I can’t believe it but twenty years have passed since this website was born. I take a look back at the journey I’ve been on…
On 31 January 2016, Sir Terry Wogan passed away. The Irishman had been a consummate broadcaster on both radio and television in the UK since before I was born. All the tributes rightly paid to the great man omitted the role he played in the creation of the Movie Wave film music review website. Back in 1996, I went to University. Being a student, I didn’t have a great deal to do, particularly in the mornings, and every day I would listen to his radio show from start to end – 7:30 to 9:30. It was the most popular radio show in the country not just at the time, but of all time – eight million people out of the UK population of sixty million listened to it. His show was built on jokes and stories sent in by his listeners, which he would read out between the songs and the banter with his producer Pauly Walters and his co-presenters. Towards the end of 1996 began a near-daily occurrence which would last for the next three years (till I left university again) – he would read something out that I sent in. My jokes, delivered to an audience of eight million.
Around the time, the internet was gaining popularity for the first time. The vast majority of people were still not connected to the world wide web, but being at University, I was – and they gave us all some free webspace to do with as we pleased. Thinking it would be funny, I set up the Terry Wogan Shrine, with little reports about his show, biographies of his team, that sort of thing – he seeemed to find this very funny, having a Shrine, and would comment on it frequently. I went to meet the great man, became quite friendly with his producer – it was all very good, but my mate Tom had used his free webspace to do something very different – set up a film music review website, when such things were very uncommon. It didn’t take me long to realise that there were a lot more words I could write about film music than there were about Terry Wogan, so the Terry Wogan Shrine took on a second purpose, which was film music reviews. I think I can safely say that it was then and will forever remain the world’s only joint Terry Wogan / film music website.
I started writing about film music because I enjoyed it – no more, no less – and that’s the reason I still write about it now. Miraculously – and really, this was miraculous given how awful my writing was, I’m not exaggerating – people actually started reading it. So many people, it wasn’t long before I knew it had outgrown its origins and could sustain life on its own – so it became divorced from the Terry Wogan Shrine and needed its own name. There weren’t many film music websites around at the time – Filmtracks was already going, there was Cinemusic.net, Tom’s site was Soundtrack Express – so “film”, “cine” and “soundtrack” were all taken, I settled on “movie” and needing a word to go with it that at least vaguely conveyed sound (for some reason not thinking of the rather obvious “music” – I don’t think moviemusic.com was yet born) I came up with “wave”, and I had a name. Not a great one, but a name’s a name.
I kept churning out the reviews and to my amazement more and more people started reading them. (This was before the days of Google, remember – and indeed before any messageboards at all about film music – search engines in general were far less advanced so you relied on getting links from other sites.) To my even greater amazement, it wasn’t long before record companies started getting in touch and offering to send promos of their releases. It had never even occurred to me that this might be a thing.
I was young, then – very young. Like all 19 year olds, I thought I knew everything, but like all 19 year olds in fact I knew nothing. Now I’m 39, I have reached the point where I not only realise that I know nothing, I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I never will. But I digress… here was this all-knowing 19 year old with Sony Classical and Decca and others offering to send promos of their new releases for him to review. No longer constrained by having a budget of zero for purchasing albums, the number of reviews rocketed. It wasn’t long before I started writing for Film Score Monthly and Soundtrack! and Music from the Movies – but it was the website that was the thing. No deadlines, nobody to edit me (a distinct plus for me, but a minus for everyone else). I was (and this was a source of great pride) invited to write liner notes for some albums on Prometheus Records, which I took great care over and was pleased with the result – but sadly other labels didn’t jump on that bandwagon, much though I would have loved them to.
It was a very different time back then. There was no Youtube, no Spotify, indeed there were no iPods – if you wanted to hear a soundtrack album, you had to buy the CD. You couldn’t sample it first. Your best way of getting an opinion on it was to read a review of it. I realised even in the early days that the words I was typing could influence someone’s purchasing decision, far more than they might today, when it’s possible to listen to albums very easily before deciding whether to buy them or not. I didn’t think I was important, but I did know there was a level of importance to properly considering my opinion before writing it up. With soundtrack album sales sometimes measured in the hundreds, some spotty-faced British youth saying something was rubbish could have a significant impact on an album’s success. I have never seen me as anything other than a chap with a website and an opinion, but I did understand the need to approach it with a degree of professionalism, even if I was in no way in it as a profession.
