A couple of years ago, I sat down with my then-5-year-old son to watch American Graffiti, the 1973 George Lucas film about a night in the life of teenagers in Modesto, Calif., in the early ’60s. It was my favorite movie when I was his age. American Graffiti ignited my interest in so many things—movies, music, old cars, the ability of movies to bring the past to life, and the rather devastating idea that there’s a specific moment when childhood ends or just gets old. Not that I could have articulated all of that then and, in fact, I could tell when I watched it with my son that the thunderbolt wasn’t exactly striking him as it had me 30-odd years earlier. Of course, I was reveling in the movie as much as ever. But I began to wonder: What, exactly, had made me love this fairly grown-up movie so much when I was 5?
I suppose it had to be the music, the 42 early rock ’n’ roll hits that propel the film from start to finish and serve as a substitute for a traditional film score, of which American Graffiti has none. American Graffiti awakened the obsessive love of music that’s gripped me ever since and framed the way I see and hear my own life. The soundtrack’s role in the film greatly influenced other films and TV shows that were designed to evoke certain eras, from Happy Days and the wondrous Cooley High in the mid-’70s to The Big Chill and The Wonder Years in the ’80s to Dazed and Confused in the ’90s and Adventureland in 2009. And with lesser period films, of course, leveraging some familiar old radio hits has become a sure-fire way to stir up nostalgia and compensate for a film’s inherent deficiencies.
But never has a nonscore soundtrack been used so purposefully or so originally as in American Graffiti; in fact, the soundtrack was foremost among several factors that almost caused Universal to pull the plug on the film. The first issue was that, according to conventional wisdom at that time, you couldn’t make a movie without an instrumental score, and there was no way in hell you could stay within a $777,000 production budget after licensing the 50-plus songs referenced in the original screenplay. I don’t know how Lucas managed to make the licensing work, although I do know that the buck stopped with Col. Tom Parker, which is why there are no Elvis Presley songs in the movie. Lucas was probably the first screenwriter ever to type the name of the song that was to play in the background at the top of the page of every scene he wrote and still manage to get all (or nearly all) of those songs into the film.
But one of the things I love about American Graffiti is that, as integral as the songs are to the film, the movie never plays like a music video, and the soundtrack never plays like a score—you’re always aware that you’re hearing a song in the background from the omnipresent Wolfman Jack radio show, playing from a car radio or from multiple car radios (every car in town is tuned in to Wolfman Jack). American Graffiti is a masterpiece of sound design, thanks to the efforts of the legendary Walter Murch, who developed a technique called “worldizing” for the film that makes the music sound like it’s playing from car windows, bouncing off of buildings as the kids in the film cruise the town streets, and it is heard differently when your point of view is in the car, in a field, or outside Mel’s Drive-In diner, where it’s double- and triple-tracked as we hear it from multiple cars. Murch recalls how the film crew played back and rerecorded the original 2-hour Wolfman Jack soundtrack with different ambient environments absorbed into the recording and, thus, created “dry and reflected” versions of the soundtrack to draw from at different times. What’s more, in balancing the music with the surroundings and prioritizing it sonically with dialogue happening simultaneously at various times in the film, Murch explains in an interview with FilmSound.org, “We came up with a way of taking music that might, at one point, be fully in the foreground—in focus and loud—and, then, during a scene transition, sent way into the background and thrown out of focus so that people could talk in the foreground in dialogue and not have you driven mad.” The idea was to create “the sonic equivalent of depth of field in photography.” (Ironically, for all its sound design breakthroughs, the main reason Lucas got American Graffiti greenlighted, initially, was because of the success of Easy Rider, another independently produced, low-budget film that uses popular songs instead of a conventional score but which is a sound design train wreck.) You can read about Murch’s technique and how he expanded on techniques developed by Orson Welles for Touch of Evil (another sound design marvel, though a film mostly remembered for a single epic tracking shot); to experience a very different sort of Murch sound design triumph from the same era, check out what he did with wiretapped and recorded sound fragments in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974).
