Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton, is a surreal tale of a washed-up Hollywood action star who tries his hand at serious theater acting in New York City. The movie opened in mid-November and has been well received. I knew about the movie for a while but it wasn’t until I read Stephin Merritt’s review of the score that I was compelled to go see the movie—mostly to experience its soundtrack.
Birdman‘s soundtrack consists mostly of drum kit music composed by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, along with some “additional music” composed by both Joan Valent and Victor Hernandez Stumpfhauser, and some cuts of music by Mahler, Ravel, John Adams, and a couple other classical composers. This score of primarily drum kit work is a fascinating experiment because the music requires the film much more than the film requires the music. Additionally the work of multiple composers along with selections by a music supervisor are an interesting departure from what is the traditional model of film scoring.
When I think of contemporary film scores I’m often drawn to the work of John Williams or Howard Shore, and for a different, quirkier take, I think about someone like Thomas Newman or Danny Elfman. These musical works are often thematic and driven by motifs that can change and develop over the course of the film, or they might make use of similar scoring and instrumental techniques that create a sense of emotional consistency or establish a particular affect for a scene. Even though modern film composers are using extended techniques pioneered by other in the mid-20th century, the end result is a collection of cues that can stand alone as a musical work; that is to say that the music can be appreciated in its own right, and enjoyed without the presence of the movie.
Before I saw the movie I listened to the soundtrack and found it nonsensical and random. It sounded at times like someone banging away at a drum set, rather than intentionally driven. In the context of the movie I found the music to be an exceptional match for the incredibly sweeping and long camera shots. It was quite refreshing in fact to hear a movie score that does away with traditional tropes of scoring, casts aside lush instrumentation, and embraces something remarkably simple yet experimental.
I recently read an article by Nathan Platte called, “Before Kong was King: Competing Methods in Hollywood Underscore.” In the article, Platte makes an interesting comparison between the single-composer method of scoring films (which we now think of today as the way original movie music is made), and the collaborative method, which was championed by Nathanial Finston (who headed MGM’s music department from 1935-1944). Birdman is definitely a collaborative score, with three composers writing music for different scenes in addition to the soundtrack selections by a music supervisor.
We often think of the film score composer working alone to create great music for a movie, but the reality is that large studio film composers have a team of orchestrators, not to mention the support of a major film house music department. This model often produces lush instrumental scores with tinges of extended techniques or occasional electronic dance music. On the other hand, the collaborative team of Birdman really took a chance by mixing the work of different composers and a soundtrack to produce something that is inextricably tied to the film, and incredibly effective in its outcome.