Sunday, August 31, 2008

Musical Memories (or MY top ten film scores)

I am a cinephile (not to be confused with a cinemaniac...there's a difference).
For me, what I hear is more important than what I see. That sounds odd considering that film is a visual medium, but the music of a film has the ability to transport us back to the film. In this case, the rhythm and melody compliment the images put forth. Sound is incredibly important, and when a score is pitch perfect, just a few notes is enough to recall everything. Is image the main ingredient in cinema? Most definitely, but without the sound, the music...the film is not memorable. Silent film only works when there is an accompanying music player.

So, I present to you MY (meaning this is my interpretation and opinion) top ten film scores (not to be confused with soundtracks). These are in no particular order, so it's just a list, not a best to worst or vice versa.

In case you are wondering, to be a score means to be music separated from songs used within the film. It cannot have a pop culture song, nor can it be music from somewhere else (which is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is not on my list as the song is Thus Sprach Zarathustra by Wagner...which makes it a soundtrack instead of a score.

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1. Star Wars

Perhaps the most well known theme of all time. John Williams was already an accomplished composer (and will be on this list many times) when he wrote this music for George Lucas. It is almost impossible to NOT know the music. Everyone recognizes it and is instantly transported to this galaxy far, far away.
The piece is extremely horn heavy (another signature of John Williams which would be used in a few other of his famous films: The Indiana Jones series), which allows you to not only hear but also feel the adventure that is being spun around you.

The music swells and prepares you for dogfights, lightsaber battles, and a never-ending conflict between good and evil. Once the music starts, you eagerly await that screen crawl as the episode (regardless of whether or not you like it) starts.

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2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (The Indiana Jones Series)

Another famous score by John Williams. Again, he is heavy with the horn, but this time, instead of a science fiction feel, the piece honestly feels like a world-traveling hero anthem. From the moment the music starts and our hero steps on to the screen, you are adrenaline-ready, and you want to get the idol or stones or grail. I don't know anyone who dislikes the music to this movie regardless of how they feel about the movies themselves.

This might just be the most recognizable score (even more so than Star Wars) and is probably the most likely candidate to be an Ohrworm. Just hearing the music once and having someone remind you of it means that you'll be whistling the tune for days on end.

Funny enough, on my first day of college (oh soooooooo long ago), they blasted The Raiders' March (as it is known) over loud speakers over the campus to pump us up to go class. My first class ever (a Psych course) had over 300 students humming and whistling the tune together as we read through the syllabus.

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3. Jaws

Yes, the very first (but third on our list) of John Williams' famous film scores came from this Steven Spielberg directed horror movie. If a film maker (or musician) ever wanted to demonstrate the sheer power of sound in horror movies, he or she could start with Jaws. The shark itself is not seen very often, but the pounding drums and horns tell the audience that the shark (lovingly named Bruce) is coming. The very building of the horns told us exactly when the shark would strike.

The score also illustrated how the music of a film could enter pop culture. How many kids made the "Daa da. Daaa Da. Duh duh duh duh," sound before attacking friends and family? The Zucker Brothers (with Jim Abrahams) would use Jaws as a joke to open Airplane. When the music starts at the beginning of that movie and the airplane's tail appears, the audience laughs at the idea of a plane being a horror object.

Again, like Williams' other movies, Jaws has a particular sound that tells you John Williams wrote it, but it doesn't sound like anything else. Williams has this ability to use the same sounds but make them appear very different. This might be why he is considered one of the foremost composers EVER.

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4. James Bond

First, go and refresh your memory of this swinging score.

Finally, a non-John Williams piece. However, like Williams, John Barry's sixties spy theme is instantly recognizable and beloved. Very few, if any, people hate Bond's musical introduction. The opening is sophisticated like smooth jazz, but after a few notes of the melody, Barry adds a guitar and horn to make us feel how the character will use subterfuge. A few seconds later, the music swells and blasts us into the adventure Mr. Bond will be having.

