A-ha Moments In Film Music

I was talking with my buddy Doug Adams this past weekend and somehow the discussion got around to Howard Shore. Shocking, eh? Doug and Howard… It’s like chocolate and peanut butter or margaritas and Mexican food. Two great names that go great together. But I digress.

We started to discuss the score that was our first introduction to Howard’s music, and voila! A blog topic was born. (Thanks, Doug, for the inspiration!)

So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts (assuming you guys like the idea) of the one score that made me finally sit up and take notice of a composer. Not necessarily the best, my favorite, or my first exposure to them, but the first time I said, “Who wrote that?!”

Because I don’t want to write a 10,000-word blog post (and I want to use this topic for further posts), I’m limiting this installment to 10 composers. There’s no rhyme or reason to their order. In fact, I just picked the first 10 composers that came to my head. But considering the number of composers over the years, these posts could go on indefinitely (again, if you enjoy them). Feel free to comment below with your choices for these composers or list 10 of your own!

There’s no better place to begin than with the composer who got this discussion rolling in the first place…

HOWARD SHORE

“Lecter Escapes” from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

When Doug and I were first talking about this topic, I panicked. I thought, “Is LORD OF THE RINGS really the first time I can remember being exposed to Howard’s music enough that I finally recognized his voice?” I mean, my memory is faulty at best, but what little film music street cred I have would have been completely shot if that were the case. Thankfully it was not. It was 1991’s one-two punch of NAKED LUNCH and especially THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that brought Shore’s music into focus for me. The sheer terror that Shore’s music instilled with those dark, sustained chords occurred in everything from THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS and continue to this day. With this score, at night, I can still hear the lambs screaming.

JERRY GOLDSMITH

“The New Ambassador” from THE OMEN

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time or know me even slightly, the answer to this one is obvious. THE OMEN was my first soundtrack purchase and the start of my lifelong love of film music. Sure, Satanic sounds are the crux of Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning Black Mass, but so does my favorite Goldsmith theme, labeled “The New Ambassador” on the soundtrack, a melody that weaves throughout all that demonic music. Goldsmith wrote many more beautiful themes before and since, but that single track began a love affair with his music that continues to this day.

JOHN WILLIAMS

“Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner” from STAR WARS

I consider myself fortunate to have been alive and well at the rebirth of film music with STAR WARS. I wore out that original 2-LP soundtrack, and I know damn well I’m not the only one. Echoes of the score can be heard in Williams’s early work and certainly in his later scores. But nothing matched the sheer thrill of watching the film for the first time on the big screen. I saw it by myself when I went to visit my grandparents in upstate New York. I was one of only a handful of people at the theater and it was arguably the most thrilling moviegoing experience of my life. Some of that may be due to the haze of memory, but Williams’s score still sends thrills and chills up my spine every time I hear it, especially the remarkable pulse-pounding minutes leading up to the destruction of the Death Star.

FRANZ WAXMAN

SUNSET BOULEVARD Suite

My first exposure to Waxman came from the excellent Charles Gerhardt LP devoted to his film music. With suites from such great scores as PRINCE VALIANT, A PLACE IN THE SUN, and TARAS BULBA, it’s no wonder I was smitten from the first listen. But it was Gerhardt’s arrangement of Waxman’s Oscar-winning music to SUNSET BOULEVARD that was particularly thrilling. Film noir, jazz, and a little bit of Strauss’ Salone (which was much further down the road for me in my musical education) combine to create one of the all-time great Golden Age scores. SUNSET was the first film I saw with a Waxman score, and it’s still his best.

ALFRED NEWMAN

“London Calling” from THE BEST OF EVERYTHING

Like Waxman, my first exposure to Newman was through Gerhardt’s tribute album. That album had so many great scores on it—CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, THE ROBE, AIRPORT. Since it was a rerecording, I was as yet unfamiliar with the power of the Newman strings. That would come later. But it was the melody for the 1959 soaper THE BEST OF EVERYTHING that made me melt into a puddle of tears the first time I heard it (still does, even as I type this). It’s sad that that film was my entry into Newman’s vast output, but I knew once I saw it that it could only get better from there. Still, with Johnny Matthis’s lovely rendition of the title song and scoring that never descends into a syrupy goo, that melody made me a Newman fan and proved to me that he was simply “the best of everything.”

DAVE GRUSIN

“Main Theme” from ON GOLDEN POND

By 1981, I was already familiar with Grusin’s work through his Oscar-nominated scores for HEAVEN CAN WAIT and THE CHAMP. So by the time ON GOLDEN POND rolled around, I could recognize certain harmonic progressions and melodic figures. Today, it might be difficult to remember the aura of autumnal sadness that surrounded the film’s release. Even though the story was more than a tad sentimental, watching two cinematic legends like Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn was something special. Augment that with the amber glow of Billy Williams’s beautiful cinematography and Grusin’s combination of contemporary and Renaissance harmonies and gentle, piano-based orchestrations, and you have a winner. Grusin always succeeded best in intimate characters dramas. And if his music wasn’t necessarily the most complex, it always got to the heart of the drama with an economy that was—and still is—refreshing.

