'Barbenheimer' and the music of excess

Opinion: More means more in the film score for 'Barbie'; but more means less in 'Oppenheimer', argues Gregory Camp

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie, in which the excess of music adds to the fun and reinforces the film’s themes.

The recent simultaneous opening of Barbie and Oppenheimer ('Barbenheimer') has led to comparisons between their box office prospects, their politics, their technological styles, and more. But not much has been said about their music. Both films have music playing through nearly 90 percent of their running times, but the styles of music and its effects couldn’t be more different. This pointedly excessive music offers an interesting view of the state of movie music today.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are both films of excess. The former used more pink paint than probably any other project in the history of the world, and includes wonderfully broad performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling; the latter is three hours long and was mostly shot on the largest film stock available today – Imax 65mm. That excess also extends to the music. In the case of Barbie, this adds to the fun and reinforces the film’s themes, but in Oppenheimer’s case the excess undermines the film’s good qualities, ultimately keeping it from attaining masterpiece status.

In an interview for Letterboxd, Barbie director Greta Gerwig went through 29 of the films that influenced her work. That about a third of those could be broadly defined as musicals is no surprise. Even though Barbie isn’t quite a musical in the traditional sense, it exists for much of its duration in what musicologist Raymond Knapp calls ‘musically enhanced reality mode’. This is signalled at the beginning of the movie, where the audience is introduced to Barbieland and its inhabitants via ‘Pink’, written by the film’s music producer, Mark Ronson (with Andrew Wyatt and others), and sung by Lizzo. The song is more than just an overture; the lyrics describe what we see onscreen, and the Barbies and Kens directly acknowledge the music.

Part of the magic of Barbieland seems to be that music travels not only from the performer to the listener but also the other way. The Barbies and Kens don’t just consume music; they, and the invisible performers on the soundtrack, are all contributors who can perceive each other’s work. When Barbie leaves for the ‘real world’ of Los Angeles, this universally audible music seems to accompany her, contrasting the conventional film scoring style (exemplified by Oppenheimer) where the film’s audience hears the music but the characters don’t.

Barbie becomes a full-on musical when Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, starts to take over Barbieland. He and the other Kens participate in a huge production number and dream ballet, directly inspired by the Broadway ballet from Singin’ in the Rain and the 1930s film ballets of Busby Berkeley, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Hollywood in decades.

Gerwig takes us through multiple stages of Ken’s masculine fantasy by means of music and dance. The sequence is an extraordinary example of the productive excess that the musical genre is capable of, a rather glorious mess of musical signifiers of gender that allude along the way to the whole history of cinema. Gerwig clearly knows her film musical references and she brilliantly weaves them together in a colourful tapestry of Barbiedom.

But Oppenheimer is, again, a chamber drama that deals with history. It calls for a score that pays careful attention to the minutiae of the performances and situations, but Göransson only meets them with a sledgehammer.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is also an excessive movie. The mere size of its camera negative outdoes that of any other film this decade so far. But the screenplay and the performances are more akin to chamber drama. Cillian Murphy’s beautiful work as the titular character, along with the brilliant performances by the other actors, is highlighted by the attention to detail Nolan is able to find with his camera.

The film’s strengths lie in the quiet conversations between the scientists and politicians dealing with such weighty issues as nuclear warfare, as well as in displaying the vast, quiet landscapes of New Mexico where most of the film takes place. How unfortunate it is, then, that this subtlety is met with an elephantine, over-determined score.

Ludwig Göransson’s large electronically enhanced orchestra plays (admittedly with craft; the music isn’t bad, it’s just wrong) an apotheosis of the style of action scoring established by Hans Zimmer over the last few decades, a musical texture built of repeating rhythmic and melodic motifs. Some of Zimmer’s most successful scores were for Nolan’s previous films, notably Inception and Interstellar, both of which deal with stretching the possibilities of time and space and therefore call for outsized scores that also push the boundaries of what we can imagine musically.

But Oppenheimer is, again, a chamber drama that deals with history. It calls for a score that pays careful attention to the minutiae of the performances and situations, but Göransson only meets them with a sledgehammer. Though the lack of subtlety in Barbie’s music is creatively matched by every other element of the film, the Oppenheimer score’s bluntness undermines the film’s other excellent qualities.

Oppenheimer put me in mind of the three films that James Dean made in the 1950s: his first two, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, were both scored by Leonard Rosenman in an unsettled and unsettling way that sensitively matched the new and unique qualities Dean offered to the screen. Dean’s third and final film, Giant, on the surface a large-scale Western but actually, like Oppenheimer, an intense study of character and situation, was given an outsized score by Dimitri Tiomkin that erases and undermines Dean’s sensitivity as cowhand-turned-oil baron Jett Rink. I think it is largely because of its score that Giant is an ultimately unsatisfying, not-quite masterpiece. I would say the same about Oppenheimer. Excess only works if it is consistent.

Dr Gregory Camp is from the School of Music and teaches in musicology, music theory and musicianship

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Barbenheimer and the music of excess, 1 August, 2023 

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