I spoke to both, as well as to Paul Grabowsky, Christopher Gordon and music and sound lecturer Michael McLennan, for a feature exploring this topic, published yesterday in the Review section of The Weekend Australian (not linked here as it’s behind the paper’s paywall).
Obviously there are major exceptions to the rule. Among the more notable examples of Australian films successfully exploiting the power of music are a handful of musicals and stories where the music plays a prominent role - Moulin Rouge, Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires, Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla, Strictly Ballroom and Man of Flowers - as well as features where the musical soundtrack has played a hugely important creative role such as the first two Mad Max films and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Yet in too many other cases Gross thinks many local filmmakers have been slow to realise the potential power of music, holding back just when they should be pushing forward, almost as if they’re embarrassed by the display of emotion. And he’s not alone in wondering if the Australian psyche is to blame.
Armiger, head of screen music at AFTRS (the Australian Film Television and Radio School) recalls a US editing teacher at the school telling him Australian directors would always be reluctant to go for the emotional moment, and that he could never work it out. “It was almost as if it was unmanly.”
In sound mixing theatres Armiger says he has often been amazed at the way directors will “privilege the sound design, which doesn’t have emotional content, over the music. The sound of a V8 engine will get them excited, whereas a bit of music will make them embarrassed. They’d really not want to go there.”
Grabowsky, however, wonders if this retreat from emotion is not just a local phenomenon but an international one keyed into today’s regard for irony, quotation and coolness. As Armiger notes, US film scores are now often minimalistic (especially if they’re independents). The exception is genre films – science fiction, action-adventure, children’s or horror - which tend to feature loud, often bombastic scores.
But as McLennan points out, the rise to Hollywood prominence of French composer Alexandre Desplat (Argo; Zero Dark Thirty; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows among many others) is bringing Hollywood scores to a place somewhere between those two extremes. "He can write dramatic music that directors don’t think is overstating the case.”
Here's a couple of lists I compiled as memory-joggers while researching the article. Note these are personal favourites and not an attempt at objective listings of the most important and influential film scores (though of course many are).
Top 20 Original Film Soundtracks
1.The Draughtsman’s Contract – Michael Nyman
2. Paris Texas – Ry Cooder
3. Lawrence of Arabia – Maurice Jarre
4. Psycho – Bernard Herrmann
5. Koyaanisqatsi – Philip Glass
6. Twin Peaks – Angelo Badalamenti
7. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – Ennio Morricone
8. Three Colours Blue – Zbigniew Preisner
9. Goldfinger – James Barry, Monty Norman
10. Run Lola Run – Tykwer, Klimek & Heil
11. The Godfather – Nino Rota
12 The Third Man – Anton Karas
13) Lift to the Scaffold – Miles Davis
14) Shaft – Isaac Hayes
15) The Pink Panther – Henry Mancini
16) Tron : Legacy - Daft Punk
17) Taxi Driver – Bernard Herrmann
18) Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – Ennio Morricone
19) The Thin Red Line – Hans Zimmer
20) Blade Runner – Vangelis
Found tracks / original and found (ie. films that use pre-recorded musical pieces, either for the entire soundtrack or in conjunction with an original score)
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. A Clockwork Orange
4. Apocalypse Now
5. Pulp Fiction
6. The Harder They Come
7. Black Orpheus
8. Mystery Train
9. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
11) Days of Heaven
12) The Graduate
13) The Gospel According to St Matthew
14) Midnight Cowboy
17) The Indian Runner
19) Easy Rider