Pollock

9 Film Scores You Should Know…But Probably Don’t

In this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I decided to forgo the usual composer format and highlight some film scores that may be unfamiliar to many film music fans. I heartily recommend the nine scores below. And instead of playing favorites this month, the titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Above and Beyond soundtrack
The Barber of Siberia soundtrack
Cousins soundtrack

ABOVE AND BEYOND (1953)

The story of Col. Paul Tibbetts (Robert Taylor), the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, is one of the underrated films of the 1950s. What could have easily been given the typical Hollywood sheen is instead a stark, spare, real human drama. Hugo Friedhofer Oscar-nominated score is bold and dramatic and sidesteps any hint of sentimentality in its love theme for Tibbetts and his wife (Eleanor Parker).

THE BARBER OF SIBERIA (1998)

I first became acquainted with Edward Artemyev’s work with his excellent score for the Oscar-winning BURNT BY THE SUN (1994). Director/star Nikita Mikhalkov and composer reunited four years later for this 19th-Century period drama about a foreign entrepreneur (Richard Harris) who travels to Russia to sell a timber harvester in the wilds of Siberia, while his assistant (Julia Ormond) falls in love with a young Russian officer. With a haunting main theme for solo trumpet, Artemyev’s music conveys pain and pathos. The orchestrations bear period hallmarks of Tchaikovsky, yet the music is always filtered through the composer’s contemporary film music sensibilities. One of the best Russian film composers, Artemyev deserves to be better known by film music fans.

COUSINS (1989)

This American remake of the 1975 French romantic comedy COUSIN, COUSINE may be missing the Gallic flavor of the original, but the odd pairing of Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini somehow works in this tale of swapping partners. It’s all fluff, but the charm of the two leads help carry the film, as does Angelo Badalamenti’s score. Badalamenti provides a lilting waltz for this sunny comedy and Rossellini gets a lovely theme, while the beautiful love theme will break your heart. A thoroughly enjoyable score from an underrated composer.

Fort Saganne soundtrack
Gandhi soundtrack
Kinsey soundtrack

FORT SAGANNE (1984)

Philippe Sarde seemed to be on the brink of a big international film career with his Oscar-nominated score for Roman Polanski’s TESS in 1980. He continued scoring more Hollywood fare like GHOST STORY and QUEST FOR FIRE (both 1981), but much of his scoring gigs remained in France. Sarde composed one of his strongest scores for this 1911 French military drama set in the Sahara. Even with stars like Gerard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret, and Catherine Deneuve, the film isn’t particularly compelling. I stopped after an hour because it was ruining my enjoyment of the score. So skip the film and focus on Sarde’s impassioned music, featuring a lovely cello solo as the main theme.

GANDHI (1982)

If you didn’t vote for GANDHI at the 1982 Academy Awards, it seemed like you were voting against world peace and the Mahatma himself. How else to explain the awards sweep for such a bloated, overrated epic like this one? If the script and direction are flat, at least it’s well filmed and you have Ben Kingsley’s excellent lead performance to carry you through the excessive running time. Another plus is the score by George Fenton and Ravi Shankar. Shankar obviously handles the Indian elements of the music, but it is Fenton’s orchestral scoring that really captures the emotion missing in the film. The two disparate musical styles weave together beautifully. That this Oscar-nominated score has never been released on CD is a shame and needs to be remedied.

KINSEY (2004)

This film about the famous sexuality researcher, Alfred Kinsey, was prime Oscar bait. But by the time nominations rolled around, only Liam Neeson and Laura Linney were justly remembered for their excellent performances as Kinsey and his wife. Carter Burwell’s typical dark harmonies plumb the murky, unspoken depths of sexuality, while a tender main theme is offset by a chromatic descending countermelody. This score took me weeks to find after seeing the film because most record stores (remember those?) weren’t carrying such a small label. This is one of the Burwell’s tenderest scores that should have been remembered at Oscar time.

