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Is it possible to have too much music in film?


Why do we use music in films
Walter Murch Film-maker
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We were talking earlier about the funeral scene in [The] Godfather? And, also, the scene in The Rain People, after the love affair between Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight, and both of these scenes had no music, and instead they had a sounds, which was played as a realistic sound, it's something that plausibly is in the environment, and enough of us have heard that sound when we see these huge tractor trailers, we kind of know what that sound is. Even if we don't it has an emotional component to it, that works. But there is an explanation for it within the scene. Another director, and even Francis [Ford Coppola] working on a different film, would have had lots of music in those scenes. This is the funeral of the Godfather! Of course it's going to have music. Or, this is the scene, the tender scene after the love making; of course it will have music. Well, he decided, correctly I think, not to have music.

There's an earlier place where we talked about the scene leading up to the assassination of Sollozzo and McCluskey in The Godfather, which also in another director's hands would have had music, some kind of tension music, and it doesn't, it has a sound effect in it. So it was the approach of those films, and the collaboration between me and Francis, how this all worked out. So the question is: where do we use music? Why do we use music? And it's a contentious area that has close analogies in medicine, even sports medicine, which is to say: when do we use drugs to both heal you, and give you extra performance? And frequently in films we come up with those same problems, a film is damaged somehow, there's a problem somehow because a film that's meant to be emotional is not being read as emotional by an audience. So, hold still for a minute, we inject the steroid, so to speak, of music into that scene, and it suddenly becomes emotional because the effect of music is undisputedly emotional, or it can be emotional. You have to be very careful about it, the music has to be the right kind of music, but it's as reliable as the administering of a certain kind of drug is. Again, you have to be careful with drugs and administer the right amount for the right condition.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Godfather, The Rain People

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017