1. Star Wars
4. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
5. There Will Be Blood
6. The Third Man
8. Raiders of the Lost Ark
9. Lawrence of Arabia
10. Lord of the Rings
11. Taxi Driver
12. The Social Network
13. The Godfather
14. Once Upon a Time in the West
16. The Empire Strikes Back
18. Blade Runner
19. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
20. The Fountain
23. Jurassic Park
24. Requiem for a Dream
score by John Williams
I have purchased John Williams’ score for Star Wars five times, in various configurations, over the course of my life. (Only one less than Ben-Hur!) If you tell me it’s been remastered, I’m buying it. If you tell me it’s expanded, I’m all over it. If you tell me they’re throwing in hidden bonus tracks of takes that have been ruined by members of the London Symphony Orchestra farting after a particularly challenging tea break, count me in. Bill Murray’s lyrics could not diminish it. Meco’s disco version could not destroy it. (All right, it was touch and go there for a minute.) There are plenty of songs you could name that are instantly recognizable to large numbers of people everywhere, but there are comparatively far fewer film scores that can evoke nods of recognition from so many of us. Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking string attack from Psycho. Williams’ own ludicrously simple two-note motif from Jaws. And Star Wars.
Its soaring opening theme, promising thrilling adventure and swashbuckling derring-do, is inseparable from George Lucas’ iconic 1977 space opera; the score as a whole creates aural signposts explaining who is good and who is evil, who to love and who to fear, the terrible might of the Empire and the mysterious majesty of The Force. The various themes and motifs Williams devised for the film are rooted in classical compositional techniques from centuries ago, techniques that were used by golden-age Hollywood composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa, and it was composers such as these that Williams sought to emulate, as well as bringing a classical romantic style that had largely fallen out of favor by the late 1970’s, being replaced by more modern and avant-garde techniques, or pop songs. The unabashedly old-fashioned music, deliberately intended to root viewers in a more familiar idiom to help guide them through the film’s fantastical landscapes, almost single-handedly made orchestral film scores cool again. Over the last few decades, this style has once again been supplanted by newer ideas and approaches, from the early minimalism of Philip Glass to the electronica of Daft Punk; now, on the cusp of a new resurgence of Star Wars films, it appears that future generations are assured their own introduction to this timeless music. But it will always be rooted in a seminal moment in the summer of ’77, a moment when the world seemed to remember it could fall in love with entertainment, a moment that inspired so many of the artists who create the entertainment we know and love today, a moment when a work such as Star Wars could capture such an enormous piece of our collective imagination that its sights – and sounds – still resonate today in a way that perhaps no film ever will again in our fractured cultural landscape. A moment that is itself such a long time ago.
score by Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would undoubtedly be iconic and memorable were it only contained to those horrific, ear-piercing screeches that accompany the famous shower scene, and which return whenever Mother reappears. Visuals can be off-putting; sounds can be assaultive. Herrmann’s sounds assault the audience, coming as close as one can in the cinema to stabbing the audience. But that’s not even the theme from Psycho. The theme from Psycho incorporates those same sensations, but in an acceptably cinematic sort of way; it’s almost rousing, in fact. That the theme returns so frequently over the film’s first half (seemingly every time Janet Leigh gets in her car, up it starts again) lulls us into a false sense of complacency, which is subconsciously shattered by the violent turn the music takes. Tobe Hooper recalls seeing Psycho and suddenly feeling he was not in safe hands; those hands are, in part, Herrmann conducting his orchestra.
score by John Williams
Like the greatest film composers, John Williams understands what the emotional core of a film is, and writes his scores to compliment and inform that. With Jaws, Williams zeroed in on the pure, primal instinct that drove the story. As Hooper points out, the shark is “a perfect engine, an eating machine.” There is no reasoning with a shark. There is no malice or premeditation. It just wants to eat you, and it won’t stop until it does.
To emphasize this terrifying simplicity, Williams put musical complexity to the side, using deep, ominous, unrelenting tones to strike fear in us at a primitive level. And, in doing so, John Williams created one of the most indelible movie scores of all time; one that is so tuned in to the spirit of the horror that it is completely inseparable from the images we’re seeing on the screen. Jaws simply wouldn’t be the movie that we all know and love without that terrifying, primal music.
score by Ennio Morricone
It’s one of the most memorable opening few bars in film scoring history; a far-away drum beat, like a Native American chant played on horse hooves, followed by staccato whistling and a legato, high-pitch wailing. Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, like all of his collaborations with Sergio Leone, focused on upending the instrumentation of the “traditional” western movie. In this film, each of the main characters has a different version of the theme: Eli Wallach’s Tuco is a shrill vocal wail; Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes has quick strumming on an angry, low guitar; and Clint Eastwood’s Blondie has a sharp, smart whistle. Very evocative, very in-keeping with their characters. Amid all the wonderful music cues in the film, easily the most like a music video is “The Ecstasy of Gold,” which employs a theme and a motif we hadn’t yet heard, and features Wallach running around a massive cemetery looking for a specific grave. It’s as exciting a piece of music as has composed for an already exciting film. And that’s even before the final extended lead-up to a shootout, a track called “The Trio.” It gets my juices flowing just thinking about it.
