KPAC's 30th Anniversary: 30 Great Film Scores
This month, KPAC is celebrating thirty years of broadcasting. Our hosts are having some fun sharing "30 lists" - artists, music, movies, and recordings you might enjoy, that help shape the sound of your classical oasis.
As the curator of Texas Public Radio’s film series, Cinema Tuesdays, I spend a lot of my free time enjoying movies, and their soundtracks. Soundtracks make up a small but important section of our library at KPAC. Because we connect to movies on such a personal level, film scores often come with built-in emotional attachment. Below is a list of some of my favorites. While this is by no means a ‘best of’ list, these are the records I enjoy spinning most often on my CD player and iPod. I created a Spotify list, linked below, so you can listen to all of the tracks in a playlist, and in the article, each track is linked to Amazon when available so you can download a song or album for yourself. Have fun listening!
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): Film music really starts here, with the Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s majestic score for the 1938 Errol Flynn film. Korngold actually didn’t want to do the film, feeling his melodic sensibilities were not in line with an action picture, but persistence on the studio’s part paid off. I guess he came around to liking the project. The music is some of Korngold’s finest. He used Richard Wagner’s idea of the leitmotif to establish recurring characters and themes. It’s a technique that John Williams would borrow from some forty years later for “Star Wars.”
The Red Shoes (1948): Brian Easdale’s score for “The Red Shoes” is a perfect example of romanticism with a modern sensibility, fitting for a groundbreaking update of the Hans Christian Andersen story. Sorry, this one’s not on Spotify!
The Red Pony (1949): Aaron Copland’s score for this 1949 film is probably better known these days as a concert work than as a film score, proof that great scores can find their way into the concert repertoire. It features many of the wide open chords and folksy melodies typical of his other works like “Appalachian Spring.” Although “The Red Pony” was not nominated for an Oscar, Aaron Copland did win the Academy Award for another of his film scores that year, “The Heiress.”
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): Alex North was one of the first composers in Hollywood to incorporate jazz into his film scores. The style is appropriate for this sweltering New Orleans drama starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, and Kim Hunter.
On the Waterfront (1953): A noble French Horn opens the only film score Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to write, for "On the Waterfront," a movie about going it alone in the face of intense opposition and peer pressure. The score is stormy and heroic, a reflection of the film's main character, Terry Malloy (Brando, again). A magnificent, complex modern score for one of the greatest films of all time.
Vertigo (1958): Bernard Herrmann had a long and fruitful relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock. For “Vertigo,” Herrmann wrote a score full of mystery, dread, and intense romantic longing. The “Scene d’Amour” borrows its structure from Richard Wagner’s “Lovedeath” from “Tristan und Isolde.” Appropriate for a movie about a man obsessed with his dead lover.
Psycho (1960): Bernard Herrmann’s monochromatic score for “Psycho” fits the stark black-and-white images. The “Murder” cue is justly famous, but I also love the music Herrmann wrote for the opening credits, which sets an uneasy tone for the film.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961): Henry Mancini ushered in a new era of film scoring, with his tuneful, jazzy melodies. Instead of New York sophistication, Mancini offers a soundtrack album of lounge music tinged with a hint of sadness. “Moon River” was written to match the exact range of Audrey Hepburn’s voice.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Simply put, one of the great majestic themes of all time, as expansive as the desert scenery of the film. Maurice Jarre won an Oscar.
The Leopard (1963): Nino Rota’s score for Luchino Visconti’s historical epic of the Risorgimento in Italy is full-bodied, like a good red wine. For the nearly hour-long ballroom sequence at the end of the movie, Rota composed a series of period dances like polkas and mazurkas. Angela and Tancredi’s theme trades its heartfelt melody between woodwinds and strings.
Goldfinger (1964): John Barry is arguably the best of the Bond composers. Besides the immortal title track, belted out by Shirley Bassey, Barry’s bold, brassy melodies are heard throughout “Goldfinger.” He works subtle references to Monty Norman’s Bond theme into his own “Goldfinger” theme in “Alpine Drive,” one of the quieter moments in the film.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): How ironic that when we think of Westerns we often hear the music of an Italian! Ennio Morricone's music and Sergio Leone’s films defined the modern view of the American West, despite the films being shot (mostly) in Spain. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is one of Morricone's most wistful melodies.
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969): Burt Bacharach won the Oscar for Best Original Score, even though the total amount of music in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” amounts to only about 20 minutes. Completely eschewing any attention to period detail, Bacharach goes for pop mood-setting, which befits the film's irreverent tone. In “South American Getaway” a mixed chorus sings wordless vocals over a rollicking beat as the heroes rob their way across Bolivia.
Shaft (1971): By the early 1970s, the New Hollywood had taken over, and film scores could be anything, not just orchestral music. The classic Blaxploitation film “Shaft” features an Oscar-winning Isaac Hayes, and the singer also composed instrumental tracks that give our hero John Shaft a soulful power.
