Our thanks to guest blogger Cory Milles for this astute and lyrical post.
It is said that music is the universal language. It is also the language of the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
After reading Michael Kurinsky’s masterful blog post about how color in animation reflects the beats of the Beat Sheet, I realized that this is not only true of color, but of music as well. Of course, the background score is composed to fit what is happening on the screen, but when it is created to fit the heart of each beat, one could randomly play a piece of the score and tell what beat it is from.
Take Jurassic Park (music by John Williams), for example. When listening to the track titled, “A Tree for My Bed,” the listener gets a sense of safety and peace, as if it is a time to relax and recalibrate. Of course, this piece happens at the Midpoint, right after the Tyrannosaurus attacks the jeeps and they climb a tree to safety. Even though things seem fine now, it’s a false victory, as the Bad Guys, the dinosaurs, are about to Close In.
Or listen to the track “Why Do We Fail?” (by Hans Zimmer) in The Dark Knight Rises. It starts out slow and monotonous, as if all hope is lost. In fact, the track is from the Dark Night of the Soul beat. As it progresses and Bruce Wayne looks deep inside, is turns into a more victorious sound, as it echoes the false victory of the moment, a direct opposite of the false defeat that occurred at the Midpoint. The track “Imagine the Fire” is a high-powered, adrenaline-driven piece. It completely sets the tone of the Finale, which is a high-octane ride, and a powerful way to end this film, let alone the trilogy.
But the use of music goes deeper than that. Even when it is lyrical, one can see vibrations of the Beat Sheet pulsing throughout.
I first realized this after watching one of my favorite family films of recent, Disney’s The Muppets. Having grown up with the whole Muppet gang, I was eager to see them on the big screen once again, listen to their songs, and pass on my love of these characters to my own children. We even bought the soundtrack and listened to the songs repeatedly, memorizing every word.
The movie fit the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet so well that I decided to formally write about it. It was then that I grasped how well the songs were used to depict the beats. In fact, it is almost possible to see the entire beat sheet reflected through the song lyrics, as there is almost a song for each beat.
For example, the film opens with a heartwarming scene in Smalltown, Kansas. After a brief moment of narration, the characters set out on their journey, a song called “Life’s a Happy Song” (written by Bret McKenzie). The lyrics and choreography that go with the song paint the perfect Opening Image, one in which we see our main characters in their normal world before it is about to be turned upside down. Smalltown is bright, cheerful, and full of people willing to leave their own wedding to become part of a musical number. The tempo of the song is upbeat, goofy, and light, reflecting their lives as they know it. They start out by singing, “Everything is great/Everything is grand/I’ve got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand.” Truly, their lives are perfect the way they are. But it is not meant to remain that way.
The song not only gives the audience insight into the Opening Image, but it also hits the beat of the Theme Stated. The lyrics go further to declare, “Life’s a happy song when there’s someone by your side to sing along.” Gary (Jason Segal) and his Muppet brother Walter seem to have everything they need as long as they have each other. They’ve never been closer, and now they’re on their way to California to visit the Muppet Studios and celebrate Gary’s ten-year anniversary with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams).
But within the same song, the audience also gets a glimpse of the conflict in the relationships, as well as a big section of information for the Set-Up. Mary sings of her slight bit of jealousy toward Walter, who is always by Gary’s side. Nevertheless, they will all go to Hollywood together. Through one song, we have seen the Opening Image, the Theme Stated, and much of the Set-Up. The tables are about to turn on the thesis world of the characters.
Actually, it happens while Walter hides under a table in Kermit’s office at Muppet Studios. The evil oil baron, Tex Richman, plans to buy Muppet Studios, tear it down, and drill for oil. While there is no song for the Catalyst, it quickly leads to the song that emphasizes the Debate beat.
After finding Kermit and telling him of Richman’s plans, Kermit expresses doubt toward getting the Muppet gang back together to try and save the theater. Whereas the Theme Stated revolved around how life is happier when others are around you, Kermit now enters the Debate by singing, “Pictures in My Head” (written by Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, and Chen Neeman). In the song, he ruefully reflects on what else he could have done to keep his friends together, wondering if they would band together to support him again. The lyrics state, “If we could do it all again/Just another chance to entertain/Would anybody watch or even care?/Or did something break we can’t repair?” Kermit finally decides that it is worth a try, and Gary, Mary, and Walter enter a world that is the opposite of quaint, cozy Smalltown, Kansas. The antithesis will test whether or not the theme is true.
