The magic of movie music

I was fascinated by the liner notes to the first Star Wars soundtrack, in which John Williams explained how he developed musical themes for all the characters, the feisty rebels, and of course the evil Empire. Princess Leia has a memorable theme; so does Indiana Jones in other movies that Williams scored.

There’s a moment in the third Indiana Jones film when he and his lady friend are exploring a sewer and suddenly a familiar theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark emerges from the background music. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing to a drawing on the wall. “The Ark of the Covenant,” says Jones. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure,” Jones says confidently, and because of the music we are, too. It’s a cute Easter egg in a time before Easter eggs had a name.

Probably from the moment I listened to the Star Wars album with Williams’ notes in my lap, I’ve paid attention to the musical scores when I watch movies and often been rewarded. 

Not long after Star Wars came out, we were thrilled to see Star Trek translated to the big screen — at least until the film was released. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a plodding disappointment, and among the wrong moves was the music. 

Jerry Goldsmith composed a rousing Star Wars style theme, but the Trek universe already had an iconic theme composed by Alexander Courage that we heard every week for three years, and the new theme just didn’t feel like Star Trek. They compounded the mistake by sneaking an echo of the original theme into the background about an hour and a half into the movie. I remember the audience cheering the familiar notes, which I don’t think were heard again until the second Trek film.

Fast forward a few years to the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They made what seemed to me to be a strange musical choice: The new TV show adopted the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I didn’t understand why they would do that, although I had to admit it’s a good piece of music. It just never felt like Star Trek.

Imagine my surprise the next time I felt like revisiting the first movie and that theme burst out from the screen. After a few years of watching Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his friends, all of a sudden the theme from the first movie felt very, very much like Star Trek. What had seemed like a weird musical choice had rehabilitated at least one aspect of ST: The Motion Picture.

Those memories came back this week as I watched the third season of Star Trek: Picard, which leans into our fondness for the seven seasons of TNG even more so than the first two seasons. They make liberal use of the Jerry Goldsmith theme to great nostalgic effect.

I suspect this season will fit into Trek lore much like The Undiscovered Country did for the cast of the original series. That sixth movie was a fitting last hurrah for the original cast in the wake of a somewhat disappointing fifth movie. It can be argued that the last two Next Generation movies were not that great. In Star Trek: Picard 3, they gather the gang back together for one great adventure and a more appropriate sendoff. It’s a lot of fun, it’s good to see the old faces again, and as the Jerry Goldsmith anthem bubbles up under the closing credits, there are goosebumps and moistened eyes.

Star Trek: Picard is on the Paramount+ streaming service. They have a 30-day free trial going, and I’m using it to catch up on Picard and the other very good new Trek series, Strange New Worlds featuring Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, who preceded James Kirk as captain of the Enterprise. I’ll have to see if there’s enough other good stuff to start paying for it. 

Book/TV Report: Daisy Jones and the Six

I have been obsessed with Daisy Jones and the Six the last few weeks. First we devoured the Prime Video miniseries four episodes at a time, and then I tracked down a library that had the audiobook on CD because I didn’t want to wait weeks to borrow the .mp3 from the library.

I recently realized I am a sucker for musical biographies. I love learning about what went into making popular music and the personalities who created it — the masterpieces banged out on a cocktail napkin in 10 minutes, the 79 takes in the studio to get a song right. And so I was predisposed to like Daisy Jones and the Six; they didn’t have to make it brilliant. But I’m glad they did.

The story is simple: A band rises to the top and creates the greatest rock album of the 1970s, and one night after a triumphant performance in a Chicago stadium, the band dissolves. In a series of interviews, the former bandmates tell the story in their own words.

Everything revolves around the tumultuous relationship between the two bona fide stars in the band, troubled singer Daisy Jones and troubled singer/guitarist Billy Dunne. Of course they’re both troubled: It’s rock and roll. Thank goodness for Dunne’s devoted and dynamic wife, Camilla.

The TV series is an outstanding celebration of 1970s rock, and the creators even developed a real version of the great album, Aurora, that is almost as good as the story makes it out to be. Supposedly Fleetwood Mac was the inspiration for the story, and there are more than a few callbacks to Mac in the music.

