How Hollywood's temp scores are hurting your favorite action movies

Andrew Liptak

You should care about how your movies are put together

Can you sing anything from a Marvel movie?

That’s the question that Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting poses at the beginning of his latest video essay, The Marvel Symphonic Universe. Zhou gets several people on the street to hum songs from Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter but nobody can remember a tune from cinema’s most successful brand.

Asking random people a question on the street isn’t always a great place to get solid information, as Jay Leno taught us so many years ago, but it illustrates a solid point: Marvel’s music is unmemorable, which is notable, considering its ubiquity.

Why is this?

As an example of the forgettable music, Zhou shows off a scene from Iron Man, which drones along in the background. He points out that the music doesn’t really help provide any sort of emotional attachment to the scene, and proves his point by taking the music out completely. Conversely, he points to times in the franchise where the score does underscore the emotional beat on the screen, noting that it doesn’t really change from film to film, and it doesn’t challenge audience expectations.

With those examples laid out, he points out what he perceives to be the dual culprits: the growing use of temporary scores by film directors, and an attitude among producers that film scores shouldn’t really be noticed.

Temp music is essentially placeholder score that directors use during the editing process. Zhou uses a quote from composer Danny Elfman to explain how directors sometimes fall in love with the temp music, and ask composers to create something similar, rather than pen something entirely new. And so temp music, Zhou posits, is slowly making films sound the same. To illustrate his point, he puts several examples of temp music and the final score side by side. To drive the point home, Zhou also published a second supplementary video, and even started up a Twitter account posting additional temp music and final score comparisons.

There’s one example that I noticed years ago that he highlights: the track One Year Later, off the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack for its second season. It stuck out in my mind because it sounded so different from what Bear McCreary had been doing with the series. Plus, it sounded almost identical to John Powell’s song Nach Deutschland, from his Bourne Supremacy soundtrack.

Putting tracks side by side or one after the other shows just how similar some of these scores are.

Sounds Like Temp (@SoundsLikeTemp )
Fun comparison: listen to TITUS & 300 played simultaneously, one in the left channel, one in the right channel pic.twitter.com/mUQNS1TCU2

Zhou’s question — can you remember one of the scores for any of Marvel’s projects? — is revealing, because nobody seems to notice the music, let alone it being the audible equivalent of a reheated dinner. The reason that so many scores stink, along with any litany of the issues that he’s raised over the course of his series, is in part because they’re allowed to. The larger movie-going audience fails to call out or even care when they’re being served up subpar, regurgitated entertainment. And so the first step toward a better score is caring, speaking up, and demanding better. Zhou’s videos and Twitter handle are a great antidote to theatergoer apathy.