By Jonathan Goldman
Not too many of you know that before I did my graduate work at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I received a Master of Science from Boston University in Broadcasting and Film. I have always loved film. The idea of combining visuals and sound together has always intrigued me.
During my student days at B.U., my films were what I called “visual interpretations of songs” . This was a decade (at least) before MTV, so the term “music video” had not yet emerged. But that was what my films were. Probably my best used the Beatles “Dear Prudence” as the soundtrack while I filmed this fellow female student walk down an extraordinarily long and winding outdoor stone staircase in a wooded area (the remnants from some long abandoned burned down set upon a hill home which I had stumbled upon one day and thought: “What an interesting setting to film”) while a blond haired man in purple robed at the bottom of the stairs awaits her—his right arm stretched out to greet her. It was all very mystical (though I still could not, to this day, tell you what it meant). I won some sort of student award for the film. I never spoke to the professor about why mine was chosen above the others, but I think it had to do with luck (chance, synchronicity or whatever you want to call it).
I remember it was a last minute thing—editing the footage together and putting the Beatles music on tape. I never even previewed it. Then, when I saw it for the first time with my fellow students in the auditorium where the student films were being screened, my mouth dropped open. Somehow, some way, the music was perfectly synched to the footsteps of the young lady who was walking down the stairs. Optical illusion? No—that was real. Purposely done—are you kidding? I didn’t have the ability to do that! Divinely guided? Perhaps. All I know is that I received some heavy acclaim for something that was purely accidental. My film professor obviously thought I really had some remarkable ability. Who was I to destroy this illusion.
Now, 45 years later, in an age where you can make a video from your phone and immediately film it, I am camera shy. I still have hopes that my story “The Lost Chord” (now available as an eBook under the title: “Forbidden Frequencies: The Lost Chord”) will get made into a movie. It would really be quite fun for everyone (Steven Spielberg are you listening?). But unless a film (or video) is professionally made, I’m not really interested. We’ve certainly put up a few youtube videos, which I like, but that’s very different than the type of filmmaking I learned at B.U. So, there you have it—stuck inside this sound healer is a frustrated filmmaker.
From my perspective, (I repeat myself), there is nothing better than the combination of film and audio. Light and sound! Does anyone remember the first time they saw David Bowman (Keir Dullea) in “2001: A Space Odyssey” as he goes through the star gate at the end of the movie? Many people took various intoxicants to enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s work, but it was unnecessary—what he achieved was simply the most mind altering sound/light combination that had been created.
I had a pretty intense article ready for this issue of “Sound Streams”, but for some reason (perhaps being spring has finally sprung), I thought I’d focus on film instead. I’ve already told you a bit of background about myself regarding this. And while I mentioned the psychotropic effects of “2001”, I thought I’d see if I could recall movies that dealt with sound. Not ones that like “2001” used sound and light to their most consciousness altering abilities, but rather, simply films that focused on the power of sound. I’m going to list the first ten films that come to mind. They’re not going to be necessarily the best. Which is why, I welcome your contributions with regard to this.
1). “Contact”—speaking about filtering out noise, the initial contact that comes through to the human race in “Contact” is via a video of Hitler, but is encoded and being carried on old video that the “aliens” must have received and sent back to us, and are designs for a machine that holds the promise of inter-galactic travel. One of the chief scientists who works with Jody Foster (the main scientist and character in the movie) is blind, with highly developed hearing, that helps figure out there’s something encoded on the initial video that’s received. “Contact” is based upon the book by scientist Carl Sagan and is a favorite of many I know.
2). “Noise”—well, I know this is the title but when I googled it, I first found a 2004 movie starring Ally Sheedy as well as a 2007 crime movie from Australia—neither which is the one I was looking for. Finally, I found this “Noise” to review it before writing about it. This one is a black comedy set in New York City about a lawyer, played by Tim Robbins, who is noise sensitive. He ultimately adapts a vigilante personality known as “The Rectifier”, destroying all sorts of nasty noise making devices—especially car alarms. Then he is tried and uses the idea of loud noises as being abusive. What a concept! This movie really resonated with me and I think with many people who are sound sensitive. Will someone please turn off that leaf blower?
3). “Dune”—a film by David Lynch, based upon the book by science fiction writer Frank Herbert. In it, the messianic character develops the ability to destroy with sound (as well as developing weapons that do the same). Not a very positive use of sound, but definitely a film demonstrating the power of sound. There has been another movie version of “Dune” which also features this phenomenon, which is understandable, since it was also based upon the same book. Incidentally, I am not mentioning any of the other science fiction or fantasy movies or televisions shows which feature either super heroes or villains who can use sound as a super weapon or are super sensitive to sound (their kryptonite so to speak).
4). “The Conversation”—many years ago, before “The Godfather”, Francis Ford Coppola made a movie about a “bugging” expert, played by Gene Hackman. Before this era of known surveillance, there was Harry Caul (the character), trailing someone using sophisticated sonic devices that all existed. There are lots of neat scenes of his filtering out different sounds, etc. to get to the “conversation”. Incidentally, a bit of trivia—the fellow who invented the “electronic bug” was also the same man who invented the electronic musical instrument called the Theremin, whose sound was featured most predominantly in the original version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
5). “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”—okay…if you don’t remember this movie (or have never seen it), in one of the last scenes of this film, the Mother Ship communicates with us Earth people through a tonal language. The aliens use musical notes instead of words. I just love this concept! What more is there to say? Except that I heard a rumor that someone from Hollywood came to visit a scientist friend of mine for a sonic code that would have universal implications and he gave them the sound for water. Fact? Fiction? Regardless—a heck of a movie! And one of my favorite movie themes! Probably one of the last movies where the extraterrestrials were not out to enslave or conquer Earth. I make it a point to watch this film at least once a year.
