip-hop; this was sporadically used in film, mostly for montages. In the early ’90s alternative took over, and this too was a harmonically simplistic rock form used in film mostly for atmosphere.
Throughout their history, rock, punk, heavy metal and their variants have never penetrated deeply into underscore except as electric-guitar-type surface embellishments: Rock music as a genre has its own narrative which conflicts with the narrative of a film. Instead it has been world-derived, instrumental dance styles whose more flowing vamps have been adapted by film composers, i.e. jazz, funk, and the cyclical, African/Latin/world percussion requisite in
action films today. These styles blur racial and genre lines, and also tend to efface the performer, throwing the emphasis on the event and audience instead—be it a rave or a movie.
Today in pop, both alternative rock and rap are more “old hat” while the hybrids of dance, rave, hip-hop, techno, jungle, ambient, etc. are coming into fashion. As varied as these new styles can be, they share one similarity: they start as samples culled from the real world, and are arranged and “created” in the electronic domain. So while it’s hard to take a rock band and give it the size and texture necessary for a film, it’s not nearly as hard to take the beat-intensive loops of dance music and create full and varied dramatic underscore. The most successful composers of the ’90s have done just that: Hans Zimmer and his Euro-pop sensibilities; James Newton Howard and his drum sections; Thomas Newman and his unique ensembles and sounds; Elliot Goldenthal and his prescient blends of samples and orchestra; and Danny Elfman and his percussion loops in Dead Presidents and Mission: Impossible.
Eric Serra, however, is taking it to the next level. Many of the aforementioned scores are essentially orchestral with sampled percussion; Serra’s The Fifth Element is electronic with a live orchestra (mostly strings) providing only a facet. It’s good, too, with dreamy, new-age scope for the film’s prologue; a startling, car-horn march for the alien thugs; hip-hop for Dallas (Willis); an evocative, simple piano theme for Dallas and Leeloo (Jovovich); and ever-present, propulsive percussion. It is at turns ambient and direct when it needs to be, and casts a whole new sound-tapestry upon this vision of the future. One cue in particular is a fascinating blend of live-and-Memorex: in “The Diva Dance,” a fight scene is intercut with an alien opera singer’s performance, and the voice seems to be “real”—except when virtuoso shifts in register reveal a sample at work.
John Williams said that the point of doing a symphonic score for Star Wars was that the visuals were so new and alien, the music should be familiar and comforting in contrast. But now it’s the visuals that, even in their “money shots,” are easily recognizable—therefore it’s time to go back to unfamiliarity in the music.
Musical strangeness is what The Fifth Element has, but what film music in general has lacked—mainly because it hasn’t had the types of workable pop music to draw from. 1977 through roughly 1987 gave us either Williams-styled symphonic scores, or chamber-styled electronic ones with bad synth backbeats (John Carpenter’s works, Maurice Jarre’s and Jerry Goldsmith’s electronic scores—the last of this lot was Fiedel’s Terminator 2 in 1991); and then 1987 to today (the Hans Zimmer era) has blended the two with oversized orchestras playing simple music with large percussion sections. These are sort of traditional, sort of pop, but mostly “feathered fish”—neither swimming nor flying. It is no coincidence that the last ten years have been the worst ever for film music.
Today, finally, pop music is leaning back towards what is workable in film—and in strange way, this new pop is imitating the visual-overstimulation of recent mainstream cinema. (We do live in a “future” where you cannot watch a hockey update on TV without techno music in the background.) In time this music too will sound “dated,” but right now, as various composer/performers find ways of making it work as underscore, it’s gonna be big. The origin of this style is not as much Eric Serra as Vangelis—but unlike in the early 1980s, now the technology exists for many Vangelises to do their thing, hopefully in new and different ways, with a wider palette of colors and techniques available to them.