The music, like the spy himself, is so cool that it is very hard to not tap along to the beat (just as it is so hard for female characters in the films to avoid Bond's charms).

I also have to admit that I was big fan of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. First of all (spoiler alert!), Bond loses to Blofeld and has his bride die in his lap. Secondly, the music, including the soundtrack song by Louis Armstrong ("We Have All the Time in the World") is possibly the best in Bond history. If you have not seen (or heard) the film, go now. This list can wait....

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5. Rocky

Yo, Adrian, if you are unfamiliar with this tune, take a second and listen. Some know the song better as "Gonna Fly Now", but Stallone's composer (Bill Conti) created a song that is glorious and brings out the beauty in a character that is not, at first, glorious and beautiful. At the same time, the song is inspiring. After watching

Rocky Balboa run up the steps, this song sweeps over the audience, and you believe that you can overcome the odds.

The next time you're out running and start to hit the wall, have this song on your iPod or in your mind and you will find you can keep going.

When this theme was played at the Oscars in 1976, the underdog aspect took over the audience and everyone rooted for the film to win. If you're an underdog and you need a theme, look no further.

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6. Gone with the Wind

I have to begin by admitting that I am not the biggest fan of this film. Yes, it is a beautiful sweeping epic with amazing sets, some interesting acting, and a good source material...but I truly feel that it has been overvauled as time has passed.

Still, the musical score easily gives away how sweeping of an epic this film is. Max Steiner (who did not win the Oscar) may have influenced Maurice Jarre (more when we get there) in many ways. As the music builds and falls, the audience can feel the love Rhett and Scarlett will share, the trials they will face, and ultimately feel how it will all fall apart. The musical notes seem so simple, but carry so much.

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7. Lawrence of Arabia

It's only fair that by bringing up Jarre that I put his work here. An iconic score is one of the very reasons why filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorcese love the movie.

Again, like Gone with the Wind, this film is an epic. The long sweeping shots, the large amount of characters (with no speaking roles for women...which was interesting and noticed at the time), and amazing locations (who knew a desert could be...beautiful). The savagery of the land is heard in the first minute of the overture until the calming influence of Lawrence enters and portrays the beauty he would come to see in the desert tribes.

David Lean couldn't have asked for a better score.

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8. Psycho

Bernard Herrmann creates a suitable mood with his music. Watch the opening to not only hear the rushed strings and papable terror in the music, but to see the opening credits as designed by one of the best ever: Saul Bass.

When most people think of Psycho, they think of the famous shower scene music, which is properly terrifying. Watching Janet Leigh get stabbed (but hearing a Watermelon actually taking the brunt of it), one can't but feel the terror. However, the opening theme is quite well done. Even Busta Rhymes would steal...errr...sample Herrmann's work for one of his songs.

