My fascination with film scores – listening to them, collecting them – began with a New Zealand movie. But you wouldn’t have such luck now.
When I was a kid the Footrot Flats movie, A Dog’s Tail Tale, was a local blockbuster. It was at the cinemas, at a time when not every Kiwi film made it that far. Not only that, its trailer played ahead of the big movies of the day. I remember being in the theatre watching Crocodile Dundee and we were treated to the trailer for Dog’s Tale. It wasn’t so much a teaser for the film as it was an entire music video (“that’s not a trailer. THIS is a trailer!”)
Dave Dobbyn’s song Slice of Heaven featuring Herbs. Cartoon images of Wal and Cheeky and Cooch and Dog. A proud moment for New Zealand cinema. And New Zealand song.
I bought the soundtrack album for the tunes – You Oughta Be In Love and Slice of Heaven – in particular. I’m still listening to it now for the incidental music. Dave Dobbyn once told me that he’d like to make an album like Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts. He said few would believe he had a record like that in him. But if you listen to some of the instrumental tracks on his Footrots Flats soundtrack there is no denying it. There are barely any music stores anymore, but I’d still be in the queue for a midnight opening if that record ever arrives.
Soundtrack albums have been my introduction to classical music (Amadeus, Immortal Beloved) and they have occupied that space in my life (The Piano) even if the actual music wasn’t technically a part of the genre. Favourite soundtrack albums include horror films (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th) and science fiction (Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey), musical comedies (The Blues Brothers, Little Shop of Horrors) and there are now go-to composers for me where I will listen to everything they release. Someone like Thomas Newman is such a safe pair of hands that I’m still hearing his music in a standalone world, away from the films – things like Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty – and marvelling at the moods built and sustained. I first saw the films 20 and 25 years ago but the music feels like a brand-new album to me in 2021.
I collect soundtrack albums to stay connected to the films. A souvenir of sorts, absolutely. But I collect them because of the music first and foremost. I don’t have to love the film (though it helps). I certainly do have to love the music – and that can include music to films I’ve yet to even see. Cliff Martinez’s scores have been there in movies that I’ve loved (Traffic), loathed (Only God Forgives) and haven’t ever watched (Solaris). His score to Solaris is, some days, my very favourite piece of music by anyone ever. And I doubt I’ll ever see the movie remake that inspired his compositions.
The person that introduced me to that sublime music is one of New Zealand’s safest sets of hands when it comes to film and TV composition work, Rhian Sheehan. He has composed for short films and network TV, documentaries, and Planetarium films for the international market.
I don’t own many New Zealand movie soundtracks on vinyl. Because there aren’t many available. We have a rich history of beautiful film music – from Murray Grindlay’s proto-electro score for Sleeping Dogs to Michelle Scullion’s neo-classical strings and things accompanying Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Jonathan Crayford’s piano-based tinkling for Ruby & Rata (among many others). But all my collection of hundreds of film scores tells me about New Zealand cinema is that Dave Dobbyn once scored a movie and Jane Campion’s The Piano called in the international heavyweight, Michael Nyman.
I asked Rhian why there weren’t as many Kiwi soundtrack albums available as there used to be, knowing full well that part of the answer was in the lack of record company money, the lack of physical record sales and the changed landscape of the music industry.
Sheehan told me that as well as all of that, “most scores that get released are for bigger budget studio films, or indie films that have done well at the box office – hence there being demand for the score, which is in some way an extension of the film for fans.”
He also believes “the majority of people” don’t really enjoy listening to scores on their own and away from the film. Which leads to wondering if the job of film composer is a contract piece of writing. You are paid for a job – and you deliver. For all the enduring themes that are re-used, re-purposed, even parodied (think of the many things John Williams alone has contributed to that realm) the music is cut to fit the cloth of a particular set of scenes for a particular film. It lives and breathes as a part of that film’s fabric. It is not designed to accessorise elsewhere.
