Sunday, 13 June 2010

The *Eleven* Greatest Film Scores Ever

Complimenting my not at all frivolous 11 greatest action films list, here's another, that perhaps strikes closer to my heart. Having been fascinated with the orchestral film score for some years now (despite not being musically trained myself), I'm firmly of the belief that it's one of modern life's most underrated artforms. However, the best of them are able to encapsulate the films narrative arc in one fell swoop while also existing on their own terms as an autonomous entity. The eleven listed below are the epitome of what the film score can offer: working magnificently both inside and outside the film they're designed for. More than that, however, these are scores I would deem 'perfect', in that not one track can be sacrificed for fear of compromising the whole.

1) To Kill a Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein, 1962)

Sentimental without being sickly; poignant without being overwrought. Elmer Bernstein's score for Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel is an astonishing achievement, as soothing as a breath of wind through a garden, and capturing every facet of childhood innocence through the breathtaking intimacy between winds, strings and harmonica. It also traverses the films emotional journey marvellously, growing darker in the latter stages as the child protagonists mature to the realization of racists lurking in their mist, before the gorgeous main theme (possibly the greatest ever) restores our collective faith in humanity, family and decency.

2) Jurassic Park (John Williams, 1993)

John Williams' masterpiece to end them all, Jurassic Park came at a fascinating crossroads in the composer's (and indeed, director Steven Spielberg's) career, positioned as it is between the charming fairy tale antics of Hook and the increasingly dark, mature stance of Schindler's List. That duality informs the entire score, but it's never schizophrenic: Park unites brilliantly as a soundtrack, traversing those two classic themes for the dinos, some of the most ferociously brutal and gripping action music of Williams' career and some heavenly incidental sections. It's a score that brims with invention and professionalism, an utterly riveting listen from first to last.

3) The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)

Oft imitated; never bettered; possibly the most important horror score ever to grace the silver screen. Jerry Goldsmith's contributions to film and television are innumerable and legendary but it was The Omen, Richard Donner's horror classic that forever turned people against the name Damien, that won him his only Oscar. But few have been so richly deserved. The score, brilliantly, works both inside and outside the diegetic planes of the film, existing beyond the consciousness of the films leads Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, but obviously audible to us the audience, lending a terrifying, demonic sense of anticipation to circumstances that may otherwise seem just a little, well, odd. The use of the spine-chilling Gregorian chant was to influence all following horror and thriller scores, from Christopher Young's Hellraiser to Philip Glass' Candyman.

4) Psycho (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)

I placed Jerry Goldsmith's The Omen higher by virtue of its revolutionary orchestral and choral devices. By virtue of perfecting the sound of a genre however, Psycho is the godfather. Truly, Bernard Herrmann (one of the most remarkable pioneers and romantics in the world of film music) singlehandedly created a watershed moment not just in film and music, but in cultural history, perfectly in-tune with Hitchcock's horrific, darkly comic world of cross-dressing, mother-obsessed serial killer, Norman Bates. Always a fierce modernist, Herrmann stripped the orchestra down to its bare essentials, reducing it to strings only, crafting a sound as sparse and black and white as the visuals. It's a groundbreaking approach made moreso by the astonishing variety of material Herrmann is able to extract from his limited set-up.

5) The Mission (Ennio Morricone, 1986)

How do you pick one soundtrack from the man who has composed more than any other (400, reputedly)? It's an incredibly difficult decision to make as so many of Morricone's best works enrich both the films they accompany and the soul of the listening audience. The Mission clinches it (just) purely because it ticks all the boxes: iconic, hymnal melodies; outstanding beauty reflecting the lush tropical scenery; and a brave progression into darkness just as with the film. However, that workmanlike description does nothing to capture the God-sent talent Morricone displays in this score. It's not just a magnificent piece of film music; it's a magnificent piece of art that will live on for generations to come (if mainly on endless chill-out albums).

6) Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman, 1990)

Every so often, a composer comes to define the 'sound' of a particular genre (indeed, Bernard Herrmann did it above with Psycho). With Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton's heart-wrenching first collaboration with Johnny Depp, Danny Elfman changed our entire perception of fairy tales, invoking cooing choirs and tinkling music boxes every time so much as a piece of snow glides down from the sky. It's one of the most beautiful film scores ever composed, a featherlight tapestry of gorgeous themes, ethereal wonderment and an ability to find icy beauty in the tears rolling down your cheeks. Ever since, Elfman (in spite of his subsequent excellent work) has been recycling.