This score would also influence many of the horror genre films of the 60's and beyond. The villain of the piece would have his or her own theme that was supposed to terrify the audience. Indeed, at a midnight showing of Psycho I attended while in high school, my date literally jumped out of her seat when the strings kicked in during the shower scene.
Modern horror depends on sights and gore, but true horror...horror of the 60's and 70's depended on the sounds to frighten the audience. Herrmann recognized this when he made a score that complimented the film entirely.
I have to admit that I am a bigger fan of Rear Window and Rope, though Psycho is definitely up there.
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9. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
One could argue that all of Ennio Morricone's music could go here. His style is entirely his own and very hard to copy. However, of all of his music, this spaghetti western theme is the most well known and used.
The third film in Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy is still widely considered the best western ever made. And the score, in particular the opening theme, should feel cheesy, but is instead enrapturing. The guitar, the flute, and even the singers yelling, "Wah Wah Waaaaah," sounds incredibly dumb, but as the music flows during the credits, the audience becomes excited over what is to come. The silliness evaporates, and we stare in awe at Eastwood's Nada (no name), Van Cleef's bounty hunter, and even Eli Wallach allowing himself to be called ugly. Morricone's music even heightens the Mexican Standoff that occurs later in the film.
If you've never seen the film (there are still those that haven't), watch it the first time, but then play it again and just listen. Sound and score are amazingly balanced. The music itself would be copied and used for the next forty years.
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10. Back to the Future
I know, I know...a controversial choice. There are so many films out there, so why choose a silly 80's film starring Alex P. Keaton (better known as Michael J. Fox)? Because Alan Silvestri's score not only emulates something that John Williams does (heavy on the horns), but it is a piece that brings across the heroic nature of Marty McFly, the adventure to come, and the easily recognizable notes.
Sure, Zemeckis' film can be known for its soundtrack (the 80's leaning on Huey Lewis, while the 50's leans on Chuck Berry), but the score is as recognizable and thrilling (though anyone who hates "The Power of Love" doesn't understand the 80's).
As Marty Mcfly rides around the town square in both Back to the Future and BttF2, the horns kick in, and we root for the kid (he was almost thirty when he made part two) to get away from the bad guys. That's how a heroic score should be.
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Of course these ten are debatable. That's a given. These are my top ten. The AFI, the casual fan, and the hardcore cinephiles will probably (and do) disagree.
There are also songs, not scores, but songs that I would add to the mix as well.
For example:
"Central Services/ The Office" by Michael Kamen from the film Brazil. This has been used so often but most people don't know it. Most recently, it was used for the Wall-E preview. Listen here or watch this (it's about 50 seconds in).
"Lux Aeterna" by Clint Mansell from the film Requiem for a Dream. Yes, it's been remixed, but this song has been used so many places now. Listen here.
"Backdraft" by Hans Zimmer. His work has been used in SO many trailers it's insane. Listen here.
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That's my list. What about you? Are there scores that are instantly recognizable and memory-inducing? Have you ever stopped and watched a film solely due to the music playing?
Of course what do I know? I'm a -phile, not a -maniac. I could be wrong.
Namaste...and good listening.

3 comments:

whynaut said...

An excellent, thoughtful list- wouldn't have thought of BTTF but I understand why you chose it.

I'd have included one of Danny Elfman's scores - distinctive and moody and very evocative of the films with which they are associated- but we know I'm an ex-Goth. ;)

How do you define the difference between Cinephile and Cinemaniac?

Ironic said...

A Cinemaniac will like only certain types of films. Some silent, occasionally foreign, but usually American...and not a documentary. The Cinemaniac would rather see Star Wars instead of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The Cinephile will have broader tastes. He or she may like Star Wars, but will also like Jules et Jim. He or she will also know a few films that almost no one has heard of (for example: try talking about Tsotsi with a non-cinephile).

The real difference, as David Bordwell explains, is that Cinephiles love the IDEA of film. If you watch Citizen Kane to study how the table size indicates how the marriage changes...you're a cinephile. If you watch it to say you've seen it, you're a cinemaniac.

Laura said...

Love your analogy about the table size in Citizen Kane (although it isn't really yours). I guess that would make me a cinaphile then...

Also, I have a few to add to your list, although none that I could delete because I think film scores are magical and have the power to take you back to the film without having to see it.

The Mission: You put an Ennio Morricone score on your list, but this one just soars through my mind. Morricone is known for his melodies and this score is absolutely no exception.

Life As A House: I think that Mark Isham is really underrated as a film composer. His work is inventive, interesting and memorable. And with this score, it is so versatile that it has been taken and used for other films (which I think is kind of strange).

P.S.: The difference between stealing and sampling for backing to rap music for Busta Rhymes is whether or not he credits the original artist. Seeing as I'm fairly sure that Busta credited Bernard Herrmann for use of the sample of Vertigo's "Prelude" as backing for his song, everything's on the up and up. That's sampling. Vanilla Ice taking a sample of "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen, changing one note in the bass line and claiming it's different? That's stealing.