MAURICE JARRE

“Overture” from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Through my Oscar obsession, I got to know many of the major Maurice Jarre scores. But after a while, the melody lines, harmonies and use of percussion begin to sound the same, whether the story takes place in Russia, Amish country, or the jungles of Africa. But there’s no denying the power of Jarre’s Oscar-winning score for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. And it took the late-80s restoration of the film before I appreciated Jarre’s talent. I had never made it through the film on TV and there is no better introduction to Jarre’s music than seeing it on the big screen. No one sounds like Jarre. And while I sometimes question his choice of music for a particular scene, when he gets it right, like in the classic main theme, it’s thrilling. I actually found new respect for Jarre when Film Score Monthly released a CD of his concert works, in which you can hear seeds of his film music, especially in his use of percussion.

MARK ISHAM

“In The Half-Light Of The Canyon” from A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Few film composers are as chameleon-like as Mark Isham. In early films like THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE and LITTLE MAN TATE, I couldn’t get a handle on Isham’s style. But with his Oscar-nominated score A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, I finally sat up and took notice. This gentle, quiet film about sibling love and fly-fishing seemed a big snore when I first saw it in 1992. I’ve seen it many times since and it has seeped under my skin, mainly thanks to Robert Redford’s sensitive direction, Philippe Rousselot’s gorgeous Oscar-winning cinematography, and Isham’s lovely Americana score. With its folk harmonies and almost hymn-like atmosphere, Isham’s Oscar-nominated music sounds unlike anything he has written before or since. While I still can’t define an Isham “sound,” he is an underrated composer with film score fans that deserves more recognition.

ANDRÉ PREVIN

“Main Title” from ELMER GANTRY

From the get-go, André Previn has always been one of my favorite composers. For years, all I knew was his stellar work on ELMER GANTRY (mainly due to my ridiculous Oscar obsession), his conducting and arranging of classic Hollywood musicals, and his lovely score the stage musical COCO. But thanks to the numerous discs put out by Film Score Monthly, I’ve become more familiar with his less-well-known (at least to me) film work. From his earliest scores for Lassie, Previn defined his style with flinty, contemporary harmonies and some of the best French horn writing in the industry. You can hear them in nearly every film, but GANTRY was the starting point and still my favorite Previn score.

LEE HOLDRIDGE

“Flight of the Gull” from JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL

If you were alive in the early 1970s and above a certain age, you couldn’t get away from JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Richard Bach’s phenomenally bestselling self-help novella was pablum for the brain and the film wasn’t much better. At least the film had beautiful cinematography and a great Neil Diamond soundtrack. Between those classic songs (which take me right back to age 11) was some stellar scoring work by Lee Holdridge. Holdridge had begun working with Diamond back in the late 60s and their work on the score is seamless. Some of it may seem a bit soft rock for film score purists, but I can’t help but get caught up in Diamond’s lovely melodies and Holdridge’s soaring, lush arrangements. Though Holdridge would go on to higher-profile gigs, I’ve always come back to the comfort of this wonderful score.

  1. Good idea! My first exposure to Howard Shore was actually Scorsese’s After Hours, a brilliant quirky little film with some typically genius camera work (admittedly the narrative was flawed somewhat).

    John Williams was Geoff Love’s wacky arrangement of Star Wars, Alan Silvestri was CHIPS and Jerry Goldsmith was Gremlins.

    Like you, Gerhardt was responsible for so many introductions! I wish he were still alive today so we could do a big interview / feature on him for FSMO.

    1. Wouldn’t that have been great to interview Gerhardt? Oh well. At least those albums live on.

      I’ve never seen AFTER HOURS. Must watch one of these days, especially after hearing Shore’s music in the Collector’s Edition last fall.

  2. That you too like Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a sure sign of something marvelous.

    My introduction to Shore was hearing the finale of Silence of the Lambs on the Bruce Broughton conducted/arranged “Music for Murder” (a great album that also opened my young eyes to Herrmann, Goldsmith, and Jarre).

    Williams entered my system, alongside string cheese and chopped-up apples, at an early age with the likes of his Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores. My first real awakening to film scores proper, however, was at the hands of Jurassic Park…and I soon came to believe that the maestro could do no wrong.

    The first Goldsmith I simply had to buy (and the only one I owned for many years) was his score for Air Force One. It seems like an odd hallmark now, considering my much broader familiarity with his ouevre, but to my young ears it was soaring, thematic, rousing movie magic. It took way too long for me to realize that this ponytailed man was just as good as my idol Williams.

    1. I think that’s the only time I’ve seen the word “marvelous” applied to JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. I also don’t believe there are odd hallmarks, as you say. So long as the hallmarks are there, yours are equally as valid as any others. And can you believe I haven’t heard AF1 outside of the movie? Time to find that one.

