The Settling of Scores: 7 of the Greatest Musical Compositions in Film

Many of you will obviously have differing opinions on this list but please be mindful it is not meant to be definitive. It is just a snapshot of my own favourite composed film scores from memory (non-original soundtracks excluded). Please share a few comments of your own favorites below if you so wish. In the end it is all a matter of preference. Music is as much a part of movies as acting, direction, cinematography or special effects. I would argue that it is the most important part, but there you go. Disagreements are allowed but enjoyment is mandatory!

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983 Nagisa Oshima)

The Japanese director, Nagisa Oshima, had made a name for himself across the world by being the first director to show the amputation of a penis on film. This was in 1976’s hugely controversial In the Realm of the Senses, a historical drama set in pre-World War II Japan. Oshima went on to immerse himself in the subject of war with 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, an English-language production set in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, c. 1944. Although it was not without the odd flaw or two, there are many unforgettable moments in this film. David Bowie, for instance, gives his most brilliant acting performance as a clearly homosexual soldier who is tormented by guilt from his childhood. A young Takeshi Kitano (the genius behind many a subsequent Japanese film such as Hana-Bi and Violent Cop) plays a conflicted Japanese guard with hilarious ambivalence. And then you have Ryuichi Sakamoto – the magnificent pianist and composer who not only provides the timeless soundtrack, but also plays the young Japanese prison captain, who possesses an uncontrollable but deeply conflicted obsession with Bowie’s character. The music, specifically crafted for the film, is a thing of immovable beauty, blending all the hallmarks of traditional Japanese culture and custom with the irrevocable sadness instilled by the war. Here’s a clip, but be warned. It is the ending!

John Barry – Walkabout (1971 Nicolas Roeg)

Please, if you could, spend the short 3 minutes and 42 seconds to listen to a sample of the wondrous John Barry score from this film above. It will be worth it. Walkabout is set in the Australian outback (filmed I believe in the Northern Territory and South Australia) and is a nuanced and sharply edited portrayal of the delicate balance between contrasting cultures and between humanity and nature. A young Aboriginal boy befriends two white siblings, who have become stranded in the bush after their father shoots himself, and they set out together on their respective journeys – a spiritual one for the boy and a way back home for the two siblings. Amazingly, the film has avoided any censure over the years despite many who have taken it to task on its apparent law-breaking – such as underage nudity (Jenny Agutter was 17 at the time of filming but portrays a 14 year old in the film) and the real on-screen killings of wild animals (David Gulpillil’s character spears and butchers kangaroos and goannas). There is no doubt that Roeg’s direction is intentionally evocative and erotic, which is unsettling when you consider Agutter’s young age – whether or not that is something to be okay with is completely up to the viewer. For this viewer though, I cannot deny that the film maintains a special place in my list of films to watch again and again. This is mainly because of the delectable soundtrack and the terrifically beautiful, wide-screen Australian landscape that is captured in the background as it plays. John Barry may have done something equally amazing in his soundtracks for Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves (lest not forget Dr No and that first Jame Bond theme either), but for me this is his stand-out.

Ennio Morricone – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968 Sergio Leone)

Honestly, I could easily have put eight of Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks on this list and be done with it – The Mission, The Sicilian Clan, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in America and Cinema Paradiso for example. But I am a fair man, and so I will just focus on my favourite of the great composer’s works – Once Upon a Time in the West. The film itself, along with the score, had all the ingredients of a screen masterpiece. It was never going to be anything less after Sergio Leone had bagged the Dollars trilogy as huge successes in the early 1960s. It would appear that he drew on those successes and went one step further with Once Upon a Time in the West. The Italian’s masterful tracking shots and facial close-ups are utilised perfectly and the characters he creates all fit in superbly with the ability of the actors who perform them – Henry Fonda uncharacteristically as the evil son-of-a-bitch Frank, Jason Robards as the slimy, drunken bandit ‘Cheyenne’, Charles Bronson as the grudge-holding, cooler-than-slightly-frozen-milk gunman ‘Harmonica’ and the dazzling Claudia Cardinale as the strong-willed centerpiece heroine Jill McBain. At the back of it all, Morricone simply drives proceedings with his mesmerising and brilliantly varied score – each of the characters have their own theme music (my favourite being Cheyenne’s little guitar riff whenever he enters the shot). It really is extraordinary stuff. Beware of this final clip if you have not seen the film – it’s the final duel. If you have seen it though, please revel in its sheer magnificence again:

Philip Glass – The Thin Blue Line (1988 Errol Morris)