After having so much fun with the series, of course I wanted the source material, and as blown away as I was by the series, I was even more so by the audiobook. The interview format of the book (OMG, have I mentioned author Taylor Jenkins Reid yet? Shame on me!) lends itself to a dramatic reading, and so each character gets its own voice, and what voices they are: Jennifer Beals is Daisy, Pablo Schreiber is Billy, and a cast the likes of Benjamin Bratt and Judy Greer and Fred Berman. 

The songs described in the book are reimagined for the screen, and I agree with their choices for the most part, but I do wish they had preserved the greatest line in the angry song “Regret Me,” when the spurned narrator of the song spits out, “When you think of me, I hope it ruins rock and roll.” In the TV version, that sentiment is expressed as “Go ahead and regret me but I’m beating you to it, dude.” Um, no.

Despite a misfire or two like that, the fictional Aurora is a pretty fine album, the actors (Riley Keough and Sam Claflin on TV) bring the fire and the swagger and the angst, and the story is the stuff of rock legend. Daisy Jones and the Six is one of my favorite TV shows AND audiobooks. I may even end up buying the print book to experience the trifecta.

70 TV series I spent a lot of time watching

When I set out to list 70 TV series that affected me enough to watch hour after hour, in many cases from beginning to end, at first I was skeptical that I could get to 70. But some of my favorite shows ended up between 61 and 70 as I looked back through the list and thought, “OMG, I almost forgot (for example) Bosch.” 

We spend a lot of time in front of the television, we humans. Technology has given us more leisure time than past generations, as well as entertainment at the touch of a button, and so we press that button in hopes of finding — well, in hopes of finding entertainment as fine as these programs.

And we share our lists as a kind of shorthand: Hi. Pleased to meet you. I liked these programs a lot, even adored some of them; if you did, too, maybe we’re compatible enough to build a friendship.

Again, these are in no particular order (except for #1) — I only numbered them to make sure I hit 70.

1. Firefly

2. Judd for the Defense

3. Star Trek

4. Eli Stone

5. Sherlock

6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

7. Star Trek: The Next Generation 

8. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

9. Midsomer Murders

10. Foyle’s War

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I love that movie, but why?

Alien beings visit Earth with an urgent message, but they don’t know how to say the message in a language we would understand, and we can’t understand their language. We must communicate with them before those among us who would destroy what they don’t understand gain the upper hand. The film Arrival is a story about communication and connection and common bonds.

It moved me more than any other film since E.T. The Extraterrestrial 40 years earlier — why, I wonder? A more objective viewer might agree that it’s a fine story and well told, but why did I place it on the shelf of my five favorite films and my favorite among those I have seen since we crossed the imaginary timeline into the 21st century?

What makes one story more moving than the others?

Several answers suggested themselves as I stared down that question. The twist when we realize the nature of “this child” who haunts the doctor’s thoughts. The exploration of how we connect and communicate. I do love a good story about the nature of time. Could it be something as I like Amy Adams — but then, why this Amy Adams movie as opposed to the others? The others in my Big 5 — It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and E.T. — explore alternate realities, the “what might have been.” There is a fine love in George and Mary, Rick and Ilsa, Eliot and E.T., an intriguing love growing in Arrival, and of course Dorothy loves her traveling companions in her innocent way. Love, then, needs to drive the story in some way.

But how did these five films reach so deep into my heart/soul? Timing has something to do with it: I first saw Wonderful Life on a night when I felt nearly as despairing as George Bailey. I first saw Casablanca with a large audience also seeing it for the first time, and the shared burst of emotion at “Round up the usual suspects” is part of why I love the film.

I could decide the “why” isn’t important — just say, “I don’t know why, I just love these stories” — but if I knew the why, if I could dissect the reasons, maybe I could write my own stories that reach into hearts and souls. Or does that sort of clinical examination, analyzing structure and themes and all, reduce the joy and surgically remove the heart of it all?

Maybe I am moved by the stories because they are so real in their alternate-reality way. I know I love Arrival because it genuinely surprised me — that moment when it became suddenly obvious that this was not just a story about communicating with aliens, it’s about the choices we make at the risk of our hearts.

What a miracle that we have these ways to connect and communicate across the generations and across the miles. It becomes a sort of shorthand, not unlike “Love me, love my dog.” Our reaction to these stories tells us about each other. If we love the same books or films or music, that love becomes a starting point. This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The archive

I know for certain now how long a half-century is, for I have lived more than that and remember. I know how long 30 seconds are — long enough to tell you what I have to sell, long enough to trash a reputation. 

