For a film or television composer, the most difficult assignments are often documentaries. There is usually very little money, and finding the right tone and the right musical approach can be a challenge of several weeks or months.
Three of this year’s entries in the Emmy category for original documentary music are exemplary for their musical portrayal of people and places: John Powell’s music for “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” about the actor and his Parkinson disease ; Blake Neely’s score for “Pamela, A Love Story,” about former “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson; and music by Erica Procunier for the three-part nature series “Great Lakes Untamed.”
“Still” was the first documentary ever for Powell, whose big-screen scores include the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy and the action series “Bourne,” and who wanted to work with director Davis Guggenheim (“ An Inconvenient Truth”).
“Davis wanted music that was happy, that celebrated a life,” Powell said of the Apple+ movie. Guggenheim told him that when Fox agreed to do the doc, the ‘Family Ties’ star insisted ‘no violins’ — apparently concerned that a string section might sentimentalize scenes of Fox’s growing physical struggles. following Parkinson’s disease.
Powell opted for an 11-piece ensemble that included guitars, keyboards, harp and clarinet (and, oddly enough, two violins), for a “musically transparent” sound. He spent “four or five months (and) treated it like an opera or a concert work”.
Neely’s approach to Netflix’s “Pamela Love Story” was different. “I wanted it to be synthetic, because I was looking for an 80s, 90s pop sound,” reflecting the time when she became a star, Neely says. “I felt like the strings and woodwinds would be too much. It’s not a sad story, and putting strings or an oboe under it just didn’t work for me.
It was Neely’s 10th film for director Ryan White (“The Case Against 8”, “Good Night Oppy”) who, according to the composer, “loves music”. Thus, the 112-minute film contains approximately 85 minutes of music, all played by Neely on piano and synths. “It was about trying to find warm sounds; I thought live musicians might feel a little sweet.
He also liked the “hopeful ending” to Anderson’s story, as she stars in the revival of “Chicago” on stage, but as often happens in documentary cinema, that ending came at the last minute, as the team was shooting that while he was logging.
Canadian composer Procunier (“Ghostwriter”) scored about 145 minutes of music for the Smithsonian Channel documentary “Great Lakes Untamed” in about three months, a huge job for the three-hour film about the five-lake watershed shared by the United States and Canada.
“The music really had to take into account all the different personalities of the water itself, the inertia of this massive force,” she says. “I was tasked not only with the diversity of ecosystems, but also with how water changes throughout its journey, how it has changed and progressed.”
Procunier created most of the score in her studio (“five minutes from Lake Huron,” she notes), but added guitar, fiddle, and cello for an “organic, down-to-earth feel.” earth”. Its main theme, she added, had to be “flexible yet powerful and recognizable” to be used throughout the series.