Compositions & Click Tracks: a top 10 movie scores

Compositions & Click Tracks: a top 10 Movie Scores
by Christopher Teague

I feel that, by and large, the musical score is very much under-appreciated in film today. The composer (or compiler), apart from a select few, receives little recognition and is often neglected, but a good score (or selection) can, quite frankly, make or break a film - could you imagine Psycho without the high-pitched strings, or 2001: A Space Odyssey without the classical
pieces? Thought not. Despite this article being a top ten 10 movie scores, it is still only my own opinion, and whether you agree with me or not, I don't really care. I have also purposefully not placed these scores in any particular order: I can never place things in order of merit - one is never better than the other, but on par - therefore these scores in this article are as good as each other, in their own particular way.Blade Runner (1982) - music by Vangelis
Vangelis' score for this landmark SF feature is not, I feel, a science fiction score per se (apart from the End Titles). It is a slow, ambient score, oozing with atmosphere - which accompanies Ridley Scott's imagery spot on. Any one of Vangelis' scores could have made this list, but I chose Blade Runner for the simple fact has it is one of my favourite SF movies of all time. Vangelis is not a score composer who works with click tracks - he watches the film in its entirety, then watches it again, then watches sections in front of his plethora of keyboards and composes on the fly as the section is viewed.
Vangelis' stature as a score composer was elevated when he won the Oscar in 1981 for his work on Chariots Of Fire - personally, I feel he should easily have won another for this.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - music by various composers
Quite simply, 2001 is probably the most inspired score ever committed to celluloid; pieces of music, composed way before even the idea of moving pictures, and yet when chosen by Kubrick for certain sections of this quintessential SF movie, it becomes as one with the imagery: Also Sprach Zarathustra can no longer be listened too without conjuring up the image of a black monolith, nor Strauss' Blue Danube waltz without thinking of spacecraft dancing silently in space, or even Ligeti's Atmospheres without travelling at light speed.
It was, though, Stanley Kubrick's original intention to have a specially written score (he commissioned Alex North, composer for Spartacus) but whilst North was busying himself, Kubrick used a tape he made of various pieces during production and basically fell in love with it.
I could easily have chosen A Clockwork Orange, with Wendy/Walter Carlos' excellent re-interpretations of classical pieces (the triple-speed William Tell Overture is inspired, especially during the scene it accompanies) but I had to place a hand on heart and convince myself that 2001 is the score to go in.

Psycho (1960) - music by Bernard Herrmann
Alfred Hitchcock's masterful horror tale is, without doubt, of lesser merit if Herrmann's score were removed. The infamous shower scene would simply not work without his stabbing string composition, or the suspense of Janet Leigh's drive in the rain would be severely diminished without the solemnity of the strings. Psycho's score is very much like the Norman Bates character - quiet and unassuming, but with severe bouts of rage.
It was a hard choice to make, since Hermann's work on both Cape Fear and Taxi Driver (his last, which encapsulates the seedier side of New York after dark perfectly) could quite easily have made this list, along with his other Hitchcock productions - Vertigo, especially - but, personally, Psycho will always win in my mind, since it is one of the few films that still continues to scare and the score still continues to tingle the spine.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) - music by John Williams
Williams has always been the first choice with Steven Spielberg - the majority of Spielberg productions from The Sugarland Express to Minority Report have been in the capable hands of Williams, and the relationship has also given Williams his most widely known scores, even though his repertoire is decidedly eclectic.
Raiders was Spielberg and George Lucas' homage to Saturday matinee action films, which they fondly remembered from childhood: crowd-pleasing; adrenalin rousing, emotional. Williams conjures this up with the Raider's March which is has recognisable as SupermanStar Wars or Jaws (again, three more of Williams' scores) - a tune that would probably cause even a corpse to tap their foot!
Williams has, to my mind, not scored a duff film - even Hook has its moments - which is quite a feat. Along with Jerry Goldsmith, these are the grand old men of music scoring and when either dies, the world of film will have lost a true craftsman. And speaking of Goldsmith...

