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Julie Hubbert (Editor

Celluloid Symphonies. Texts and Contexts in Film Music History

Julie Hubbert, Editor
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
508 pp. Trade, $70.00, £48.95; paper, $34.95, £24.95
ISBN: 9780520241015; ISBN: 9780520241022.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

The study of sound in cinema has been, together with the rediscovery of the (falsely called silent) primitive cinema, one of the privileged channels of the great renewal of film studies since the late seventies. That we were still missing a comprehensive textbook on the history of the soundtrack within the broader frame of film history itself had become a historical anachronism, which this collection admirably rectifies.

Carefully and very didactically edited by Julie Hubbert, this book offers a combination of three lines of research that had been developed in relative isolation the last decades: first, the critical analysis of film music; second, the technical study of soundtrack; third, the examination of contextual of the introduction of sound technology. Celluloid Symphonies brings these three threads together, knitting them together with an excellent survey of the mutations of the filmic medium itself. Yet the qualities of this book cannot be reduced to its merger of already existing research tracks. Although the first ambition of Julie Hubbert is not to propose new close readings of specific works –her focus is as much on the contexts as on the texts–, her approach provides us with much more than just a new, yet musically expanded version of Hollywood, adding music, dialogue and sound or noise to the already known shifts from before and after the great paradigm shift of the talkies. First of all, what her book offers is really a new history, and this new history is both broad and microscopic. Broad, because it encompasses the complete history of Hollywood cinema, as shaped and transformed by its relationship with sound; microscopic, because it refuses the traditional vision of film as a sequence of autonomous periods, each rapidly replacing and remediating a previous, technologically less performing era. True, in Julie Hubbert’s meticulous account, the history of Hollywood cinema is nicely divided in five different eras, whose dominant features and respective frontiers will not come as a surprise as the global structure of the book seems to follow almost slavishly what we all know about the watershed moments of the American film business: 1895-1925: the silent film; 1926-1935: the early sound film; 1935-1959: the Hollywood score; 1960-1977: the soundtrack during the years of the studio system’s crisis; 1978-present: the postmodern soundtrack in the New Hollywood era. But Hubbert’s well-documented research and detailed introductions (each of the five parts has an editorial presentation of some 30 pages, which make a small book of themselves) succeeds in an exemplary manner to complexify this history without ever blurring the clear lines of the evolution. The complexification is twofold: on the one hand, Hubbert shows the amazing diversity that is at work within each of the great historical periods that she distinguishes; on the other hand, she demonstrates very persuasively that transition does not mean rupture, and that the study of historical change has to pay as much attention to continuity as to revolution. This is the program that she follows in each of the five parts, and which produces often-astonishing revisions of the often-overgeneralizing claims one finds in traditional textbooks or specialized case studies on film music. Good points in case for instance are the analysis of the gradual emergence of the score, which does not arrive overnight but can be seen as the technologically and contextually enabled continuation and transformation of the treatment of the motif structure during the silent era or, at the other end of the historical spectrum, the foregrounding of the increasing convergence between film music and music in the game industry.

The second great achievement of this book, besides its clever rewriting of Hollywood’s history, is the perfect balance that it strikes between major and minor voices and names. Once again, Hubbert does respect the existing hierarchies: the great names of Hollywood film music as we know them (Steiner, Korngold, Goldsmith, Bernstein, Shore, Herrmann, Mancini, Williams, etc., and, inevitably, although in a different mode, Adorno and Eisler) are also the great names of this book. Yet their reading is always very keen to disclose the internal multilayeredness of the discourse as well as the practice of all these artists, and simultaneously Hubbert provides us also with an incredible wealth of other, often neglected voices and testimonies. Each part of her book is structured around tent to 15 historical documents, most of the times rather brief but very diverse and always extremely instructive or pleasant to read, which constitute the perfect historical background of the history. The great value of these documents is also that they are often borrowed from non-academic publications (professional magazines such as Variety, interviews on radio stations) while giving also the floor to a whole set of persons who are not frequently quoted at length in academic studies (such as highly commercial composers or anonymous reporters). Thanks to the intelligent editorial comments in Hubbert’s introductions, these voices become part of a polyphonic tapestry that helps us better see manifold meanings of this new reading of film.

Last Updated 2 August 2011

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