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Image & Sound: Music In The Films Of Terrence Malick

posted Aug 18, 2011, 8:05 PM by Kaya Savas

Terrence Malick is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of the medium. He is not a technically impressive director nor is he the best at narrative storytelling. However, his films somehow manage to be incredibly complex through pure simplicity. Images speak louder than words. His films rely on voiceover for the most part as dialogue between characters is scarce. Cinematography becomes extremely important as well as it communicates complex themes about humanity across all his films. His films while shot in untraditional ways come together in the editing room over periods of years. In the end his films connect with me more so than any other director. The way he paints a story and emotions is the same way I do, and when you boil down the source of all inspiration in a Terrence Malick film it’s clear what it is. It’s music.

Music belongs with image, and Malick’s films serve the best example of music and its function in film. This traces back to his directorial debut with Badlands. A story that was by no means original. In fact one could look at it as a pretentious rip-off of Bonnie & Clyde at the end of the American New Wave movement. When you dig deeper into Badlands you will discover that it’s not pretentious nor is it a rip-off. The film opens to the music of Carl Orff; a piece whose full title is too long to type out. It’s an incredibly famous piece of music that somehow captured the young spirit of youth perfectly. Malick used this piece as the central motif for the film and that’s all the characters needed. It was energetic, wild, free and unconventional. Hans Zimmer would later on homage Orff in his score to Tony Scott’s True Romance which is a borderline remake of Badlands. Clearly Malick’s ideas and story derived from this piece of music. Otherwise he would have used an original composer if the music wasn’t the immediate source of inspiration. Trust me, I know what it’s like to write something to a piece of music and feel that music become part of your story and your characters. No matter what you think of Badlands it is impossible to deny that without Orff the film and its themes would be completely distant from the viewer.

A few years later Malick’s second film debuted after a very long post production period. Days Of Heaven was released and featured an original score by the great Ennio Morricone. Similar to Badlands though Malick opted for a famous piece, this time by Camille Saint-Saëns to open the film. The rest that follows is what I consider to be one of the greatest film scores ever composed. Days Of Heaven is a morality play and is about how human emotions can consume our ability to make rational decisions. Malick shot the film in a very dreamlike fashion so the score had to reflect that.

Morricone is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all-time so it’s very rare that anyone would disagree with his approach. However, with the way Malick works he is not necessarily the composer’s friend. It’s hard to say what kind of person Terrence is since he is never exposed in the public eye. Through interviews and stories as well as his films one can assume him to be a quiet, emotional and very structured human being. With that being said he likes to have his hands in every aspect of the filmmaking process. For Days Of Heaven Morricone gave Malick the rare permission to move his compositions around except for one, which was the fire scene. So, Malick did indeed move all of Morricone’s compositions around. This is information I wasn’t aware of when I first saw Days Of Heaven and the film brought me to tears on multiple occasions. It’s haunting, beautiful and in the end strikes you heavy. I credit all the emotions I felt to Morricone’s music, but you also have to credit Malick for knowing exactly how the music needed to function within the story and the image. The cinematography of the film is beyond words when the music is applied. The narration by Linda, the central character weaves in and out with the music superbly as it crafts pockets of thought through the dialogue. The end result is one of the best films ever made.

After Days Of Heaven there was a long period of time before Malick would make another film. After a 20-year break Malick returned with The Thin Red Line, which was adapted from the novel by James Jones. I consider the film to be in the top 3 films ever made and every time I watch it it’s as if I’m seeing it for the first time. My favorite composer is Hans Zimmer and he scored the film. I find it hard to come up with a better example of how music and image work together. Out of all the films Malick has done I really do believe it was Zimmer’s score that made the most impact, and I really think Hans fought hard to make sure his music stayed in the picture where it was meant to be. Based off of Zimmer’s interviews I’m sure there was lots of arguing and fighting, but it clearly led to creative discoveries through the editing and the music. The “Journey To The Line” sequence remains to this day my favorite example of score in film.

The film is dark and the music is not exactly optimistic. This film is not so much about the horrors of war as it is about the horrors of humanity. A traditional Melanesian choir performed some songs in the film and Zimmer took one called “God U Tekem Blong” and provided underscore to it. This became the end credits piece that became the shining light from the darkness. The power of it when juxtaposed to the rest of the score and where it takes the audience is staggering. The characters in the film deal with a lot of troubling issues including love, death, pride, guilt and many other human experiences. The music, while somber, has a lullaby quality to it that allows the audience to fall into a hypnotic trance. When the score plays under the images of rolling grass or a man crying in the rain it can sometimes be overwhelming.

