Friday, April 19, 2013

Music and the Man of Steel

In January, we posted about the trailer for Man of Steel, and how its firm grounding in reality made the film seem really intriguing.  Here is this first trailer, in case you haven't seen it yet:

This past week, Warner Brothers released another trailer for the film (which opens on June 14th).  This one is remarkably different--rather than starting in reality, with Clark's Earth parents, it begins with his birth parents saying goodbye to him.  Viewed together, the opening scenes of these two trailers speak volumes about the crisis of identity that Clark endures as he negotiates his place in human society.

Take a look:

In spite of their differences, both of these trailers send shivers up my spine, in large part due to the music.  In the first trailer, the music for the first minute and a half is a solo, lyrical voice; the pacing of the trailer is similarly slow.  At about 1:37, though, right when the trailer zooms in on Superman's fist, we hear his Earth father's voice saying, "You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark.  Whoever that man is, is going to change the world."  At this point, the trailer shifts dramatically--the music quickens, and while it is still vocal music, it is now a choir backed by an orchestra.  The pacing of the shots quickens as well, and now we begin to see shots of Clark's birth parents, explosions, and supernatural events, which contrast starkly with the intense realism of the first half of the trailer.  It is a trailer that inspires and speaks to the potential of the Man of Steel.

Although it begins in a different part of the story, the second trailer for Man of Steel has very similar pacing and uses music in a very similar way.  Like the first trailer, it starts slowly, with gradual fades in and out of shots and slow music performed on a solo instrument.  The intensification of this trailer is much more gradual, though--around 1:30 in the trailer, we start to hear more instruments and see darker scenes from the movie (explosions, etc.), which accompanies the older images of Clark that are on the screen. 

But like the first trailer, this one, too, has a dramatic shift, which occurs right at two minutes in--and notably, this shift comes during the same scene as in the first trailer, where the camera zooms in on Clark's fist and then zooms out to see him blast into space.  This shift is accompanied by similarly inspirational words--"you will help them accomplish wonders"--though these words are now spoken by his birth father, which parallels the shift in the opening of the trailer. 

Even more interesting, perhaps, than my subjective response to these trailers is the way that both of them actively engage the viewer.  The first trailer does this directly by ending with a question: "My father believe that if the world found out who I truly was, it would reject me.  He was convinced that the world wasn't ready.  What do you think?"

This same question is asked in the second trailer, but it doesn't end with this question, which dilutes its force to a large degree.  Rather, I see the second trailer making an effort to engage the viewer in a much more subtle way: namely, through the music that accompanies the dramatic shift around the 2-minute mark.  Rather than just adding voices or instruments to make the music more inspirational, as the first trailer does, the music at around 2 minutes in the second trailer enables a much more open interpretation of the film.  As Clark blasts into the stratosphere, the music, too, soars up--by the interval of a perfect 5th (the interval at the beginning of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star").  In Western music theory, the two notes that make up the interval of a 5th provide the outside notes of the 3-note chords that provide the foundation for much of music.  The middle note of these chords--the 3rd--is the one that makes the chord sound "happy" or "sad," depending on whether it's major or minor.

In short (in case I lost you with my brief theoretical digression), the music that accompanies Clark as he blasts into space is soaring, but ambiguous--it does not initially tell viewers whether they should interpret the event as positive or negative.  The viewer is left to fill in the middle note of the chord, based on his or her own thoughts about the Man of Steel.  In a way, this open interval is asking the same question that the first trailer ends with: "What do you think?"  While the next series of intervals in the second trailer walks up a minor chord, the music does not stay consistently in a minor key--allowing for simultaneous feelings of disquiet and wonder.  Ultimately, viewers are the ones who will have to decide: what do we think?

For me, I can tell you what I think--this is one movie that I definitely want to see.

By Jen Miller