You also get an interesting aural take on Wolfman Jack’s radio show in the freshman hop scene, where it’s played over the PA between sets by Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids. There Lucas creates the greatest slow-dance scene ever filmed (one can almost imagine a first dance in a wedding film aspiring to summon such power), as Steve and Laurie argue their way to reconciliation in their spotlight dance to The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
It was this sort of sonic precision and obsessiveness that led Lucas to develop THX standards for in-cinema audio after the success of Star Wars. Lucas always had very definite ideas about music and scoring when he was at his creative peak; in 1976 he bucked the trend toward contemporary-style background music and commissioned a majestic orchestral score for Star Wars to give the film more timelessness (his take on most contemporary films was that the soundtracks trended toward disco, which he thought would sound dated in a few years’ time). It all comes down to purpose rather than what will play with the initial and immediate audience for the film.
So American Graffiti triumphs because of its brilliant sound design and its fresh and influential use of popular music as an alternative to a traditional film score. Ironically enough, part of the reason American Graffiti may be less impactful on people who are seeing it for the first time today is that it has been so influential that elements of it have been widely copied over the past 40 years. It took almost no time for prime-time TV to reduce its evocation of the late 1950s/early 1960s to sitcom cliché in Happy Days; the same thing happened to Dazed and Confused with That 70’s Show in the 1990s. These days it’s hard to imagine how much Lucas had to fight the system to get the movie made that way, to convince a studio to let him cash in on the sentimental appeal of a bunch of old songs for a period film.
Obviously, not everyone (or, rather, almost no one) who sets out to do things their own way gets to enjoy the kind of success George Lucas has. But I think the way he approached sound design and music in his films is instructive, particularly viewed in the context of the times in which he made the films—that is to say, times in which the folks on whom he depended to subsidize those films were all but convinced that his approach wouldn’t work. And in the case of American Graffiti, it’s interesting to recognize that one consequence of Lucas having done what he set out to do so well with that soundtrack is that you really couldn’t do it the same way again and expect it to resonate with audiences quite as strongly.
In the event filmmaking world, we wrestle with issues about the music we use all the time. The long-standing issue, of course, is the potential legal risk associated with using copyright-protected popular songs in wedding films. For years, those so-called legal risks were, arguably, much ado about nothing; the idea that the Recording Industry Association of America’s efforts to prosecute teenagers and senior citizens for sharing tracks on Napster meant that they would go after anyone, even wedding videographers, was always a bit of a red herring. The ability to share music, peer to peer over the internet, terrified those in the music industry because it combined piracy with virtually limitless distribution, and it took a potentially giant bite out of their bottom line while almost instantly rendering their old retail model all but obsolete. By contrast, using a popular song in a wedding video distributed on a handful of DVDs was so small scale as to be practically unworthy of notice.
Now that wedding films reach hundreds and potentially thousands of viewers online, the distribution dynamics have changed, and so have the potential legal concerns. I recently followed an online forum thread regarding a Vimeo clip that caught the attention of the artist whose song was used in the clip after it garnered upward of 72,000 views. One could certainly make the argument that this type of exposure increases the potential market for the song in question rather than limiting it. But the fact that event filmmakers gaining this type of exposure could expose themselves, and possibly the rest of our industry, to censure becomes more real.
Wider visibility also raises other questions—not just legal risks, and not just the moral ones concerning misappropriation of intellectual property, which are essentially the same as when wedding film distribution was a tightly closed loop. Now that we’re playing to bigger crowds and playing to online audiences that see lots of other films from all over the world online, the stakes are higher. The challenges of standing out are greater, and the potential for one filmmaker to put his or her stamp on a song and lessen the impact of the use of the same song in another’s work becomes much more troubling as we play to an audience that is watching more and more wedding films all the time. You may or may not consider this a limiting factor for the market of your work—really, it depends on how broadly you define your market and whom you see as your competition. But even if it’s a noncompetitor who creates the definitive film underpinned by a particular song, that film can still make your work look imitative to your potential clients.
I wouldn’t call this an absolute reason not to use popular songs in your work, but it’s reason enough to get out of the habit of letting the bride and groom dictate the music you use. It’s just another factor that will circumscribe your artistry and the originality of your work based on the limits of others’ imaginations. I think we overrate the value of personal associations with songs in wedding films too. I’d be the last person to question the power of music to uproot you from the present moment and land you squarely in the midst of a particular memory (good or bad), with the sights, sounds, and emotions of that moment fully engulfing you as the song works its magic. But do you really want your films transporting people to other places and times, with the possible exception of the wedding itself? To me this is another confidence issue, another indication of our lack of belief in our work: If we think the only thing that will make our work resonate for our clients is to stuff it with songs that they already know and love and associate with other experiences, we have way too little confidence in the experience we’re creating.
