Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

Film Music – Crash

Category music
Essay type Film Analysis
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CRITICAL STUDIES: Film Music Assessment 1: Research Essay Crash (2004) – Composer: Mark Isham Crash is a film directed by Paul Haggis and was released in 2004. The film depicts various social and political themes, the strongest being the issue of racism in the larger societies of the US. Mark Isham composed the score for the film; his work mostly consisting of smooth, ethereal and other-worldly sounds.

The scene in analysis consists of a car crash in which Officer John Ryan, a racist white cop who tries to save a black woman from her upturned car, his attempt in rescuing her being delayed as he realises that she is the woman he had sexually abused the night before. Mark Isham was born in New York City, USA. He grew up learning to play classical piano, violin and trumpet. He played jazz trumpet whilst in high school and ventured on to electronic music in his early 20s.

He had simultaneous careers as a classical, jazz and rock musician, performing with acts such as the San Fransisco Opera, The Beach Boys, the famous jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and co-lead Rubisa Patrol with pianist Art Lande. In 1979, he formed the Group 87 ensemble with Peter Mannu, Patrick O’Hearn and Terry Bozzio, in which they released a self-titled debut album a year later and A Career in Dada Processing four years after. He also recorded and toured with Van Morrison’s band, playing trumpet and flugelhorn. (Oxford Online)

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Mark Isham started to develop his compositional skills in the 80s, using brass, electronics and his own trumpet. His work is quite extensive and can be heard in films, documentaries and children’s fairytales. Some films in which he’s worked in are The Times of Harvey Milk, Made In America, The Net, Kiss the Girls, Blade, Rules of Engagement and many more……….. Paul Haggis’s Crash is a film which delved into the ‘prejudices’ or racist attitudes that people have about others, in a larger society of the USA. The film’s foundation is the exploration of racism and how people’s cultural prejudices affects the lives of those around them.

The film maintains its narrative around different characters, their lives, and these characters intertwining with the lives of the other characters. The main characters are: two young black car thieves, one of these young men is the missing brother of a black detective who’s partner is white; a black film director and his wife, his wife sexually abused by a white racist cop – his white partner having a problem with his unethical attitudes and behaviour; a white upper class lawyer and his wife; a Persian family who owns a store in which is robbed and vandalised and a Latino man, his wife and daughter.

This film is set in a postmodern, post-civil rights, postracial, postfeminist, post-9/11 U. S. culture and so the various racial, social and cultural themes presented within Crash are a reflection of Haggis’ bold gesture to inform and challenge audiences about the ‘prejudices’ and cultural differences that everyone has. (Middleton, J. I, 2007) The scene in analysis is a scene in which a racist white cop Officer John Ryan gets to a crash scene and realises that the victim in the upturned car is Christine, the black woman he had wrongfully abused the night before.

Her distress is heightened when she realises that he is the one who had abused her and his attempt in rescuing her is delayed and strived. The music in this excerpt is ethereal, haunting and ethereal, Isham’s use of electronics and ethnic sounds enables the audience to experience the emotions and journey of the characters on screen. The scene begins with the police car making its way towards the crash site. The cue in this instant consists of thick textured and ethereal string/ pad or electronic sounds which overall create an ambient and otherworldly atmosphere, which essentially remains consistent throughout the entire scene.

As they get to the crash scene and Officer John Ryan gets out of the car, the sustained string/ pad sound changes harmony and is played in a higher register, the piano being struck with sustain and repeats the same note, driving the action and momentum forward on screen and also mirrors what is happening on screen, that is, John running to the upturned car. This change in feel; this uplifting, bright and ethereal music can also be indicative of John’s expected values that he is to uphold as a police officer, that is, bringing justice, helping people and protecting the people within his society.

Furthermore, the smooth and ethereal score also illustrates not only the nobility of the values he is to uphold as a police officer, but also foreshadows the nobility and strength of character he is about to portray in the upcoming moments of attempting to rescue Christine. One can also say that it foreshadows the potential change of heart and perspective he undergoes as he encounters Christine and saves her life. As he is running towards the car, the music is dominant; the sound effects are sparse and soft, and so the music directly illustrates John’s desperation in getting to the car and also outlines his strength of character.

