The Day 1 launch of the Disney+ streaming platform on Tuesday included a slew of back-list titles such as Ice Princess and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties alongside such modern classics as The Muppets, Ant-Man and the juggernaut that is Frozen, the highest-grossing fully animated film of all time. These motley movies have something in common aside from their company of origin: They’re all scored by the same Canadian composer.
Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, Christophe Beck, 50, is the musical chameleon who has composed the scores for more than 100 Hollywood features, including Hot Tub Time Machine, The Hangover trilogy and the most recent Muppets movies. And he’s followed in Vince Guaraldi and Henry Mancini’s footsteps, respectively, with The Peanuts Movie and The Pink Panther reboots. He has lived and worked in California since graduating from the USC Thornton School of Music in the early nineties, but Beck is not a secret Canadian – he’s more like a best-kept-secret Canadian.
Beck’s range includes jazzy instrumentation, majestic symphonics, propulsive electronic soundscapes and this season’s highly anticipated return to Arendelle’s traditional Norwegian instruments and complex choral harmonies with Elsa, Anna and Olaf in the Frozen sequel, which opens Nov. 22.
When we connect at his Santa Monica studio, Beck has been going between working on Frozen 2 and the score for Lesley Chilcott’s new documentary about Canadian Greenpeace co-founder and environmental activist Paul Watson.
Whether he’s working with the same filmmakers (repeats include directors Shawn Levy, Peyton Reed and Doug Liman) or a one-off, Beck says “I encourage all collaborators that I work with, when they give me direction, to speak in terms of story and emotion and point of view. Because, as a film composer, my job is more as a storyteller than as a person who decides on what note will go in front of another note.”
One traditional form of musical storytelling that goes back to the 19th century is that of Wagner’s leitmotifs in his operas, Beck says. “He was a big pioneer of that and that continues of course through Star Wars and to this day." This approach is a very big part of film composing, but Beck is also interested in “less melody-based and more grand concept, perhaps an unusual instrument or a particular technique.” He praises Hans Zimmer, “who is really, really smart about coming up with a restricted and unique palette for each of his scores – the use of pipe organ in Interstellar comes to mind or the use of extremely minimalist ideas that play with tempo and rhythm in Dunkirk." Beck adds: "For me, doing both [types of composing] on every project that I do is the ideal.”
I explain that, to me, in terms of the narrative rather than the music, his catchy Ant-Man theme communicates a sort of insouciance – a playfully deceptive riff that somehow suggests being underestimated. That’s what he was trying to achieve, he says – “a 50/50 combination of sneaky and heroic, because that first [Ant-Man] movie was a heist movie.”
The stylistic dexterity started early. As a child, Beck was playing the Bee Gees by ear. He grew up on a diet of Styx, Depeche Mode and New Order before undergraduate studies in music at Yale, where he wrote an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
While Beck was still in school, his first professional credit – even before he apprenticed with theme-song king Mike Post – was on the White Fang adventure series. Little wonder one family member has called him “my overachieving brother.” Considering the compliment comes from no musical slouch, that’s saying something: The composer’s younger brother is none other than Jason Beck, also a virtuoso and maverick pianist, better known by his stage moniker Chilly Gonzales.
Joss Whedon’s cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer arguably changed everything for Beck. “From a strictly musical perspective, the palette was very big and the themes were very big, story-wise,” he recalls of the 59 episodes he scored. “Every episode was like a mini-feature film and it was an amazing training ground and learning opportunity for a young composer like me.”
As the main composer from Seasons 2 through 4 (later returning for the Sunnydale musical episodes), Beck scored the Buffy/Angel love theme and “Hush,” the memorable silent film-style episode where the score conveys narrative. In 1998, his work on the episode Becoming: Part 1 earned him the Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition. Soon after, he transitioned to features such as Bring it On, Under the Tuscan Sun and The Tuxedo.
Defining diverse sonic worlds – from the distinctive atmospheric percussion of Elektra and the Southern rock inflections of American Made to the soaring orchestral sounds of The Christmas Chronicles and Tom Cruise action sequences in Edge of Tomorrow – isn’t his only preoccupation.
Last year, Beck and the music-rights organization SESAC launched The Beck Diversity Project to create opportunities that help underrepresented composers advance in the field. It’s a US$1-million commitment over five years toward mentorship, educational programs and workshops.
“I’ve always thought that, when I had time and money, I’d do something about the lack of diversity in my industry” Beck says. The opportunity arose after he took time off following Frozen and Ant-Man to recharge.
“At the time, there was just starting to be a bit of an upswing of attention paid to lack of diversity throughout the entire film industry and I couldn’t help but notice that the community of film composers was really one of the worst offenders when it came to that,” he recalls. “Back then, if you made a list of the top composers for any kind of medium – be it film, television, gaming – the vast majority, maybe close to 97 per cent or 98 per cent, were white men.”
One part of the equation, he says, is increasing the size of the talent pool early by exposing high-school kids from disadvantaged groups to the possibilities of the music industry. So Beck regularly teaches music-composition classes at schools in low-income neighborhoods. “The other side of the equation is that young composers who are women or people of colour face a fair amount of institutional prejudice,” he says.
Over the summer, Beck and SESAC unveiled an addition to the initiative called The Key Change Foundation, which will provide grants to support films scored by emerging composers from underrepresented groups.
It’s a continuing priority – that and his abiding interest in electronic soundscapes (to wit, Toner from his Pitch Perfect score plays like a Daft Punk 12” remix). He’s obsessed with modular synthesizers; his studio is lined with them and he works on patches, loops of synthesized sound settings, for fun. “My addiction [to mod synths] is running strong and I continue to, on a regular basis, pick up new ones,” Beck enthuses. “To sit in front of a whole bunch of modules with empty holes basically begging for a cable to plug into and see what happens? It’s intoxicating!”
Frozen 2 opens Nov. 22
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