In the countdown to my 50th birthday on the 19th, in addition to foolishly choosing nine of my favorite film composers, I decided to tackle an even more daunting task—choose 50 of my favorite scores. Little did I know when I began this listening project back in June that it would prove to be so difficult, so enjoyable and so emotional.
First, some ground rules for myself. I made a master list that totaled over 175 scores. Then I went through them one by one, listening and ranking. As I started running out of time I had to focus on scores that I knew would make the list.
I tried to be as subjective as possible and leave my critical hat in the closet. Instead, I primarily went with a gut emotional reaction to the score. Then I combined that with whatever memories are associated with it and probably a thousand other subliminal things I can’t define.
As I went through the list, I found scores that I thought would rank higher either ended up in odd slots. Other scores I respected more than “liked.” Maybe it was my mood on a particular day or perhaps my tastes have changed. Who knows. If I were gauging these on a more critical, compositional level, the list might look entirely different.
As always with these lists, nothing is set in stone. The order isn’t important, nor is the inclusion (or not). The list is completely self-serving and personal. But I have absolutely no qualms recommending any of the 50 titles you’ll be reading about over the next five days. So enjoy this sampling of some of the greatest film music ever written…at least in my own little world.
50. THE SUN COMES UP (1949)
What the hell is Lassie doing on this list?! When André Previn writes for Lassie, the score deserves attention. While writing the liner notes for FSM’s Lassie Come Home: The Canine Collection, I asked Lukas to go back and see if anything remained of the score outside of the main titles. This was Previn’s first onscreen credit and deserved to be included in the collection as complete as possible. Only the music and effects track was left, but even among Lassie’s persistent barking, Previn’s prodigious gifts are in full force, even at the age of 19. The movie, about a famous soprano (Jeanette MacDonald in her final screen appearance) who moves to the Ozarks after her son is killed, is pure hokum. But the score is absolutely glorious.
49. THE FURY (1978)
Brian de Palma is a highly overrated director and his films have not aged particularly well. But at age 16, they seemed like masterpieces. While this tale of ESP is especially problematic and ridiculous, there is no denying the power behind John Williams’s score. With its creepy, sinuous main theme, the music resonates with over-the-top Gothic power. Being a former clarinetist, this is one of those pieces I always wish I had the opportunity to perform at some point. Oh well.
48. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
Elmer Bernstein said the key to this classic score was rhythm. And though that main theme is justifiably classic, it’s the rhythm that keeps this score crackling. From the opening chords to the syncopated brass accompaniment, this is a score that retains every bit of its power. A classic Western, a crossover success and a surefire crowd-pleaser at any film music concert.
47. TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962)
More Previn. The epitome of loneliness. Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine play two loners unlucky in love. Previn always derided his film music as “hack work.” But with its combination of jazz harmonies, dramatic underscoring and a haunting main theme, no finer representation of his prodigious gifts exists.
46. THE RED VIOLIN (1999)
It’s not often that directors film around the score. Maybe a scene here or there but an entire film? John Corigliano’s Oscar-winning score encompasses a variety of musical styles as the story spans the centuries. The score is a tour de force for the violin (played on the soundtrack by Joshua Bell). Corigliano also excerpted a chaconne and concerto from the score for concert usage. A stunning work.
45. THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)
The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is forever linked to the Oscar-winning performances of Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. Laurence Rosenthal’s score downplays the sentimentality. Instead, he captures the internal struggle within these two strong-willed ladies. Rosenthal subtly weaves in the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby” with his soaring main theme. If you’re dry-eyed when Helen discovers the power of “speech,” you’re made of stone. Inspirational and emotional.
Few scores bring a smile to my face like Bronislau Kaper’s Oscar-winner. The film is short and sweet and Kaper’s music gives it a lilting innocence. Though it’s primarily known for the song “Hi Lili, Hi Lo,” the real power comes from the two dance sequences and the final ballet. Overlay it with a charming carnival atmosphere and you’ve got a winner.
43. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)
My favorite movie. Period. Bette Davis’s peak as an actress and some of the wittiest dialogue ever written, thanks to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. As Davis & Co. skewer the backstage backbiting, Alfred Newman captures the majesty, drama, and heartbreak of the theater. From its glorious overture to its cynical finale, the score is spare, biting and a winner. Just like the film.
42. BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (1959)
A Russian soldier tries to see his mother before being shipped back to the front. This poignant, heartbreaking drama contains an equally poignant and heartbreaking score. I don’t know much about Mikhail Ziv (except that he’s next to impossible to research unless you can read Russian), but this is a lovely, dramatic score that deserves to be much better known.
41. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
The film was a controversial game-changer but what about the music? Hell yeah! If for no other reason than it signaled the arrival of one of the most influential film composers of all time. As a master of economy, Bernard Herrmann never said more than was necessary with his music. And KANE, with its movement from dark to relative light and back again, encompasses the full range of human emotion with the fewest notes possible. While the score arguably makes for a more enjoyable listen within the context of the film than on its own, there are enough highlights to fully appreciate Herrmann’s genius. And any score that contains “Salaambo’s Aria” is a winner in my book.