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Great Scores From Great (Or Good, Or Awful) Films

Posted 10 months ago by Tim P

Something I’ve noticed is that I tend to not really love traditional scores. Looking over my list, most of these are either electronic, funky or played on some nontraditional instrument. I’m not sure why that is, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

Requiem For A Dream

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I know this one is obvious. Requiem is an amazing, although somewhat hard to watch, movie. The score by Clint Mansell is utterly sublime. Enlisting the Kronos Quartet to play on several of the numbers and using spare electronica on others, Mansell crafted a gloriously beautiful accompaniment to director Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel. Everything comes together in the song “Lux Aeterna,” which has been used in a ton of film trailers. I’ve previously mentioned Mansell in an earlier blog so I won’t harp on about his band Pop Will Eat Itself here. I’ll only reiterate how interesting it is that the sound of his band and his film work differ so much. He’s amazingly talented.

Amelie

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Yann Tiersen’s music for the brilliant Amelie is whimsy personified. Toy piano, accordion, mandolin and other instruments (all played by Tiersen) whirl around stunningly to help tell the tale of Amelie’s journey from loneliness to love. Tiersen has put out quite a few albums, all of which are well worth hearing.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

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What can you say about the mighty Ennio Morricone? He’s been writing scores for almost sixty years, adding up to about 400 films or so. Obviously I haven’t heard them all, so there may be something even better than his work on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and please let me know if there is. But this work is just wonderful. Sergio Leone’s string of spaghetti westerns were absolutely epic and Morricone’s music from them was also.

Yann Tiersen’s music for the brilliant Amelie is whimsy personified.

Superfly

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Technically a soundtrack, I’m still including this because it’s so incredible. Curtis Mayfield had already released two critically acclaimed solo albums before getting the call to write and perform the music for the Blaxploitation film Superfly. Other films in the genre had great soundtracks, but the difference here is that, while the other’s songs glorified the violence and the heroes of the films, Mayfield showed the flaws and humanity of Superfly and his surroundings. All wrapped up in some beautifully funky and orchestral music. Mayfield went on to do quite a few more soundtracks, but none as timeless as this.

The Fog

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Beside being a fantastic writer/director (seriously, look at the films he’s made. Barely a clunker in the bunch. Heck, I even like Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, although I think I may be in the minority there), John Carpenter also scores most of his movies. And so many of the scores are classics. I love Halloween, which is the most famous. Assault On Precinct 13 builds brilliantly, although it’s mostly the same song throughout. Prince Of Darkness is great and has that “This is not a dream” business that gives me the heebee-jeebies. The one I chose is The Fog. Beautiful, elegiac and haunting, it’s more varied than the others, which is why it’s my favorite.

Suspiria

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Goblin began their career as a band called Oliver before changing their name to Cherry Five and putting out a prog rock album. They then fell in with Italian auteur director Dario Argento and started scoring his films. Their score for Suspiria is an all-time classic. I also enjoy Thom Yorke’s music from the remake (that movie really got under my skin!)

American Beauty

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Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty, was absolutely adored by critics and went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay among others. Twenty years later, it’s pretty much… not. (As Clare M. pointed out to me, the expression is “aged like milk”.) I’m not sure if it’s the bland suburban ennui that runs throughout, or if people are reacting to the revelations about lead Kevin Spacey, but if people remember the film at all, they don’t seem to be fans (I understand that’s a generalization. I’m sure some people do remember it fondly.) I liked it when I saw it, but haven’t felt the need to watch it again. I do, however, remember the music. Thomas Newman’s score is fantastic. Built around unusual instrumentation like marimbas, sitars and tablas, the music is at once odd, comforting and familiar. I was once tapped to be in a focus group for an Andre Braugher (go, Captain Holt!) medical drama. That genre isn’t my cup of tea, but my first thought after seeing it was, “That’s the score from American Beauty!” I told that to the person who called to ask my opinion, and he said, “Uh, ok,” because I don’t think there was a box to tick for that on his form.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

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I have the same regard for John Williams as I do for Ennio Morricone. They’re both utter masters at what they do, although Williams has way more recognizable scores (at least in America). I mean, jeez, the Star Wars films, Jaws, Superman, the Harry Potter franchise, E.T., Schindler’s List, Space Camp and a ton of others. It’s a very long list. Oh, and Jurassic Park and Close Encounters and…

Sorcerer

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William Friedkin was riding high in 1977. In 1971, he directed The French Connection, a huge critical and commercial smash. In 1973, he directed The Exorcist, which was massively popular and still considered one of the scariest movies of all time. He then started Sorcerer, which had a troubled production and took a little longer to film than he’d planned. The plot was about four men transporting some very unstable dynamite with trucks through South America. To match the tense action on screen, Friedkin tapped German electronic band Tangerine Dream to score the movie. Edgy and pulsing, the music propels the film along beautifully. (Tangerine Dream also scored, among other films, Risky Business, which is also one of my favorite scores.) Friedkin finally finished the film and, expecting another huge smash, it was released in the summer of 1977. Right around the same time as Star Wars.

