Ethan Iverson is one-third of the Bad Plus, and plays in the Billy Hart Quartet. Other current musical associates include Albert “Tootie” Heath, Andrew Cyrille, Sam Newsome, and Tim Berne. At the website Do the Math, Iverson interviews musicians and writes musical analysis. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Is there anything Joss Whedon can’t do? He’s a phenomenally successful director and screenwriter with gigantic films and TV shows like The Avengers, Toy Story, The Cabin in the Woods and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to his credit. He’s even written hit comic books. And now, for his new movie, a cinematic adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (and its forebear in the Whedon canon, the web-only miniseries Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), Joss Whedon has added a new position to his resumé: with a significant assist from his brother Jed, he has become a film score composer.
Indeed, it is time for the phrase “Joss Whedon: Composer” to be taken seriously.
Actually, Whedon’s first credit as a composer was songs for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical “Once More with Feeling.” (Obligatory fanboy disclaimer: I regard this as the greatest episode of television I’ve ever seen.) Since then, there have been title themes for Firefly and Dollhouse, songs for Dr. Horrible, a few other bits and pieces, and now a full soundtrack to a Shakespeare movie.
And the Much Ado About Nothing soundtrack is fine. Absolutely fine. Absolutely much better than so many modern scores made of bits and pieces worthy only of being a demo track. The presence of an actual chamber orchestra helps immeasurably. With the help of Deborah Lurie, Whedon has written for strings, and although, as with many modern soundtracks, they’re rendered artificially rich in post-production, there is never a distracting or gauche moment.
As a writer or director, Joss Whedon is a master polystylist, someone who blends genres as easily as breathing. Sure enough, the 32 cues for Much Ado About Nothing include nods to classical music, a bit of west coast jazz, a few menacing drones, and two contemporary singer-songwriter ballads. (The songs were produced by Jed Whedon and sung by Jed’s wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, who also collaborated on Dr. Horrible.) Whedon’s authorial appropriations are playful, heartrending, and genre-busting… yet when he applies the same principle to the soundtrack for Much Ado…, the result is comparatively generic. The jazz movement “If I Had my Mouth” is particularly empty; surely it would have been better to have the musicians blow a little bit, rather than reading this stilted stuff?
The overall cinematic confection of Much Ado… isn’t really harmed by generic music. This Whedon diehard is raising questions only because too many contemporary movies and television shows have inexpensive, simplistic soundtracks that sound like someone’s first time out with GarageBand. Certainly more and more directors are creating their own scores, especially since the right tools seem to be only a click away. John Carpenter is great, but he’s also a troubling template. The score for Halloween may be stylish and iconic, but it also required much less fundamental musical skill than most pre-synthesizer film scores. Joss Whedon may have graduated from home studio to chamber orchestra, but his voice leading still has some of that “I learned counterpoint from what notes sounded good together in an electronic box” sound.
It’s worth comparing recent cinematic treatments of the familiar Much Ado About Nothing lyric “Sigh No More.” While Patrick Doyle’s setting for Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation is not that complicated, the second and most distinctive phrase begins with a wide leap upward of an octave and a fourth, a radical choice that only a full-time professional composer would think to do. The Whedon setting has a standard “contemporary singer-songwriter” melody backed by a few chords anyone can find on guitar. That’s fine — my wife and I even hummed it a bit leaving the theatre — but it’s also pretty square.
(Surprisingly, neither Branagh or Whedon use “Sigh No More” as an opportunity to question a double standard. Most of the good men in the play are obsessed with women’s chastity — a father even wants to kill his daughter when she is accused of infidelity — but “Sigh No More” tells women that it is inevitable that men will sleep around. Whedon is an important feminist, so I expected a bit more from him here. In the original play the song is harshly criticized by Benedick, but Whedon leaves out that scene. His “Sigh No More” is a merely a backdrop to excessive partying, although perhaps the drunken male groping is a bit of a comment.)
Whedon’s strength as a composer seems linked to his deep understanding of plot. The songs in “Once More with Feeling” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog move the characters forward just as securely as any classic bit of multi-layered Whedon dialogue. But the only comparable musical moment in Much Ado… isn’t on the soundtrack: Benedick (Alexis Denisof) brays a bit of homemade sonnet and an off-screen dog immediately barks in angry response. It’s a hilarious moment and completely standard-practice Joss Whedon. Too bad that the soundtrack itself seldom shows that comfortable lightness of touch.
Whedon was modest when the Skinny asked about the music in Much Ado About Nothing: “It was really terrifying. I’m not qualified but I felt like this is an opportunity I’m never going to get again. Probably the best moment of the entire thing for me was when we were recording some strings. A cellist asked me, ‘Did you meet the actors?’ And I realized: Oh my God, she just thinks I’m a composer — that’s so legit!”
Whedon should do whatever he wants, including composing for the silver screen. But he must know better than most that any film is made up of many elements. For a truly great film, all those elements need to be great. In the same interview, Whedon says, “I did have a particular thing that I was going for when I was talking about noir comedies. Even though we think of it as a very urban thing, most of the great noirs are in LA, where there aren’t any giant buildings — it’s all sprawled out. Unfaithfully Yours. The Apartment. The Grifters. Movies that are as dark as they are fun, and they have that seedy grandeur.”
“Dark but fun” and “seedy grandeur” are just a couple of the many complex emotions that Whedon smoothly summons in his writing and directing. If he could conjure such complex emotions in his soundtrack music as well, the complete package would be that much more satisfying.