DUNKIRK And The Dawn Of The Anti-Score

An experiment that doesn't quite work.

When you reflect upon the history of film music, it’s easy to note the contour of the various trends governing the art form. Film music has evolved over the last century to serve physical, psychological, and technical functions while its aesthetic characteristics dictate the uniqueness of each period.

I’ve often said, “I don’t care what a score sounds like, only how it functions,” and a lot of the writing and lecturing I’ve done over the last twenty years supports this notion. Aesthetics are still important. Like an automobile, it can be the most beautifully designed vehicle you've ever seen, but if it has square wheels, it's not going to be a very good car.

I also like to believe I’m an instant champion of those who march to the beat of their own drum and push the envelope of film music beyond their boundaries. That's what makes it an art form. The "worst" score is a generic score or a "safe" score. One that neither offends nor inspires. It's simply there. Those who dare to push those boundaries should be automatically applauded whether or not they're triumphant; however, it's vitally important to evaluate the success of each experiment.

An inherent problem with pushing an envelope is that you can't ignore the functional objective. Push it too far, and it stops working. Music must function within the film and serve the art of storytelling before it can serve itself. This is paramount.

Film music trends are also cyclical. They branch out from the main trunk but invariably find their way back to the nourishment of their roots. Current trends of modern film music (which have been around since the early 2000s) are overdue to make a return back to these roots in the near future. The envelope of non-functional or single-functional film music has been stretched so far over the last two decades one can only surmise it's snapback is inevitable.

...but the latest signs are signaling otherwise. This could just be the beginning. We could be waking up to the dawn of the anti-score.

We are at the doorstep of a new trend in film music where scores are pushed so far beyond their functional limitations, they cease working as traditionally mandated. Mainstream (even Oscar-nominated) scores like Mica Levi's Jackie (2016) rebuff the physical, psychological, and technical functions of film music by rejecting the status quo and establishing a brazen counter-culture that satisfies a craving to be different.

This isn't a negative pronouncement but it can have negative side effects.

Even when film music is at its most daring and experimental, it historically has remained faithful to the functional relationship between music and film to help tell the stories tasked to them. For example, Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes (1968) is as daring a film score as I think has ever been written. Aurally aggressive and tonally challenging, it pushes every aesthetic boundary known to cinematic music, yet still manages to complete a Herculean list of tasks related to the narrative. It's cleverly spotted, subtle yet brash, and is unlike anything heard in cinema before or since, yet it functions by every traditional standard set forth by almost a century of music in film.

Composer and teacher Alain Mayrand once tweeted "You don't score the man running, you score WHY he runs! Know the story!" This is film music gospel. Jerry Goldsmith would frequently espouse this idea. He never wanted to score what was already shown on screen. It's already there! He wanted to compose music that tapped into all the reasons, emotions, and hidden narratives buried inside what we were seeing. He understood that that was the unique power music had over all other cinematic ingredients. Goldsmith frequently voiced his frustration over directors who wanted him to simply score what everybody was already seeing.

That's how I've come to define modern film music. We're mired in a period utilizing a "what you see is what you get" approach. If you see somebody running, you score them running. If you see somebody fighting, you score them fighting. If you see somebody trying to sneak aboard a rescue ship, you score somebody trying to sneak aboard a rescue ship. But what are their motivations, fears, insights, reasons, struggles, etc. What is there that music can express that we aren't getting from the visuals alone? Music can expose these elements layer by layer.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017), scored by Hans Zimmer (and others), is a few pages into the first chapter of the "Hipster's Guide To Film Scoring." It's a rejection of every lesson film music has ever taught us over many decades of its existence. It's an effort to scoff tradition and be different. But does it ultimately work? Slices of it function extremely well, but there are a myriad of faults that ultimately sink its efforts.

This isn't the first film score to utilize sound-design. There are plenty of those in existence and some are masterpieces. Sculpting sound brandishes a cold, raw approach to scoring movies. We all have emotional connections to music, but we don't have the same type of connection when we hear environmental sounds. Knowing when and why this happens helps deploy it appropriately.

Harnessing the environmental sound of war to create tension, as Zimmer does in his score for Dunkirk, is a provocative idea on paper; however, it fails as applied here. First of all, the music never lets up. While this thought might be apropos to drive home the relentlessness of war, in all practicality, it doesn't always work. The problem with music is that it loses power over time. Musical ideas have a life-span. They're born, they live, and they will die. Part of the skill of any composer is to keep alive those ideas as long as necessary through skilled compositional development. Music is extremely powerful when prescribed in doses, yet becomes stale and ineffective when left static or underdeveloped. The less an idea is developed, the shorter the life-span. When musical ideas die on screen, they become an immediate nuisance.

