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Background Noise: A Quiet Moment in The Last Jedi and the Power of No Score

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The Noise Today: To Score or Not To Score

Recently, some people had issue with Rian Johnson‘s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but not for the reasons you might expect. Seems some theaters are posting warnings about a moment in the film when all goes quiet, the film, for about ten seconds, falling dead silent. I don’t want to spoil what that moment is, but it’s a pretty cool scene and is so primarily because there is no sound. Apparently some people, not so easily willing to embrace the sudden stylistic choice thought there was some technical malfunction with the cinema’s audio. It’s a little hard to believe that people would think this, but I suppose not everyone would catch on to the point Johnson was making. So let’s talk about scores that go silent and why being quiet can be the right choice.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017 © Lucasfilm

SCORE vs SOUNDTRACK: Perhaps it’s best to start with some definitions, one that might be confusing to some. Score and soundtrack are a couple of words you hear bandied about when talking about the music to a movie, however there is a big difference between the two. The score is the music (typically orchestral) heard throughout the movie that is meant to define the mood of a scene. It sets a tone and can create an emotional connection to the action on screen and is composed specifically for the film. A soundtrack, on the other hand, is a collection of songs by various artists that also set tone and compliment a scene but instead of orchestral works are usually contemporary pop tunes that help to establish a time frame or create style. Think of Guardians of the Galaxy, a franchise with a pretty fantastic score but famous for its soundtrack. Forrest Gump is also a popular example.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017 © Marvel

DOG DAYSQuentin Tarantino often makes movies with no score yet heavily populated by very specific soundtracks. In fact, many of his musical choices have become iconic for such, with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction probably the most well known. The music in these movies entirely defined the style, place, and – most importantly – attitude of these stories. And think how these songs, combined with the action, really fit, and even, in some cases, redefine the songs themselves. Can you even listen to Zamphir‘s The Lonely Shepard and not think of Kill Bill? Of course you can’t.

Many movies have gone without a score but still have music. Maybe you’re familiar with the terms ‘diegetic’ and ‘non-diegetic’. Diegetic is when a song is playing within the context of the story, meaning that the characters are aware or can hear the music playing. Think of any bar or club scene where people are talking while a DJ spin tunes. Non-diegetic is everything else, the music playing over the movie that is not heard by the characters, only us. You’re inspired by that swelling musical score while our hero takes to saving the world, but they don’t hear a single note of it. A really great movie without a score or a soundtrack is Sidney Lumet‘s classic 1975 Dog Day Afternoon, a film starring a young Al Pacino. In the movie, Pacino plays a character who, with a partner, attempts to rob a bank, though things quickly fall apart. It’s a modern cinema masterpiece that uses no musical cues to stage tension or mood, relying entirely on the story and personalities to do so. The film does feature diegetic songs though, tunes that are heard on various radios throughout the movie. Music like this can add realism to a film and even sometimes be a subtle hint at the mood. Or not so subtle. Think of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire when he finally tunes his car radio to Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty and starts singing along. That’s diegetic music at its best.

Jerry Maguire, 1996 © TriStar Pictures

NUCLEAR THREAT: For me, one of the best uses of this, where the film has no score or soundtrack but does feature diegetic music is James Bridges‘ 1979 controversial film, The China Syndrome, a thriller about a possible nuclear meltdown at a power plant and the coverup that follows. It stars Jane FondaMichael Douglas and Jack Lemon and is one of the most nerve-wracking movies ever made. Interestingly enough, it was originally scored by composer Michael Small, but was ultimately rejected by the director who wanted to have an entirely realistic approach to the movie. It was a smart choice, given outcome.

READ MORE: A Closer Look at James BridgesThe China Syndrome

The absence of music somehow makes a clear delineation between our accepted ‘fantasy’ of a movie experience and a sort of authenticity that comes without it. Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1948 chiller Rope feels very much like a stage play, the long one-take aspect combined with no music making it almost unnervingly raw and ‘real’. You don’t even miss the fact that there is no score. In fact, that it doesn’t only makes it that much more affecting. The recent Two Days, One Night (2014), from directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and starring Marion Cotillard is a riveting drama where the brothers build tensions through a slow burn of character development, entirely devoid of music, and again, the audience is barely aware of its absence. There are many others.

The China Syndrome, 1979 © Columbia Pictures

Getting back to The Last Jedi, what I like best about Johnson’s choice to cut sound at this crucial moment is how daring it is. Here’s a franchise that revels in its excess and adventure, John Williams‘ treasured score easily one of the greatest musical compositions in cinema or otherwise, and Johnson here builds to an explosive moment that would seem primed for a rousing boom from an orchestra and then strips it away entirely, leaving this ear-ringing vacuum of silence, forcing us to stare in awe at what has happened and the consequences of such with no help from sound. That’s bold. When you watch this movie (again), let these ten seconds work as they should and realize how powerful silence can be in a medium built in opposite. Silence is golden.

What do you think? Thanks for reading and share your thoughts below.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous January 3, 2018
  2. The Vern January 4, 2018

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