Unlike a previous post, which also dealt with great cinematic scores, here disagreements are not welcomed. The following selection may not be your favourite movie scores but they sure as hell should be in your top ten. These are a selection of soundtracks which were integral to the telling of the story, which lifted the movie to new heights and which stand as truly memorable pieces of music. Like great operas or great symphonies these cinematic scores should be remembered and appreciated for all time. And if there are disagreements, you may consider this post a slap in the face or a gauntlet thrown down.
John Williams – Star Wars (1977 George Lucas)
The more cynical (or better educated) might find it trite, simplistic and uninteresting to suggest that the score for Star Wars should be listed among the best. However, there is a reason that this is the “obvious” choice. Looking critically at the original Star Wars even most fans would agree that the dialogue is corny and awkward, the characters are broad-stroke caricatures and the story is entertaining but derivative. One of the reasons that Star Wars is great (and it is) is the soundtrack. I mean even spear-wielding tribesmen in the Amazon rainforest, undiscovered by civilisation, can hum the ‘Imperial March’. Try singing the tune to the Transformers movies or even The Avengers – doesn’t come to you, does it?
John Williams’ score is more than just a memorable theme song too. It is the heart and soul of the movie. Take the scene where Luke is chasing R2-D2 in his speeder. The chase is tense but we know Luke likes to drive fast because of the exciting music. Cut to the Sandpeople and, although they look human, we know they are an inhuman threat because of the weird discordant score. There are quiet notes as Luke observes the Sandpeople, then it blasts into loud discord as Luke is attacked (very little violence is shown on the screen here). Again, quiet notes in the soundtrack are maintained to provide tension until the arrival of Ben Kenobi. We know he is good because of the rising tone (…and of course because it is Alec Guinness in a monk’s robe). When Luke asks Ben about his past, there are faint notes of the opening theme and from that we can ascertain that he once fought against the Empire. Later, Ben’s painful memories (or lies) are hinted through the dark tone of the music as he explains the death of Luke’s father.
Put simply, we experience the thoughts and feelings of the characters through the music. In Star Wars John Williams managed to take something which could have been an above average sci-fi B-movie and place it among the greatest of all time. He managed the same feat the following year with Superman: The Movie (1987). His accomplishments are almost too many to mention, for example: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), JFK (1991) and Schindler’s List (1993). He is a genius with a baton!
Elmer Bernstein – The Great Escape (1963 John Sturges)
Is there a more rousing score than the main theme for The Great Escape? From the very first frame of the movie it is the music which is most memorable, the music which sets the mood and the music which guides the audience. This is a movie which, in lesser hands, could have been a depressing and confusingly tragic movie. However, in the hands of director John Sturges, it is a complex and interesting ensemble war movie which is part recreation of a real event, part pure Hollywood escapism (ahem) and part tribute to fallen heroes. This is a war film where the heroes never pick up a gun, where the characters’ success is based on their intelligence and which ends more in defeat than it does in victory. And yet it is Elmer Bernstein’s score which allows the audience to experience the comedy, the excitement and the grief of the story.
In the first act, the score builds recognisable themes by linking them to specific characters or to specific story strands. In the second act, the score expands to include, for example, the comedy of the 4th of July celebrations immediately contrasted with the tragedy of Ives’ death on the wire. In the third act, the score is essential because it allows us to follow the multiple, now disparate, story strands. As before, the music moves the audience from one hero’s death or capture to another hero’s desperate chase. One sedate escape by boat contrasts with a pulse-pounding foot chase but the transition is never jarring. This is as much a result of the score as it is the editing. Elmer Bernstein has provided cinema scores for more than 50 years. A few classics, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and a few others, like Slipstream (1989) and Canadian Bacon (1995). I will ask again: Is there a more rousing score than the main theme for The Great Escape? If there is it can only be one from the man himself, I suggest seeing The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy (2010 Joseph Kosinski)
Science fiction movies and TV have always been a place to experiment with strange futuristic soundtracks. The Forbidden Planet (1956) is strange and otherworldly, as is Logan’s Run (1976). Often, they date quickly because they try so hard to be futuristic that they end up stuck in a creative cul-de-sac based on the fringes of fashion from when they were made. Clever directors avoid this by using classical music, for example 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) uses Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’. Or by focusing on another theme like the militaristic music of Aliens (1986) by James Horner. Some remain classics, like the soundtrack to Blade Runner (1982) by Vangelis, which uses a mixture of classical composition and synthesizers to mirror the film’s worn future feel. But science fiction is always progressing. Junkie XL did a great job on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) with a pulsing discordant soundtrack racing along at the same pace as the movie.
However, no soundtrack has been more fully integrated into the production of the film itself than Daft Punk’s score for Tron Legacy. Composition of the soundtrack began before production of the film and it shows. The film itself has its weak points and sometimes it seems that it serves as little more than an extended video to showcase the music. When the soundtrack is reviewed is it often reviewed as a standalone electronic/dance album. Like Blade Runner, the score here uses a mixture of orchestral elements and synthesizers. The result is something which feels both futuristic and retro at the same time. Integration of the score into the film is absolute. The sound effects (particularly the light-cycles) are deliberately in tune with the accompanying music. After all, how many composers actually appear in the movie playing their music?
Bill Conti – Rocky (1976 John G. Avildsen)
The original Rocky has suffered as a result of its fame and success. Bigger and bigger sequels and larger and larger Roman numerals have tarnished the memory of the original film. Everyone remembers ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in association with the character but that was not until Rocky III in 1982, and everyone hopes that they will one day forget that cheesy ‘Hearts on Fire’ montage from Rocky IV in 1985. Remember too, Rocky wasn’t a champion until the very end of Rocky II (1979) – at the end of the first film he actually lost…’he lost the fight but he went the distance.’ He was physically crippled but gained his self-respect and the woman he loved. This, the stand-alone first film called Rocky (which won Best Picture at the 1976 Oscars), is a small movie, shot in less than a month on a tiny budget. It is the story of a down-at-heel loser who is given an impossible chance. Of course he fails, but his failure is glorious.
