As Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has recently seen it’s UK cinema release, it seemed like an appropriate time to bring up the issue of soundtracks in film, mainly because it was watching Lincoln that sparked this chain of thought.
Spielberg has, for many years and many films, sought the composing credentials of John Williams, known for his iconic and instantly recognisable scores on the likes of E.T, the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park franchises, and the more recent War Horse and The Adventures Of Tin-Tin.
In fact, every film Spielberg has ever directed since 1974’s The Sugarland Express – bar Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Color Purple – have been scored by John Williams, the latest being Lincoln, for which – among the many, many award nominations the film has received, John Williams is up for an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Original Score. But, at the risk of committing cinematic sacrilege, the score is certainly the worst part of an otherwise fantastic film.
Film scores should enhance the film; carry you along, heighten emotions, immerse you and highlight important plot points. If they are later recognisable, then great – but they shouldn’t attract undue attention in a way that inhibits how you watch the film. Even if a song is used that you already know – Perfect Day or Atomic in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, for instance – they were chosen to perfectly capture the mood at that specific point, and already knowing the songs has the advantage of the viewer being able to relate on a more personal level to how the song is being used in the film. I think it also shows an understanding that the filmmaker really knows their audience – an important factor as they’re the ones, after all, who have just parted with their cash in order to watch the film.
And so, this is my beef with Lincoln. John Williams’s work is so distinctive, and so synonymous with much of Spielberg’s more schmaltzy work that it just doesn’t have a place in Lincoln. The whole point is that Abraham Lincoln was a low-key, understated yet brilliant man, and Spielberg does well not to over-elevate him. Grand violins aren’t his style, and when they kick in it’s so incongruous that I was instantly put to mind ‘Oh, and there’s John Williams’, taking away from the drama of the scene.
When you’ve put so much effort into giving your audience a new and memorable experience – I like to think this is what filmmakers are going for – why get lazy with your soundtrack? The same goes for the Tim Burton and Danny Elfman partnership (the constant Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter casting is a whole other argument). It’s a situation probably not helped by the fact that film funding is more and more reserved for ‘sure things’, hence the plethora of sequels, prequels, sidequels and any other way you can possibly squeeze every last drop out of a franchise – and, of course, the established directors are also lucky enough to get a look in, and maybe it’s letting them get lazy.
But other than that, Lincoln’s great.