After looking through the commentary and feedback I’ve received from some trusted readers on a first draft I recently finished, I realized one of the weak scenes I will have to attack from a fresh angle is a montage I had created in the middle of the script. The sequence is a pseudo-parody of the cliché training montage in most “athlete overcomes obstacles” type films. But on the eve of breaking my script out for a re-write, I found myself doing a lot of thinking about the purpose of the montage, or what many like to call “the Musical Sequence”.
It’s the type of thing that, if done right, makes you truly appreciate the power of the moving picture. The more I thought about effective musical sequences, I started to realize that its success has a whole lot more to do with the director/DP/editors/musical team as the writer. A great montage triggers emotion in its own unique way. It’s something that simply cannot be achieved or realized on the page. It combines the power of the edit, sight, and sound, and ideally ends up with a perfect match of music and pictures to evoke emotions otherwise not possible in any other story medium. Of course an understanding of the characters, their inner and outer desires and struggles, and the story are essential to reach the full effect that the musical moment can have, which is largely the writer’s responsibility. That’s probably why these moments work so much stronger on television dramas than film. But even independent of the narrative and character understanding, its power can still be felt.
Nothing takes advantage of the musical moment like a movie trailer. Although it’s not bound by moment or time or story, it still illustrates the power of editing sight and sound. Trailers have become hyper-condensed masteries of this art. Even the most dispassionate films can make you feel something in their previews. For instance, the second Matrix was pretty much a letdown, but that trailer, WOW. Pay special attention to the last 45 seconds, when the on-screen dialogue ends and the music and voiceover kicks in.
The point is, I realized, yes, I will need make some changes to the particular scene, or redo it entirely, in order to add a little more flavor and originality for a stronger comedic response, BUT the true emotional evocation of the musical sequence depends on (1) what has come before the scene in terms of character and story development, and (2) on the shot, the edit, and the selected music. The laughter or heartbreak or anger or whatever emotion aimed at will only be realized as a success or failure after it can be seen.
The very best example I can think of is the following montage. Imagine reading this musical moment on the page. It would seem rather trite, and in a way, yes, it is cliché, but the decisions in how it was shot, the decision of what music to use, where to make the cuts, and the background knowledge of the inner and outer conflicts of the characters, all in all lead to a powerful musical sequence. Still can’t watch it without getting chills. Hallelujah.