This isn't an amusement park ride (or is it?). It's a movie. There's never a moment where the ear is allowed to reset itself or cleanse the aural palate. Eventually it gets tuned out, or worse, you're wishing you had a "mute" button to rid yourself of it entirely so you can follow along with the narrative. There are large parts of the film I'm confident I would've enjoyed more, had it simply not been scored at all. By having music in the film, pretty much all the time, it loses its power when you really need it most.

While I'm sure tension is a prevailing emotional ingredient in any war picture (or real life war situation), it's not an exclusive element. There are layers upon layers upon layers of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that those who experience such events go through that movies and books have spent thousands of hours and pages exploring. Many of these simultaneous emotions are paradoxes of one another: fear and courage, pride and shame, empathy and hostility. This is what makes the war picture so psychologically interesting. This is what is lacking in Dunkirk.

I feel the score for Dunkirk is a one-trick pony operating on the singular idea that war is intense. It's functional; however, the score is pushed so far in that direction that it devolves into a single-function mission while blatantly ignoring all the other needs and requirements the film is begging from its music. Surely there's more to the Dunkirk story than what the music is supporting in the visuals?

As Goldsmith pontificated, cinema can offer so much more to its audience than what we're generally seeing on screen. That's the very nature of beautiful cinema and the essence of the art of film scoring. Watching soldiers trying to escape from a hostile beach is tense. I can see that and the actions on screen support this. Since that's mostly what the music is perpetuating, I can feel that too, but due to its ubiquitousness, that feeling is fleeting. I wasn't there at Dunkirk in 1940 so I don't know what thoughts, feelings, or emotions race through each individual's mind when faced with such insurmountable odds of survival. I count on cinema to give me an imaginative spark so I can at least pretend to get a glimpse of an idea. It's happened thousands of times in my cinema-watching life. It didn't happen with Dunkirk.

I wanted so badly to connect with this film on an emotional level. I'm such a pushover for WWII films that it shouldn't have been difficult. There were ample opportunities, but I got the impression decisions were made which prevented any opportunity for an emotional connection. It prohibited the conversion process from observational into experiential and left the film an exercise in pure observance. I don't know about you, but I don't go to movies to observe them. I go to experience their stories. I want to see, hear, think, feel, all the feelings the characters are going through on screen. Just watching them go through that isn't enough. Hearing the sound-design based score isn't enough. Although it's a cool physical ingredient, I don't have an emotional connection to a ticking clock. Something else has to be present to establish an emotional connection to the material. I was left behind on that beach to simply observe the events in Dunkirk and felt robbed I never truly got to experience them for myself.

Having not previously known much about the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, I'm kinda shocked I really don't know that much more now that I've seen the film. I think WWII films like Patton (1970), The Longest Day (1962), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Book (2006), and They Were Expendable (1945) are ultimately more successful movies because you aren't abandoned to simply observe those movies, but rather send you on a visceral experience where you learn something along away.

Another lesson film music has taught us over the last century is that its most egregious sin is to obfuscate dialogue. If music becomes a hurdle in understanding dialogue it instantly becomes a liability. I struggled to hear the dialogue simply because the music was in the way. I understand I'm not the only one as this is becoming a common complaint amongst many who have seen the film (and several of Nolan's previous films). But I also recognize that a sizable chunk of audience had no trouble jumping over the music to get to the dialogue (or had trouble but just didn't care). Either way, the fact that this is even a recognizable thing makes the music a liability. Why even write dialogue or have characters say anything if it's not important whether the audience hears them or not? This was a massive source of frustration.

It's difficult for me to bring this point to light, because I'm so accustomed to critiquing films for having scores mixed too softly rather than too hot. Nevertheless, it's a rare situation where the music sits way too high in the mix to the detriment of the film.

The score did have some nice moments. The finale of the film was probably its hallmark; however, I was so disinvested by then, that it was pretty much "too little, too late." I didn't completely dislike Dunkirk or its score. While I applaud its brazen efforts, I also have to acknowledge that they mostly don't work. It's still better than most of the boring drivel we're fed in theaters these days. Taking a chance will always beat out boring whether it succeeds or fails. Hopefully this film will inspire others to be just as daring (if not more) and prove that there's something admirable about "throwing the textbook away" to make the movie you want to make. Maybe filmmakers will learn from the mistakes of Dunkirk and improve upon what this film and its score was trying to achieve. I can imagine the results and they are remarkable.