The music in movies is honored every year with two Academy Awards: one for Best Score, one for Best Original Song. But how much do those things really contribute to a film? And, perhaps more important, how much should they contribute?
I often muse on these questions. But what a soundtrack brings to a movie was really brought home to me last week, when I had to watch a film without one.
There was a single screening of "American Reunion" before it opened Friday. So Tuesday night, I made my way to a local cinema to see the "American Pie" sequel, along with many of D.C.'s other film critics, and lucky "civilians," as we call them, who scored free promo tickets.
About 15 minutes of the movie played before the reel was stopped. I hadn't really noticed the lack of music -- you could hear a bit of the R. Kelly tune referred to in the opening scene -- but, it turns out, the soundtrack hadn't been playing.
I hadn't realized that the soundtrack was separate from the rest of a movie's audio. We heard everything those beloved characters were saying. But the musical accompaniment was missing.
We waited about 15 minutes while the theater staff tried to identify and fix the problem. It appeared that they had been successful when the lights were lowered about half an hour after the movie had first started. We had to watch it again from the very beginning -- and again without the soundtrack.
The problem hadn't been fixed. So most of the Washington-area film critics had to see the fourth film in the very successful comedy franchise without the music the filmmakers chose to accompany it.
Late that night, the studio representative sent an email to press apologizing for what had happened. "After much investigation following the screening," she wrote, it was found that the theater "had a few upgrades made to their system last night and during the process of the upgrades, certain audio cords and wires that are crucial to screening a digital film were inadvertently switched, thereby causing a drastic loss of background/soundtrack audio during the film."
She wanted to be sure that critics had a chance to "review the film in its entirety and with full content," so she announced a second screening for the very next afternoon.
Full disclosure: This critic couldn't make that screening. (I had a dentist appointment at the exact time of the screening's start, and with less than 24 hours' notice, I would have had to pay the full amount of the treatment had I canceled.)
So I'm left wondering how the lack of soundtrack affected my opinion of the film. I heard every piece of the screenplay. I saw everything there was to see on screen. I just didn't hear the music meant to accompany that action.
Usually, when I speak of the soundtrack, I have an almost opposite complaint. Far too often, filmmakers rely on music to provoke the emotion in the viewer that the film itself should arouse. You know what I mean: The swelling strings tell you that you should feel sad about what's happening onscreen; a sweet melody tells you that two characters are falling in love.
Film is a visual medium. Music should add to the experience, not substitute for it.
"American Reunion" was a funny film, thanks to sharp writing of directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote the sure-to-be-cult-classic "Harold & Kumar" films. Might the soundtrack have made it funnier?
I'm not so sure. There was something surreal in watching scenes meant to have an important musical accompaniment that didn't. Any of the moments at the high school reunion in which characters dorkily dance, for instance. Then there was the entrance to that reunion: The four main male characters walk, all abreast, facing the camera, into the gymnasium. Clearly, some ridiculous song was supposed to be playing; the reunion of the class of '99 had a '90s theme. I was sitting beside someone from the studio, and I asked her, in a whisper, if she knew what song should have been playing.
"I think something by the Backstreet Boys," she said.
I'm not sure what would have been funnier: listening to a song by the boy band that unexpectedly gave us the suave Justin Timberlake, or watching four awkward guys walk, supposed suavely, into their reunion without it.