6). “August Rush”—this movie is about a musical prodigy who is able to hear music wherever he is. This includes being able to hear music in the chaos and clamor of the noises of New York City. What is music? What is noise? In “August Rush” there really is no delineation. The composer of the films states: “The heart of the story is how we respond and connect through music. It’s about this young boy who believes that he’s going to find his parents through his music. That’s what drives him”. Indeed, this heartwarming film focuses on an orphan who is able to locate and unite his parents through the power of music. The power of music to generate love has rarely been more wonderfully imagined!
7). “Star Trek IV: “The Voyage Home” –Capt. Kirk and crew (including of course, Mr. Spock), travel back in time from the 23rd century to earth of our time in order to find a pair of humpback whales and transport them into the future. The reason? There is an intergalactic alien probe that is going throughout the galaxy, searching for whales to communicate with. In its journey, this gigantic probe inadvertently destroys various planetary bodies it passes. Next stop Earth. Only there are no humpbacks left. The species have gone extinct. Without whales to return the communication, we will be destroyed. Will the enterprises crew rescue the whales and continue their existence in the future? Yet another reason to Save the Whales!
8). “Frequency” –This movie has much less to do with sound than its title implies. It’s about a father and son who are able to communicate through time via the frequency of a radio. The father, who is a firefighter, has died years before and now the son is somehow able to contact him and ultimately warn him about the fire he will expire in. Ultimately, this changes the timeline and other things occur. This is more of a mystery movie with some science fiction elements and as noted, it’s not really about sound. But how could I not include a movie called “Frequency”?
9). “The Legend of 1900”—this is the story of a man born aboard an ocean liner in 1900 (hence the name) who becomes perhaps the greatest piano player alive. But he never steps foot on land and is therefore only legend. It’s a highly entertaining movie. There is an incredible scene in “The Legend of 1900”) where a piano “play off” occurs between 1900 (the character’s name) and blues piano legend Jelly Roll Morton (played by Clarence Williams who was in the original “Mod Squad” TV show). In this scene, two pianos are brought into the main ball room and these two giants of music face off against each other to see who is the best.
10). “Crossroads”—writing about the piano play off in the above movie made me remember “Crossroads”, which is a film starring Ralph Macchio (the star of “The Karate Kid”) as a classical guitar prodigy at the Julliard School of Music who is really into the blues. He goes down South to Mississippi in order to try to find a lost song by Robert Johnson (the blues legend who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for his success) and has some very intriguing adventures. Among these experiences is a musical “play off”—this one a guitar dual between the character played by Ralph Macchio and the Devil’s chosen guitarist—played by real life electric guitar virtuoso Steve Vai. The play off isn’t nearly as good as in “1900”, but nevertheless, it’s a fun film.
Now as noted, these are certainly not my favorite films, but most of them represent films that demonstrate the power of sound (which is my favorite subject). And I noted that a majority fall into either the fantasy or science fiction genre. So be it. Please also note that I did not include any documentaries or music videos or anything remotely real (well, I don’t know. Some say that “Close Encounters” did occur!). There are a plethora of films on the subject of sound that fall into this category. I purposely didn’t include them.
I invite you to contribute to this list. I know there are so many I’ve left out. In addition, I didn’t include any television shows at all. But please know that whenever Captain Jean Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” tells a crewmember to adjust the harmonic resonance of the shields, I get goose bumps!
Thanks for a great article, Jonathan!
I, too, took film making while in university and also won some acclaim for my films. Sound was immensely important – like you, I put a film together where the sound synched up perfectly with the visuals; the film posed the question “what is pornography?” and juxtaposed images of very tasteful erotica with images of various types of violence. These were interspersed with live-action shots of my kids jumping around on my bed covered with a floral bedspread, for some comic relief. Soundtrack? “Mars” from Hans Holt’s “The Planets.” I called the film “Turbulence.” Result was pure magic and blew me away when I viewed it on the “big screen” after being chosen as one of the top film makers in the program.
My very first film was a “cinema verite” of my girlfriend giving birth to her first child at home (home birth was pretty revolutionary in those days!). Soundtrack was a pastoral piece by Gabriel Faure, followed with a quote from Margaret Atwood’s book “Surfacing” about birth, then as the babe was born, the fourth movement from Handel’s “Water Music” (appropriate for the birth of a Water sign baby, I later realized!)
Regarding the use of music in popular film, though, I have to say I was really impressed with Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” done as an operetta with all the actors singing their parts (the musical use of voice, even though they were not professional singers, was a brave move on everyone’s part and I sure would like to know what they learned about themselves by having to use their own voices in new ways. Singing is such a physical activity! I say this because I’m a singer.)
I know that it wasn’t a movie, but the original television series of “Star Trek” also used a Theremin in the closing credits music, and Joss Whedon’s operetta episode in “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” was pretty amazing, too.
Thanks for letting me share this.