  3. I think I’ll go down your composer list with my A-Ha moments:

    Howard Shore’s wildly imaginative music for ED WOOD is what brought my attention to his wider, eerie repertoire for Cronenberg – his originality on films like CRASH definitely show his ability to take on the unusual.

    Jerry Goldsmith – had to be THE SAND PEBBLES and the song “Your Zowie Face” from IN LIKE FLINT!

    John Williams was Johnny when I flipped over his film work for 60’s comedies like NOT WITH MY WIFE YOU DON’T and his unforgettable themes for KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER and other TV shows – I guess that shows my age!

    Franz Waxman became iconic for me with PEYTON PLACE – it was used for the TV show when I was a kid, but I was eventually blown away when I heard the original movie soundtrack album – I still regard this masterwork as one of a handful of American classics.

    Alfred Newman became one of my personal heroes with HOW THE WEST WAS WON, and music that was just as exciting to hear as 3-Strip CINERAMA was to see.

    THE YAKUZA woke me up to Dave Grusin – it’s still my favorite work of his.

    Maurice Jarre’s relationship with David Lean for LAWRENCE, ZHIVAGO and the rest were impossible to ignore when I was a young man. But I remember running out and spending all my money on THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS LP right after I saw the movie.

    Mark Isham’s work on Alan Rudolph’s THE MODERNS got his first CD into my collection.

    Andre Previn – Get this, Johnny Williams and Previn’s work for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was my first purchased recording for both. It’s Previn’s THE FORTUNE COOKIE that became my favorite spin of his; but I must mention he wrote my favorite, all-time, cult-classic movie song for Ann-Margret: THE SWINGER – try and find a recording of that one :)!

    Lee Holdrige is THE BEASTMASTER – Do you know what HBO stands for? “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!”

    1. I adore PEYTON PLACE. Equally as good as SUNSET (and on some days even better), just on a more emotional level.

      That VALLEY OF THE DOLLS song is so beautiful. And that film is sooooo bad. I can’t even get into it on a camp level. It’s excruciating to sit through.

      The HBO comment cracked me up. Why? Because I remember those early days of HBO and they did show BEASTMASTER all the time!

  4. Good question, if you can somehow find that “first kiss” moment when we loved so many… For Jerry Goldsmith it might have been Stagecoach for me. Although there are many other Goldsmith scores I love much more and with a passion, this one showed what an inventive composer could do with a small orchestra and end up carrying the whole movie, (which all the stars could not). In that sense, it was an ah ha moment of what was possible.

  5. yep since i’m fairly new to the game- I first really “listened” to Howard Shore for Lord of the Rings – John Williams seemed to be everywhere so I wouldnt even know where to start with him. Danny Elfman – probably Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure of Beetlejuice.

    1. My early Elfmans were PEE-WEE and BETTLEJUICE as well, back when they were new. But I don’t think I paid attention to his style until much later.

  6. My first Shore exposure was probably ‘Big’ – my favourite cues were always the mystical ‘Zoltar’ material. ‘The Fly’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ came next. The tragic, operatic tone seemed to appeal.

    Goldsmith was ‘Gremlins’ – that wildly addictive main theme. Although I have a soft spot for the original score, I prefer the streamlined sound of the sequel.

    Williams is something of a mystery – my childhood chronology has been corrupted by home video. Depending on who you ask, my introduction to Williams was either ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘Return of the Jedi’ or ‘Hook’ (which I had to sit through twice theatrically).

    I’m surprised the James Horner hasn’t been mentioned yet! ‘Aliens’ and ‘Cocoon’, again on home video, although I seem to remember that I first heard the music from ‘Aliens’ in a trailer for Luc Besson’s ‘The Big Blue’.

    My recollection is that my interest in film music developed quite quickly at the age of ten or eleven; I developed an obsession with watching end credits (primarily for the music) and making a mental note of who wrote the music for the movies that I’d seen.

  7. HOOK – LOL – it’s actually my FAVORITE John Williams score – and, oddly enough, i love the movie, too

    STAR WARS – I still vividly remember seeing STAR WARS when I was 14 years old on the first day it opened in Philadelphia – I was in a downtown theater and had to sit on the floor in front of first row it was so jam packed (don’t think that would be allowed nowadays) – needless to say…a life changing experience

    MAURICE JARRE – A WALK IN THE CLOUDS is my favorite of his

    GOLDSMITH – FIRST KNIGHT’s my favorite JG score

  8. I am pleased that you have included Andre Previn and Lee Holdridge. But, pray tell, where is the sadly forgotten, underrated Daniele Amfitheatrof, whose score for the MGM film about the building of the atomic bomb, “The Beginning or the End,” is not only one of his best works, but also a score that should be re-evaluated by film music scholars.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Stories
Fame
I Sing the Body Electric