I could do the figures and find out how many 30-second intervals there are in the waking hours of 50 years. Is the time wasted if nothing lasting emerges from the effort? We live, we pass the baton, we go our way. Our footprints wash away or are eroded by the wind. 

We leave behind momentos of what struck our fancy in, well, the moment. Why did I keep this, and that, is forgotten even by the keeper, each object someone’s effort to please, or preserve, or build, now here in the museum/archive of a lifetime. Shared moments, memories of ancestors, are all here willy-nilly in this space. 

Pick something up, anything, and examine it. There was a reason to buy and keep this. Remember? It had/has a purpose. Is it junk now? Or is there still untapped value to be recaptured and celebrated? Turn the light back on and rummage — not for sale, but for the sake of rummaging and remembering and finding long-ago smiles and impressions.

Later, others will come and pick over and salvage what delights them. At some point, of course, each of these items delighted me in some way, or at least it whispered, “Take me for now, and examine at your leisure” — and if leisure never came, that was my loss. But I don’t come to regret or chastise myself (although I certainly could — look at these disorganized piles of treasures past!) — I come to find out what I have found and recognize its potential all over again.

Ah, now I feel I’m rambling in no direction, and sometimes I come home with stuff for seemingly no reason — or for a wish — “Someday I will create a radio program and play these tunes and these sounds — these are the building blocks of my sound archive. Someday I will organize displays of these trinkets on shelves. I will show new generations how to play with these old toys. I will admire the workmanship, I will read and revive these long-forgotten words.” I am an archivist with piles of works I need to put in order, to retrieve for my own and others’ enjoyment. Let’s see what I find today when I open a drawer or move a pile or take something off the shelf at random. “Someday” just happened to arrive today.

Addicts to addicts, dust to dust

The formula for making “bingeworthy” TV is very similar to what they used to get kids coming back to the Saturday afternoon serials in the 1930s or ’40s. Back then Commander Cody, or whoever the star was, would be wrestling for control of a small plane, say. The episode would end with the plane crashing into the side of a mountain. Heavens! We must see what happens next!!

Next week, the episode would resume with the struggle on the plane. But this time, before the plane crashed, we would see the hero win his fight, grab a parachute and jump off the plane.

The same concept is at work in modern day stories, perhaps with a little more sophistication. One episode ends with a dramatic reveal or our heroes in jeopardy; we look across the room at our partner and say, “Heavens! Shall we go to the next one and see what happens?” A nod, another episode begins, and the binge is on.

In a recent article called “Are You Not Entertained?” Mark Manson writes about how our dramas, our music and even our politics are being designed to be as addictive as possible, based on what will get the most likes and what will keep you watching, listening or otherwise paying attention.

I have always been attracted to the new and unusual and weird, not the standard fare. Back in eighth grade I went nuts over “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Vibrations” precisely because they didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before.

I don’t know if experimentation in the arts is rewarded anymore, unless it’s an experiment in coaxing people to come back again and again. Where have you gone, Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and the like? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

The saga of Ozark is complete

Red said enough is enough as the closing credits rolled on the series finale of the Netflix show Ozark. It’s a brilliantly crafted drama about a family and organized crime, well acted, with sympathetic characters caught in one of those tangled webs we weave when we practice to deceive.

The final seven episodes landed Friday, and we sailed through them over the weekend. As the final scene faded to black, Red and I looked at each other and said well, that’s that, and let’s not go there again for a while.

There’s something disconcerting about stories where the heroes are crime lords and you find yourself rooting for this character or that to meet a brutal ending and for that character or this to get out of it alive. It makes for the greatest of drama — think The Godfather, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad — but the depravity of it all is exhausting.

 Ozark does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those other three. I would not have written some of the denouement the way the creators did, but they are better at this than I am. The choices they made resulted in a story with a powerful message about the intersection of crime, government, and corporations, specifically Big Pharma.

I’m with Red, though, I think for a while we will seek out entertainment with lower body counts. 

Don’t get me wrong, we loved Ozark, or else we wouldn’t have stuck around for all 44 episodes. We loved the characters — most of them, anyway — and even the most evil of them had a perverse charm.

It’s just that at some point you have to re-focus your mind and heart on “whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8), to kind of cleanse the palate of blood and guts and an inevitable descent into darkness.