Settling on the score
Published: Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 5:53 p.m.
While it takes many elements to make a good movie, a great musical score is often the critical infusion that binds the whole mess together. While a bad or unremarkable score does little damage to a movie, a good one can enhance the proceedings by providing an extra dose of emotional oomph. With that in mind, let's take a look at those composers who've provided us with great movie music over the years.
Maurice Jarre: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”
Nina Rota: “The Godfather” series
James Newton Howard: primary composer on “King Kong” and “The Fugitive,” collaborator on “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”
Steve Jablonsky: the “Transformers” franchise, “Gangster Squad”
Alan Silvestri: “The Avengers,” “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”
No. 10: Elmer Bernstein
Bernstein makes this list for his work on “The Magnificent Seven” alone. As befitting a classic Western, the theme is an upbeat, uncomplicated piece of rousing martial music, a perfect complement to a story of uncomplicated heroes protecting a small town from ruthless bandits. But, like all great composers, Bernstein's range extends well beyond relatively simple marches. Bernstein was equally adept at writing music for Westerns as he was for serious dramas (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape”) and even comedies (“The Blues Brothers,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”). With so many great scores to his name, Bernstein's movie music legacy runs deep.
No. 9: Michael Giacchino
Giacchino is relatively new to the movie music business compared with others on this list, but he's made a distinct impression in a short time. His breakthrough came with “The Incredibles,” and he continues to have a solid relationship with Pixar, contributing the musical score for “Ratatouille” and “Cars 2.” Giacchino's best work to date, however, is definitely on “Up.” Giacchino's score is all that we hear during most of the movie's 15-minute prologue, and it's masterful. The music deftly moves from joyful to subdued to mournful with ease, and it provides all the emotional context we need without a single word of dialogue. It's no wonder Giacchino won an Oscar for the score and continues to be in high demand.
No. 8: Danny Elfman
Elfman's best known piece of music is probably the theme from “The Simpsons,” but he's done consistently great work for movies as well, usually in collaboration with Tim Burton. Elfman's work is usually characterized by a slightly zany, whimsical feel and odd tempos, but he can also create more traditional marches and themes, as seen by his work on Burton's “Batman.” Other notable scores by Elfman include “Edward Scissorhands,” and the “Spider-Man” movies. Elfman is also a reasonably gifted songwriter, as seen by his work on the Burton-produced “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
No. 7: James Horner
Horner has worked a great deal with director James Cameron, and so most of his best work comes from Cameron's movies, including “Aliens,” “Titanic” and “Avatar.” With “Aliens” in particular, Horner showed a mastery of using music to amplify suspense and tension to near unbearable levels, something he also displayed in his work on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Apollo 13.” Though he's been less prolific in recent years, Horner's work speaks for itself.
No. 6: Howard Shore
Shore showed plenty of promise early in his career with moody, sinister scores on thrillers like “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven.” And in the early 2000s, he wrote his masterwork: The epic, magnificent score for “The Lord of the Rings.” The breadth and depth of Shore's work on those three films holds up completely alongside the films themselves. From the melancholy strings that accompany each film's title sequence to the bombastic brass of the battle scenes to the haunting choral vocals following Gandalf's apparent demise, Shore's music always perfectly suits and enhances the mood at hand. It's no wonder he was hired back for “The Hobbit”; Middle-Earth without Shore's music just isn't the same, and that's the true sign of a great score.
No. 5: Bernard Herrmann
Herrmann spent much of his career working alongside Alfred Hitchcock. While he did great work on films like “North by Northwest,” Herrmann's most famous contribution to the world of movie music comes from a different movie. You know the scene: A blonde undresses in a bathroom, closes the shower curtain and turns on the water. As she soaps herself, the bathroom door opens and a dark silhouette enters. The curtain is ripped back and then the strings kick in, an excruciating series of high-pitched tones as the girl is brutally stabbed. Thanks to Herrmann, poor Janet Leigh in “Psycho” went down as one of the most memorable movie murder victims of all time.
No. 4: Jerry Goldsmith
Where to start with Goldsmith? “Planet of the Apes,” “Patton,” “Stagecoach” “Chinatown,” “Alien,” “L.A. Confidential” … and of course, the theme from “Star Trek.” Goldsmith's symphonic style served him well no matter what film he was working on. The sparse, haunting cues of “Alien” are a far cry from the romantic, sweeping themes from “Star Trek.” But it's all equally good, making Goldsmith one of the true movie music greats.
No. 3: Hans Zimmer
Yes, many of his scores start to blend together after a while. And yes, thanks to his work on “Inception,” every big action movie now cranks the bass up to 11 and bludgeons you with single, emphatic tones. But that only serves to underscore the huge influence Zimmer has had on movie music. Starting with “Crimson Tide” and continuing with “The Rock,” “Gladiator,” “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” Zimmer has shown himself to be a master of creating music that's suspenseful, hard-hitting, catchy and emotionally charged.
No. 2: Ennio Morricone
The best word to describe Morricone's musical style is “operatic,” which makes sense given his Italian heritage and his association with Sergio Leone, the master of larger-than-life Spaghetti Westerns. The theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is so iconic that it's become the default reference point for Spaghetti Westerns, and his score for “Once Upon a Time in the West” is one of the all-time greats. It's almost unheard of that one composer's music defines an entire genre, but that's the case with Morricone, making him one of the best in business.
No. 1: John Williams
Realistically, there's no contest here. Williams wrote the music for “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Superman,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial,” "Jurassic Park" and “Home Alone.” While he's been accused of being repetitive and overly melodramatic, there is no composer whose music is more widely known and whose themes are more instantly hummable. All hail John Williams, king of movie music.