On May 8th FilmMusicReporter.com announced that composer Rob Simonsen would score the Disney+ movie, “Stargirl.”
Announcing Simonsen as the composer at this point tells us a couple of things: 1) The composer for a film is usually (not always) part of the post-production team, scoring the film after it’s edited. That certainly appears to be the case here, which means the editing of the film is essentially complete. 2) Simonsen scored both of Julia Hart’s previous two movies, “Miss Stevens” and “Fast Color.” Simonsen was Hart’s choice. She trusts him. She’s still in control and Disney trusts her.
Here’s a sample of the score Simonsen created for “Miss Stevens” (“Don’t Be Sad”/ “Billy’s Theme”)
Simonsen broke into film scoring in 2003 and teamed up with composer Mychael Danna (“Moneyball,” “Life of Pi”) providing additional music for his projects – a type of apprenticeship if you will (although no one calls it that). In 2009 he opened his own studio and has amassed a pretty deep resume, scoring over twenty films including “Life of Adaline” and “Love, Simon.” Most of his work has been on Indie films that picked up their distributors at film festivals, while a few films started at smaller studios with a distribution path built in. This is the first “big studio” production for both Simonsen and Hart. That it is such a high-profile film for the launch of Disney’s big new streaming service says a lot about how much everyone has invested in it.
Unfortunately, Grace doesn’t get to participate in this process. I say “unfortunately” because I think it’s something Grace could be great at. That’s just my opinion of course, but I think it’s pretty well founded. Her musicianship, her sense of drama and moment, her innate knowledge of when to go big and when to hold back, and her affinity for the “story in the music” is extraordinary – all of which are needed by a composer when scoring a film. On the other hand, she would need to understand the scope of a wide range of instruments and be able to do notation for an orchestra. It is not uncommon for established film composers to be proficient at writing music in dozens of different styles. Grace has stated pretty emphatically that she doesn’t like to study or practice. She wants instant gratification from her music. So, it’s probably not going to happen…, never mind.
So what is a film score and what is its purpose? We’ve all seen great movies that made us cry, cheer, cover our eyes, or sit on the edge of our seats. A lot of that emotional response was elicited by the score. The score is a musical frame for the film’s story.
Grace already revealed that the film has a lot of music (we know she sings “Happy Birthday” and “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys) but I would imagine that there’s also pop music that the teenagers are listening to, band music at the football games, etc. All of this is considered “incidental” music. It may be part of the soundtrack, but it’s not part of the score. Original songs by Grace would not be considered part of the score either. Now, if Simonsen were to sample phrases from Grace’s original songs and use them as motifs for her character, those would be parts of the score.
A composer begins the process of scoring a film by watching it several times, gaining understanding of the story, mood, and emotional through lines. They take timing notes, creating “cues,” indicating where a segment begins and ends and how long it needs to last, and determine specific moments that need to synchronize with the music to achieve a dramatic (or comedic) effect. This process is called “spotting.” They’ll get input about style, goals, and enhancing specific moments from the director. (Ideally, they will watch the film together for this conversation.) Main characters often have their own theme or “motif” that will be repeated throughout the film in various ways – at one point perhaps being played by a single instrument, while another moment may call for a complete orchestra. A change of instrumentation and orchestration will complement the progression of the plot.
During an interview for online magazine PopOtiq, Simonsen described his process this way:
“One of the interesting things about being a film composer is that each film has its own unique world that can have its own unique musical solutions… When I sit down and watch a film what I’m trying to do is watch my own reaction. I’m trying to record my own response to the scene with music. How am I feeling right now? How do I want to be feeling? What musical approach is going to get me there or what musical approach might lead this scene to be more interesting? … A key ingredient to being a really strong composer is [understanding] human emotion and the mechanics of storytelling. Do we need to be sitting right where we are or helping steer the boat to something grander or something smaller?”
Julia Hart’s film, Fast Color, was released earlier this year and online publication Film Music Magazine said this of Simonsen’s work: “Simonsen’s music over dozens of scores has taken listeners to new dimensions. They’re ones that could sometimes confront the listener with raw experimentation, or hypnotically soothe them with beauty – but always with a focus on human character… Simonsen’s “Fast Color” transfixes with the kind of innovation that he brings to his entire scoring universe, one that now takes off to the stars while bringing itself furiously into the present day.”
In the interview, Simonsen talks about his collaboration with Julia Hart: “My ear has always been drawn to hybrid scores- combining electronics with acoustic instruments has captured my imagination more than anything else… “Fast Color” was a filmmaking team I had worked with on their previous film and it went great- they’re also friends of mine and we were happy to work together again. The director Julia Hart was really into the idea of using synths and making it a hybrid score. She always wanted the synths to be louder in the mix, which I loved… Our collaboration was very similar [to our work on “Miss Stevens”], propositions, notes and refinements!”
Simonsen continues: “I think a more ethereal approach is something I gravitate towards naturally. I’ve loved listening since I was young to Vangelis, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol II, Michael Stearn’s score to “Baraka,” Brian Eno, Steve Roach and others that do more ambient work and have ethereal qualities to them. It connects me to similar feelings I get looking at stars in the night sky, which has always been a big inspiration for me. So I’m probably always trying to get to those ambient musical textures in a lot of my work.”
Rob Simonsen is also a founding member and Artistic Director of The Echo Society, a non-profit artist collective whose mission is to “inspire, challenge, enrich and connect the community through the creation and performance of new sonic and visual art.” More news and information about Rob Simonsen can be found at his website: https://www.robsimonsen.com/
So how excited are you to hear the score for “Stargirl”?
This article was first published in our online discussion forum at https://vandervault.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=193.