I saw The Descendants a couple of weeks ago. It’s an excellent film, and much has been made about the fact that it uses no score. Instead, the soundtrack employs music by Hawaiian artists, much of it featuring existing recordings by some of the greats of Hawaiian slack-key guitar. This is entirely appropriate given the film’s subject and locale, and this strategy has been praised by Hawaiian musicians tired of Hollywood’s overuse of surf music and hula dancing to portray the islands. The music is beautiful and quite effective in the film, but I couldn’t help but notice a few of the disadvantages of creating a soundtrack using only songs.
Almost every song in The Descendants ends by resolving comfortably to the home chord (the “I chord” in musician-speak). While this is exactly what a song should do, it doesn’t always work for a film cue. Film music is often more successful when it remains unresolved and leaves the viewer up in the air, subconsciously wanting the film to continue so they can hear more of the story. It’s a subtle trick that film composers play, but it’s quite effective. When a cue resolves to the I chord, it gives the impression, however faintly, that the story is over and there’s nothing left to see. Obviously, this isn’t something you want viewers thinking in the middle of your film!
To make my point more clearly, here are a couple of examples I wrote of the two types of endings. First, one that resolves:
Notice how it comes to rest nicely on the home chord. Now here’s one that’s left hanging:
Notice how the second example ends on a question mark. The music feels incomplete and makes you want more, which is precisely the feeling film viewers should have in the middle of a film. Most songs don’t end this way. It is possible in some cases to edit an existing song so it ends on an unresolved note, but it doesn’t always work or work well.
Another trait often missing when you use a song instead of a composed cue is music that evolve with the scene, moving from one emotion to the next alongside the actors. Songs tend to revolve around one singular emotion. They often capture that one feeling extremely well, but in a complex, nuanced film scene the music often needs to follow the drama more closely. An example might be a love scene where the heroine and the audience slowly realize that the other party doesn’t feel the way he claims to and is in fact using the heroine for his own devious reasons. A composed cue would move gracefully from romance to betrayal and mirror exactly what the character and the audience are experiencing. It would be difficult or impossible to find a song that could parallel the drama so precisely. Here’s another example, from a film I scored called Bobby Ellis Is Gonna Kick Your Ass. (Warning, the clip contains harsh language):
As you can see, the hero traverses a wide range of emotions during this short scene: uncertainty, apprehension, shock, doom, and finally, resignation. It would be next to impossible to find a song that paralleled these emotions so precisely.
Of course, none of this means you shouldn’t use songs in a film. Quite the contrary. Sometimes they’re just the thing. I composed one cue for a short film recently where the entire rest of the soundtrack consisted of songs by the band Mr. Gnome. In the context of the film they worked extremely well and the soundtrack was a perfect fit.
Nor does it mean I disliked The Descendants soundtrack. I thought it was quite good, my quibbles above notwithstanding. I do wish some of the songs had been edited so they didn’t always resolve to the I chord, and I felt a few of the songs were too static for the scenes they accompanied. But overall, I applaud the use of Hawaiian slack-key guitar music and thought it was an excellent choice for the soundtrack. If anything, I wish the music department had edited the songs a bit more heavily to avoid the above two issues.