I remember when I first saw the movie Home Alone. It was 1990, I was 10, and my dad took my brother and me to our local theater. My brother’s name is Kevin, like the main character Kevin McAllister. He was almost 8, and with his short, blond hair he looked a little like 8-year-old Kevin McAllister. They even had the same winter coat.
Whatever its faults (slight plot holes, occasional lack of realism, and a plot that relies on the *fictional* disinterest of the Winnetka, Illinois, police department), this movie remains one of my favorites. I watch it every year – sometimes more than once. But this week I noticed something I never noticed before.
I’m becoming a bit of a junkie for watching movies with director commentaries (found in the special features on DVDs.) It’s something my late, great dad introduced to me, and though it baffles my husband why I’d spend hours listening to people talk about a movie (and, in the process, drown out most of the film’s dialogue), I have my reasons.
For the writer in me, it’s an education in how scripts come together and what makes movies work.
For the musician in me, it’s a lesson in musical themes that often accompany the main characters, and musical cues that help viewers better engage with the emotion of a story. A really good musical score can even take on a life of its own.
I think watching various films with commentaries has made me more aware of what to look for and listen for in movies.
Case in point: Home Alone
Basic premise: When Kevin McAllister’s family accidentally leaves on vacation without him, he does what any other 8-year-old would do: He eats all the junk food he wants, sneaks into his older brother’s room … and has to defend his home from a pair of bumbling burglars.
Granted, there isn’t much in the film’s Family Fun Edition commentary with Director Chris Columbus and star Macauley Culkin about the score, other than how great it is. But, as I said, I’ve been learning to listen for musical cues – not an easy thing to do, really, without having to kind of ignore the movie itself.
Home Alone‘s score was composed by John Williams. But unless you intentionally listen for the musical cues, you might miss how his music complements characters’ actions – like in the chase scene near the end, when Kevin lures the crooks from his booby-trapped home into a neighbor’s house, where Kevin has already alerted the cops to come arrest the robbers.
I’m not sure how many other composers have an opportunity to work with this sort of scene – when one character’s theme music “chases” another character’s theme music.
I couldn’t find the actual film clip on YouTube, but you can get the gist of John Williams’ genius chase music in the above scene, starting at minute 5:00.
The chase music alternates between Kevin’s theme (the tune of John Williams’ “Candles in the Window”) and the crooks’ theme:
5:00 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv are committed to catching Kevin, who’s taken a zip line from the attic of his home to his nearby tree house and threatened to call the cops on them. They attempt to follow him, climbing their way along the zip line.
5:37 – Kevin’s theme: The kid outsmarts the crooks again, producing garden shears to show he’s going to cut the zip line.
5:45 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv attempt a hasty retreat, but aren’t quick enough. When Kevin cuts the line, they plummet toward the ground.
6:02 – Kevin’s theme: Kevin runs across the street toward the home of his neighbors, the Murpheys.
6:15 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv appear around the corner of Kevin’s house, chasing him.
6:33 – Kevin’s theme: Kevin again threatens to call the cops, then climbs into the Murpheys’ basement, which he’s shocked to find is flooded from a burglary two days earlier, when Marv left the water running. As Kevin runs up the stairs to the kitchen, John Williams’ music rushes up a chromatic scale, breaking off into silence, much as Kevin does, when he opens the door – and finds Harry and Marv waiting for him.