Musings About Music In Film

Op-Ed: The Great Blackhat Scoring Controversy

By Charlie Brigden blackhat

Michael Mann is the devil.

Or at least that's what the internet would have you think. There has been an interesting uproar regarding the new film from Mann, cyber-thriller Blackhat. While many have seen fit to instantly decry the film based on the casting of Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as a computer hacker, a controversy has arisen from a Facebook post by Blackhat composer Harry Gregson-Williams.

Gregson-Williams stated in the post that he "would like it to be known that the score may be credited to me, but contains almost none of my compositions". He mentions that he attended the premiere and it was then, to his horror, that he discovered his music had been replaced by "quasi emotional (synth) string pieces" (his words) which would appear to be the work of someone unknown - the other composer known to be working on the score was Atticus Ross. Another point is that he doesn't like being credited when it's not his music.

Several online film critics and bloggers have exclaimed shock at the treatment Gregson-Williams has received, and while I agree with that - and as a fan of Mann I'm pretty disappointed in him for this - there is one famous precedent. The famous Golden Age composer Alex North suffered the same treatment at the hands of one Stanley Kubrick, where at the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey he found that his music had been replaced by classical pieces by Richard Strauss and Gyorgi Ligeti (his score has been released by itself several times, most recently on the Mondo label).

So I agree - bad form from Mann. But on the other hand, I'm somewhat baffled by the reaction to the news. Of course the fact that he found out at the premiere is bad, but at the end of the day this is Michael Mann, who has a lot of previous with this kind of thing. Even one of the articles that kind of led me to write this piece (by Kevin Jagernauth at The Playlist) included quotes by Elliot Goldenthal, who wrote music for Heat and Public Enemies, about how ruthless and exacting Mann is concerning music for his films. And he is absolutely right, the director requires total control on every aspect of his films. And why shouldn't he?

This is not a new thing. To point to someone who does this on an even more regular basis, let's look at Ridley Scott. Film score fans will be well aware of Scott's exploits, none more so than on Alien where he and editor Terry Rawlings took Jerry Goldsmith's score and "modified" it, tracking in classical music as well as music from an earlier Goldsmith score, Freud (Scott also saw fit to jettison Goldsmith's score to Legend in its entirety for the US theatrical release, pointing fingers at pot-smoking preview attendees.) Ironically, Scott tracked in a Goldsmith cue from The 13th Warrior for Kingdom of Heaven, which coincidentally also contained music by Harry Gregson-Williams.

In fact, there have been two very recent cases where music by Gregson-Williams has appeared in films where other composers have been credited - Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Prometheus is perhaps a special case because the Gregson-Williams cues are so prominent in the film; the opening title cue that illustrates the journey of the Engineer's DNA is by him, but the main titles credit only Streitenfeld. Mann has done the same many times, for Heat, for Collateral, for Miami Vice. And you know what? It works. Every. Single. Time.

What I'm more interested in is what was contractually agreed. Gregson-Williams has since taken down the Facebook post, which may be a case that either he is remorseful for his bravely honest post, or that it was a breach of his terms. Presumably his contract agreed how he would be credited, and you would imagine that there would be something about the treatment of the music in the film (especially given Mann's history - you'd think Gregson-Williams or his advisors would perhaps be smart enough to reference this). Gregson-Williams also gave an interview around six months ago in which he confirmed he knew other composers were working on the project, and that he didn't know how much - if any - of his music would appear in the final cut.

One last thing: I'm surprised at what seems to be a slight ignorance of a the scoring portion of the post-production process. Given how much this happens historically - and that it's been documented several times in articles, books, and DVD special features - you'd imagine bloggers would be more aware of this. Of course, there's a sensationalist angle to Gregson-Williams finding out at the premiere that most of his music was missing - and again, it's something Mann or at least the producers should have discussed with Gregson-Williams prior to the screening - but there are other more common issues that some people seem to be treating as this hugely unique thing.

Rightly or wrongly, it's not. There'll be more on the site about this in the coming days in the form of something I wrote before this whole thing blew up, as it's always a fascinating subject. I hope you enjoyed it.