The Godfather, Part II (1974): Both of Nino Rota’s “Godfather” scores are classics, but in “The Godfather, Part II,” Rota adds a beautiful cue I love, “The Immigrant,” that plays over young Vito Corleone’s introduction to America at Ellis Island.
Star Wars (1977): During a time when orchestral scores were few and far between in Hollywood film, George Lucas enlisted John Williams to look back to the classic Hollywood sound of the 1930s. Like Korngold before him, Williams took the leitmotif idea and ran with it; each character in the “Star Wars” saga has their own theme, which kids young and old can sing by heart.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): In the same year as “Star Wars,” John Williams wrote one of his most unusual and beautiful scores. Creepy atonality butts up against ethereal choirs, and gentle, childlike melodies for this magical film about first contact with alien life. The final cue from the Special Edition of “Close Encounters” alludes to the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
The Black Hole (1979): An A+ score for a C+ film, John Barry’s score for “The Black Hole” is a favorite of mine from childhood. The movie is full of junk science and wooden dialogue, but Barry’s haunting score elevates the film to a level that it probably shouldn’t be (even in my memory).
Koyaanisqatsi (1983): For his experimental film about technology’s impact on our lives, Godfrey Reggio turned to Philip Glass to create a film score that would mimic the frenetic pace of modern life. The 20-minute “Grid” sequence is astonishing as images accelerate to a breakneck pace, accompanied by Glass’s churning, subtly shifting harmonic music.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985): Danny Elfman, a member of the New Wave group Oingo Boingo, broke into the world of film scoring with the circus music-influenced score for Tim Burton’s first feature film. Elfman has said he knew he made it to the big time when he saw a crowd of kids moshing to the “Breakfast Machine” cue at a Primus show.
The Mission (1986): Ennio Morricone’s score for “The Mission” combines Guarani Indian chants and European music, with his trademark melodic lines. It’s a particular favorite of mine, and many KPAC listeners. Try "Gabriel's Oboe."
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): Pop star Peter Gabriel had written music for movies before, but his burgeoning interest in World Music led to a radically different score for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The score is based on traditional Middle Eastern and North African melodies and instrumentation, augmented by modern electronic percussion and synthesizers. "The Feeling Begins" immediately sets the mood for another time and place, when Jesus walked the earth.
Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, wrote the themes for “Do the Right Thing,” a movie about racial tensions exploding on the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn. Sometimes the string-heavy score evokes Copland, other times, a jazz combo plays gospel-influenced melodies. Branford Marsalis’ tenor and soprano saxophone is the unifying voice.
The Double Life of Veronique (1990): In “The Double Life of Veronique,” the title character is a musician. Early in the film, she suffers a fatal heart attack during an operatic performance on stage. That the character reappears again is one of the film’s great mysteries. Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner wrote the film’s score, including the aria that Weronika sings in concert.
Rush (1991): For a movie about undercover narcotics officers in 1970s Texas, director Lili Fini Zanuck turned to rock god Eric Clapton to write a bluesy score that is sad, mournful, and at times angry. Clapton’s track “Realization” plays after a harrowing scene of heroin withdrawl, as Jennifer Jason Leigh comes to grips with the fact that she’s hooked on junk.
The Age of Innocence (1993): If it were any other year than 1993, I think Elmer Bernstein would have won an Oscar for his lush, lovely score to this Edith Wharton adaptation by Martin Scorsese. As it stands, “Schindler’s List” happened to be released the same year, and John Williams won the Oscar (it’s a great score, too). But I prefer Bernstein’s work for “The Age of Innocence.” The splendor of 1870s upper-class Manhattan, and the doomed, romantic longing of Newland Archer is expressed beautifully by the orchestra, leaning heavily on strings.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Most of the time, Tan Dun’s music is too noisy and clangy for my tastes, but for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the composer creates a score that is tuneful and evocative of ancient China. Yo Yo Ma’s solos lend a human warmth to the music.
Up (2009): Michael Giacchino’s Oscar-winning music, paired with emotional moments in the Disney-Pixar film, “UP,” dares you not to cry. In “Married Life,” Giacchino runs through a series of variations on a 1930s-style tune, first jaunty, then romantic, next reflective.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Alexandre Desplat has written a number of very, very good film scores, including a stunningly gorgeous score for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” One of my favorites by Desplat is “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which adds glockenspiel, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and other instruments to a pizzicato string section. It’s full of joy!
Tron: Legacy (2010): French electronic musicians Daft Punk sang the praises of working with an orchestra for their score to the Disney sequel “Tron: Legacy,” a movie that really is improved through its film score. Daft Punk’s sweeping, majestic melodies add a level of gravitas that the film otherwise wouldn’t have had, and when they go electric, it’s with an ear toward melody. This is a brilliant score that wasn’t even nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
I hope this list has provided you with some enjoyment and inspiration for further happy listening and movie-watching!