Sound effects are heard in full when he reaches the car and he is contact with Christine and engages with dialogue. Obviously, the sound effects and the dialogue are heard as well the score, to engage the audience and reinforce the gravity of the situation and allows for the audience to empathise with both of the characters’ situations. The female voice is heard as soon as he reaches the car and engages with Christine. The female voice is singing in a foreign language, and is smooth, soft, tender and ethereal in tone and timbre.

The female voice, in a way, is a portrayal of the shared experience of John and Christine. A single bass drum sound, like a timpani, is struck when Christine looks up and realises that it’s John who’s attempting to rescue her. The single hit of the bass drum reinforces her distress when the realisation of John being there occurs. Rather than feeling relieved that someone’s there to help her, her distress and fear dramatically increases due to what he had done to her the night before.

When he asks to reach across her lap to free her from the seatbelt and she agrees, the viewer can hear a change in tone and atmosphere in the music. The female voice is absent and it becomes gentler in dynamics and thinner in texture with only the sustained electronic sounds and the piano playing notes in the higher register, sounding almost bell-like. The tension is broken as she realises the magnitude of her situation and allows him to come closer to her.

The music therefore parallels the softening of the tension and drama, also portraying the understanding between the two characters. The female voice being absent is significant as it allows the viewer to engage with the emotions and experiences of the characters, also allowing the viewer to appreciate the change of hearts in both characters. The repetition of the same chord which is created by the synths, forewarn the viewer of the coming danger as the shot of the gasoline travelling closer to the car is seen and the female voice comes back in.

This creates a feeling of suspense, even amongst the ethereal sounds of the electronic sounds. The music is therefore fuller in texture, symbolising added elements of danger on the screen and brings the viewer back to the drama and action of what is happening around them. The fuller texture is contrasting to the thinner texture of the music played in the moment between John and Christine, the fuller texture illustrating the outside world and the thinner texture representing the change process within each character.

In the following sequence, the gasoline alights and explodes around the car, and John is pulled out and Christine is left in the car. The viewer can see Christine screaming and John shouting as he is pulled out of the car, which is now surrounded by fire. All the dialogue and sound effects are muted in this instant, therefore the ethereal music and the female vocals are dominant, which serves to highlight the emotional aspects of the scene, that is, Christine’s distress and hysteria and John’s desperation in rescuing her.

The repeated chords re-occur as John goes back in to pull Christine out, the dialogue suddenly heard as he says ‘Pull! ’ in which then, the sound effects are heard again. These repeated chords are indicative of moving action that is, moving nearer to the subject on the screen, first with the gasoline coming towards the car, and then with John coming towards Christine to rescue her. It helps drive the action and prompts momentum on screen. The repeated chords are then consistently played throughout the scenes where Christine is pulled out of the car and they’re safe from harm.

However, these chords are played by the piano and are different in timbre – they’re softer, light and gentler in sound and blend in with the sustained electronic sounds in the background. It creates a layer of constant sound and represents the characters’ overall freedom, not only from the physical danger but from the ‘prejudices’ they had of each other. The female vocals are still heard once they’re free from the car, finally stopping just before John and Christine embrace, and John comforts her.

The female vocals are important as it symbolises the two characters sharing the experience and also their need of each other at that particular time. The vocals end just before the embrace as it has completed its purpose, in that it helped the characters through the situation achieve self-realisation: John redeeming himself in his act of selflessness and finding his strength of character and Christine allowing herself to be vulnerable and accept help from others; the embrace representative of the end of their journey.

Isham talks about the score and states that certain scenes can come off as truly horrendous, and I felt like the music had to help you through the movie and be like a shepherding hand… A friend of mine described the score as being like a guardian angel and there was a sense we had that that was what the score needed to do. (Bond, 2005) In conclusion, from the above quote, it’s clear that the cue acted as a guide for the characters on screen.

This particular excerpt of the film is rather serious and distressing, yet the underscore for these sequences is overall tender, smooth and ethereal. This contrast in music and action on screen is effective in that the marriage of these two things help tell the narrative, explore the emotions of the main characters and engage and evoke the emotions of the film’s viewers.

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Film Music – Crash. (2017, Jun 19). Retrieved from

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