What’s more, we all know that a lot of the choices brides and grooms make about their weddings are fairly programmatic; tradition dictates that weddings have to have certain elements, such as colors, flowers, readings, songs, and food. But not every bride or groom is a foodie, a fan of poetry, or an expert on biblical verses, floral arrangements, or dance songs. If any of these wedding elements are things they don’t think or care about much in everyday life, the choices they make for their wedding aren’t going to say that much about them. I remember once when I was asked to do a reading from Walt Whitman at a wedding several years ago. I looked up the reading the bride emailed me and found that it was an excerpt from a long and quite astonishing poem and that there was much cooler stuff in the poem just before the excerpt she’d sent me. I asked if she’d mind if I read a little of that instead, mindful that the part she sent me might be really meaningful to her. “No problem,” she wrote back. “I just found that on a wedding readings webpage. I didn’t even know where it came from.” So it is, I think, with the music many brides and grooms pick. They have to pick something, right? If you’re someone for whom music plays a profound and pivotal role in your life, you’ve probably encountered more than your share of brides and grooms whose music choices seem obvious and trite, and their connection to the music they choose seems kiddie-pool shallow. And probably the same as half a dozen other couples you worked with this year. This is all the more reason to trust your own instincts and create something that’s as original aurally as it is visually.
All that said, knowing and loving music and having your own ideas on how to use it doesn’t make you a composer, so your music has to come from somewhere, and I’m certainly not suggesting you have to compose your own music for it to bring something original to your work. Again, American Graffiti is kind of the exception that proves the rule. In 2011, it’s hard to imagine anything more trite than scoring scenes of kids cruising around in ’57 Chevys listening to “Johnny B. Goode” and “Rock Around the Clock.” But in 1973 it was so out there as to make the film seem unsellable to studio execs. So we all have the chance to make lightning strike once and seize a great idea that will seem overdone only after everyone else copies it. My whole point here, even though I’m referencing a film set 95% to a radio show, is to do it your own way and explore ways to keep your wedding films from falling into the trap of relying on radio-recognizable songs to ensure their appeal.
One way to do this is to choose your soundtracks from royalty-free music library sites such as TripleScoopMusic.com or to build them in Sonicfire Pro or Soundtrack Pro. I’m also a big fan of the approach StillMotion has taken with With Etiquette, where Patrick Moreau & Co. works directly with little-known indie artists to license original songs for use in event films. Though it might not work for everyone, this approach has the threefold effect of boosting the visibility of the artists, giving event filmmakers the opportunity to license copyright-protected work with a finite and transparent fee structure, and all but guaranteeing that their films will feature songs not associated with anything else. And I’m also encouraged by what’s happening with SongFreedom.com, a service designed specifically to obtain song licenses for videographers to use in their work, which provides valuable assistance on the legitimacy/legality side. Although as long as you’re working with popular and familiar songs, where an existing impression of or association with a song will partially determine an audience’s reaction to your work, you still have to decide whether you see yourself as a filmmaker or as someone making a music video (which is a thing apart from filmmaking but, nonetheless, a valid way to extend your artistic chops).
The approach you choose should not only reflect the sound you hear in your head when you visualize your films but also the places you hope and expect your films to play and the reach and impact you expect them to have. As absurd as this may have sounded a few years back when wedding films could reasonably expect to be distributed on a number of DVDs you could count on one hand, today we do have the chance to produce films that will be seen and heard and talked about far and wide. I’m reminded of the scene toward the end of American Graffiti when Curt Henderson drives out to the radio tation on the outskirts of town in the wee hours of the morning, Sonny Til & the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel” playing on his car radio, to ask Wolfman Jack to dedicate a song to the girl in the white T-Bird. When the DJ in the studio pretends he’s not the Wolfman, Curt asks him, “Where is he?” the man replies, “The Wolfman is everywhere.” Like it or not, in 2011, so are we, and the films we produce need to look and sound like we know that and we embrace it.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV.tv.