score by Johnny Greenwood
From the first frame, it sets your teeth on edge, the mountains, still, flooded with the atonal drone of Johnny Greenwood’s score. Something is deeply wrong, and it’s down to the rocks, suffused in the earth itself. Eventually, it must out, bursting from the Earth in a destructive flood. This is the greatest synchronicity of tone and intent between composer and filmmaker I can think of – in one shot, accompanied by one melodic line, the central thematic of the film is introduced and impressed indelibly. From there, both film and score build into an ever larger and more sophisticated structure, a referendum on the American, or perhaps human, endeavor in its most essential facets, ranging from deep below the crust of the Earth to its most lofty mansions. The rot of ambition and avarice is like a cancer throughout, unnoticed beneath the surface except for the omnipresent, unnerving evocation of Greenwood’s work, forging an unbreakable tension in its unerring portrayal of the vicissitudes of existence and survival.
Essential tracks – Oil, Prospectors Quartet
score by Anton Karas
Anton Karas’s alternately jaunty, distant, jarring, and haunting zither score is one of the singular breakthroughs of The Third Man, already a landmark film in and of itself. Discovered in a Vienna restaurant during production, Karas didn’t speak English but was nonetheless flown to London, where he mimed his way to creating perhaps the most remarkable score ever written, played on his zither, an unknown Mediterranean street instrument. More than the wry introduction, the layered and sharply ironic dialogue, even the unnerving, gorgeous cinematography of a decimated Vienna, Karas’s score creates an immediate sense of place even as, the breezy main theme set against a narrative of war crimes, murder, and paranoia, it alienates the audience and imbues the film with a deep, deep sense of fatal irony. The Third Man is the first truly postmodern film, hyper aware of cinema conventions and expectations, and Karas’s zither is its key technique, allowing the audience to comment on and invest in the narrative, even as it conceals the darkness lingering just under the demolished streets. Its devil-may-care, disaffected tones, evoking perfectly the carelessness of Allied victors, serves as the seminal score for the ultimate filmic tract on the moral fault-lines of Western civilization, split open by all-encompassing war.
score by Bernard Herrmann
The opening notes of Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Vertigo send the audience right to the edge, and leave us teetering on it for the rest of the picture. What sort of abyss awaits if we let go? Herrmann and director Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborations are legendary, and this stands among their best in no small part because large sections of this film about looking pass without a word of dialogue. Herrmann at once gives us its protagonist’s perspective and a premonition of what’s to come. When James Stewart sees Kim Novak, a love theme must play, even though their relationship is nothing like love. As he follows her through (and mostly down) the streets of San Francisco, the music once again becomes uneasy, melodic but frightening, piquing curiosity without satisfying it. Even the suicide attempt he foils is punctuated not by the music of rescue, but the music of a nightmare – a blaring shock to the system, then that uneasy melody; he follows his terrible fate to a T. By the time the music finally, deep into the picture, truly crescendos, we all know the nightmare is complete, and there’s no escaping it.
score by John Williams
The Raiders march, brimming with brash heroism and can-do gusto, is one of the most memorable of John Williams’ themes in a career slopping over with memorable themes. (Any composer today would kick orphans just to have one of them on his or her resume.) The score is one of the greatest in his ongoing creative collaboration with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has been spectacularly fruitful for both men and has continued largely uninterrupted for forty years (Williams did not score The Color Purple in 1985, and a health issue prevented his participation in Spielberg’s forthcoming Bridge Of Spies). Along with the wildly romantic love theme, the score boasts a trio of major set pieces in which Williams effortlessly guides the mood and emotion: the bouncy, manic melody that accompanies Indiana Jones’ pursuit of a basketful of Marion through a Cairo bazaar; the pulse-pounding truck chase through the desert that effectively ratchets up the tension with its inexorably quickening tempo; and Indy’s discovery of the location of The Ark Of The Covenant, in which the Ark’s theme – gently hinted at earlier in the picture – firmly takes center stage and blooms into full orchestral majesty.
Look at that scene with the sound muted: without the music, it’s some dude climbing into a room, putting a stick in a hole and standing around waiting for the sun to give him a clue, after which he takes some measurements, writes down some stuff, and scrams. You could find similar activity in any construction site on Earth, but you wouldn’t call it entertainment; that scene needs Williams’ music to convey the required epic grandeur and biblical reverence for what was, up to that point, essentially a gilded box of dust. Which we haven’t even seen yet. The Ark is the Harry Lime of the movie, growing in stature by its absence on the screen, accompanied by all the talk about it and action around it. But some characters in Raiders – Indy among them – have their doubts about the worth of the Ark, or what it contains, or indeed its very existence. Until, there in the map room, the music has its say. And then you believe.