Musings About Music In Film

Remembering David Shire's Zodiac

by Charlie Brigden

There isn't a lot of score in ZODIAC. Nearly thirty minutes out of a hundred and fifty-eight, which isn't unknown for a movie of its sort. "It didn't need a score," thought director David Fincher, who had already curated a large and personal playlist of songs for the film which both served to reflect the general mood as well as illustrate the passage of time. But then he was reminded of David Shire.

Even today, on the tenth anniversary of the release of Fincher's masterpiece, David Shire certainly isn't anywhere near a household name. He doesn't get mentioned in the conversations that usually take place around the densely saturated vinyl soundtrack market, and his name is rarely brought up in film journals. But he's responsible for some of the greatest scores in cinema, with an influence that stretches from Broadway to hip-hop, not to mention the deadly streets of Fincher's San Francisco.

Shire started off scoring Westerns at Universal and independent dramas - one of the earliest pictures he scored was Jack Nicholson's 1971 directorial debut DRIVE, HE SAID - but his stock quickly rose when he took on a paranoid thriller from Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, with the director fresh from THE GODFATHER. Shire scored THE CONVERSATION as a piano score on instruction from Coppola, to echo the lonely hidden life of the film's surveillance expert Harry Caul, but worked with sound designer Walter Murch, to alter the texture of the score as the film went on, using the mixing board to modify the piano to match the rising tension of the film's narrative. The same year Shire created another landmark score for Joseph Sargent's subway heist picture THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, orchestrating a funk landscape that would go on to make several appearances in hip-hop, in songs by such artists as J Dilla, Mix Master Mike, and Xzibit.

It was sound designer Ren Klyce's love of THE CONVERSATION that led Fincher to hiring Shire for ZODIAC, placing cues from the score, along with Shire's music to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, into a temp-track despite having no budget for original music. “Even though the studio was getting a sense we needed a score, I sort of had to do this under the radar," Klyce said in the film's original production notes, "I knew my head was on the chopping block." Shire would look to composer Charles Ives for inspiration, and his 1906 work 'The Unanswered Question', which has sections of the orchestra asking musical questions, only to have no resolution, which he felt suited ZODIAC. “This whole movie is an unanswered question,” Shire opined, “Even at the end you don’t get the answer 100 percent; even after more than 20 years and still you question. There is this awe of irresolution about it.”

ZODIAC was David Shire's penultimate score (his last was the 2009 remake of Fritz Lang's noir BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT) but he had kept plenty busy over the years, whether it was winning an Oscar for best song for NORMA RAE, adapting Mussorgsky's 'Night On Bald Mountain' for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, or composing for the Broadway musical adaptation of BIG. One can hope that with the increased reputation ZODIAC has found since its release, the composer might eventually receive the kudos and respect his music has deserved.

Recommended works by David Shire: THE CONVERSATION (1974), THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), FAREWELL MY LOVELY (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), THE BIG BUS (1976), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984), RETURN TO OZ (1985), MONKEY SHINES (1988), REAR WINDOW (1998), ZODIAC (2007)