Movie Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019)

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Looking for the right words to describe the late Alan Splet, David Lynch's innovative, Academy Award winning sound editor who collaborated with the filmmaker on some of his most iconic works including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Lynch barely hesitated. Dubbing Splet "a born soundman," he elaborated further, describing his friend, with a twinkle in his eye, as a "joyous experimenter."

And joyous experimentation seems to be at the heart of veteran sound editor turned USC professor turned director Midge Costin's newly released documentary feature debut Making Waves, which celebrates the adventurous spirit of professionals eager to contribute to what Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas agree is fifty percent of a feature film.

Chronicling the history of motion picture sound from the beginning, in Waves, we learn about the artists who performed music and sound effects live to accompany screenings of the Oscar winning 1927 silent film Wings to the advent of the talkie with The Jazz Singer that same year. From King Kong setting the bar for future sound design in 1933, we move from Orson Welles bringing the methods he pioneered on radio to his influential Citizen Kane and beyond, until later on when we circle back to Jack Foley working his magic on 1960's Spartacus in order to save Stanley Kubrick a fortune in reshoots.

With three decades of experience working in the industry on films such as Days of Thunder and Crimson Tide at her disposal, Costin's passion for and knowledge of her subject shines through in this ambitious, eye-opening documentary, which is sure to be of particular interest to both budding and established cinephiles.

Occasionally too ambitious for its 94 minute format, while rushing from one thrilling anecdote about recording the sound of animal roars in order to beef up the otherwise "wimpy" sound of jets for Top Gun to recounting what it was like to re-record "there's no crying in baseball," with the actors live for A League of Their Own, Waves struggles to cover too much ground.

At its most engrossing when it slows down enough to really sink its teeth into a topic, Costin's segments on Splet-like "born soundmen," Walter Murch and Ben Burtt — both of whom fell in love with the medium playing with tape recorders as children before ultimately making their own groundbreaking contributions to the field on Apocalypse Now and Star Wars respectively — stand out.

An MVP in any documentary (and richly deserving of his own), from his philosophical analysis about sound's importance going back to the womb when it was the first sense we could experience up through his revolutionary decision to treat each facet of sound design like a different instrument family in a symphony, the sophisticated Murch easily holds us in his thrall. And with Burtt revealing his painstaking process of eagerly cataloging a wide variety of sounds for George Lucas a year before a single frame of Star Wars was even shot in order to give life to Chewbacca and R2-D2, Waves illustrates how well sound can translate emotion to audiences around the world.

Not just a boys club despite its reputation — as a female sound professional herself now heading up a largely female production and post-production crew — Costin makes an effort to champion the vital contributions made by the industry's unheralded soundwomen in Waves. While many of the contemporary examples fly by the screen far too quickly, one of the most interesting sequences in the film is devoted to the little known role that Barbra Streisand played in bridging the divide between concerts and film.

Longing to bring to the screen the same interplay between the artist and the audience that could be experienced at one of her shows, Streisand not only rejected the use of tape playback in Funny Girl in order to sing live but also insisted upon using what was then a relatively new, two-speaker, Dolby sound format for A Star is Born. Offering to pay for the expensive, untested technology out of her own pocket — which would have amounted to a million dollars — when Warner Brothers studio heads saw the film played back in Dolby, they heard the difference immediately and reassured her that there was no need for her to foot the bill.

Featuring interview footage with filmmakers ranging from Ang Lee and Robert Redford to Sofia Coppola and Ryan Coogler as well as the expertise of a wide variety of sound designers and editors, once we reach the film's blink-and-you-missed-it section on composers, it feels as though most of the contemporary segments in Making Waves have gone by in a blur.

With so much to cover in all of the various subcategories of sound, Costin could have easily turned the documentary feature into a Ken Burns style documentary miniseries (which she could have also shown to her students at USC!). Though it's filled with amazing moments that play like an epic awards show montage, at times, the film flies by so quickly and with so much force that it feels like a Top Gun jet, complete with an animal roar added in by Oscar nominee — and Costin's Days of Thunder colleague — Cece Hall.

Although I would surely fail if I were to be tested on how much information presented to us in the rapid fire last third of the film I was able to retain, honestly the lovingly made Waves is filled with so many wondrous ideas that it makes Costin's film an undeniable success.

"Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives," Steven Spielberg explains early into the documentary and even though it's meant to highlight the importance of the art form, it also stands out as a perfect descriptor of Waves, which makes us appreciate the role that sound plays on a number of levels evidenced therein.

Celebrating the link between what we hear and what we feel, Making Waves is as informative as it is indefatigable, despite its structural flaws. A passionate ode to creativity, Midge Costin's documentary might just inspire the next generation of would-be sound artists to do some joyous experimentation — the kind we'll have to hear to believe — of their own.

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