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The mammoth effect of music on Stanley Kubrick


I think it’s fair to assume that we all agree Stanley Kubrick is responsible for some of the most iconic shots in cinema history. From the opening ‘dawn of man’ scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the blood-spattered twins in The Shining, Kubrick’s eye for a composition is well documented. What isn’t so well documented is the crucial role music plays in these shots and, indeed, in his entire filmography. 

Music was an essential tool to Kubrick, one that allowed him to access the realm of the subconscious – where all great filmmakers hope to make a nest. Here, we explore the gargantuan influence music had on the director’s creative process and how his love of sound came to characterise some of his most revered works.

Let’s begin with how Kubrick chose the music for his films. Despite being a renowned autocrat, when it came to music, Kubrick was surprisingly open to suggestions, choosing soundscapes that had been suggested to him by friends and colleagues. In the case of 2001, Jan Harlan (his brother-in-law and occasional producer) recommended he use Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra‘ as part of the film’s soundtrack. Kubrick, who was a love of classical music, promptly cut the music to the opening credits, the ‘dawn of man’ sequence, and the finale. Indeed, Kubrick was so taken with the suggestion that he chose Strauss’s 1896 tone poem over the soundtrack that had already been commissioned but ended up not being used at all.

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Another way Kubrick chose music for his films was to treat them as pieces of music in themselves – with audible beats and melodies. He would spend hours “listening to his films”, attempting to work out the type of music a scene or sequence was crying out for, and then fill the gap with the most appropriate musical cue. This technique is far more in line with the image we have of the obsessive and occasionally psychotic director, and it worked incredibly well. As his wife, Christine, once said of Kubrick: “He was addicted to music, he played it always, all day long. He worked with music, classical… and the pop songs and he liked jazz music. You name it, a very catholic taste in music”.

It was this obsession that would lead the director to – as with 2001: A Space Odyssey – choose the music of a long-dead composer over that of a contemporary film composer. He justified his tastes in this regard when he said: “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you are editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene…well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score.”

The music of the composers Kubrick so revered (especially that of Mozart) is logical, mathematical and often highly symmetrical. Indeed, the name ‘classical music’ is frequently used incorrectly to describe all orchestral music, whereas it actually refers to a period from around 1750 to 1820, when composers took the architectural ideals of neoclassicism and applied them to music. Is it any wonder Kubrick was so drawn to Mozart? If you watch some of those shots of the interior of the spaceship in 2001, they are clearly composed according to neoclassical rules of proportion. In this way, Kubrick’s use of music can be seen to be a direct reflection of his scrupulous and highly logical approach to cinematography. This meticulous craftsmanship would see the director spend 42 days editing just one scene of Barry Lyndon, a period during which – according to his biographer, Vincent Lobrutto – he listened to “every available recording of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century music, acquiring thousands of records to find Handel’s sarabande used to score the scene”.

And this obsession with finding the correct score wasn’t isolated to Barry Lyndon. As Jack Nicholson once recalled, on the set of The Shining, Kubrick “listened constantly to music until he discovered something he felt was right or that excited him”. Ironically, that excitement would often come from placing a piece of music over a scene in which it was clearly inappropriate. Indeed, many of the most memorable scenes from Kubrick’s filmography are a result of this juxtaposition. In Full Metal Jacket, for example, there is a scene that shows the stony-faced recruits having their heads shaved. In the background, the track ‘Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam’ plays a haunting refrain. Then, there’s the scene where the marines patrol the ruins of a destroyed city to the sound of The Mickey Mouse Club theme song – creating a strong sense of eerieness and displacement.

So it would appear that not only did music have a significant effect on Kubrick’s films, but that Kubrick also had a considerable effect on film music. As Tony Palmer, the British film director, once said in an interview about the filmmaker: “Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music, in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.” 

In the hands of Kubrick, music became more than fluffy decoration. It provided something absolutely critical.

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