9 Purple Cows of Film Music

In his excellent 2002 book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable, Seth Godin tells the story of a trip he took to France with his family. He describes driving around the French countryside, “enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures…For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the windows, marveling about how beautiful everything was.” But after the first 20 minutes, he started ignoring the cows. “The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting. (For a while.)”

How often have you listened to a favorite piece of film music and after 20 minutes found yourself drifting off? Due to circumstances at the moment or over-familiarity, the music has now become common or, God forbid, boring. But all of a sudden, among the herd of notes calmly grazing in your primary auditory cortex, a particular phrase, chord change or instrumental flare jolts you out of your musical complacency. What was boring has now become exciting again, even for a brief moment. The musical landscape may still be dotted with black and white, but your senses once again resound with that favorite composition and your faith in the art form is restored.

Instead of focusing on a particular composer or genre for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I have delved into nine film music moments that never fail to make me sit up and take notice. Often I’ll sing or air conduct (neither of which is particularly attractive, hence why they are only done in the privacy of the Cave). There are a helluva lot more purple cows than these nine. I just took the first nine that occurred to me. The list represents a purely personal herd of remarkable moments.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

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As good as FIDDLER is on stage, it can never match the power of the 1971 film, primarily due to John Williams’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Jerry Bock’s classic score. Case in point: in the opening number, “Tradition,” Williams builds the orchestral tension underscoring the horse argument. A series of ascending melodic and harmonic fragments (6:58) builds to a French horn rip (7:09) that never fails to give me goosebumps. I have been known to replay those 11 seconds ad nauseum at progressively higher decibel levels, for no other reason than to burst my eardrums with that 2-second rip. If I ever get thrown out of a shtetl, I want it to be accompanied by a full Hollywood orchestra blasting Williams’s superb arrangements.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

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The charms of John Powell’s score are many. But the first “Test Drive” of Hiccup and Toothless is a stunning marriage of music and images. As the two plunge headfirst towards certain death, Powell announces the freefall (1:20) with yet another glorious French horn rip, an elongated ascending glissando and a dramatic brass line until the two connect in midair (1:53). But the statement of the main theme (2:01) gives us release and opens the heavens for a prime example of why film music matters.

THE IMPOSSIBLE

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Audiences who sat through the devastating experience of watching THE IMPOSSIBLE may have been too wiped out to sit through the entire end credits. Those that left missed one of the necessary elements of Fernando Velázquez’s exquisite score. Velázquez supplies a contained suite of the main themes from the score, but more importantly, the credits allow us to wind down from the emotional devastation we’ve just witnessed and bring us closure…but only if you make it to the final bars. With the heartbreaking main theme plaintively played one final time on the piano (5:58), Velázquez harmonizes the final notes in a soothing major key (6:58) and a hopeful five-note motif that gradually slows down until the gentle final string chords bring us to rest.

IRIS

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The Danny Elfman work for Cirque du Soleil, not the James Horner score. A stunning stage work by Elfman that surpasses any film score he’s written in years. Full of the charm and wit that marks his early music, but with a command of the orchestra that signals his more mature works, Elfman’s music is pure joy, especially in the finale and bow music. Elfman pulls together the main themes into a rousing processional and brass fanfares that modulate ever higher. With three final goosebump-inducing, BATMAN-like French horn riffs, Elfman brings this superb concert work to a brilliant and exciting close.

RAGTIME

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Randy Newman received two well-deserved Oscar nominations for this colorful score. From a musical standpoint, Newman nails the period perfectly. In the scene where Coalhouse woos Sarah, Newman takes Chopin’s stately A-major prelude and gives it a gentle, insistent ragtime pulse, one that sexily calls Sarah down the stairs. When the strings come in and the two lovers unite, I dare you to have a dry eye.

THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA

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Ernest Gold’s Italian-flavored score is never more colorful than over the main title. Set against images of quintessential Italians, Franco Nero sings the memorable main theme while Gold’s accompaniment practically oozes Mediterranean charm. After the orchestral break, the strings gently climb to the final statement of the theme and Gold supplies an equally memorable countermelody in the cellos that never fails to make me sing out loud and air conduct.

STAR WARS

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There are oh so many purple cows in John Williams’s classic score. It could be argued that the entire work is one big purple cow. But for me, the sheer thrill of the score comes as Luke and Leia swing out over the tractor beam chasm accompanied by the main theme. It’s a brief moment but one that captures every bit of the heroic grandeur that marks this seminal score.

SUNSET BOULEVARD

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Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning score is one of the Golden Age greats. Whether its Joe’s jazz swagger or Norman’s slinky sensuality with its hints of Strauss, there are many purple cow moments throughout the score. But it is the raw, visceral energy that Waxman brings to his music that keeps the score feeling fresh and contemporary. And that energy is on full display during the chase down Sunset Boulevard. Its the return of the syncopated opening chords (0:57) out of the swell of woodwind trills that never fails to bring me thrills and a shot of bad air conducting—this time with no shame if seen in public.

THE WIND AND THE LION

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One of my favorite Jerry Goldsmith scores is tinged by nostalgia for the many times I had to perform this in high school and as an undergrad in a ridiculously difficult (or at least it seemed at the time) band arrangement. Goldsmith’s orchestrations give the score its colorful vitality, while his distinctive action cues give it its energy. The “Raisuli Attacks” cue is a central portion of the suite for wind ensemble and I can envision every note on the page as we clarinets were given the fiendishly difficult violin lines. Brutal but oh so much fun.

What are some of your purple cows of film music?

6 comments

  1. I am glad you said Star Wars because the first thing that came to mind was The imperial March. It is one of the few pieces of music that make me get up out of my chair and “conduct”. LOL I am a nerd, I know.

  2. Sunset Boulevard…probably because it’s my favorite film of all time !~! Thanks for your good reporting JIm..

  3. The swelling strings around the 2 minute mark of “Flows Like Water” from The Last Airbender soundtrack always makes me sit up and pay attention. And then at 3:45 minutes, I start air conducting like there’s no tomorrow!

    1. Hi Gil. I was never too crazy about AIRBENDER but will go check it out again. Perhaps time has alleviated some of my disappointment. :)

  4. Hi Jim! I loved this article and I am a huge fan of film music. The How to Train Your Dragon score is definitely one of my favorites. Anything with Hans Zimmer is a purple cow for me, but particularly “Time” from the movie Inception :)

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