Cops! is a 1922 silent comedy film starring Buster Keaton. Even though this is a style of film that doesn’t really exist anymore, it is still interesting and useful to compose for. The slapstick humour is relatively timeless, you still get similar joke scenes, particularly in children’s comedies and cartoons. Also, being from 1922 it is out of copyright, meaning that I am able to publish the clips with my music here!
I’ve written four cues, comprising about 5 minutes out of the full 18 minute film.
I had a two main objectives when composing cues for this film;
- Avoiding silent film music clichés while still matching the humour of the film
- Creating repeating themes and motifs across the film
The first of these was actually quite difficult. While it was easy to avoid the ‘player piano’ sound that you associate with a silent film, it was hard to find a modern compositional style that didn’t feel jarring. Ultimately I approached it by thinking “who would make a film with scenes and jokes like this”? I immediately thought of Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson. Then, continuing the thought process I concluded that in both cases they’d probably call for zany, somewhat anachronistic music. From this I decided on an aesthetic combining fairly typical cartoony music with modern drum beats.
This is the opening title and scene of the movie. I struggled with how to treat that opening title card, but going back to thinking about Luhrmann I felt that actually treating it like old fashioned theatre might work, so I’ve gone with a very traditional trumpet fanfare. That immediately fades into a reggae beat, the first of my modern drum elements. This is very much inspired by the reggae of “Bad Boys” the theme to the modern tv show Cops.
There are three themes presented in this tiny clip. Over the “love laughs at locksmiths” card we have a comedic/heroic theme that will apply to our hapless hero. Then in the next scene an accordion plays a love/intimate theme that will relate to the girl and their relationship. Finally, over the dialogue card about him not being able to marry until he becomes a business man we get a third theme. It’s a bit out of context at this point, so I’ll explain this one more when it comes back.
This is a very cartoony/comedic scene and I have focussed very closely on matching the music directly to a lot of the visual gags, a technique known as “Mickey Mousing”. Most noticeably I have a very chaotic section as the two get into a little scuffle, and there are string and woodwind runs to mimic the turning car.
As far as themes go, right at the start when the hero picks up the wallet we hear his heroic theme, the very first one from the first clip. This is our innocent hero simply being himself and doing the right thing. About twenty seconds later the cop drives off accidentally leaving his money behind. The hero looks at the money and the strings come in playing the girl’s theme, he’s thinking about how the money might allow him to impress her.
This is a crazy, high-energy and slapstick scene. I’ve gone for a Leroy Anderson sound, all vamp, all Lydian mode, all the time. Trombone slides and some funny trumpet effects are used to mickey mouse some of the more significant visual gags.
It is here that we finally get the return of that third theme from the opening cue. The melody is built primarily on a dotted rhythm, it is deliberately reminiscent of a piece called Petite March des Hommes d’Armes by Offenbach, more well known in the English speaking world as the Gendarmes Duet. It’s used here as the theme for the cops. In addition to this there are a couple of slow moments when our hero suddenly appears with woodwind versions of the heroic and intimate themes.
By now most of the music is the logical repetition of ideas from earlier. We have a lot of mickey mousing and the chase music from the previous cue.
Interspersed I have a number of other references. The Trombone with the ‘wah’ mute from the second scene is prominently introduced when he lands on the same cop after flying off the ladder. The melody from the scuffle with him re-emerges a number of times in the chase.
When the girl arrives, and is immediately unimpressed I called on a particularly classical allusion. The fragment of music in the woodwinds is a borrowed motif from Wagner, the ‘Tristan chord’. In Wagner’s context it is a musical representation of unrequited love, and that is precisely how it is used here.