Few things give a filmmaker as much pause as the term 'Mickey Mousing' and for good reason. For the uninitiated, the term Mickey Mousing refers to the music of old Disney, Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, etc. cartoons. It was very commonplace for the music to accentuate what was happening on screen often taking the place of sound fx. A classic and personal favorite of mine is the violin-glissando-peeking-around-a-corner sound and if I could find an example I'd link it. In the modern film scoring world Mickey Mousing refers to the music following the action in a very obvious way (nearly to the point of breaking the fourth wall). Often this term is used in a sort of derogatory way, for good reason as it was very abused in the film world.
It can be done exceedingly well and effective if done with care.
Let's turn our attention to the king of tasteful Mickey Mousing: John Williams.
Now Mr. Williams is in a class all his own (really a genre all his own but that's a different blog). He's been working with film and TV since the 50s either as a session musician or a composer. Basically, he's seen and done it all -- I really can't stress that enough. What I'm getting at here is that if we're trying to break down what makes him so good at this technique when he needs it, we need to remember that by the 70's it had well become second nature.
Take a look (and listen) to this sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, what's happening?
The opening of the scene simply introduces the theme and I am inclined to say that this is Williams' way of signaling the Jones men working together. If you notice it starts out weakly before they begin hopping to the fireplace where it becomes stronger. Rather than have a series of orchestral 'hops' following their movements he keeps the music a little more intuitive. It's only when Indy first bumps the lever triggering the revolving door that we start getting music that hits the action on screen a little closer. The first Mickey-esque moment is when the door spins around and stops. If you notice, the music hits a beat not when the door stops moving but right as the camera angle changes. It's a very cool self-aware moment for the score and the audience. The music says "wuh-oh" as the Joneses have been noticed. Following this we get two very clear moments of Mickey Mousing as they exchange sheepish grins with the woman in charge. The music swells into an angry version of Williams' nazi theme as they start pursuing them with another little Mickey moment timed to the door stopping halfway, it's almost a magical moment like poof, they're gone. We then get a big statement of the Raider's theme as they drop from the gap above the door (how did they manage to get there? It's Spielberg, that's how!). I personally wouldn't consider that Mickey Mousing although it could certainly be argued as such given the circumstance -- I think it's just classic Hollywood.
Now we're at a key moment in the score that I brought up earlier. The Jonses have made their way into an attic which Indy instantly calls a 'dead end.' if you notice, the theme starts up again very weakly and slower as Indiana begins searching the room (because they aren't working together at that point? Maybe!). As Jones, Sr. leans back in his chair it triggers a secret staircase to open up and causes Indy to go tumbling down the stairs. This is a key moment for understanding Williams process. Spielberg has laid out a perfect moment for a composer to Mickey this thing. Give it some kind of chromatic, spiraling woodwind line and get all the lulz. It's almost like Spielberg threw it in there as a test. Like prank videos where they tie a $100 bill to a string. Rather than take the bait, what does Williams do? He brings in the theme again only now with more instruments supporting. It's because they worked together, however unintentionally. The escape is now back in motion thanks to Henry sitting down to think. This is important. Williams values the story over what could've been a cheap shot. We follow that up with two Mickey's in a row.
After they make their way down to the dock Indy runs up to the boats, looks at them and then moves directly to the camera. What he see's is motorcycles but we don't know that yet. Williams lets us know that he has a plan with a little musical ting, like a light bulb going off. After he jumps in the boat to start it, Henry isn't on the same page yet and tosses him his bag. We're treated to a little ascending flute line with some jingly triangle immediately followed by the reverse as Indiana tosses the bag back. Absolutely this is purposeful and a small musical moment of father and son butting heads a bit. If you notice, a lot of Williams' Mickey Mousing is reactionary he doesn't tend to play it with the motion. The lines happen after the bag has been caught by both of them. It's yet another reason this technique works so well when he uses it. It is written from the audiences' perspective. The music never feels like it breaks the fourth wall because we're too busy processing the image.
From here the theme takes on a stronger undertone with brass taking over, they're up to something and we know it. We're treated to a big slamming moment as they speed off on a motorcycle with the Raider's theme hitting right on the action. It's the opposite of our previous reactionary moments! Definitely intended to burst off the screen at the viewer. From this point on the score changes to chase music and flutters between themes very much playing the hand back and forth. It's here where Williams avoids the temptation to ham it up, about all we get is a victorious trumpet stab when Indiana foils the final pursuer.
What Williams' does with subtle Mickey Mousing is masterful. There is an argument to be made that Indiana Jones is a bit of a throwback to 1930's adventure serials and this type of scoring lends itself better to it. To a point, I agree but I also think the score respects this idea whilst maintaining a modern mindset. If it was truly in the style of Max Steiner the Mickey Mousing would be substantially more overt. That's not a sleight against Steiner by any means, he was and is brilliant, it's just the style of the times! Illustrated in this cue is how a composer can help tell the story with a combination of underscore and reactionary tactics. Williams helps drive the scene and cue the audience into the significance of certain story beats. Sequences like this one are very fun to break down and chart out. It's one of the best ways to understand a great composer's decision process and, more importantly, its a great way to learn! I will most likely do more breakdowns in the future, there's so much to cover.
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This is my blog relating to all things composition. I'll cover orchestration, composing concepts, working with films and with filmmakers.