Music Makes the Movie

         Music is a key element to any film--so much so that it could make or break the film. The earliest films have seen success (or failure) because of the music a film has. In this essay I will examine two early films, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) and M.C. Cooper & E.B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933), and the important contribution music made to these films.

         Birth of a Nation may have been the very first motion picture made (in which I will give the movie credit for that), but as far as being a good film--I must say that it was not a success. There are many aspects of movie-making that I could attribute this to, but the most crucial would have to be the music. The film lacked the appropriate coordination of character, plot, and emotion with the musical score.

        An important role of music in a film is to identify a character. In Birth of a Nation, the music did not even identify the tone, or mood, of the events going on during the movie. The music, in fact, felt very offbeat with the scenes. In a tense scene, the music was often light and almost playful. Even when the music was close to setting the mood, it still lacked the appropriate level of intensity to engage the audience. Many times, I felt a little confused as to what was going on because the music did not match up with the current scene. At times it almost seemed that the music was out of sync with the film. The end result of such mistakes is that I, and probably most of the audience, could not sink into the movie and become involved or even interested.

         Fortunately, we are a people who learn and improve as time goes by. In just a couple of decades, these musical mistakes were corrected and perfected. I am of course referencing the Cooper and Schoedsack hit, King Kong. This film marked a milestone in music and film. This film was one of the first films to have a musical score created specifically for the movie. Max Steiner's musical score was a landmark in film success.

         The music created for King Kong did everything that it should do. It identified important characters, such as the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), with a music motif specific to her. Giving the main character her own musical motif, the audience could emotionally connect and identify with her as a person. The music also gives the audience a clue as to how we are supposed to feel about the character. In the instance of Ann, we are supposed to think of her as feminine and somewhat brave.

         The music also perfectly set the tone for dramatic scenes. For instance, the music climbed with every step King Kong took up the Empire State Building. Another interesting detail is that the music did not even begin until the characters left New York. By doing this, the music automatically created a sense of mystery and action when the characters came to Kong's island. From that point on, the music contributed as much as any other thematic element.

         King Kong's music also set itself apart from previous films by being an undertone to the film. In Birth of a Nation, the music did not add to the movie as much as it did overshadow the film. I found myself paying more attention to the music rather than to the movie. In contrast, the plot and action in King Kong was complemented and enhanced by the musical score.

         I have come to realize that the music a film has can very well determine how successful a movie will be. King Kong is forever a success, largely due to the part that music played in the film. Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, is only known because it is simply the first motion picture--not because it was well received.

Jennifer Farley

Table of Contents