Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Although the ’90s was even more characterized by inventions of technological tools, the fashionableness of the music nerd did not hold. In fact, the composer may have even regressed to the back seat of the production once again, flipping through film history books to come up with new ways of complementing a drama but with tried and true ideas.

The influences of the closing century were revived, reshaped, and reinterpreted for the action thrillers of the ’90s. Savvy audiences fairly well versed in cultural references could understand and recognize themes used in classics created before they were born, but they wanted them faster, shorter, and slicker. Consider the success of David Arnold, a composer with many films under his belt who achieved cult fame with his reinterpretation of the James Bond theme. Arnold achieved retro chic by adding heavy rock beats and techno dance sounds to the original catchy Bond ditties composed by John Barry. Arnold’s work on Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and the remakes of Shaft and Godzilla have earned him respect from young, irony-hungry movie-goers.

On the flipside, the subtle, personal drama was also on the rise during the ’90s, and the woman who made many a screen moment of revelation and connection all the more poignant for Generation X-ers was British composer Rachel Portman. Portman, whose emotional yet breathable sounds guide the viewer through the characters’ experiences in Emma, The Joy Luck Club, and The Cider House Rules, likes her music in the background. Although she already had a fan base even before her 1997 Academy Award for Emma, Portman is a retiring personality who claims to enjoy being out of the spotlight. She maintains a philosophy that successful film music does not reach out and grab the viewer, but rather move them towards the correct emotion of the scene.

Also, the ’90s witnessed a return to Hollywood on the part of many notable composers of concert-hall music. Philip Glass, who had previously worked with independent filmmakers (most notably Godfrey Reggio on the Qatsi films), became in demand by major studios, most notably scoring Martin Scorsese‘s epic Kundun in 1997. And, at the end of the decade, John Corigliano, who had previously composed the score for Altered States, even won an Oscar for his score for The Red Violin (1999). And, in a fascinating reversal of fate, during the 1990s the symphonic and chamber works of many of the great film composers such as Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann finally started receiving their due in the concert hall and on recordings.

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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