Zimmer’s score to The Thin Red Line is the best thing he has done so far and as I listen to it now while typing this I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve used this music as a writing inspiration; not for essays like this but for screenplays. It’s some of the most image evoking music I’ve ever heard and as a human being I connect with it so much on many levels. While Malick did use a few other classical pieces meshed into the score I do think it speaks volumes that 90% of the musical soundscape was Zimmer.

For Malick’s next film he decided to explore love as it exists in its purest form. The New World was indeed a love story done in pure Malick fashion. The film is made up mostly of narration as he usually does, but it was a bit more this time around. Malick decided to

work with James Horner who knows how to create rich romantic scores. However, whatever worked between Zimmer and Malick didn’t really work this time around. Malick opted to use lots of Wagner and other great classical composers in the final cut of the film thus rejecting most of Horner’s score. Listening to the soundtrack album becomes a surreal experience because almost none of it is in the final film. So, does Malick pulling a Kubrick work here? Absolutely. I can’t argue with Malick when the end result is something so stunning as the opening and closing of the film. Malick uses the piece “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold and when you hear it in the film it truly fills your entire body. I get chills every time I see the ending to The New World and tears do come flowing. The momentous growing sound of Wagner’s piece grows and grows as Malick cuts one breathtaking image after another to it. The music flows like water which connects back with the theme of love in the film. Malick uses many shots of water too in order to hammer that theme in with this music being the anchoring point. Now, I don’t want to take any credit away from James Horner whose string based score carries much of romanticism of the film. The warmth of his music when played with narration and stirring images of John Smith and Pocahontas can be quite arresting. The end result for The New World is that it relies on music almost as heavily as The Thin Red Line did, but Malick did take more liberties here with his creative freedom. While I doubt James Horner and him will ever talk again one can’t deny the magic of the musical soundscape of this brilliant film.

Now, we come to Malick’s most recent film. The Tree Of Life was a huge event for me because being relatively young this was only my second Terrance Malick film seen in a theatre. The New World was my first Malick experience in a theatre, and I saw The Thin Red Line on video when I was way too young to understand it. So, the fact that I got to see The Tree Of Life at the Arclight in Hollywood was a big deal for me. I was excited when I was sent Alexandre Desplat’s score to review as well. I experienced  the score before I saw the film knowing very well that most of it probably wouldn’t end up in the final cut. The score itself as an album experience is phenomenal. Desplat’s motifs are haunting and surreal because they have such a mothering and nurturing quality to them. The score is beautiful, but alas not much ended up being used. The Tree Of Life is as far from traditional narrative that Malick has gone. A large portion of the film becomes a tone poem of sorts and is edited to lots of classical composers that clearly influenced Malick. Desplat’s score became an accent to the heavy source music, but it worked. The musical structure had a profound effect on me even if barely 20 minutes of Desplat’s score survived the final cut.

The Tree Of Life is about adolescence, growing up in the shadow of your father, the sweet smell of grass in the summer, family and how your home can become a prison of sorts. It’s more or less about life, but I’m being very general when I say that. Then again the film becomes pretty general about life as it takes the audience to the beginning of time and into a state of limbo in the afterlife. Now, if you haven’t seen the film you may be very confused but rest assured that Malick’s musical way of filmmaking lets it flow like water.

In the overall scheme of things that’s what the role of music is. It’s meant to make the story flow. It encompasses the story, characters, production design, cinematography, costumes, makeup and everything else to create one smooth layer. It sews a quilt out of all the other areas of the film to tell a story. It gently takes our hand and whispers in our ear what isn’t being said on the screen. At times it will shout and at times it may startle you. It may make you laugh. It will often make you cry by showing you the beauty in your very own existence. It wants to connect with you, but it won’t always succeed. When it does succeed it becomes something magical; something that words cannot describe. It’s that little chill on your neck that slowly rises up into your head and makes your eyes water. It takes over you. It connects us to the characters on the screen and through that exposes our own beauties and faults. It tells us a story. It reminds us all that we are human. 

Music is the quintessential part of filmmaking. It has been part of storytelling since the beginning of film before movies had sound. If a filmmaker embraces this and understands this then he/she can make amazing films. The ones that don’t embrace a score’s true potential are forgotten and passed down the line. Terrence Malick understands how music works with images. He is a musical filmmaker like no other. His films continue to challenge my ways of thinking and reveal parts of me I never knew about. They are so unique and so special that they age like fine wine. The emotions in his films are so organic and so true. Malick is like no other filmmaker, and while he may be difficult for composer’s to work with I say trust him. He knows what he’s doing.