Lights! Camera! Music!
Movie Music


From the earliest days of motion pictures, music has played a crucial role in setting the mood for movies. Just take a look at the clip (above) of the final moments of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times.”

It’s hard to imagine that scene without the song “Smile.”

Today we’re exploring the soundtracks of some of our favorite films, with a special nod to films set in Louisiana. And we’re pleased to welcome three wonderful guests to help us with our exploration. And what’s great is that they have three very distinct points of view when it comes to the music that we hear at the movies.

Bob Mondello, Benh Zeitlin, and Terence Blanchard.
Bob Mondello, Benh Zeitlin, and Terence Blanchard.
Bob Mondello estimates that he sees 250 films each year. And as a film and theater critic at NPR he’s probably helped you decide what picture to see on any given weekend. His critiques are writerly and smart and we’re delighted to have him on today’s show.

Benh Zeitlin directed “Beasts of the Southern Wild” which received the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes, the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at Sundance, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Deauville American Film Festival, all in 2012. Not bad for a first feature film! He is a co-founder of Court 13.

Terence Blanchard returns to Music Inside Out to focus on his work on film scores. We were delighted to have the jazz trumpeter and composer on the show just a few weeks ago, and we realized there was plenty more to talk about in regard to the movies he’s worked on.




The battle of Agincourt
The battle of Agincourt
The story of King Henry V’s decisive victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 is, quite literally, the stuff of legend in England: an out-numbered, out-manuvered and out-rested army wins the day, perhaps in no small measure due to a rousing speech the King delivers to his troops — his band of brothers, in Shakespeare’s words — moments before battle.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

   —Wm. Shakespeare, Henry V (4.III.)
This is the raw material for tapestries and folk songs and by early in the 15th century there was already a catchy tune stirring the British with its tale of divine favor and English bravery on the fields of Agincourt.
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!
[England, give thanks to God for victory!]

Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyvalry
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherefore Englonde may call and cry.

Agincourt Carol/D.Skinner
Given the place Agincourt has had in Britain’s national psyche for the past 600 years, perhaps it should come as no surprise that William Shakespeare’s own masterful treatment of Henry V (1599) has been adapted for the screen several times by British filmmakers.

In 1944, Laurence Olivier directed and starred in a production that served as a morale booster for the British, already many years into World War II. The film score was composed by William Walton.

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh once again adapted the Shakespearean play in his directorial debut and received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.

Here, side by side, are the “Saint Crispin’s Day speech” scenes from those two films.



Marlon Brando's Stanely
Marlon Brando’s Stanely
A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1951 film adaptation by Elia Kazan of Tennessee Williams‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, has a celebrated symphonic jazz score by Alex North.

“The experience was unusual for me,” North recalled. “Writing for theater, I wasn’t accustomed to scoring for large orchestras. I remember writing for eight instruments and Ray Heindorf pointed out that we had forty-five musicians under contract, and we should take advantage of them.” (Howard Lucraft, “Alex North: Hollywood Film Composer,” Jazz Professional March, 2006.)

The wardrobe test for the scene pictured above.
The wardrobe test for the scene pictured above.

All the characters of Streetcar are caught up with their own desires. And North’s score makes that perfectly clear.
The Four Deuces

“Marlon Brando walked on that screen and seduced everybody,” says Bob Mondello. “It wasn’t just Blanche.”

“This was his first big picture. It was the first time we’d seen him. And he comes in and takes off his shirt. Everybody was reacting to him as a gorgeous animal up there on the screen.”




Benh Zeitlin’s film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” captivated audiences and critics alike. Zeitlin took home a number of the film industry’s top prizes with his debut feature-length work. He collaborated with composer Dan Romer in telling the story of a young girl from the bayous of Louisiana and her family.

The fireworks scene from "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
The fireworks scene from “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
And music plays a key — but measured — role in that storytelling.

“To me, it’s always about redundancy,” Zeitlin tells Gwen. “The places you notice the music is when the music is telling you the same thing that the script is telling you, that the visuals are telling you — and everything is telling you the same thing. It’s like listening to someone repeat themselves.”

In the scene where Hushpuppy is running with fireworks, the score communicates to the audience that everything is alright.

According to Zeitlin, “the score is not telling you what’s happening. It’s telling you what Hushpuppy thinks is happening.”

“One of the things that took us a long time to figure out is that the music is really broadcasting from Hushpuppy’s head.”


Director George Lucas and Terence Blanchard working on the film "Red Tails."
Director George Lucas and Terence Blanchard working on the film “Red Tails.”
The list of films Terence Blanchard has scored is impressive: Red Tails, Bunraku, Cadillac Records, Inside Man, Barbershop, Eve’s Bayou, Clockers, Crooklyn, Malcom X, and Jungle Fever just begin to scratch the surface.

He tells Gwen that what he first tries to do is to watch the whole film “…and then say ‘what does the film need? What is the film calling for?”

“And then you go back and spot the film, and go through it scene by scene.”

“We have to write like an actor acts. Because the actors shoot out of sequence, so they always talk about an arc — where are they in the arc of the story. And when I’m writing I have to think the same way. Because, musically, you get excited about something — and you go ‘OK, but that’s not where the energy is in a scene in the film right now. Save that for something later.'”





During our conversation with NPR’ Bob Mondello, we talked at some length about the 1958 film “King Creole.” 

Bob made a terrific observation about the opening scene of that film and how it echoes the way that audiences were introduced to the residents of Catfish Row in the 1935 opera “Porgy & Bess” and in the 1959 film adaptation, directed by Otto Preminger.


WEB EXTRA King Creole




Much of the music you hear in this episode of Music Inside Out is available for you to stream to your computer or mobile device. And we’ve put together a complete playlist that you can print and take with you on your next trip to the music store. Enjoy the music!





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click to enlarge
The image on the home page illustrates an optical soundtrack on a motion picture print.


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