How Music Makes a Documentary Work

By  · Published on October 23rd, 2015

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass

Documentaries have become some of the movie industry’s most compelling and emotional films. They not only shine a light on important issues and people, but they do so in a way that captures viewer’s hearts and minds. A big part of how documentaries are able to do this is through the music. Music is an important part of any film, but with documentaries, the music becomes all the more important because it is reflecting real world issues and not just a works of fiction.

The reason many people seek out certain documentaries is because they have a personal connection to the subject matter or an interest in gaining greater insight. The same is true for the composers that sign on to create the sound of these films. Composer Miriam Cutler reflected on her work on the film Ethel, which tells the story of Ethel Kennedy, saying, “I often found myself overwhelmed by my own feelings about the Kennedy family and their place in American history. Sometimes I was the only person in the room who was alive when Robert Kennedy was shot and for my generation, this had a huge impact.”

Composer Joel Goodman had a similar experience with an episode he scored of American Experience focusing on Walt Disney, explaining, “Prior to getting the call to score this film, I had read books and articles about Walt and was very familiar with his personal story. Sometimes we have personal connections in that way, reading about someone, and sometimes we may identify with the subject matter.”

When it comes to historical events and people, it is easy to find a way to tap into the emotion, but even something as innocuous as a documentary about coffee can create a connection. Barista tells the story of those behind the counter making our complicated coffee orders and the film’s composer, C.A. Gabriel, admitted, “I am a huge coffee fiend and it really was inspiring creating music for a film about the very thing that fuels me to create music.”

However a personal connection to a documentary is not always necessary ‐ sometimes it is simply the content of the story and the passion of those creating the documentary that become the draw. The film Bigger, Stronger, Faster is about the use of steroids and composer Dave Porter had little knowledge of the topic when he signed on to compose the film, but noted, “I was quickly fascinated by all of the moral and ethical questions the filmmakers were raising, and that fed me creatively while scoring it.”

Jeff Beal, who composed the music for Blackfish and The Queen of Versailles, added, “I believe good musical scores (documentary and narrative) most often come from a place of empathy and truth. Even if a character is “unlikable” or of questionable moral character, it’s not the music’s role judge or mock their point of view. This can be especially important with documentaries, where a subject might have granted to access to some painful or embarrassing situation “caught” by the documentary camera. I can give the example of Queen Of Versailles where we were very careful to tell the story of those protagonists, but also to show them as three dimensional people when possible, with their inherent complexities and motives.”

The one thing a composer must always strive to do, whether working on a fictional film or a documentary, is keep the music from overly influencing what is happening on screen. Music should add to the feeling and emotion, but not take it over. This is all the more important when it comes to documentaries, as Cutler says, “I think that in a documentary it’s more obvious if music is used in a manipulative way, and this could create a distrust by the audience.”

Because documentaries feature real people and not actors following a script, the emotion being conveyed is not always obvious and a composer has to work to make sure the music is not taking a stand the person being featured is not actually making. Gabriel noted, “I think in a narrative feature there is more often a clearer sense of what the emotion of the scene is. It’s often more obvious how the characters feel and where and when to compliment or supplement that emotion. It’s not always as cut and dry when you’re dealing with real people.”

Queen of Versailles

Goodman explained, “Documentaries tend to be more subtle, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions from a particular scene.” Gabriel added, “Maybe it’s the case of a subject who is a little guarded in the presence of cameras, thus leading to a more ambiguous emotional charge. Or perhaps a scene takes more of an informative approach and it becomes the job of the composer simply to make it more entertaining.” In many ways, it is the job of a composer to sit back and allow for that audience interpretation.

In moments where someone is making a cup of coffee or explaining information, it becomes the job of a composer to make these scenes more entertaining. Porter explained, “One struggle that many documentary filmmakers have is how to present necessary background information and statistics in a way that isn’t dull. There is often no avoiding these necessary “data dump” moments, but compelling music can certainly be a big help in those scenes.” With Barista, Gabriel remembered a particular scene of someone creating a cup of coffee that tastes and smells better than any other cup ever made. He explained, “Since we can’t smell or taste the coffee, this could easily be boring if handled wrong. Fortunately Rock [Baijnauth, the film’s writer and director] has an impeccable sense of style and captured these moments in the most interesting and exciting ways possible. Music is then the next step in making this seemingly mundane task seem hip and cool and profound.”

One of the most challenging types of documentaries to score are ones about the music industry because in these, music becomes the subject matter, not just an accompaniment to the film. All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records is not simply a documentary about a record store ‐ it is the story of a special place where music fans (and the musicians themselves) were equals and bonded over the sound of the time. That sound permeates the entire film as it spans decades and different musical styles.

The film’s composer, Bill Sherman, created a score that helped underline the emotion of the film while working around the popular songs placed throughout it. One of the ways Sherman achieved this was making sure the score reflected the music featured in the film itself. Sherman explained, “What was important to me was to stay true to the time period in the film, and be as authentic as possible to the music itself. When trying to string all the music (both popular and original) together, I was focused on the overall sound quality as I was on the actual music itself. I found myself affecting the music more and more so that it felt in line with the recording process of the era and in turn, felt like the other music in the film.”

One of the best ways to find an “in” for the score in a film about music is to understand how the music is being reflected in it. As Sherman explained, “I wanted the score for the film to feel like a walk through the store. As you went from aisle to aisle, classical to jazz, Beatles to Stones, you could feel how the music changed. The shoppers changed. The vibe changed. Whoever was working the jazz section wasn’t also working the classical section.” A film score is always a dance between what is happening on screen and the music itself, but that is never more true than in a film about music.

Regardless of the subject, documentary films are a great way to connect to an audience and teach them about certain issues, moments, and people. Music helps bring these subjects to life, but does so in a way that also lets the subjects stand on their own.