7) Out of Africa (John Barry, 1985)

Famously, John Barry rejected director Sydney Pollack's motion that his award-laden weepie be scored with indigenous melodies. It would prove one of the most incisive and wise decisions of the veteran composer's career; Barry's defiantly conventional yet heart-wrenchingly gorgeous score piercing right through the centre of the film and into the listener's
heart, extracting a welter of feeling and compassion for Meryl Streep's central character, Karen Blixen. It may only be 35 minutes long (a fact Barry pointed out when accepting the Oscar, his fourth), but few movie themes convey such a sense of melancholy beauty as the soaring 'I Had a Farm in Africa'.

8) American Beauty (Thomas Newman, 1999)

One of the most unique talents to emerge on the film-scoring scene in the 90s was Thomas Newman (son of the legendary musician, Alfred). Broadly speaking, the composer's style can be split into two, either favouring a quirky, ambient outlook or a more lush, pastoral approach. It is in American Beauty however that the 'Newman Sound' is at its purest: the composer's uniquely singular vision magnificently matching Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning portrait of suburbia through the plinky-plonky percussion and marimbas that seem to scream middle-class ennui. A marvellous, unexpected fusion and one of the most original (and successful) mainstream film music experiments of the decade.

9) Legends of the Fall (James Horner, 1994)

Titanic won the Oscar...but it's not Horner's best. No, that accolade goes to his true masterpiece, Legends of the Fall back in 1994, a magnificent, rich tapestry of emotion that marks the composer at the absolute peak of his powers. Forgoing self-plagiarism in favour of entirely original, strongly-bolstered and utterly engrossing themes and instrumentation, it's as expansive as a Montana sunset, as wide-ranging as the American frontier, and stuffed with as many memorable moments as several scores combined. In an especially glorious period for the composer (the mid 90s were to produce Braveheart, Balto and Apollo 13), this was Horner's magnum opus, taking the listener on a journey as few scores ever do.

10) Young Sherlock Holmes (Bruce Broughton, 1985)

Barry Levinson's enjoyable guilty pleasure from 1985 (speculating on, yes, young Sherlock Holmes' first gruesome case with a young Dr Watson investigating an Eygptian devil cult) is blessed with one of the greatest adventure scores ever composed. Bruce Broughton's score may not have blossomed in quite the way we had hoped in the years since, but Young Sherlock Holmes bests many of the more famous entries in the genre, an utterly riveting listen blending a whimsical, suitably intricate theme for Holmes himself, some blistering, uncompromising action material, a frightening choral chant from the baddies and a multitude of other memorable set-pieces. A tremendously exciting and addictive piece of work that demands more exposure.

11) Restoration (James Newton Howard, 1995)

Both a magnificent pastiche (of Purcell) and a magnificent score in its own right, Newton Howard's greatest achievement with Restoration is how he expertly balances those competing elements. Blessed with arguably the greatest theme of the composer's career, resplendent in the wonder of 17th century England, it's the more intimate moments that move the most, the composer's usual grace with wind ensembles reaching heights rarely seen again in his career so far. When other layers - bells, choir - are added to the mix, Restoration soars, although its tragic release in an astonishing year for film music now qualifies it as Howard's overlooked masterpiece.


  1. That's a really unique list. Frankly, I'd have a lot more Morricone and Nino Rota, but you really have some great stuff! If you're into Morricone, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically a Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at

  2. dave, thanks very much for the feedback, man! especially on something as select as film music - it's always great to know someone appreciates 'proper' music :) and with morricone, believe me it was difficult. I chose The Mission because it coheres so brilliantly on album, a complete organic entity away from the film (although the case could be made for any number of Morricone scores in that sense...) What a brilliant idea for your album though! I can honestly say I've never come across anything like that before - we need stuff like that, pushing the boundaries and experimenting, in this age of Simon Cowell-dominated crap

  3. Hey, thanks a lot! We were really excited about the idea when we came up with it, exciting enough that we stuck with it for the three years it took to finish (we didn't have any experience when we started, so there was a long learning curve).

    You make a good point about your choice of The Mission. Now that I think about it, a lot of Morricone scores can overpower the movies somewhat. Actually, I think that's more a trait of Italian movies generally - that the score is a more present and foreground element of movies than it is in the US - and when you have a force like Morricone, you often end up getting lost in the score. When they find that perfect balance, though, I think it can be absolutely sublime. The first thing that comes to mind for me also happens to be my all time favorite movie - 8 1/2. Fellini, like all Italian directors, shot without sync sound, and played music during the takes. With the perfect Nino Rota score in place, that movie just soars. It's like a ballet. I've actually never heard the score on it's own though, so I'd have a hard time ranking it anywhere. I do have a 2-disc Rota compilation though, that I'm pretty sure is readily available, that I highly recommend. His actual scores can be pretty difficult to track down.