Summer Of ‘42

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I know my friend Steve is gonna kill me for not putting Michel Legrand’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg on this list, but Summer Of ’42 moved me more. And I don’t even remember the whole score. I just think that the “Theme From Summer Of ’42” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Like Morricone and Williams, Legrand scored a LOT of movies. And they’re probably great scores, but this one really got to me. The movie is really good, too.


When I came up with this blog idea and started writing, my esteemed co-worker Clare asked what I was up to. When I told her, she asked if I had put so-and-so and such-and-such on the list. I informed her that I had not, and she read me the riot act. So here, without further ado, is Clare’s list of the scores that dumb ol’ me should have picked.

Tim has a varied and interesting taste in music, and that extends to his film scores as well. It’s pretty unsurprising his list didn’t include more orchestral music. And as much as I love and appreciate his start to this list, we need to add some good old-fashioned epic brass in the mix. I’m not going to rehash some of the well-known composers already paid tribute by Tim (looking at you, John Williams’ Harry Potter), but there are a few I simply cannot let go by without a mention!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King

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While I may not agree with all of Peter Jackson’s decisions, if he’s directly responsible for Howard Shore’s involvement in the project, I’ll forgive him for everything. I’d even go as far as to say the score is the best part of the adaptations. In particular, check out “Forth Eorlingas” from The Two Towers soundtrack. Now, you tell me you don’t immediately see Gandalf and Eomer slow-mo leading the charge of the Rohirrim down the cliff with the rising sun behind them at Helm’s Deep. Oh, man!

Interstellar

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When I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I was medium-thrilled. Not super excited, but I figured yeah, you know, maybe I’ll go see that. When I finally got around to it, I was pleasantly surprised by the unique score. Of course, it is Hans Zimmer, I should have known what to expect. Amid the gripping electronic tones he became known for with Inception, the alarming voice of a pipe organ belts out the theme of this intergalactic drama. I didn’t trust my ears, so I looked it up, and yes — Hans Zimmer recorded the massive pipe organ at Temple Church in London for the score. The contrast between electronic and church organ tones mirrors the interplay of science and faith in the movie.

If that doesn’t do it for you, my favorite Zimmer album is actually the score for the TV show Blue Planet II. Some have said it’s one of his greatest works, others are slightly put off by all the BBC drama and haven’t watched the show, but I say it truly does make me cry every single time I listen to it.

Star Trek (2009)

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Even if you didn’t enjoy this sometimes-criticized retelling of the original Star Trek storyline, I think you can appreciate the amazing work Michael Giacchino did to compose a new score for a franchise with some of the most recognizable music ever on TV. (Let’s not get crazy, nothing tops the Mission Impossible theme—or in Tim’s opinion, Batman!) The original Star Trek theme is still just under the surface of this superb score, which at points seems more like a rearrangement than a rewrite. And that is a perfect example of why I think this is a great movie with a great score. It’s a wonderful adaptation of something already beloved, just slightly not the same. (Spoiler alert! Just kidding…or am I?)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End

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Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer really nailed this film series with some over-the-top pirate-y music. The score is neat because of the range of emotions captured in the music. The main theme is majestic and exciting, the love theme is melancholy and the villain themes are sinister. But the best best part is the music for humorous scenes. Somehow, Depp/Jack-madness is captured by the score, and it is quite entertaining.

Treasure Planet

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This movie is completely underrated, and so is James Newton Howard’s score. Disney loves to retell classic stories, and this is one of their best adaptations — space Treasure Island! It features a wonderful cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson and the wonderful Martin Short. The score playfully uses high flute ditties to invoke a seafaring feeling to the bombastic brass common in other epic space adventure movies. The result is a sometimes lighthearted, sometimes intensely grandiose sound that perfectly flows with the complex emotions of the movie. “To the Spaceport” and “The Launch” are my favorite tracks. They both feature when the voyage to the titular planet begins — a space sailing vessel is introduced on a constructed harbor “moon” in a thrilling montage. Also, space whales!

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