Music is so often an undervalued component of any film’s success. A great musical score can enhance not just our excitement, but also our emotional involvement with a story and its characters. In this week’s Roundtable, we highlight some of our favorite film scores.
I suspect that many people’s first instinct will be to reach for John Williams here. From his stirring scores for the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Superman’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Harry Potter’ franchises, plus literally hundreds of other memorable movies, the man is a legend. He’s also, I hate to say it, a bit overexposed.
I’d like to consider this a “John Williams Memorial Roundtable” and focus instead on some other great composers. (That’s Henry Mancini in the photo at the top of this post, FYI.)
This is an easy pick for me. My favorite score also comes from my all-time favorite movie, ‘Somewhere in Time‘. Composed by the late John Barry, the score is deeply moving and romantic, and mixes nicely with the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which is also used within Barry’s score. In fact, unlike many other motion pictures where the score is almost an afterthought or, at the very least, an enhancement to the movie, it’s hard to think of ‘Somewhere in Time’ without its magnificent soundtrack. It’s one of the few scores that almost seems to be a character in the film.
I’ve always been a big fan of Thomas Newman’s ‘Scent of a Woman‘ score. I loved that movie as a kid, and used to listen to the soundtrack while I wrote my amateur movie scripts. It’s a light, fun score that still pops up in movie trailers.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
Music makes such a difference in film. I’ll include one of my all-time favorites as well as one more recent gem.
‘Blade Runner‘ (Vangelis) – The synth-based, mostly electronic score echoes the somber and bleak yet somehow optimistic outlook of the film. It’s majestic and powerful when it needs to be, but delicate at times too. I can listen to this on its own, which is rare for film soundtracks (for me).
‘Gravity‘ (Stephen Price) – It’s funny that a film that takes place in space (where no one can hear you scream) is so heavily influenced by its soundtrack and sound design. Wondrous fascination on the vastness and majesty of space turns into a cacaphony of chaos, settling into quiet determination and finally fierce resolve. The soundtrack matches the film’s action in a way that few experienced film composers do. I only wish that everyone who sees the film could hear it in Dolby Atmos, because this film was made for that format. The precise placement of sound brings a new level of immersion and enjoyment to the movie.
Also, speaking of film scores, is it just me, or do ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ have the same soundtrack? I know Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer worked together on several projects, but seriously? When I hear one, I’m still not sure which one it is. Dum dum dum da-dum, dum dum dum DA-dum. Dum dum dum da-dum, Dum da dum DUM! Don’t get me wrong, I actually like these sweeping, majestic, heroic scores. I just have some trouble telling them apart. Meanwhile, John Williams has done so many excellent and memorable scores, but one would never confuse ‘Jaws’ with ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Superman’ with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Sorry, was I not supposed to mention John Williams?
I’ll go with ‘The Pink Panther‘ by Henry Mancini. Who doesn’t want to dress like a beatnik and snap their fingers along to the “Pink Panther Theme”? Or, for that matter, croon along with “Moon River” in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’? Or what about his hits from ‘Charade’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Days of Wine and Roses’? If I wasn’t limited to his movie scores, he also wrote many memorable TV themes: ‘Peter Gunn’, ‘The Thorn Birds’, ‘Newhart’, ‘What’s Happening’, to name just a few. Mancini was an amazing composer, and way more hip than John Williams.
M. Enois Duarte
One my all-time favorite scores is the music to ‘Requiem for a Dream‘, a film so powerful and spot-on to the pains of addiction that it’s difficult to watch a second time. I’ve been a fan of Clint Mansell since his years in the band Pop Will Eat Itself and loved his stuff in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Pi’, but the guy totally blew me away when he worked with the Kronos Quartet for this soundtrack. The offbeat and deliberately off-note combination of strings playing against darkly twisted and creepy electro-synth rhythms delivers a hauntingly gloomy and gut-wrenching tenor that perfectly complements the story’s melancholic theme. It resonates with an emotional impact that is almost too painful to listen, especially the track “Lux Aeterna,” which you can hear re-orchestrated for various trailers, TV shows, advertisements and even sporting events. It’s a phenomenal score that continues to haunt me.
My favorite musical score is from a little cult horror film recently released on Blu-ray: ‘Ravenous‘. The first time I watched this movie, for some strange reason Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s repetitive twangy composition actually annoyed the hell out of me. However, after another viewing (or three), it has definitely grown on me. It’s so catchy, unique, and sticks with you so you’ll be humming it for at least a few hours afterwards. It’s just a shame that the Scream Factory Blu-ray leaves a lot to be desired, as this is one of my all-time favorite movies.
I’m a huge fan of the score for Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine‘. The joint efforts of composer John Murphy and the band Underworld resulted in an amazing score that’s been used in many movie trailers since. However, it’s a double-edged sword. A legal battle (presumably between the band and the label) kept us from getting a soundtrack album of the film’s score for several years. For the longest time, the only version that you could find were fan-made edits that processed the movie’s entire soundtrack through programs that removed dialogue. Finally, some sort of concession was made and it became available on iTunes, but that’s it. As a collector, I’d love to own an actual CD version of the album. For now, I’m still stuck with my iTunes copy.
Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John le Carré’s ‘The Russia House‘ didn’t make much of an impact when it was released back in 1990. For better or worse, the casting of Sean Connery in a new spy drama left viewers craving something a little more like James Bond. Instead, they got a contemplative international romance with a touch of espionage intrigue in the background. As a result, the movie was largely dismissed and forgotten.
Personally, I loved the film instantly, and one of my favorite parts of it is the rhapsodic score by Jerry Goldsmith. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to the soundtrack cassette back in the day. In my opinion, it’s still among the composer’s very best work. This is a movie I would love to have on Blu-ray if MGM would ever dig it out of the catalog.
Honorable Mention to any- and everything Michael Nyman did for Peter Greenaway: ‘Drowning by Numbers’, ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, ‘Prospero’s Books’, etc. Nyman’s music is practically its own character in each of those movies.
What are some of your favorite movie musical scores? Tell us in the Comments.