Much Ado About Scoring: Joss Whedon’s Score to Much Ado About Nothing

By Michael Harris

In my previous post (here) I detailed some of the creation behind Joss Whedon’s new film, Much Ado About Nothing and also why he decided to score it himself—namely that everything about this film was done on the cheap, so Joss decided to tackle the music himself.  The question of if he was successful I was leaving open until I saw the film.[1]  I have now viewed Whedon’s masterful Shakespeare adaptation, and am pleased to say that the score is a total success.

MAANThis is not to say that Joss should give up his day job of writing screenplays and directing, but he does show an adept hand at knowing when to score and when not to.  And this is where the score really succeeds, he knows how to subtly accent his scenes, use music very lightly, and not overpower a scene, which would be easy to do with Shakespeare, since so much of the Bard’s art is based in verbal wordplay and music could easily drown out the dialogue.

The audience also has to work quite hard just to keep up with the dialogue since it is almost a foreign language to those who don’t read or watch works of the Shakespeare on a regular basis.

So what does Whedon do that is so successful?  Well he introduces a very simple motif right at the beginning of the film which acts as the overall “theme” for the film, and comes back at times of great comedy or a gentle reminder of the lighter side of things.  This comedy theme is contrasted with the music associated with the Prince’s bastard brother, Don Juan, who is trying to torpedo the marriage of Claudio and Hero, whose music is usually marked by heavy use of bass instruments, usually the string bass.  This aspect of the film, though, is the weakest as Sean Maher’s Don John comes off as a bit one dimensional, not unlike his music, whose motivations are never really clear.  Does he want to get in the way of the marriage just to mess with his brother, who helped arrange the whole thing?  I’m guessing that this was explored in some scenes Whedon had to cut from the play for the sake of run time.[2]

By far, the outstanding musical moments occur during the two songs that Whedon and Co. based on songs that Shakespeare wrote in the original play.  These songs occur during the party in which the Prince woos Hero on behalf of Claudio and then as the players slowly wake to Hero’s “grave” to pay their respects.  These are the only moments in which Whedon allows the music to dominate and they are played largely dialogue-less montages, especially the procession.  The party sequence is wonderfully shot and edited together, and Whedon even drops in a shot of the song’s vocalist performing the piece liv with piano on-screen.  And what’s really clever, is that for those brief seconds, the song actually moves from non-diegetic to the diegetic space, as the instrumentation changes and the sound itself switches to a clearly live, on set performance as opposed to the studio recording that plays during the rest of the sequence.  It’s hard to state exactly WHY I liked this, but most directors would probably let the studio recording continue to play, with the song foregrounded, but I liked the verisimilitude of this aural move.

All in all, Joss Whedon’s first original score is a success, if not exactly a tour de force.  But Shakespeare doesn’t require such a score, and Whedon, I believe, knew this.  He played the score exactly right.  If I have one major complaint, it is actually the first note.  A lone piano note, struck loudly, that just sits there in space, directionless and without clear rhythm.  And it sits there just a bit too long.  But that is a small complaint in what is otherwise a delightful movie, with an equally delightful score.

[1] Subtext: listening to the score, I enjoyed it but was not wowed by it.

[2] No, I’ve never actually read the original.  Sorry.  I’m more of a Hamlet and Julius Caesar kind of guy.  “Cry ‘Havoc!,’  And let slip the dogs of war.”

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