Film Music Review
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Book Review


A History of Film Music

by Mervyn Cooke

Cambridge University Press,
Softcover, 2008. 562 pages + xxi.

Rating: Excellent


If you can only buy one film music book, make it this one. Mervyn Cook’s overview of the history of film music is a near exhaustive discussion of everything from silent cinema to the present day (and that means up to almost the publication of the text!).

This is perhaps one of the most clear and cogently conceived overviews of music that one is likely to see. Cooke’s book is set out in twelve huge segments each with plenty of information for those who think they know the subject as well as for those looking to begin for the first time.

The opening two chapters address the early cinema and the development of sound, not just music, in the medium. Cook poses important questions here about why music and sound were even necessary and explores the theoretic and philosophical period conversations about how to explore and use this new art form. His exploration moves from Europe to America mostly here and later he will include brief introductions to Asian cinema’s early days before launching into equally interesting analysis.

The following three chapters focus on Hollywood’s “Golden Age” beginning with one chapter devoted to the early development of the studio music system and the antecedents of music that ended up in American film music. The reader of Cooke’s book who has taken a few courses in music history or theory will understand many of the classical music references that are included throughout the text. He does a fine job of explaining things for those wading into this massive topic though as well as his explanation of “leitmotif” and Wagner help create some context for those new to these musical terms and figures. There are many figures that will appear throughout the book, but Cooke chooses wisely from a multitude of composers and directors to explore important points about cinematic music. Steiner, Korngold, Waxman and Newman are discusses in a bit more detail with Rozsa appearing for a section on film noir, Tiomkin and Copland also appear as Cooke explores Westerns and Americana. It is a brief, but pithy thumbnail sketch. “Stage and Screen” is a brief break to tackle an overview of opera on film, an extensive look at the film musical, and a look at scoring for Shakespearean adaptations. The underscore discussion continues than in a chapter that looks at epic dramas, musical modernism in film music of the 1950s and 1960s, Herrmann, and the appearance and use of jazz in film. This entire overview lays plain the appearance of popular music as an underscoring device so well that one can see how it naturally flowed into an incorporation of popular styles later with the rock era (which comes up in a later chapter).

Having explored American film music in particular, Cooke then turns to a fascinating overview of film music in the United Kingdom. He discusses the various composers working in the UK from its early days and traces that development up through the Hammer studios horror music. This done he turns in a following chapter to a discussion of documentary film and its development as well as an overview of animation and television. Here, as elsewhere, one is struck at the fine choices Cooke makes to illustrate his point whether he is discussing a Virgil Thomson score, or why a Scott Bradley animated short score works best.

There is a chapter devoted to film music in France which helps to create an important understanding of the French film aesthetic developing from the early silent era into the New Wave directors. Cooke reserves some of the more recent film music for appearance in later chapters. Here he hits upon an exploration of film music through the way it was employed by specific directors. This same sort of focus will occur in a chapter on Global music that does a very thumbnail sketch of film music from the Soviet Union, India, Italy, and Japan. Each discussion is quite fascinating, with film choices that help illustrate the point Cooke is trying to make. There are times when it is obvious that he recognizes that these films and composers are even less known than those in other segments of the text, yet he so effortlessly walks you through the discussion that one feels they could grab the film and understand it even more.

For those wondering what happened in the 1960s with the increase of popular rock into film music and the results, the chapter “Popular Music in the Cinema” will offer a tremendous amount of information that will help understand how the orchestral score was overcome by the increase of marketing and the synergy of music and film production being housed under one roof. That Cooke is able to see this as a semi return to the way things were at the beginning of the silent era is an important observation worth noting as it reminds the reader that this was a return to making a profit at a time when old ways of a studio-owned theater chain was not possible and when television began relying less on studios for product to air.

A brief chapter on classical music in the cinema helps to provide an overview of how classical music in later films differed from its use in the silent era. This is perhaps the least engaging chapter of the book though the discussion is no less important.

A final chapter picks up in Hollywood underscoring from the 1970s. Fans who came to love film music during this period will likely be a bit disappointed at the speed at which Cooke runs through this material. There is brief conversation about the new symphonic score, intelligently discussed as being more than just Williams’ STAR WARS score in 1977. An overview of the rise of electronics helps set the music that appeared in the 1980s in sharp relief to what happened before. This leads into a discussion of the development of the modern soundtrack album. Cooke finishes up by exploring the films of Scorsese, Tarantino, and Lynch before finishing with a brief look at the global and “glocal” locations where we are at today.

Cooke’s writing is engaging throughout making what might be an otherwise dry subject in places quite fascinating. The text is filled with plenty of references to additional books and articles where he has researched this work. The bibliography alone is just shy of 20 pages of additional material that readers can track down for further learning. Knowing musical periods in the 20 th century is not necessary, but Cooke spends little time defining Les Six, or Impressionism, or twelve-tone writing, expecting his reader to have some basic knowledge of these things.

Cooke is not interested in telling us what the best film scores of all time are, or even where we should start. Instead, he selects from the best cinema has to offer, discusses the music and film within the context and topic he delineates and sticks to analyzing that music and film to illustrate his points. He does this so effortlessly that one is only disappointed to learn that he must move on to a new topic at times.

A History of Film Music is a survey book that does not intend to be exhaustive. In fact, there are even a couple of places where Cooke encourages, or hopes for, further scholarship to take place. But this is a book that every lover of film music should have on their shelves. It is a book not so much to be read but to be savored and enjoyed.

One steps away with a deeper appreciation of the art of film music and perhaps even with a long list of great films to discover. Finally, there are a lot of books on music out there with a tenth the scholarship that charge 4 times what Cambridge is asking for the softcover version of this book!

With no room for subsequent updates or supplements, this may very well be “the” film music book for some time to come.


--Steven A. Kennedy, 30 March 2009

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