David Puttnam’s lecture on Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) was enlightening in the ways in which he narrowed down the reasons why an audience would connect with a film. He states, “there are three key elements to making a successful film and they are; the words, the visuals and the music.” He goes on to say that, “at different times and in different films, one of those key elements dominates, and sometimes the music can dominate.” I think that, in the case of Local Hero, the music can certainly dominate. As a matter of fact, it’s probably fair to say that more people are familiar with Mark Knopfler’s score than they are with the film itself. I don’t mean to undervalue Bill Forsythe’s brilliantly observed dialogue and direction or Chris Menges’ idyllic images either, I just feel like Knopfler’s score is so well-integrated yet transcendent that it can’t help but become the defining aspect of the film.
I think that one of the main reasons why the score is so effective is because it breaks the rules of traditional scoring that audiences had become accustomed to. It’s no mistake that David Puttnam suggested Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits when it came time to choose a composer. Puttnam had a niggling feeling that music had been, “badly served”, in film for too long and had grown somewhat, “antiquated.” Knopfler, having never scored a film before, viewed Local Hero as a spectator and a composer in equal measure. Whereas an established composer may have come to the film with preconceived notions of the narrative and the traditional music it would require, Knopfler had a more instinctive, introspective approach.
In his review of the score, William Ruhlmann wrote that Knopfler’s, “fingerpicked guitar stylings make a perfect musical complement to the wistful tones of Bill Forsyth’s comedy film.” I too felt this sense of perfection when I was first watching the film. The music never feels preconceived or packaged, it plays somewhat as an accompaniment inside the minds of the audience, reflecting the emotions being evoked by what’s happening onscreen. This feeling of the music operating as a spectator instead of some all-knowing conductor may come from Knopfler’s unique way of scoring in which he would sit with his guitar and strum along as he watched the film play out before him on a screen. I think this unconventional approach helps underscore the film’s bittersweet nature as the music oscillates between wanting what’s best for the characters but feeling conflicted at the nature of MacIntyre’s visit.
During my research into this topic it became clear that Puttnam’s unique choice of composer was not an isolated incident, but instead part of a wider trend in his work where he would always try to do something innovative with the music. We see this innovation again in his previous film Chariots Of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), which has an anachronistic, electronic score playing over a story set in the 1920’s. This choice, yet again, serves as a way to strengthen the audience’s connection with the film. The modern fusion of electronic music allows an audience to engage with the story in a more immediate way, whereas a traditional, old-fashioned orchestral score would have put the audience at arm’s length and situated the story firmly in the past.