The movie hits the Break into Two beat, and we quickly see how different things are. Fozzie is found singing with a Muppets cover group “The Moopets,” shamelessly singing a parody version of “Rainbow Connection” (written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher) to promote a hotel and casino. The magic of the original song is clearly not there, painting a depressing picture of the lives the members of the Muppets have been reduced to. And while most of Kermit’s companions are willing to come back, there’s still one more to speak to: Miss Piggy, the character who drives the B Story, and ultimately the one who will help Kermit understand the importance of the theme. She does not come with them, but will at the Midpoint, providing the false victory.
The Fun and Games gives the audience a glimpse backstage into the planning of the show, but as the deadline for their telethon gets closer, evil tightens its grip. Relationships sour, trouble plagues the production, and in traditional Muppet style, they sing about it. Gary neglects his time with Mary, instead focusing on helping Walter with the Muppets. Mary has lunch alone, singing “Me Party” (written by Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen), an upbeat yet forceful song that is reinforced by Miss Piggy’s lonely lyrics. “I look around/And once again I’m on my own/My man ain’t here/He’s gone he done me wrong.” And while the song fast-paced, there is a sense of urgency in it, as if the movie is approaching the All Is Lost moment. More Bad Guys Close In when Kermit goes to meet Richman in a last, desperate attempt to ask him to allow them to keep the theater. But Richman doesn’t simply flat out reject him; oh, no! He sings a deep, low beat-driven hip-hop song to throw Kermit’s wish in his face. The lyrics of “Let’s Talk About Me” (written by Bret McKenzie) drive home the point that money is all Richman cares about, not the Muppets or their theater.
And finally, just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, All Is Lost. Mary goes back home to Smalltown, asking Gary to decide whether he is a man or a Muppet. The next musical number encompasses both the All Is Lost moment as well as the decision-making Dark Night of the Soul. In a parallel manner, both Gary and Walter struggle with their identities, searching deep into themselves. “I look into these eyes/And I don’t recognize/The one I see inside/It’s time for me to decide/Am I a man/Or am I a Muppet?” The rhythm of the piece is slow, the tone dark and brooding, fitting perfectly with the emotions to be evoked through the beat. Once each of them make their decision of who they want to be, the victory is defined by a swelling of powerful music. In just one song, both beats are present and clear to the viewer.
Now, having made their decisions, the film Breaks into Three and moves into the Finale. There are some fun moments where they perform a Muppet barbershop quartet cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but the ultimate “Dig, Deep Down” moment comes for the whole group when Kermit goes on stage to sing “Rainbow Connection.” But he’s not the only one digging deep to save the theater. The song starts off simple and normal, indicating Kermit’s loneliness, but he is soon joined by Miss Piggy, and the music becomes lighter. Finally, taking each others’ hands, the other characters walk on stage, their voices joining Kermit’s in a stirring song of devotion to each other. No matter what, they know that life is better together, and the sound of the song carries this forward.
The Final Image is a direct reflection of the film’s Opening Image. But now, the characters are part of a different community. The theme has been stated and proven, and the world of synthesis is entered. Walter is now part of a new family, having found his identity and where he belongs. To emphasize this synthesis beat, there is a reprise of the uplifting song from the beginning, “Life’s a Happy Song.” Except this time, we can see that our characters are different; even the lyrics reflect this. “We’ve got everything that we need/We can be whatever we want to be/Nothing we can’t do/Skies are blue when its me and you and you and you.”Through the music alone, most of the beats are clearly evident in this film.
Of course, this can be seen in other movies as well, most notably examples of Disney films. For example, Tangled showcases many tunes – music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater – in which the beats are present, whether through rhythm and tone or lyrics alone. “When Will My Life Begin?” provides the Opening Image, the Theme Stated, and the Set-Up, all in one song. The Debate is foreshadowed through “Mother Knows Best,” a haunting song where it is evident Rapunzel is being controlled by her manipulative “mother.” At the Midpoint, where we witness the false victory, she sings “I’ve Got A Dream” along with the ruffians and thugs at the Snuggly Duckling tavern. At that point, it seems like she will, indeed, realize her dream before the Bad Guys Close In.
Keep these examples in mind, or find some of your own, as you think through your story or your script. Try to listen to what is going on under the surface. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the beat of the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet in the music of the story.