“The Pioneers of Film Music. The sound of Europe for Hollywood” on Arte.tv: from the Mozarts of the big screen to the artisans of the chase


In his documentary The Pioneers of Film Music. The sound of Europe for Hollywood , Florian Caspar Richter is right to make the Austrian Max Steiner (1888-1971), student of Gustav Mahler, the father of talking cinema music emblematized by his first major score, for King Kong (1933), by Merian C. Cooper.

Film music for Hollywood – except for musical comedies – also owes a lot to two other Jewish émigrés: the Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) and the German Franz Waxman (1906-1967), born Wachsmann. Korngold, who was called the “new Mozart” in Vienna, where his operas were a resounding success, would simply continue to write in the same flamboyant post-romantic style.

A manner that Waxman, a prolific author, also adopted (sometimes eleven film scores in twelve months!), notably scores for Twilight Boulevard (1950), by Billy Wilder, and A Place in the Sun (1951), by George Stevens – whose main theme will serve as the ultra-sensual theme song for the magazine “Cinéma, cinémas” (1982-1991) – both won an Oscar…

Music that stains

Having reached its midpoint, the documentary abruptly moves on to the case of Ramin Djawadi (born in 1974), composer (German of Iranian origin) of the television series Game of Thrones (2011-2019) , signatory of some big music that stains, which its author has also shamelessly recycled in the credits of another series, Westworld (2016-2022).

Because the recycling by composers (of their own scores or those of others) is a great classic in Hollywood, in particular on the part of one of its most productive representatives, the German Hans Zimmer (born in 1957 ), subscribed to American blockbusters and double Oscar winner (in 1995 for The Lion King , from Disney studios, and in 2022 for Dune , by Denis Villeneuve).

Whatever one thinks of his music, Hans Zimmer, former rock musician, is an essential figure in today’s Hollywood. Which is surely less the case for Harold Faltermeyer – Beverly Hills Cop (1984), by Martin Brest, Top Gun (1986), by Tony Scott – also retained and questioned by the documentary maker.

It’s a shame that the documentary, which announced the best, did not mention two famous composers who studied in Berlin between the two wars: the Hungarian Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) and the Ukrainian Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979), who invented western music (and won three Oscars all the same)… Or even the lesser known figure who was Ernst Toch (1887-1964), an Austrian Jew promised success in Europe but who, after his exile in the United States , was confined to car chase scenes.

And besides, if we stick to the subtitle (“The sound of Europe for Hollywood”) of the documentary, why reduce things to Germanic countries? What about the Italians Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), Nino Rota (1911-1979) and Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), the British John Barry (1933-2011) and Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) or the French Maurice Jarre (1924-2009) and Alexandre Desplat (born in 1961)? The German branch of Arte, which produced this documentary, has a fairly navel-gazing ear.

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