Film Music

7 Beautiful Movie Music Moments

Sometimes we as moviegoers have to let movies affect us in ways we cannot explain or control. One of those ways is through music. Whether it is an epic orchestral theme or a lone piano suite, music in the movies can make the difference in how I respond to the story. Listening to a CD of movie themes got me thinking about my favorite movie moments that were made better because of their music. There are many such moments, but here are a few that stand out.

Cast Away: Saying farewell to Wilson

When Chuck (Tom Hanks) finally leaves the island four years after crash-landing there, he is mistakenly separated from his beloved anthropomorphized volleyball but can’t retrieve him.  There is no music for the entire film until that time, about 50 minutes in. So when the soft strings finally come in, we feel the catharsis the same as Chuck as he paddles away. The theme itself, by Forrest Gump and Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri, is so tender and affecting.

WALL-E: Eva and WALL-E’s space dance

I’m glad Pixar has basically locked down Thomas Newman for their film scores, because every one he does its magical, including The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, and Finding Nemo. In a film full of cute moments between the robotic protagonists, the impromptu, extinguisher-propelled ballet may be the cutest.

Lord of the Rings: The whole trilogy

I’d argue the LOTR score is the most necessary and perfect ever. Howard Shore’s compositions are practically supporting characters in themselves. There are many stand-out moments in that trilogy for me, but there are two that would not have worked without a musical backing:

The first is in Fellowship of the Ring after Gandalf falls into the Mines of Moria as the fellowship looks on helplessly. It is a shocking and grievous moment, but the lone mournful soprano voice over the somber choir does not overwhelm it. It allows us to rest on the sadness if just for a moment.

The second is in Return of the King in one of the many endings, after Aragorn becomes the new king and the four hobbits bow to him. He stops them and says, in recognition of their sacrifices, that they bow to no one. Then the whole crowd bows down to them and the main theme of the trilogy swells one last time, representing the grandest end of an epic adventure.

Once: The breakup song

Once has quickly become my favorite film “musical” more so than real musicals because the music interweaves with the story so seamlessly without the awkward transitions between dialogue and song. In a movie with so many good moments, I still have to choose the scene when the Guy plays the song “Lies” while watching home video of him and his ex-girlfriend. He is still heartbroken, and the song backs him up in that.

Video unavailable, but here’s the audio:

The Truman Show: The end

The piano-heavy score by Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz mixes classical standards with original compositions, adding whimsy and sophistication to Peter Weir’s allegorical tale. The best moment, though, comes at the end when Truman finally hits the wall, literally and metaphorically. It is a culmination of everything Truman has been through and we as the viewers wait in anticipation for how he handles the moment. It’s as good an ending as I’ve ever seen in any movie.

Remember the Titans: The final game

The music throughout the movie builds little by little, but it isn’t until the final game when the orchestra is at full-blast. Trevor Rabin’s score builds with the tension of the final game, but the moment I always remember is when Coaches Boone and Yost exchange congratulations at the end of the game and hold up the ball together. It is a triumphant moment for the team and for the music.

Film Review

Stranger Than Fiction

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on January 18, 2009, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

An artist may not set out to create something that changes the world, but he just might do it by mistake. Marc Forster’s 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction is a movie about fate—or “the continuity of life and the inevitability of death” as one of its character puts it—and also the consequences of breaking continuity and challenging inevitability. Stranger Than Fiction subversively wrestles with these complicated ideas while maintaining the guise of a quirky Will Ferrell vehicle. That’s why I think it’s a modern classic.

There are really two stories going on in this movie that are hugely dependent upon each other. The core story is about author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writing another in a series of acclaimed tragedies, but due to writer’s block she can’t figure out how to kill her main character, Harold Crick.

She has most of the story down though: Harold (Will Ferrell) is an IRS auditor living a painfully rigid and boring life. Everything in Harold’s world is simple, angular, and calculated. He can quickly compute complicated math problems in his head and count everything from the number of strokes he makes while brushing his teeth to the exact distance he is from his apartment. He has one friend that we know of, Dave, and his life is probably just as uninteresting as Harold’s. He follows this path with steadfast discipline until he meets Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a beautiful bakery owner with a revolutionary’s bent, some unpaid back taxes, and a healthy scorn for the IRS and for Harold.

This is where a glitch in the universe adds a second dimension to the story: Once he meets Anna, Harold begins to hear Eiffel’s omniscient voice narrating his thoughts and actions as she writes them in her novel. First he is confused, then annoyed, and then scared after she says Harold awaits his “imminent death.” These two stories collide in Harold’s world, jarring him out of whack for the first time.

He tries to make sense of the voice in his head, visiting first a psychiatrist who brands him a schizophrenic, then a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) who decides that Harold is in fact a character in his own life story, and that he needs to figure out whether he is in a tragedy or a comedy. “In a tragedy, you die,” the professor says. “In a comedy, you get hitched.” Harold then sets off to discover this much, tallying in a notebook moments with Anna that constitute a “tragedy” or a “comedy.”

From there it’s an unlikely courtship where the auditor falls for the audited. The story is not meant to be realistic; rather, it is a fable set in a heightened reality. Filmed in Chicago, the director created that reality by discovering angles and perceptions a skilled photographer would see, rather than a tourist hitting the hot spots. The IRS office, Harold’s apartment, and even the streets themselves are white-washed, sterile, and modern.

Harold’s world is plain and starkly angular, whereas Anna’s is full of curves and colors. Harold gradually starts to stray from his straight and narrow path and finds liberation—this aided by his continuing quest to discover the source of the voice in his head and why he is on a path towards his death.

The screenwriter Zach Helm says the film is ultimately about saving lives. A bold statement, to be sure, but it’s nonetheless true. The story illustrates the need for saving people from the cold grip of uniformity by giving them something to live for. After their first very unpleasant encounter, Harold falls for Anna and she unintentionally saves his life by finally giving him something to live for. Inspired by his new emancipation, he goes to the movies, he buys a guitar, and he wears jeans for probably the first time in his life. He adds color to his life.

However, the angst created by Eiffel’s incessant voice in his head never really goes away, even after his liberation, and so his quest for understanding and peace continues until he discovers Eiffel and meets her face to face. It’s quite the moment.

Watching this movie again reminded me of two other modern classics: Adaptation and The Truman Show. Both are stories set in a heightened reality, with men who are stuck in a groove and have the desire to get out of it but can’t. In the case of Adaptation, it is Nicolas Cage’s character’s self-loathing that prevents his personal liberation; in The Truman Show it is Truman’s own fears of the unknown and also the powerful external forces around him that try to keep him in the status quo.

I realized having watched it many times that Stranger Than Fiction is my favorite kind of movie. It’s funny, it’s touching, but it also makes you think. It’s uplifting and philosophical, artistic and quick-witted. The cast is oddly perfect: Will Ferrell plays Harold with beautiful restraint, and Maggie Gyllenhaal provides power and tenderness when needed. Marc Forster, the director, injects the same unique flair he did in his wonderful 2004 picture Finding Neverland.

It didn’t appear on many top 10 lists in 2006 (though I did name it as one of my favorite films of the 2000s), but I think Stranger Than Fiction will age well because of its timelessness and emotional appeal — that is, if Will Ferrell would stop phoning in such mindless ballyhoo like Semi-Pro. One can only hope.