Composers, music editors and music supervisors rightfully wax poetic about the marriage of picture and music, the crafting of perfect soundtracks to enhance video images that linger in memories long after credits role.
It’s easy to point to the composing legends of Hollywood who excelled in the 1940s and ’50s, but for the generation that came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Ed Sabol was the visionary who showed how instrumental music can add to the impact of a film.
Sabol, who died Monday (Feb. 9) at the age of 98, founded NFL Films in 1962 and his highlights packages, often accompanied by the music of Sam Spence, brought artful storytelling to the game of professional football. Sabol was the first person to score sports films with original music and the first to place pop songs in sports films; the music was deemed significant enough to validate the release of a 10-CD box set in 2004. (It has sold 5,000 copies).
Sabol recognized the power of film and TV music and pushed Spence to capture the power of scores such as Peter Gunn and war movies; in The Power and the Glory, the music owes a heavy debt to Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven, but where the original softens, the NFL theme goes in for the kill. Sabol understood staying on point in video and audio.
Countless tweets complimented Sabol, not only on the camera angles and voice-overs, but the music as a key component as well. Spence and other composers — not to mention a reliance on the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor” — provided a musical approach to accompany the themes exhibited on the field. Heavy on percussion and brass in the ’60s with elements of funk in the ’70s, Sabol’s crew gave NFL highlights the feeling of battle, high-seas adventures, car chases and derring-do.
The music was majestic, a perfect underscore for the voice of God, John Facenda, who calmly delivered lines such as “the autumn wind is a pirate — blustering in from sea with a rollicking song that sweeps along, swaggering boisterously” to accompany slow-motion footage of the Oakland Raiders taking the field.
The music played the flipside of the game’s heroics, too, accompanying scenes of on-field fumbles and foibles with a musical laugh track on their Football Follies series. Loony tunes and merry melodies took over for Wagner and Rossini.
No other sport had a soundtrack when NFL Films got its start in 1964 and grew along with the league into the 21st century; today, it’s the only sport with a rooted musical history being passed down from one generation to another.
David Robidoux, who followed Spence as the NFL Films composer, said on the NFL Films blog, “You know, there’s power, there’s drama, there’s football. You have to somehow capture all that, whether it’s in a rock piece, or an orchestral piece, something has to be there to identify NFL Films and to do that in a way that doesn’t overpower the film.”
Whether the music overpowered the images is up to the viewer, but the NFL would not be where it is today without Sabol’s vision, which owes as much to the music as it does where he stationed the cameramen. Few sports fans of the Baby Boomer generation can state that they think about football without the NFL Films touches. One Twitter commentator nailed it so succinctly for kids who know that “the frozen tundra” was in Green Bay, Wis., and not Alaska. “Nerf football. Slow-motion movements with classical music in my head. RIP Ed Sabol.”