Sheehan acknowledges that Martinez’s score from Solaris and Clint Mansell’s music for The Fountain are modern examples of music that has a life of its own – offering a decent listening experience away from the images – and in both cases the parent-film was something of a box-office flop.
It is also becoming more common for producers of film and TV to own the masters and publishing of the music outright. Sheehan says this means “the artist often has little or no say in either a physical or digital release”. He points to his own work where he was commissioned to create music for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 for a planetarium dome film in 2019. “I managed to convey to the producers the benefits that can come from having the music out in the world. It only helps promote the show, so they ended up helping me with the release”. Here, he’s referring to digitally releasing the music via his own Bandcamp page. Sheehan has twin music careers – making albums that are not soundtracks but are comprised of instrumental music. So, his chance to share the soundtrack work with fans of his other albums means a chance for the film to reach a wider audience.
Another example of this was Sheehan’s music for a local documentary, 2015’s Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses. The music was mixed quietly in the film and Sheehan wanted the chance to allow people to hear it on its own – so he negotiated a complete self-released album. The outcome is that two of the tracks from that film soundtrack are the most streamed of any score he has written.
Where producers of the film or show own the music publishing it means they can collect any future broadcasting fees as part of their ownership. But it does allow the musician/s to leverage a bigger up-front fee. They are being paid once – so hoping to make it really count.
In recent years, New Zealand film and TV has seen more people crossing over from popular music to ‘serious’ composing. Sean Donnelly, who recorded a half-dozen perfect, beautiful, but modest-selling records under the name SJD has made music for big-budget theatrical documentaries (Richie McCaw: Chasing Great) presumably for the guaranteed paycheck as well as the challenge and discipline of creating music to a deadline, and to serve someone else’s vision.
And Karl Steven, formerly of Supergroove and Drab Doo Riffs, among other fringe musical pursuits, is now best known as a composer for both TV (The Blue Rose, Casketeers, 800 Words) and film (Bellbird, Come To Daddy, The Justice of Bunny King).
There’s freedom and creativity within the discipline and focus of making music for someone else’s vision. Music made to serve a story and punctuate emotional points can in fact tell its own story and make impact away from the big screen. One half of Kiwi band The Phoenix Foundation has a successful side-hustle as the entity Moniker. They make music for Netflix TV shows and worked on the early Taika Cohen projects, including The Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Their music for that film was even released as an album, appreciated by fans of the band – and able to turn some fans of the film on to the band’s studio recordings.
And though it’s a difficult numbers game in a small country, there is a passionate international audience for certain Kiwi artistic achievements.
Following Sleeping Dogs, the films of Gaylene Preston, Geoff Murphy and Peter Jackson were well received here and abroad. Though somewhat idealistic, there’s a chance that a boutique record label could release retrospective film soundtracks. Deluxe vinyl packaging, limited editions. We even have our own internationally recognised cult music label that could take on this gig. Imagine Flying Nun repackaging the music for Braindead and The Frighteners, a vinyl reissue of Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, the soundtracks to Utu and Sharon O’Neill’s sublime songs for Smash Palace? Gatefold record sleeves, new liner notes, photos from behind the scenes. And the music. That glorious music. Souvenirs for film fans. And a crucial part of our rich musical history too.
It’s a weird, strange, and maybe small wish that is trying to dream big, but I am here for such a thing. I would buy everything a label dedicated to Kiwi cinema might release.
In America and Europe, where there are admittedly much larger numbers of record-buyers there are several boutique labels dedicated to soundtrack music re-releases. Some specialise in horror films only. Taking the music made by Ennio Morricone and Pino Donaggio and the prog-rock bands Goblin and Tangerine Dream and giving it a whole new life – and audience.
It might seem like a fool’s errand even sneaking this thought out into the world, but the music being made for so many of our Kiwi films is as Little Battler-good as the films themselves. I believe it’s time for this conversation to get some air, to have its day, to float forward for consideration.
To follow me in all the right places check out the Linktree right here.
And to subscribe to my Substack newsletter “Sounds Good” click here