How do we know his failure is glorious? Why is Rocky such a big film in our memories? It is, at least in part, because Bill Conti chose to score Rocky like a large-scale Hollywood epic. Composed on a tiny budget Conti does so much with so little. If you listen to the music alone, this is not a small story anymore. It is more like a celestial contest – a battle between gods. ‘Gonna Fly Now’ was released as a single after the movie’s release and is a most memorable theme but if you were to play ‘Going the Distance’, most people would have no trouble immediately associating it with that infamous training montage from the film. Of course, ‘Fanfare for Rocky’ is another instantly recognisable tune too. Furthermore, ‘Alone in the Ring’ and ‘Reflections’ maintain the movies’ themes while still being gentle and intimate. It is a superb score.
Basil Poledouris – Conan the Barbarian (1982 John Milius)
Bombastic music for large-scale historical epics is part of the landscape – something that is expected. It is there to give the movie scale. By hearing (and feeling) the booming voice of a full orchestra over the opening credits, an audience should be left in no doubt that something big is about to happen. There are too many examples to name them all. But here are a few: Mauirce Jarre’s overture from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is so elegant and exotic you can almost smell the sand before the movie starts. Nina Rota’s opening strings from The Godfather (1972) leaves us in no doubt as to the operatic scope of what is otherwise a movie simply about a family. James Horner’s score from Braveheart (1995) is haunting, beautiful and appropriate to the Caledonian setting. It is also one of the bestselling soundtracks of all time. Hans Zimmer’s musical opening of Gladiator (2000) takes the audience through the mists of time, through a man’s dreams of home and into the terrible waltz of battle all in the first ten minutes. The important thing here is to introduce the audience to the scale of the story before we meet the players in it. No one has done this better than Basil Poledouris when he created the music for Conan the Barbarian.
Some see Conan as a brutal fantasy vehicle for the then rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other see it as a dark and brooding epic dealing with themes like death, rebirth and individualism. Director John Milius saw the movie as an opera, large in scope needing little or no dialogue. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the near 20-minute opening montage which takes Conan from a young boy forging steel with his father, through an attack on his village, being sold into slavery, then a life as a gladiator, and an ending with his eventual escape. This is a large scale orchestral score perfectly synchronised with the action. It was the first film to use Musync software to make this kind of synchronisation possible. For much of the rest of the film the story is told through the music. Arnold famously has very little dialogue and thanks to Basil Poledouris…well, he didn’t need it.
Ennio Morricone – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966 Sergio Leone)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has one of the most influential soundtracks in all of cinema. There is no rational reason to suggest otherwise. It just is. No one since has ever imagined a gunfight, a standoff or a moment of silence in an argument without hearing the familiar opening yodel! And that isn’t even the best track on the album! ‘Story of a Soldier (La Storia Di un Soldato)’ is evocative and tragic. ‘The Ecstasy of Gold (L’estasi dell’oro)’ is a masterfully slow build to a crescendo which expresses perfectly the unravelling mental state of the characters – Tuco (Eli Wallach) and ‘Blondie’ (Clint Eastwood) in particular here. The whole score from Master Morricone is a mixture of orchestral themes – whistling, yodelling, some lyrics, chattering vocals and even evocative gunfire. A creative and eclectic mixture as harsh, brutal and immediate as the movie itself but also like the movie, memorably beautiful. The music is so integral to the drama that is it hardly possible to separate one from the other. This is particularly true of the track ‘The Triple Duel’, which plays over the movie’s climax.
The music has been released multiple times, sampled multiple times, remastered multiple times and reused in everything from computer games to cigarette adverts. And, arguably, it isn’t even Ennio Morricone’s best score! The Mission (1986) is hauntingly beautiful. The Thing (1982) is terrifyingly minimalist. The Untouchables (1987) switches seamlessly from dramatic action to intimate emotion. The rest of the music for the Dollars Trilogy is also iconic and incredibly creative. But it is the score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which everybody knows even if they don’t know they know it.
Howard Shore – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003 Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson’s achievement with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is quite amazing. Tarnished only slightly by the superficial Hobbit movies. The three films distill the best from the books to make a sleeker, more coherent story. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) were conceived together, shot together and are best experienced in their extended form as one single story (if you have the stamina to try – it only takes half a day!). Howard Shore’s achievement with the score for the three movies is no less impressive. The score was created by one composer, who also conducted the orchestra, to encompass all three films. Not only is the score memorable it is also eerily appropriate to setting of Middle Earth. This is apparent from the opening, where a combination of haunting music and an evocative narration by Cate Blanchett raises neck hair.
What is most impressive is the way in which Howard Shore repeats familiar themes throughout, tying them to particular characters and locations. Depending on how you analyse the music, Shore created more than one hundred unique musical phrases (leitmotifs) and linked them to characters and locations. Even as the first movie progresses, these phrases become as familiar as the characters themselves so as to evoke the character or location even when they are off screen. In this way, the elves are always ethereal and elegant, the Shire is always mischievous and merry and the Ring is always dark and threatening. As the three movies progress, the familiar phrases begin to interact just as the characters do to create a new perspective on each of them. The music also darkens in common with the themes of the movie while never forgetting the familiar themes of home and the Shire to deliberately evoke memories. Often you are aware of the soundtrack doing heavy lifting, like in the case through Moria, but just as often the magic of the soundtrack happens without you even being aware of it.