My 50th birthday is approaching so I’ve naturally been taking stock of, well, everything. I’ve been looking back at the good, the bad, and the ugly over my first half-century. The most consistent element among the ups and downs is my love of film music. So, in a purely selfish move to celebrate my birthday month, I’m naming nine of my favorite film composers.
The list seems a particularly dangerous, and ultimately foolhardy, task. It feels like asking me to pick a favorite child (if I had any) or my favorite pet. And yet here I am callously—but carefully—submitting myself to my own “Sophie’s choice.”
Each and every one of these artists has something distinctive to express. Distinctive—that’s the keyword. Through their melodic and harmonic choices, rhythms and orchestrations, each of these composers have a recognizable musical voice that has brought me countless hours of pleasure over the years.
There’s no such thing as “best” here, so the list is not ranked. There are many great composers missing and this list shouldn’t be carved in stone. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. But for now, or at least at the second I hit “publish” on this post, these are nine of my favorite film composers.
Somewhere between the delicacy of Georges Delerue and the exoticism of Maurice Jarre lies Alexandre Desplat. With a decidedly French flair, his orchestrations have a purity and economy that always supports the drama. From the thrilling opening of BIRTH to the heartbreaking poignancy of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Desplat’s music never fails to move me. I’ve never been interested in seeing certain films simply because a particular composer wrote the music. Desplat is that rare exception. I still may not rush to see his latest flick, but his name in the credits excites me more than any other of the latest generation of film composers.
If you’ve been reading this site for a while or know me even slightly, then you know that Goldsmith’s THE OMEN was my first soundtrack purchase and the beginning of my love for film music. So there has been a soft spot in my heart for Jerry from the beginning. I was lucky enough to discover him at arguably his artistic peak. I also happened to be just the right age (high school) in the late ’70s to fully appreciate the kinds of films he was scoring at the time. To this day, MAGIC, COMA, CAPRICORN ONE, ALIEN, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE bring back fond memories of early discoveries of film music. As my tastes developed, I began to appreciate epic classics like PATTON and PLANET OF THE APES and masterpieces like ISLANDS IN THE STREAM that I missed during my teens. With one rousing chorus of “Ave Satani,” I’m transported back to the giddy excitement of that 14-year-old nerd alone in his room with his stereo and a stack of LPs. May I never totally lose that feeling.
The Prince of Darkness was also the Prince of Economy. In Bernard Herrmann’s hands, “less is more” never sounded so haunting. Herrmann never wasted time on excessive instrumental or compositional techniques. Through the simplest of melodic and harmonic figures, Herrmann’s music can conjure up the horrifying slash of a knife, the terrifying sense of vertigo, or the ghostly remnants of love for the sea. What can sometimes seem monotonous on first listen offers deeper layers of orchestral color on repeated listens. Herrmann’s refusal to play the Hollywood game cost him dearly during his lifetime. But that contentious devotion to his musical vision has resulted in music that is seemingly ageless and still sounds remarkably fresh. How? To borrow a quote from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE: “It’s a mystery.”
Three words—LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. If Maurice Jarre was judged on that score alone (which he often is), then he would rightfully earn a spot on my list. While I’ve always loved that particular score (and film), my true appreciation for Jarre’s gifts is fairly recent. Since researching the liner notes for TAI-PAN, I’ve immersed myself in Jarre’s entire output over the last few months. I’m even watching as many of the movies as I can find, even the awful ones. (And believe me, like all composers, Jarre has scored some dogs.) As with all composers, you start to recognize common melodic and harmonic progressions and, especially with Jarre, unique instrumental combinations that are especially his. I usually don’t like to listen to one particular composer over and over, just like I don’t want to read the same author one book after another. But one advantage of semi-total immersion is a newfound appreciation for Jarre’s unique gifts. Yup, I’m a confirmed Jarre-head. Semper fi!
If Max Steiner is the Father of Film Music, then Alfred Newman has to be its patron saint. Without Newman at the helm of the 20th Century Fox Music Department, gone would have been the man who helped foster the careers of Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and many others. I’ve discussed my love for Alfred Newman, especially the peerless Newman strings, which only grows stronger. Newman’s music speaks to me on a different level than any other film composer. For me, works like THE SONG OF BERNADETTE and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK demand my attention on a deeper level. Because of Newman’s prowess on the podium, his music never sounds quite right in a rerecording. Not even the great Charles Gerhardt could do him justice, though he comes the closest. Alfred Newman was more than a composer. He was an administrator, mentor, consummate musician, and if I had to pick a single film composer, my favorite.
I would call Alex North the “thinking man’s film composer.” Cerebral yet full of emotion, North doesn’t appeal to general film music fans for some reason. Yes, his harmonic language and his use of the orchestra is often harsh. If you’re looking for film music to vacuum by, this isn’t it. North’s music is complex but oh so rewarding. From the bluesy seediness of STREETCAR to the pomp of CLEOPATRA and the lush love theme from SPARTACUS, North’s music always provides a welcome cleansing of the palette. It’s often a challenge but oh so worth the effort.
Sentimental, old fashioned, wall-to-wall, Mickey Mousing… In the hands of a master like Max Steiner, those derogatory terms (all of which have been rightly leveled at the composer at one time or another) become film music gold. Consider that the Father of Film Music and his contemporaries were making up the rules of modern film scoring as they went along and a new appreciation for what he accomplished starts to take hold. For me, Steiner’s music brings back childhood memories of watching old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films on TV in those prehistoric days before cable, VCRs, DVD, and Blu-ray players and streaming. Whether it’s the sweeping grandeur of Tara, the mute innocence of Johnny Belinda or the Moroccan-inspired drama in Casablanca, as time goes by my awe of Steiner’s gifts continues to grow. An effortless melodist and a superb dramatist, Max Steiner simply means “film music”.
Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the music of Franz Waxman for me always brings a hint of European flair and a whiff of the old country.Waxman seemed at home in any genre, in any locale. SUNSET BOULEVARD’s Straussian strains or the Cossack energy of TARAS BULBA. From the Gothic sweep of REBECCA to PEYTON PLACE’s small-town America. Nestled in between Bowling for Dollars and the soaps, afternoon movies introduced me to Waxman’s music even before I knew what film music was. If you’re looking for a Golden Age composer to explore, Waxman makes a great introduction to the style without all the attendant baggage that goes with that branch of the genre.
The man who sealed the deal when it came to my love of film music. The one-two punch of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1977 still blows my mind 35 years later. John Williams is arguably the most successful film composer of all time and certainly the most consistent in terms of quality and A-list projects. That relationship with Spielberg sure hasn’t hurt any. Even when the films aren’t up to snuff, Williams’s contribution always raises their profile. Through his tenure at the Boston Pops and other outlets, Williams became an ambassador for film music around the world, a mantle that has spread far and wide with new generations of composers in this digital age. His command of composition and the orchestra is unparalleled. Williams is often the standard-bearer by which we seem to judge all contemporary film music. But that’s not fair to the legions of other composers making their mark with their own voices. Still, it’s difficult not to make the comparison. Williams has made some mistakes along the way. Oddly enough, even film music royalty is only human. But oh what glorious mistakes.