John Williams can go big, no doubt about it. It’s always his big score moments in correspondingly big scenes that people talk about, but from my vantage point as a film composer, I am just as fascinated by his skill at going big on what may seem like smaller scenes.
From the point of view of craftsmanship, it is those less obvious moments that can be much more educational.
Here’s an example of such a score moment; the funeral scene in Superman, where they bury Clark Kent’s father.
Look at these stills taken from the film; how would you have scored it? (Or go to 34:12 in the film and watch it without music.)
Would you have scored it in a sad tone? Dramatic? Dark? What we see is this:
- They are dressed in black
- It’s a funeral!
These are the obvious surface elements of this scene, so it seems to make sense to write sad music. I bet many composers would have done just that.
But Donner and Williams were much better storytellers than that. They understood what this scene was…
This is the film’s inciting event. The death of his father is the event that makes Clark Kent become Superman.
What’s an inciting event? It’s that one thing that happens to your hero that makes him or her take action.
Just before he dies from a heart attack at 33:30 in the film, Pa Kent has a talk with Clark, saying “I do know one thing is that you are for a reason [..] .and it’s not for scoring touchdowns.” It is these words which will give Clark Kent’s life purpose, and his father’s death a few seconds later that will make him take action.
So what does the music do? Does it play the sadness? No! Williams knew this was a turning point in the story and he wrote a beautiful theme that is softly heroic, uplifting and grandiose. It soars over the shot of Clark and his mother leaving the cemetery as the camera cranes up over a wide landscape, hinting at the adventure that is about to begin.
This is music for story-telling.
And another thing, this is a Superman film. It’s bigger than life. Williams knew this and the music is crucial in giving the film the right tone and scope.
So the points to remember are these:
- Always consider the story
- The overall tone of the film?
- Where you are in the structure of the story
- What is the subtext? What can the music add to the scene that you can’t already see?
Now go watch that scene!