One of the most important elements of film is its score. A film’s score helps to dictate its tone, adding mystery or drama or even happiness, and can help make the film memorable. When you think of Star Wars: A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977), you immediately think of the attention-grabbing opening theme from John Williams. When you think of The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010), you probably think of the ominous yet sad pulsing beats from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross underscoring every scene (especially the infamous monologue scene from Andrew Garfield’s character Eduardo).
Leitmotifs – Present
With some films, the composers cleverly use the same parts of a score to create a theme for a character, musical notes that the audience will associate with the character. The music they create for the characters give audiences a hint of what the character is like, their personality and traits.
When thinking of character themes, the Star Wars saga is probably the most well-known saga to utilize these ideas, usually known as “leitmotifs.” Characters like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) have themes with “heroic” overtones. When the characters are first introduced, the score is light and joyful sounding, using primarily string instruments. It gives the audience a sense of heroism because of how powerful and uplifting the score is. This “leitmotif” appears whenever an important development happens with the characters, such as Rey appearing on the planet Ahch-To to find Luke and begin her training as a Jedi. Her theme sounds, in a way, similar to Luke, associating them with the same character traits. Luke’s theme is also intertwined with the theme of The Force; whenever Luke uses The Force, the theme appears. With conflating these two themes together, the audience further associates Luke with the powers that come with The Force – therefore eliminating a need to explicitly tell the characters that Luke has all of these powers. The “heroic leitmotif” also establishes Rey and Luke as main characters in the stories. The score lets the audience know that these are the characters we should pay attention to most, the ones who have the most important character arc in the story.
However, characters like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) have a more sinister sounding score, but it changes as the character evolves. When Ren is first introduced with the First Order, Williams used an extension of the “Imperial March” theme typically used for Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) in the original trilogy of films, in order to associate Ren with the violence, destruction, and evil that Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers were known for. This theme follows Ren until the last film The Rise of Skywalker (dir. JJ Abrams, 2019). In the last film, Ren starts to stray away from following in the footsteps of Darth Vader and being drawn to the First Order. He begins to undertake more heroic actions, such as going to help Rey in the climax of the film. At this scene, where Rey uses The Force to transfer Ren a lightsaber, Williams uses a completely different “leitmotif” – transitioning into a character theme for “Ben Solo.” As Kylo Ren’s character changes into the more heroic (in a sense) Ben Solo, his music and theme change to reflect the character growth.
Leitmotifs – Past
Some Marvel movies use this idea of a character “leitmotif” to better showcase their characters and hint at the characters’ backstory and storylines.
Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) was first introduced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston). Barnes’ Winter Soldier persona, courtesy of him being brainwashed by the Nazi-adjacent organization HYDRA and being tortured over decades, was then introduced in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo). The Winter Soldier is a bit of an enigma at first – Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) doesn’t see his face, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) refers to him as a ghost story, they only know of him as an assassin. He is mechanical, seemingly not human, and not much is initially known about him.
Composer Henry Jackman decided to incorporate this sense of unknown that the mechanical assassin gives off into a proper theme for him, titled “The Winter Soldier” on the film’s original music soundtrack. In an interview, Jackman states “I did something really, really radical for the Winter Soldier because when I first looked at the footage, I was like, he’s a kind of mechanized, crazy, violent, unstoppable, rampant kind of half-being. I remember thinking to myself I don’t want it to be just an orchestral piece of music. I said, ‘I should make a record of the Winter Soldier’s theme — just a six-minute record. I should do something radical and just see what they say.’ It may not stay like that, but at least if I do that I’ll come up with a musical identity for the Winter Soldier that’s a long way from the expected and the orchestrally sort of generic” (CB). The music is more mechanical and modern sounding than the rest of the score, incorporating a lot of electronic beats. The theme provides a sense of dread and whenever the Winter Soldier appears on screen, the audience associates it with destruction.
If one listens with more intensity to the theme, there also appear to be distorted screams in the music. For a while, after the film was released and it was revealed that the Winter Soldier was in fact Bucky Barnes, many fans thought they heard screams in the music. They theorized that the screams were taken from a scene in the film where HYDRA tortures and puts Bucky into cryofreeze to reset him as the Winter Soldier. The theory added even more character depth into just this one theme, showing that hiding underneath all of these mechanics was just a human. Jackman did admit that there were human screams, just not Bucky’s, stating “Because there’s a human element to the Winter Soldier that gets revealed toward the end of the film, the Winter Soldier starts off unrelenting and brutal and mechanized and almost Terminator like but the difference between The Winter Soldier and Terminator is that somewhere behind the wires and all the mechanization is a character that we know and we care about and that more importantly, Cap knows about and it’s very painful to him.
So one of the things I ended up doing with the Winter Soldier was I spent literally ten days just on production with vocals because I wanted to get the sensation of a human trapped inside machinery. So I did a lot of vocal recordings and then processed the living hell out of them to get these tortured, time-stretched human cries of someone who has been so processed that it’s become mechanized at the same time but you can still hear the human in there” (CB). Though it is admitted the screams are not Bucky’s (though many fans still believe they are), Jackman’s statement and his addition of screams adds more layers and information to the Winter Soldier, all thanks to the one theme.
A specific “leitmotif” or character theme helps to provide more character depth to a film, as well as associate actions with these characters without them being explicitly stated in the film.