The Painted Veil soundtrack
Pollock soundtrack
Raggedy Man soundtrack

THE PAINTED VEIL (2006)

Alexandre Desplat finally gained some international attention in 2006 with his celebrated score to THE QUEEN. But the Golden Globe-winning PAINTED VEIL score is actually a richer, more complex score. Based on Somerset Maugham’s novel, the film came and went quickly, mainly due to its poor release timing. Audiences understandably didn’t want to see a film about a Chinese cholera outbreak during the Christmas holidays. Desplat’s typically transparent orchestrations keep the dramatic music from feeling overly heavy, a blessing with such downer subject matter. The lovely “River Waltz” echoes the delicate Erik Satie piano music that is used as source music in the film. (Does anyone write lovelier waltzes than Desplat?) An underrated gem and my favorite Desplat score.

POLLOCK (2000)

A 10-year labor of love from director/star Ed Harris, the film details the life of Jackson Pollock and his relationship with fellow artist Lee Krasner (a surprising, but well-deserved, Oscar-winning Marcia Gay Harden). Jeff Beal’s frenetic score captures the bustling, manic energy of the celebrated painter. The orchestrations have a Thomas Newman feel to them, but Beal makes the music very much his own. The music is all running figures in the piano and banjo, syncopated strings, and bursts of woodwind rhythmic motifs as Pollock slings his paint in that inimitable style. But Beal also pulls back for some emotional moments that thankfully never descend into musical goo.

RAGGEDY MAN (1981)

Sissy Spacek, fresh off her superb, Oscar-winning performance in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER , was the main draw for me here. And a Jerry Goldsmith score was the icing on the cake. Spacek stars in this little film about a telephone operator in a small Texas town during World War II who falls in love with a sailor (Eric Roberts) on leave. I’ve only seen this film once when it was released, but I’ve remembered Goldsmith’s lovely main title ever since. The simple, childlike melody for flute and guitar is one of Goldsmith’s finest themes.

What are some of your favorite underrated gems?

  1. I love the soundtrack to “Pollock” – we actually used some of the music from it for one of my marching band shows. Thanks so much for including it in this list!

  2. Woohoo! I know two of them! The Cousins love theme is one of the most heart wrenchingly lovely ones in my collection.

    I bought the music to Pollock on the recommendation of TV science nerd/chef Alton Brown. He wrote on his website that he didn’t care for the movie (which I hadn’t seen) but really loved the music. And it turned out to be a nice pick.

    1. It certainly is a nice pick. I’ll disagree about the movie. Even though both of the characters are fairly abrasive, they’re fascinating. It’s not a perfect movie but it made me want to learn more about Pollock and his work. To me, that’s a success. :)

  3. You’ve included two of my favorite, rather underappreciated, composers on this list: Friedhofer and Sarde.

    ABOVE AND BEYOND is a winning sleeper of a score, accompanying, as you say, one of the better biopics of it’s time. Friedhofer was one of the great Hollywood composers without a precise style; his melodies were enigmatic but engaging once delivered. I’ve read that Friedhofer and David Raksin were considered outsiders by their Hollywood contemporaries, and both had sharp senses of humor.

    Sarde is truly one of the great international composers, and his work is wonderfully varied. He really has a talent for getting the exact mood of the pictures he scores. FORT SAGANNE is a perfect example. It’s a film that works on a visual level only, and only on a theater screen – a sort of failed French-Legionnaire version of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

  4. Oh, and I just watched Polanski’s GHOST WRITER with a score by Alexandre Desplat. Wonderful work by all involved. Desplat’s music would have been right at home in many a Hitchcock thriller.

  5. casper wolfen brainstorm james horner lost in space john williams tom horn ernest gold twilights last gleaming damnation alley jerry goldsmith looking for richard howard shore

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for commenting. Most of those I’m unfamiliar with so I’ll definitely check them out. LOOKING FOR RICHARD is an excellent score to mention!

