1976…the year I discovered film music. It’s an important year for me. With my purchase of THE OMEN soundtrack, and for the last 35 years, film music became my preferred listening of choice and eventually part of my career. After focusing on the 9 Favorite Scores of 1962, the year of my birth, last month, it seemed only fair to devote this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to another watershed year, particularly one I can actually remember…if only vaguely.
Once again I was lucky to have discovered film music during a rather heady period of creativity. Though I discovered it on the eve of the STAR WARS boom that would signal a regeneration of film music a year later, 1976 strikes me as a particularly inventive and varied year. As always, the “chore” of whittling down the list to nine proved difficult. Leaving out such seminal scores (at least to me) as ROCKY, KING KONG, ROBIN AND MARIAN, THE MISSOURI BREAKS, RICH MAN POOR MAN, SWASHBUCKLER, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, SILVER STREAK, MURDER BY DEATH, and LOGAN’S RUN seems foolish. But such are the challenges and drawbacks of making lists.
To give other scores a chance, and to actually see what would end up in the top slot, I’ve deliberately left off THE OMEN. For reasons that have been recounted numerous times throughout this site, Jerry Goldsmith’s classic horror score for me takes the top spot–for the year and, well, forever. So I decided to give other scores and composers a chance.
Needless to say, at age 14, I didn’t discover each and every one of these scores immediately. But, over time, they have become standard repertoire in my collection and have provided me countless hours of listening enjoyment.
9. CARRIE (Pino Donaggio)
No one should have to see CARRIE at age 14 with their mother. Yet that’s what I did. The opening shower scene made me wildly uncomfortable (for many reasons) and my mother and I screamed like 12-year-old girls at the shocking epilogue. In between, my attention never wavered from the intensitty of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie’s performances. For all its shock value, the themes of adolescence and unfortunate bullying remain just as timely as ever. Pino Donaggio’s music captures all the horrific events of the story note for note. But I’ve never forgotten the haunting theme for Carrie’s innocence.
8. OBSESSION (Bernard Herrmann)
The first of Brian de Palma’s one-two punch of horror this year, though OBSESSION probably qualifies more as a mystery. Not nearly as successful a film as CARRIE, the main draw of OBSESSION is one of Bernard Herrmann’s final two Oscar nominations this year. With its Gothic use of organ and choir, and Herrmann’s oscillating chord progressions, the score is far more unsettling than the film. This is a score that is in dire need of expansion and reissue. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
7. BOUND FOR GLORY (Leonard Rosenman)
This biopic of Woody Guthrie is beautiful to watch with its amber-glow, dusty cinematography, courtesy of Oscar winner Haskell Wexler. Another asset is Leonard Rosenman’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Guthrie’s songs. Rosenman cleverly and subtly weaves the down-home familiar tunes into an effective dramatic underscore that rides the rails as Guthrie crisscrosses the country. After winning an adaptation Oscar for BARRY LYNDON the year before, Rosenman memorably quipped in his acceptance speech for BOUND FOR GLORY: “I write original music, too, you know.” Here’s another Oscar winner in need of a CD release. Let’s also get SYBIL, Rosenman’s Emmy-winning score that year, while we’re at it.
6. SILENT MOVIE (John Morris)
After YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, it was all downhill for Mel Brooks. His attempt to make a silent comedy has its occasional moments of funny bits, but the greatest joy comes from John Morris’s score. From its catchy main title march to ’40s pastiche and the delightful “Marty Fedlman Two Step,” Morris’s music is all lightness and fun, unlike the straining efforts of Brooks & Co. to instill humor onscreen. Few scores put a smile on my face like this one.
5. TAXI DRIVER (Bernard Herrmann)
One of the most unpleasant movies I’ve ever seen. The story and the characters are so unappealing that I simply cannot watch it. I don’t like what Scorcese is saying with the film, no matter how much he may think it needs to be said. But without the film, we wouldn’t have Bernard Herrmann’s penultimate score, and a classic it is. Herrmann died the night of final recording (Christmas Eve 1975), and what makes the score even more poignant is how Herrmann seems to be stretching himself in new directions–new directions he would unfortunately never get to travel–while still retaining his trademark sound. What little shred of humanity and emotion is in the film comes from Herrmann’s music.
4. VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED (Lalo Schifrin)
The story of a cruise ship of Jewish refugees refused entry to Cuba and forced to return to Nazi Germany is a harrowing tale, though the film, with its all-star cast, is unfortunately far less dramatic than the story deserves. Lalo Schifrin’s score, however, captures a poignancy and overwhelming sadness that hovers over the doomed lives of the passengers. Most of the original LP has been released on a CD that included other Schifrin concert works, but the entire soundtrack has yet to make it to CD. Here’s yet another Oscar nominee in need of a proper release.
3. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (Jerry Fielding)
Clint Eastwood’s popular “revenge” flicks of the ’70s get moved back in time and the film could almost be named “Dirty Harry in the Civil War.” But the change in period gave Jerry Fielding the opportunity to stretch his musical muscles, combining his customary lean orchestrations and contemporary harmonies in a more traditional 19th century setting. The result is one of Fielding’s more accessible scores and a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
2. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (David Shire)
I’m not a particularly political person, but I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Watergate. Perhaps it’s the Shakespearean tragedy of it all, or maybe it’s just the ridiculous hubris of the government and what they thought they could get away with (a fact that has only gotten worse over time). Whatever the reason(s), this tale of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their efforts to uncover the Watergate break-in makes for fascinating cinema. The script, direction, performances, art direction, sound design, everything all work together seamlessly for a nail-biting experience that is even more impressive considering that we know how the story turns out. What often gets overlooked in the praise for the movie is David Shire’s sparse and understated score. With its French horn theme echoing of fractured patriotism and a gentle, insistent guitar and four-note scale underneath, Shire creates a subtle musical mood of paranoia that only adds to the tension and fear of the story.
1. FAMILY PLOT (John Williams)
I had never seen Hitchcock’s final film or heard a note of this score until Varese Sarabande finally released this long-awaited soundtrack last year. (I’ve still never seen the film all the way through.) What an eye-opener this was! With that classic Williams mid-’70s sound and his trademark orchestrations, this is one of the few scores that I get what all the fuss was about. Listening to Williams’s gorgeous theme sends me into a trance each and every time. That Williams wasn’t an Oscar nominee, not even on the shortlist, is a shame, though this is one of those years where very score–THE OMEN, OBSESSION, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, TAXI DRIVER, and VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED–is a worthy nominee. Still, it’s a shame…