A gloriously pulsating score here from the great modern pianist Philip Glass, who has contributed to many a film with excellent soundtracks – The Truman Show, Candyman, Koyaanisqatsi and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The documentary itself was a milestone at this level of film making due to the fact that Errol Morris was able to provide enough evidence in his talking head interviews to actually influence the review of a murder case, which this is based on, and have the course of justice reconsidered. Long before Serial or Making A Murderer, there was A Thin Blue Line, a celebrated documentary where Morris explored the intricacies of a 1976 homicide of a Dallas Police Officer and its subsequent trial of the accused, who ended up being convicted. The visuals of the documentary are minimalist with interviews interspersed with fairly standard reconstructions. However, the impact of the formidable score as well as the pervading sense of menace and drama in the background (everything seems to be dark with a lot of car brake lights in the distance) allows Morris’s film to stand out and indeed with the outcome of its release, it has clearly entered beyond the point of infamy and should be a must-see on every film-lover’s list!

Clint Mansell – Moon (2009 Duncan Jones)

Another fantastic film (possibly the best science fiction film of the 21st century so far?) undoubtedly enhanced by the fantastic musical composition of its electronic and piano-based score. Clint Mansell, a young composer with a background in pop music, provides a haunting and memorable soundtrack to Duncan Jones’ and Nathan Parker’s engaging story about clones and loneliness on a moon mining station sometime in the near future. The theme music follows a journey that is something mysterious, echoing as it does in the sky-less outer space, but now and again gives way to something more upbeat and playful. I love it. And clearly the BBC and other such corporation entities loved it too as I have noticed the music has popped up sporadically on many advertisements and TV shows since it became a cult hit. Jones, who is David Bowie’s incredibly talented son, obviously hit on a good thing with his collaboration with Mansell in his debut movie (Mansell had previously and famously conducted the music for Darren Aronofsky’s anti-drugs masterpiece Requiem for a Dream) but I just hope the lad has not lost his way in the movie business just yet – let’s hope 2016’s Warcraft was just a blip in his career trajectory. And perhaps it is. I recently noted that he will be collaborating with Mansell again on his new film this year – another science fiction offering called Mute. Keep an eye out for it.

John Carpenter – Escape from New York (1981 John Carpenter)

Is there anything more awesome than this super-cool synthesized soundtrack? There is not, don’t lie to me! Composed and performed entirely by the man who also directed the movie no less. John Carpenter was always experimenting with music before he even got into the movie business (his father was prominent in the music department of the university he attended). In his debut film with Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star (1974), which would later go on to achieve cult status, Carpenter saved money in production by not only writing, directing and providing some of the special effects but he also contributed the music score. From here, he would go on to express his talents as a film maker of many excellent, edgy films from the 1970s and 1980s as well as being the music composer on many of them – Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, The Fog and here in arguably his greatest achievement, Escape from New York. Although the film’s catchy score contrasts deeply with the more profound sounds from Vangelis in 1982’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner (a score which is awesome too by the way), Carpenter took complete control of the vibe he wanted in his movie and he did that by not going for anything grand or over the top. The scene at the beginning needs no visuals, just Carpenter’s trademark font for the credits, a black screen and that spine-tingling and quirky music. A classic adventure film set in the future (my friend Alan will some day tell you all how the film is basically a remake of a Howard Hawks film), Escape from New York stands the test of time because it captured a vision of New York that was truly hideous, scary and completely plausible at the start of the 1980s.

Popul Vuh – Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972 Werner Herzog)

I have explained a bit about why I love this movie so much in a previous post but I will back it up a little bit more here. Popul Vuh were an electronic avant-garde band from Munich who took their name from a Guatemalan Mayan book of mythology. Pretty cool, eh?! The film maker Werner Herzog, also from Munich, was very much aware of the band’s ambient and strange sounds in the late 1960s and early 1970s and duly hooked them up for his film project soundtracks, starting with Aguirre: The Wrath of God in 1972 and continuing through to Cobra Verde in 1987. It never works as well as it does in Aguirre though. The out-of-body experience of Popul Vuh’s meditative music is married perfectly with the inquisitiveness of Herzog’s direction and the strange madness of the story’s chief protagonist portrayed by an unhinged Klaus Kinski. The music, as it is set to the backdrop of misty jungles in the heart of South America, also work on a higher level of intoxication for this viewer. I may have mentioned it before but the airy and subtly pumping sounds that mark the opening sequence where a large expedition of conquistadors climb a trail along the side of a mountain is the best showing of this. But the film as a whole continues in this vein too – it is almost like a surreal but genuine historically-captured moment in time. Whether it is the 16th century or the early 1970s appears to be irrelevant. I will leave you with the climatic scene (spoiler warning again!) with a truly scary Kinski at centre stage:

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