Some composers got in touch, usually because they weren’t happy. I’m sorry I upset you, Trevor Rabin. But I really did think your music was awful. One day I got an email that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I received word from one of his associates that Jerry Goldsmith – who was notorious for hating internet writers – had read one of my reviews. Uh-oh, I thought – if I keep on reading this, my world might be shattered. Goldsmith hates me. But I did keep on reading… and the great man, the greatest film composer there ever was and ever will be, said that he thought my words were unusually perceptive. OK, he probably only read one review out of thousands, and I got lucky that he picked whichever one it was… but boy, did that mean something special to me. Years later, Hans Zimmer let me know in no uncertain terms that he thought I was an idiot. I guess you win some, you lose some.
If I hadn’t decided, back in 1996, to start this website, I doubt that I’d have had the pleasure – albeit exceptionally briefly – of getting to meet some of my idols. With Jerry Goldsmith, it was “Please sign this!” and “Thank you.” With Ennio Morricone, less even than that. But I got to shake their hands, look them in the eye. When I met Randy Newman, songwriting genius and an absolute hero of mine, when I told him my name he said, unprompted, “oh, thank you for writing about my film music – I wish more people cared.” Briefly, with Jon Broxton (whose Movie Music UK website started not long after mine) I interviewed a few – Michael Kamen was the first, and he was the most warm-hearted, generous man – Christopher Young, John Debney, Trevor Jones and a handful of others followed. But it’s very difficult being a critic and also interviewing the people whose work you criticise – they only need to do a quick internet search and find something a bit mean you’ve written and things could go very badly. So when Jon moved to America, I didn’t pursue that line any further. If John Williams had decided he wanted to come round for dinner I wouldn’t have turned him down, but I realised (especially with the dawn of social media) that I couldn’t be “friends” (however superficially) with these people and also maintain any semblance of credibility when writing about their work – so I just stuck to the writing.
And write I did, at some rate of knots for most of these twenty years. There have probably been over three thousand reviews in that time, maybe even four – I long ago lost count, and for various reasons a lot of the earlier ones have disappeared into a cyberspace black hole. I doubt there’s ever been anyone else who has reviewed so much film music. Quantity over quality – always my hallmark. I didn’t set out to have a unique selling point, but I guess as the years have gone by I’ve tried to get more concise, get to the point quickly, and always remembered that a bit of humour never hurt anyone. People often ask me what my favourite joke in one of my reviews has been* and I can reveal that it was in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – “geological eras come and go in the time it takes to play from start to finish.”
*This is not true
People often assume that I have the most fun when I’m going off on a rant about something, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I look back at some of my reviews of the more notorious bombs and wince at how seriously I took them and how pretentious I became – though it was never anything other than writing from the heart, frustrated at a new low point being reached in something I love. Really, there’s nothing better than when I love something and I temporarily become more verbose and go on for thousands of words about how wonderful something is. I realise that makes it less likely that anybody will keep reading to the end, but it’s great to do. I do also love the occasional attempt at constructing something witty, like I did with Hannibal and The Da Vinci Code – I wish I was clever enough to do that more often.
My tastes have changed over the years, of course. (Back when I started, I really didn’t think that much of James Horner, at least nothing like I do now. I remember when I first reviewed Titanic – a review which was read over a hundred thousand times in a month, which is as much as the whole site gets in three months these days – I received death threats from people upset that my praise for it was too mild.) But times change, people change. Film music has changed, too. Back then (and in the years before I started the website), there was a guarantee that every week or two there’d be a new score from Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, Michael Kamen, and the list goes on. Perhaps it was something to do with being so young, but I rather suspect not – the thrill of hearing something like Jurassic Park or First Knight or Dances with Wolves for the first time. I haven’t felt that in quite a long time now. I love Alexandre Desplat and Michael Giacchino and Thomas Newman as much as the next man – they’re the finest film composers around today and a large proportion of their work is really great. But, dammit, they’re not Goldsmith or Williams.