The Omen (1976) - music by Jerry Goldsmith
Like Psycho, much of the horror in this film is conjured by the demonic-esque score from Goldsmith, who takes the cue from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and subsequently wins the Oscar. Though Goldsmith has scored many films, his repertoire is not as eclectic as John Williams, staying mainly within the SF, horror and fantasy genres.
Sequences in The Omen, from the drive to the church and the uncovering of the grave, had their horror quotient cranked up, in the words of Spinal Tap, 'to eleven' with the inclusion of Gregorian-esque chants. The scenes were great, regardless (due to director Richard Donner), but with the musical addition they became classic.

The Blues Brothers (1980) - music by various artists
"It's a road movie, bit like Hope and Crosby. But with rhythm and blues." Wonder if that is how they pitched one of the most expensive comedies to the studio executive? It is, though, a very funny film, with a truly great ensemble music score from some of the best R 'n' B musicians alive at that time; a veritable who's who (even though most of the songs are sung by the brothers). A foot stamping karaoke-challenging score!

The Thin Red Line (1999) - music by Hans Zimmer
Though Zimmer has scored many films - including Rain Man and True Romance (plus, being one half of the 1980s group Buggles, with Trevor Horn) - it wasn't until this, then Gladiator and Pearl Harbor that he became, in musical circles, hot property; Hollywood's choice of tunesmith, a position once held by Alan Silvestri. In all honesty though, many of the cues and themes from the latter two films were basically reworked from this incredibly fine score.
Whilst listening to The Thin Red Line, the notion of the calm before the storm pops into mind; many of the tracks whisk along quietly, slowly rising in volume, culminating in a crescendo that blows your emotions away. This score is a fitting accompaniment to a stirring and thought provoking war film, the first film from director Terence Mallick in over 20 years.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - music by John Barry
Some would argue that this was the weaker of the James Bond series, but personally I consider it one of the best - granted, George Lazenby plays a different Bond, a more human character (which I dare say Dalton based his portrayal on) but in doing so probably alienated many fans - but the music, though, is what made this great for me: John Barry at his finest, with an adrenalin-pulsing main theme (superbly reworked in 1998 by David Arnold and the Propellerheads).
All of Barry's Bond scores could make this list, but his work on this just pips the post. As for best title song, though, then it's definitely Wings and Live And Let Die. I would say it's a pity that Barry no longer scores for Bond (due to pricing himself out of the picture, or so the story goes) but I firmly believe David Arnold has easily picked up the Barry banner, with his work on the last two outings.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) - music by Angelo Badalamenti
Twin Peaks: the most surreal television drama ever to be broadcast. And if you were floundered by the series, then don't even bother watching the film, unless of course you want to listen to Badalamenti's haunting and superb score, which captures the idiosyncrasies of the original perfectly.
On the surface, the music is very quaint and sweet (very much like the town the series and film portrays), but beneath the surface, you feel a tangible line of melancholy and depression, which is helped by immensely by the saccharine vocals of Julee Cruise on the songs. Badalmenti has become Lynch's choice of composer - and it's not hard to see why, since both have a warped sense of the world, but each brilliant in their own field.

Batman (1989) - music by Danny Elfman
Batman: the movie - kapow! Thankfully, director Tim Burton went back to the darkness of the source material, and not the high camp of the TV series (the opposite is true of Joel Schumacher in later sequels, and he and crew failed abysmally due to playing it straight) and in doing so, brought onboard Elfman who crafted a foreboding score, which is far superior to the fairly ordinary Prince songs.
Burton and Elfman have been partners in film since Beetlejuice, and they seem to share the same vision of what a film is supposed to be. I suppose that if there is one thing that can be surmised from this list is the fact that, apart from The Blues Brothers, the music within the films is all orchestra based. Even Blade Runner, with Vangelis' customary keyboards, still uses orchestra-based instrumentation.

Overall, an orchestra score is by far the greater, but then that is not always the case. It all depends on what the director/producer/writer had in mind, and what mood the whole picture takes. There was once a stigma attached to people listening to film scores - geeky, nerdy - but now, so many scores are being released commercially, and also breaking into the charts (granted, mostly classical) the world is starting to see sense. So go on, listen to those scores...