Funk’s Top 10: Leitmotifs

Some of you are no doubt looking at that heading and wondering what a ‘leitmotif’ is, possibly wondering if it’s a form of Eastern Europeon cinematic style you don’t care about, or if I’m making up words for my own personal amusement. It is, in fact, a musical term used to describe a recurring piece of music or a sound that is associated with a theme, person or action. Whilst the expression is mostly associated with the works of Wagner, the technique has been used to create some of the most memorable moments in cinema. Including…

10. Back to the Future Parts 1 & 2 (1985, 1989) – Alan Silvestri, Pat Ballard

The ‘Back to the Future’ series holds two significant pieces of music, each with their own particular association. Firstly, there’s the one most familiar to everyone who didn’t have a neglected childhood – Silverstri’s main theme. It it used in the film to conjure up everything you now associate it with: adventure. The other is the tune ‘Mister Sandman’ by the Chordettes, which is played whenever Marty returns to 1950’s Hill Valley, to signify the return to a simpler, easy-going time.

9. The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) –Composed by Howard Shore

Shore is a composer who understands the importance of leitmotif, especially in such a complex series of pictures such as these. Each group of characters, plot thread and geographic location is given its own theme that recurs when appropriate. This was important in Jackson’s opus as it served to quickly remind viewers what was going on and where the action was taking place. Above is the theme for the Fellowship, used when they form, begin and end their journey.

8. Inglourious Basterds (2010) – Composed by Billy Preston

(Warning: the following clip contains Hugo Stiglitz. Viewer discretion has been advised.)

“Every man in the German army has heard of Hugo Stilglitz.” Part of the reason for that could be the loud guitar riff that plays whenever he thinks evil thoughts, which is quite often. Tarantino introduces the Nazi Hunter with the opening riff from Billy Preston’s ‘Slaughter’ and then uses the chords to indicate when Hugo is thinking about murdering a Gestapo officer. The same approach is used in Kill Bill whenever the Bride confronts another of her targets.

7. The Dark Knight (2009) –Composed by Hans Zimmer

What make The Joker so intense? Heath Ledger played a huge part in creating the voice and body language and the Nolan brothers plus Goyer redefined the comic character for the script, but have you ever shut your eyes and just listened? Zimmer is instrumental (sorry) in creating that energy with a high pitched noise and heartbeat that gets higher and faster as the Joker gets crazier…wait, why are you listening to me? Listen to Hans Zimmer explain it in the above clip!

6. Friday the 13th (1980) – Composed by Harry Manfredini

Manfredini made an unusual decision in scoring this film by only having music play when the killer was around. As a result, scenes of high tension (a boy narrowly missing a girl with an arrow) and romantic scenes are given a disquiet feel as the audience expects music, only for acts of murder to be cued by this recurring track. This is successful in that the killer’s presence is felt even when they are not on screen. The sound throughout the track is a person saying “ki ki ki ma ma ma” (the phrase “kill her mommy” stripped down to its most distinctive sounds) spoken harshly into a microphone, then further manipulated with reverb.

5. Casino Royale (2006) – Composed by David Arnold

The James Bond theme is a classic, and a clear sign that the legendary gentleman spy is about to pull off something epic. So why feature a clip from the film that uses it the least, ie: Casino Royale? Because this was the moment that new life was breathed into not only the franchise but that one track. All through the movie we hear tiny snatches of it, a few notes or chords to round off an action sequence without it ever unleashing the full guitar twanging tune. Not until the very, very end of the film does that immense build up get paid off to symbolise the complete transformation from rookie to the Bond we all know, reminding us of all the great things that song has backed over the decades. With a sign off like that, they couldn’t possibly screw up the sequel, right? Right? Oh.

4. M (1931) – Composed by Edvard Grieg

Fritz Lang was no stranger to the power of music, even before his first movie featuring sound. In his earlier masterpiece Metropolis each group of characters has their own musical theme, most notably the factory worker’s score which highlights the monotony of their life. His best movie (in his opinion) is M, the first film to feature a serial killer. In order to create a sense of dread whenever the killer (played by Peter Lorre) is hunting his prey, he whistles Grieg’s composition ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. This is especially affecting in early scenes where the killer in hidden from view.

3. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) – Composed by Enrico Morricone

Almost everyone is familiar with this combination of whistles, gunfire and vocals that introduces the worlds greatest Western. At the outset, this may not seem to be associated with any particular character or theme (aside from ‘awesomeness’), but an attentive ear would notice that the same piece is played on different instruments for each character. This is done for two reasons – to show that the three, in spite of their titular labels, are as despiciable as each other, and to show the unique personality of each. Blondie (the ‘good’), is accompanied by a flute version of the track, Angel Eyes (the ‘bad) by the orcarina and Tuco (the ‘ugly’) by a vocal rendition.

2. Inception (2010) – Composed by Edith Piaf, Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer teams up with Christopher Nolan again, and as usual the results are stunning. This time around they got some help from street urchin turned international sensation Edith Piaf, the French performer whose memorable song ‘Non, je ne Regrette Rien’ is used for the characters ‘kick’ music, indicating when it’s time for them to exit their artificial dreamscape. Zimmer used the track in the construction of the films main theme by slowing it down (as demonstrated by in clip above). This fits into the films final scene where the viewer is left to question whether or not Cobb was still in a dream state, adding to the theory that he could hear the music playing all along.

1. Jaws (1975) – Composed by John Williams

I’m sure that the significance of this track in the film doesn’t need explaining to anyone – it’s possibly the best known film score in the history of cinema. For those unsure, it’s signifies that there’s a big fucking shark about to eat your ass off. Many horror directors over the decades feel that having a monster leap out of a cupboard and shout ‘boo!’ whilst the music levels are cranked into the red is the way to go, but Spielberg knew better. Nothing racks up the suspense like a musical cue telling you that something nasty is heading your way.

One thought on “Funk’s Top 10: Leitmotifs

  1. Pingback: Leitmotifs | Alice Geary

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