One of my favourite things about Super 8 is Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score, but not everyone shares that opinion. Daniel Walber has written a fantastic article on Indiewire that’ll make for interesting reading for anyone who enjoys movie scores, and anyone who liked Super 8‘s in particular. Walber most definitely is not one of those people. While he’s generally a fan of Giacchino’s work, Walber writes that he found the Super 8 soundtrack overpowering and suffocating, arguing that it forces the audience to feel emotion rather than allowing them to experience it naturally. Comparing Giacchino’s Super 8 work to John Williams’s on the films JJ Abrams’ movie is influenced by, Walber writes:
“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.”
This is a criticism that’s frequently levelled at Steven Spielberg’s films and the Williams scores that go with them, so it’s no surprise to see it applied to Abrams’s homage as well. It’s an argument that baffles me though. Can movie music really be overpowering? Is it ever a bad thing if it’s dictating an emotion? Isn’t that the point? To manipulate an audience into feeling an emotion? Actors do it through their choices, writers do it through their words, directors through their shot selection. Cinema is a manipulation, all art is. It’s not art if it’s not trying its hardest to get you to feel something.
But can it try too hard? Perhaps, but I can’t think of an example. Let’s look at some classics: Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho, Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Planet of the Apes, Williams’s score for Jaws. All these soundtracks are indellible soundscapes that work as well in isolation as they do in their respective films, but there’s no way you could argue that they’re subtle, gentle pieces of work. They dominate their films and help the audience feel the emotion the director is trying to elicit. Just think of those movies’ most famous sequences – when you imagine the shower sequence in Psycho, the hunt scene in Apes or the underwater moments of Jaws, what sticks with you? Is it the visuals or the primal pounding of Goldsmith’s drums, the foreboding brass of Williams’s trumpets or the penetrating stab of Hermann’s strings. I know what it is for me, but does that make those scores bad? Of course not. If anything, it makes them great – music that’s so indellible it can’t be separated from the film.
I’ll finish by referencing the same film Walber does in his conclusion: Pixar’s Up. Using the film as an example of Giacchino’s ‘better’, more subtle work, Walber calls upon the movie’s famous marriage montage sequence and suggests that it demonstrates a score that doesn’t overpower the film but complements it. I’d disagree. The music may be more subtle than most of <em>Super 8</em>’s score, but it’s as manipulative as anything in that so-called inferior work, and indeed anything in Williams’s back catalogue. The nostalgic sound automatically seeds in the audience a feeling of wistful melancholy and the rueful lament of the final notes of the piano brings an air of horrible finality to the scene. Play the sequence on mute and you’ll see what I mean. With the music it’s a living, breathing relationship, brimming with heart and emotion. Without it, it’s a document of two peoples’ lives. No context, no warmth, no feeling. The scene needs the music to work. If that’s not overpowering, I don’t know what is.
Nobody’s going to argue that Up is a bad score though, and I see no reason why anyone should say the same about Super 8. They both do brilliantly what all great scores should: they elicit emotion and heart. They help make the audience feel and relate to what’s on screen. They make the film breathe.