  6. I’ve been going through my collection, and I found these unknown (but excellent) scores:

    CASHBACK – Guy Farley (great piano, beautiful sounds)

    LE SAMOURAÏ – Francois de Roubaix (great film too)

    OCEANS – Bruno Coulais (quite new, listen to “La Cavalerie des Dauphins”, brilliant stuff)

    THE VISITOR – Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (my favorite track is “Walter Drives Through New York”)

    STALKER – Edward Artemiev (especially the main theme)

  7. Wait! Forgot one… :)

    BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF – Joseph LoDuca (the Epilogue is just amazing. I can listen to it over and over)

    1. Hi Frank, thanks for commenting. Wow, except for OCEANS, those are all scores I’m completely unfamiliar with! Time to do a little discovery.

  8. I’m not a big Isham fan… but “Life as a House” gets me every time. Used it in my wedding while my bride walked down the isle.

  9. thanks especially for Above and Beyond; haven’t seen the movie due to my own intense dislike of Robert Taylor.

    Here an frustrating, pretentious, sleep-inducing Greek film (with Harvey Kietel no less), that has a truly exquisite score by Eleni Karaindrou: Ulysses’ Gaze. The cd can usually be had for bargain prices, so give it a try.

    1. Roger, it’s funny that you say you have an intense dislike of Robert Taylor. I’m usually the same way. One of the most wooden actors I’ve ever seen. Yet he’s really in this film. But it’s all about the subject matter and the score for me, so give it a shot. :)

      Have never heard of ULYSSES’ GAZE or Karaindrou so I’m looking forward to hearing it.

  10. Pleased to be able to say that I own six of the abovementioned scores. Fort Saganne has always been a favorite (as are most of the works of Sarde).

    Other scores to check out:

    Grappelli: Les Valseuses (a.k.a.Going Places)
    Rozsa: Fedora
    Delerue: The Woman Next Door
    Robbins: Surviving Picasso
    Robbins: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
    Burwell: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
    Sarde: Coup de Torchon
    Bacalov: Coup de Foudre (US release title: Entre Nous)
    Morricone: Butterfly

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Bill. The only one of those even slightly is the Grappelli, which I first heard when I did my Jazz Score series a couple of years ago for FSMO. I don’t remember the movie much, though I don’t think I cared for it. But Grappelli’s music is absolutely delightful, especially with the pizzicato violin (or I assume it’s violin) theme.

    1. The movie is quite good too. I’m not usually a fan of Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, but they both turn in very good performances. Friedhofer’s music really captures the drama.

  11. Personally, any story is immediately lifted with Desplat behind the score :)
    Seeing as you also enjoy his work Jim, I was wondering what you thought of “The Flight of Magorium” by Desplat? It’s one of my favourite pieces but I’m an amateur at appreciating film scores, so do you think there’s anything it lacks that didn’t bring it to wider recognition?

    1. I think I’ve only heard the MAGORIUM score once. I’ll have to go seek it out. The film really bombed here in the U.S. and the score didn’t get much mention, if I remember correctly. Of course, that doesn’t mean much.

  12. Try the soundtrack to “Children of Dune”. By Brian Tyler.
    Specially the track “Inama Nushif (montage)” Wow…

  13. Some of my underrated gems are

    Russell Garcia – The Time Machine, from 1960. Best tunes are probably “London 1900 [Filby’s Theme], “The Time Traveler” and “Weena [Love Theme]”.
    Ennio Morricone – The Humanoid, italian science fiction film from 1979. Especially “Trasmissione Difettosa, Rotazione E Rivoluzione”. Morricone combines classical & electronic elements. It builds.
    Francois Rauber – Tintin et le Temple du Soleil, from 1969.
    Gunnar Svensson & Rune Gustafsson – The Man who Quit Smoking, from 1972. Swedish jazz music.
    Hikaru Hayashi – L’Ile neu. “The naked Island”. Japanese silent film from 1960.
    Joe Hisaishi – Porco Rosso. Especially “The Theme of Marco and Gina” from the Image Album.
    Trevor Jones – Cliffhanger, from 1993.
    Oliver Wallace – Alice in Wonderland, from 1951.
    Ryuichi Sakamoto – Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. 1983.

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