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Thinking About Something

I'm coming to realize that my most successful LiveJournalTM entries are not the ones in which I bitch about my life (right now there is nothing going on so there is nothing to bitch about), but the ones in which I cultivate a mere seedling of thought into an interesting or complete failure of a casual thesis. I have a new one. It's not very interesting, but I may discover something sort of cool along the way.

How to Train Your Dragon is a weirdly pivotal movie for me. It was my favorite movie in whatever year it came out (2010 I want to say? Yikes), and it represents one of my favorite soundtracks from the past three or four years. John Powell, who wrote it, is actually one of the most consistently amazing modern composers and this movie may have shifted the order of best white dudes who score movies for me!!

Anyway, as soon as the movie came out, of course, I downloaded the soundtrack. And I listened to it. A LOT. Out of the top 25 most played songs in my iTunes, three of them come from that score. Even after all this time, I still get that raw boiling pit of *epic* in my chest any time I listen to Test Drive:

and the other two in there aren't bad either. This is a great soundtrack, one of my all time favorites, one I'm still pretty emotionally attached to.

And, awesomely enough, I am apparently not the only one who feels this way.

Recently--and tbh I'm not even sure how this got released, if it's a legit product, or just something that leaked from the studio--an expanded version of the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack was released. It includes a few more tracks, including REALLY GOOD parts of the score from the movie that, for whatever reason, weren't included on the original CD. Like, motifs that weren't even included. I like pretending like I know what I'm talking about! Fuck I can't find the one I'm thinking of rn but I'll edit this if I do. ETA: Found it!

What it also contains, and what I find endlessly fascinating, are synth/demo versions of all of the tracks.

I'm a little bummed because this seems like such an esoteric thing that I can't find any of the synth versions on YouTube (the entire expanded version, minus the synths, are below), but I did find some sketchy links you can try downloading them from? It's definitely in justsoundtracks if you're a member there.

But it was really, really interesting just from a production standpoint. I have no proof of this, and this is mere conjecture, but it kind of made sense to me why those would exist, and what function they serve in the process of composing any kind of orchestral music, but especially for something as commercial as a got-damn Dreamworks animated movie. Obviously, they'd need to know what this would all sound like when put together, and obviously, paying a bunch of skilled workers (ie musicians) to play it for you, JUST TO SEE, would be hella expensive. Putting together a synth version before you actually bring in the Hollywood Orchestra or whoever the fuck it is who records these things seems like a practical first step. Concept art before set construction. A script before a movie, even. A really solid, working, practical first draft.

But then I realized something while listening to a couple of these synth versions. They reminded me of something.

They reminded me of music from The Princess Bride.

There are little details in all memorable movies that make those movies unique, you know? There are just little things you might not even realize you're noticing, but totally define and characterize that movie for you. It can be a stylistic thing, like how all Wolfgang Peterson movies from the 80s have that same tone or temperature, that weird childish fantasy mixed with lurking darkness or whatever. Spielberg's camera movements, likewise, make all of his movies unique. But even aside from directorial choices, there are flourishes or details in specific movies. Like for some reason, the image of the tire tracks in the first Back to the Future movie matter a LOT to me. Here's what the bluescreen image looked like:

And then when they cut to the practical set, the tire tracks looked like this:


Up till the point when Marty comes running around the corner and Doc freaks out, the tire tracks are wider, because they were just using archive footage from the first movie. But as soon as Marty comes running around the corner, that was NEW FOOTAGE which means it was NEW TIRE TRACKS. And they were narrower and looked wrong and that detail bothered the HELL out of me when I went through my BTTF-obsessive phase when I was like 12.

So it's a little thing, but that's the difference between the quality of the original and the quality of the sequels. The wider tire tracks represent really quality filmmaking while the narrower ones represent the lurch into lesser quality, faster, more commercial and less artistic filmmaking.

Anyway that was a huge detour, but basically, the music in Princess Bride is one of its defining features, and I'd always assumed, I guess, that it was deliberate. There was something kind of kitschy about it, but I never could put my finger on why. It was like music out of King's Quest or something, like a really kitschy video game. Let me see if I can find an example specifically what I'm thinking of...

I COULDN'T, but there are examples in all of these scenes. Pick one, watch them all, whatever you want, but as you're watching pay really specific attention to the music.

The first and third examples are better, because the second includes the little guitar...or banjo...I have no idea what stringed instrument makes that sound, but it includes the main theme of the movie, which I think got made into a fucking pop ballad like they did with every vaguely fantasy movie in the late 80s-90s. The main theme is this:

And even if you listen to that, you can hear it.

The whole soundtrack is produced on the synthesizer.

Now this got me to thinking, because that's what I do when something piques my interest.

I'd already concluded that the synth versions of all the songs from How to Train Your Dragon were produced as a cheap alternative just to get a feel of how the music would work over the movie, before they actually spent the money to bring in an orchestra, reserve the space and recording equipment, and record the damn thing.

So what does it mean that The Princess Bride didn't even manage to make it to that stage?

I think Princess Bride was a really, really, REALLY cheap movie. Like dirt cheap. And I mean, look at it: was there a star in the thing? Fred Savage and Peter Falk were both on TV, Cary Ewles and Robin Wright were fresh off the boat (I'm pretty sure she was credited as Introducing: Robin Wright), and I mean, Mandy Patinkin/Christopher Guest/Andre the Giant are famous, but kind of on the fringe. Besides Billy Crystal who was really just a cameo, there's not a movie star in the whole movie.

And I was curious, so I did a little research, and was fortunate enough to remember that EW had done a huge 25th anniversary Princess Bride issue like a year ago.

Rob Reiner: I read the book when I was in my 20s, because I was a huge William Goldman fan. Then, after I had made a couple of pictures, Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, I started thinking of The Princess Bride. I very naively thought I could make a movie, then I discovered that Francois Truffaut had tried and Norman Jewison had tried and Robert Redford had been involved — one after the other. No [studio] wanted to make a movie of The Princess Bride; nobody was interested in it. We kept tearing the budget down, I had to try to sell foreign rights and video rights, I had to cut my salary, I had to cut the cast’s salaries. It was crazy. I think we had, like, $16 million dollars, which even at the time wasn’t very much. In the script it said “the army of Florin” — I had seven people in the army of Florin.

This movie was made on the cheap.

You read the rest of that interview, though, and you get a sense that this movie is one in a seemingly large group, but really it's very selective, of movies that have staying power. I don't want to call it a cult movie, because I feel like that term often has a bad connotation. Like, we're making fun of it and that's why it's good. Princess Bride isn't like that. It's a good movie that just took a while to catch, and when it did we never let it go.

And it was made for $16 million.

There are great movies that were made for less, but damn, when I watched that movie I would have never thought it was made for so little. That movie has a quality that no amount of money can buy, and that its weird, synthesized soundtrack actually contributes to: it's magical. That movie has a magic that is just so fucking rare in movies today. I don't see many movies anymore that transport me, that take my breath away. And it's something you can't buy, something you can't synthesize with CGI (but I guess you can synthesize the music). It's a quality that comes from I don't know where! It's the intrinsic beauty and mystery of all art, that quality that makes you feel something, and not just you, but everyone who watches it, makes you feel like you haven't seen all there is to see yet, and it's one of the greatest feelings in all of life!

In fact, to bring this whole thing full circle, I think this was the last scene that did:

Basically, tl;dr, movie music is the most important part of movies and I don't know why composers are considered below the line!