The term “peak tv” gets tossed around a lot to describe just how amazing television is at the moment. Over the past few years we’ve so many terrific shows that it’s hard to keep up. With more and more shows going into production and Netflix and Hulu jumping in and producing their own shows, many of us will be glued to those tv and laptop screens for awhile. From Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Americans to Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, and Fargo, the medium of television has never been so compelling. And in this oversaturated market of binge-worthy entertainment one area that’s consistently overlooked is…
Whether we’re talking composing a score or building the soundtrack, music can make or break a movie. Take Halloween by John Carpenter. The first cut of the movie, prior to the score being added, was so reviled by the producers that the film nearly didn’t see its release. But after the iconic piano riff was added, the scenes that needed to fright became downright terrifying, injecting the horror flick with a palpable tension that kept many a feathered-hair-touting-teenager up at night.
Today, the Game of Throne’s opening theme is as just about as iconic as composer John Williams’ Star Wars anthem. The dom-dom-ta-ta-da-ta-da that’s permanently hardwired into our brains is getting cozy with the GoT theme which lilts from major to minor chords and back again, making us feel that strident pull between dark and light. Now just imagine what Star Wars would have been like without Williams’ anthem? Since the film came out in 1978, it’s not unreasonable to assume that it could have been a disco-filled soundtrack. What would Star Wars be today if Lucas had made the choice to add the suave, polyester appeal of the Bee Gees to the sci fi flick he had just wrapped (and was certain would bomb at the box office).
Now, let’s jump over to Twin Peaks for a moment. The original show’s opening theme song is as emblematic of David Lynch’s unnerving depiction of small town life as anything else but in the wildly idiosyncratic show. Composer Angelo Badalamenti was responsible for the voluminous, atmospheric music the first time around, and he’s done it again this time as well. Some would say that Badalamenti’s score is the DNA of the tv show. The music in the new Twin Peaks is just as creepy, just as eerie, and just as essential when it comes to making the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. On his second time around with the work Badalamenti takes ideas he was dealing with back in the 90s and pushes them further. He incorporates whirs, thumping sounds, and booms into a darker, more somber soundscape than its predecessor. His absolute commitment to the story as manifested in soundscape is singular in it’s achievement and is something sound and music buffs will be talking about (and imitating) for years.
Although we’ve been talking composers up until this point, a unique soundtrack doesn’t need to be created from whole cloth. Look at the television show Fargo. The show that was considered a terrible idea by many. Afterall, why retell or reconceive of a movie that’s still pretty fresh in many people’s memories and is widely regarded as a great piece of cinema. Why retell that story? And, how does one make it something people are going to want to watch again? The music has lots to do with it. Season 2 of Fargo jumps around a lot. The music circa 1979 that plays throughout the season transports us to that time and place; even if we weren’t born yet, we feel it, we get it. Add John Russo’s often haunting original score and we’re talking super engrossing stuff.
The next time you find yourself captivated, spellbound, or on edge while you’re bingeing that new favorite tv show, tune in to the sounds you’re hearing, the music that’s there, adding to the emotion, the energy, and the mood of the scene. Appreciate the work of these talented behind the scenes composers who keep us wanting more, more, more.