Friday, June 25, 2010

Top Ten Memorable Film Scores

In compiling this list I was careful to avoid scores that, because they are so well known, are beyond memorable: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T., Chariots of Fire, Rocky, Braveheart, etc. Yet I wasn't simply wanting to be alternative. I tried to list film scores that are so tied to the images they were composed for, yet which stand on their own in some way; but scores that are for me personally memorable.

They are listed in a somewhat rough order (with an emphasis on rough) of lesser favourites to greater favourites, the lessers beginning with 10:

10. The Untouchables - Ennio Morricone

How about we just get this one out of the way? When I first heard the main theme for The Untouchables it was on tv and it kind of scared me. As the music played while the title of the film slowly began to appear on screen, the music felt somehow paranoid. But then, the theme music for the show Unsolved Mysteries scared me too. Strangely enough, the host of that show, Robert Stack, played Eliot Ness in the original tv series.

9. Predator - Alan Silvestri

I like how it segues from sounding sci-fi to sudden action flick mode. It's nothing special per se, but when people hear it they know what movie it is. Therefore it is special after all.

8. Yojimbo - Masaru Sato

I love the exuberance of this score. It sounds strident, swaggering; like the main character. This score plays during the opening shot where we see Yojimbo, his back to the camera, scratching his head before he sets off walking again. With that shot together with the score, Kurosawa has you. If memory serves, the same theme isn't heard again in the same way until Yojimbo slays the villians at the end - and at that point it's played faster.

7. The Straight Story - Angelo Badalamenti

It's jiggered enough to keep from being saccharine, and it takes its time, like Alvin on his ride-on mower.

6. Crocodile Dundee - Peter Best

Who would really say that Crocodile Dundee is a great film - and who would say it is forgettable? The answer: no one. Same goes for the score. This one is the theme from the ending of the movie. You can hear the Australian theme from the beginning meeting with the New York City theme.

5. Ravenous - Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman

Ravenous is probably well on its way to Cult Status if it isn't there already. What would a film about cannibalism (and about it with gusto) set in the 1840's of Sierra Nevada have as its score? Eerie synthetics? No, more along the lines of this:

4. The Goonies - Dave Grusin

Cyndi Lauper perhaps comes immediately to mind. And hearing her is enough to transport one back to the eighties faster than Doc Brown's Delorean. But the actual composed-to-the-image score for The Goonies is what many other scores in the 80's wished they were. It's totally non-intrusive but fully backs up the story, yet having its own character. The characters from the film are in it; the setting is in it; the adventure is in it.

3. Willow - James Horner

I have this hope, this dream, that someone in the future will make a truly great fantasy film and will get permission to lift the entire score from Willow for it, thus giving it the home it deserves. The opening is just gorgeous. Horner's score for Krull is perhaps better. Horner is the man. Or at least he was, until James Cameron laid hands on him. Here is a medley of the themes from Willow:

2. The Karate Kid - Bill Conti

You can watch Bill Conti talk about his Zamfir-inspired score for The Karate Kid right here.

1. Witness - Maurice Jarre

If I wasn't really playing favourites too much before, I am now. I think fans of this film know deeply that the barn-building scene is not just some happy montage sequence in the midst of a cop thriller. It is a metaphor for the entire film. When the same theme comes back again at the end of the film, like a double affirmation, while Book drives away, departing from Rachel, and Daniel makes his way down the road, one understands on a level other than the conscious: it is all about the matter - fraught with delicacy - of being alive to community, of building, and not tearing down. That a cop thriller, fused with its glorious score, would get this across is a kind of miracle.


Enbrethiliel said...


Predator!!! How could I have forgotten that when I was mentally compiling my own list of great scores? (Maybe it was because I was so distracted by Conan the Barbarian . . .)

Confession: I'd probably count Rocky instead of The Karate Kid for Bill Conti.

Enbrethiliel said...


And those distinctive bars from the Superman score buried in the middle of the Goonies theme was a great surprise! I had almost forgotten about it . . . Go Sloth!

One last thing: I've also been thinking about key scenes or passages that are metaphors for the movies or novels they appear in. Would you know if there's an actual term for them?

Bryan said...

Crocodile Dundee. Definitely Crocodile Dundee!!! Love the score. And really like the movie. Watched it with my grandparents when I was young. Paul Hogan fans. Naturally, I adopted their perspective concerning the movie.

Having done the movies, what about tv shows? I'll get you started. Knight Rider...

Paul Stilwell said...

Enbrethiliel, I won't hold it against you that you would probably count Rocky for Bill Conti instead of The Karate Kid. For one, the training montage's score is far greater than the training montage for The Karate Kid. Though I think it is to compare apples with oranges. The Karate Kid isn't going after the eye of the tiger; he's going after "balance" - a rather bland way of putting the heart-and-mind resolution of Karate that Miyagi teaches, but oh well.

I still have to watch Conan the Barbarian. I want to hear its score while I watch it rather than just listening to it on youtube.

Yes, the Superman bars! And I keep thinking there are the bits of some pirate adventure show/film buried there too. I love the part when Sloth is holding up the boulder so all the Goonies can get through and just as Chunk is about to go through, Sloth stops him and says, "Love Chunk!" *Awwwwww*

That's a good question about those key scenes or passages. It feels like there is a term on the tip of my brain, but it won't come out. Or possibly I'm just on the verge of inventing one. If there isn't a term for it, surely we could come up with one, right?

Paul Stilwell said...

Bryan, yeah, I was big Dundee fan as a kid too. Remember the Foster Lager commercials?