A consequence of that is that it’s actually not as easy to write the reviews these days, at least not as easy to find some interesting angle. If you’re really passionate about something – whether positively or negatively – the words come easily. Even as the baton was gradually passed to the next generation of composers, there was still so much music coming out from decades ago which had never been released before – but even that’s dried up now, with most of the true greats having now been released, and if not then most probably lost forever. But I don’t want to be too negative – there’s still terrific music being written, still terrific music from the past seeing the light of day for the first time – it might not move me like things moved me twenty years ago, but I realise the world moves on and we must move with it.
I’ve already touched on this – the biggest change for me since 1996 is that I’m no longer really sure what the purpose of a website like this is. I’m sure that I still love writing and I can’t see that changing any time soon, so I’ll keep on – but is there anyone left who actually relies on a website like this one to make purchasing decisions? You can listen to the whole thing on Youtube or Spotify for free, in all probability – so what does it matter any more what I think about something? And there’s really no point just writing track-by-track descriptions, because people can hear it for themselves – you have to find an angle, some take on what’s going on that might not be immediately obvious. (Sorry, I often forget this.) But of course, it does matter to me what I think about something, so I’ll keep doing the thing I love, which is writing that down. In my own life, I’ve somehow ended up with a lovely wife and daughter who mean the world to me – and I’ve got a busy job which occupies me for a long time – and doing this writing, far from being shoved aside by “real life” which I feared would one day happen, has actually become my release, my “me time” – and I still love it, just as much as I ever did.
Apropos of nothing, in no particular order these are my favourite film scores, the ones I’d grab from the house if it were burning down (after wife and daughter were secure, of course):
John Barry – The Last Valley and Dances With Wolves
Jerry Goldsmith – Patton, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Under Fire (and the rest)
John Williams – Star Wars and Indiana Jones (all of them!)
James Horner – Krull and Legends of the Fall – and, why not, Avatar
Ennio Morricone – The Mission, the Sergio Leone scores, Nostromo
Elmer Bernstein – To Kill a Mockingbird
Randy Newman – Avalon and Awakenings
Alex North – Viva Zapata! and The Agony and the Ecstasy
Alfred Newman – The Robe and The Song of Bernadette
Bernard Herrmann – The Ghost and Mrs Muir
Wojciech Kilar – The Portrait of a Lady
Miklós Rózsa – Ben-Hur and El Cid
Maurice Jarre – Lawrence of Arabia
I always forget things when I’m writing lists like these, and I’ve probably forgotten some now. Two of them are really very special parts of this journey I’ve been on: Dances With Wolves and Under Fire. My casual like of film music turned into something much more the first time I watched (and heard) Dances With Wolves. But it was Under Fire that really did it. I was posting on a Star Trek newsgroup and happened to say that I liked Jerry Goldsmith and listed the half dozen or so albums by him that I had – and somebody chipped in and said “you must hear Under Fire – you can’t buy it any more so I’ll send you a copy.” And so he did. I couldn’t possibly count how many times I listened to that cassette (cassette!) – this weird mix of guitar, pan pipes, synths, orchestra – written for a film I hadn’t even seen at the time. I was hooked, for life.
What is it that attracts me to film music? I guess it’s the emotional quality of the music and the fact that fundamentally, good film music has that dramatic flow at its heart. It’s a weird thing to like and I guess we all know that – something written only as a by-product of something else – and I know there are those who like it for other reasons, primarily I guess because it’s a kind of souvenir of films they like. But I really do like it because of what it is as music.
I must thank everyone who has joined me along the way. I sometimes see names crop up liking my posts on Facebook, or commenting on reviews here, that I recognise back from the very early days. To those who’ve got in touch over the years, whether to let me know that they really like an album they bought on my recommendation (I love those emails) or those who have constructively disagreed with me about something, it means a lot. To the record labels and composers and their representatives and publicists who’ve sent promos for review (and patiently forgiven me for not responding to their emails) – it means a lot and I hope it’s got some business for you. To the small group of people who’ve bought things from Amazon by clicking on the links on my pages, it’s really appreciated (and if you haven’t – it would be great if you did!) To the even smaller group who’ve actually donated via Paypal – I can’t thank you enough. Thanks to Tom for sharing your love of film music with me back when it started for me, Jon for all those interviews and recording sessions you arranged and I just turned up to, and thanks to Erik for designing the graphics.
Here’s to the next twenty years. Sincerely, thank you.