How many films have there been wherein no one notices the music? Quite a few, if you think about it - the score or soundtrack merely blends in with background noise like a transistor radio on a busy street (for the younger readers, a "transistor radio" was a small battery-operated device with a tinny speaker that one used to listen to music with via non-digital airwaves in the century prior to i-Pods) . Certainly, there are those directors who eschewed a score altogether, like Hitchcock in The Birds or Ingmar Bergman in Cries and Whispers (although there is still some incidental classical music in both). But we shall forgo those and seek films where the music of the films are memorable, and often unforgettable. Many times the musical score of the film is what enthralls you, and at other times it is the individual songs that make up the soundtrack that catches your attention. Still other times, both the score and songs from the soundtrack are superb. I have decided to include both score and soundtracks in this article, mostly because I am inherently lazy and don't want to duplicate the effort.
What is the difference between a score and a soundtrack, you ask? Simply put, a score is most often music composed specifically for a film. It is usually electronic or classical in nature (although period instruments and arrangements are often used to reflect a bygone era, or ethnic music is scored to relate to a specific country, like in Gandhi, for instance). In addition, scores very rarely offer vocals, and then usually of an operatic or choral caliber. Often the score reflects themes in the movie or introduces specific characters, such as the score of The Lord of the Rings, in which Howard Shore gives both characters (Gollum, for instance) and places (Khazad-dum, The Shire and Rohan) their own themes.
Conversely, a soundtrack is a collection of prerecorded songs or compositions by a single or various artists used by the director to direct our attention to something, to either subtly or overtly manipulate our feelings, or, more often than not, the director just likes the damn songs. Often songs are used in an ironic sense, a juxtaposition of a happy song on a frankly brutal scene, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange crooning "Singin' in the Rain" as he beats up a couple. Sometimes a director will not use a score but only a soundtrack of individual songs, some only use a score, and some use both. We cater to all kinds here. But, as with all of my articles, I offer a few caveats, provisos and quid pro quos simply to make things easier for myself. Selfish, I know.
One caveat I have applied is that the film scores and soundtracks I have chosen are not from movies deemed "musicals", hence no Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Stormy Weather, Oliver!, My Fair Lady, or even Pink Floyd's The Wall, for that matter. These are all laudable films, particularly in their musical content, but that isn't what I was going for. In addition, there are no concert films on the list, so no The Last Waltz, Woodstock, Don't Look Back or The Concert of Bangladesh. Both musicals and concert films/rockumentaries deserve their own special articles, and I may get around to those someday. But the scores and soundtracks here are from films that have plots independent of the music, or at least with "mockumentaries" such as This Is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, or biographical films such as Amadeus, the music, while not incidental to the plot, is certainly cleverly subsumed into the overall story.
I won't say the music is secondary to the plot for the soundtracks I have chosen; on the contrary, in a few films here the soundtracks are the only redemption for sub-par or pedestrian movies. However, the characters do not sing while performing the mundane aspects of their lives. There are no epic musical dance numbers with casts of thousands trooping through Victorian neighborhoods of London (a stock number seen from everything from the song "Thank You Very Much" in the movie Scrooge to "With a Little Bit of Luck" from My Fair Lady to "Every Sperm is Sacred" in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life), or some idiot getting soaked singing and dancing in the rain down a sodden street of Paris. I like a healthy dose of reality, even in my fantasies.
And so, without further ado, here are the 50 films I deem to have the greatest scores, soundtracks or a combination of the two. In alphabetical order. Omitting any definite or indefinite articles like the words "the" or "an" starting a title.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) - Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Korngold won an Academy Award for his thrilling score that further enlivened an already rousing movie (he also won an Oscar for the 1936 film Anthony Adverse). With Korngold's score, dashing and debonair Errol Flynn, cranky Basil Rathbone and the intoxicating Olivia de Havilland's sumptuous gowns, it is still the best damn Robin Hood movie ever filmed.
The Adventures Of Robin Hood Soundtrack Suite
Alexander Nevsky (1938) - Sergei Prokofiev
No, this is not cheating. Prokofiev did indeed score Sergei Eisenstein's brilliant epic Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev later rearranged the score in cantata form (op. 78), reducing the film's original 23 movements down to seven. It is considered one of the great cantatas of the past century.
Alexander Nevsky (film score)
Amadeus (1984) - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri
How can this not be one of the greatest soundtracks? It's Mozart, dammit! The enjoyable aspect of this movie (whether the incidents in the film are true or not matter little)is the masterful way in which Miloš Forman weaves Mozart's music in throughout the film. It is the incidental works (by both Mozart and Salieri) that prove the most fascinating and often hilarious, as when Mozart mocks Salieri's tribute here, or here when Salieri desperately tries to impress a priest. However, the films descends further and further into darkness and the decline of Amadeus. The harrowing scenes from Don Giovanni, and the abject sorrow of the Requièm Mass in D minor (Lacrimosa) are superbly wrought for the film.
American Graffiti (1973) - Various Artists
When you've managed to play snippets of every song from the 50s and early 60s in a single evening and then have Wolfman Jack spin the platters, you either have an extended Time/Life CD infomercial or the George Lucas film American Graffiti. In this case, it's the latter. This is the movie that spurred the nostalgia craze of the 70s and offshoots like the Fonz. For all that, it is a damn entertaining movie, and the music proves integral because each generation has a special soundtrack of their teenage years. Don't you?
Green Onions, Opening Sequence/Rock Around the Clock, At the Hop
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - Duke Ellington
Aside from Jimmy Stewart's marvelously understated performance as a failing small-town attorney, the best thing director Otto Preminger did was to hire Duke Ellington to write the score for Anatomy of a Murder. The music seethes and soars within a few bars and is infused with catchy gospel and blues lines.
Main Theme from Anatomy of a Murder
Apocalypse Now (1979) - Various Artists, Carmine Coppola
Oh, the horror! It is not necessarily Carmine Coppola's score that leaves the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now indelibly etched in our noggins, it is the eerie intro with the Door's The End insinuating across the scene with a hellish inferno in its wake. It is the wild ride of the choppers playing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Even the not-CCR version of Suzie Q is memorable, particularly with promoter Bill Graham on hand to lend authenticity. And Carmine Coppola does add enough malevolent ambiance to warrant mention, such as in this scene.
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1957) - Miles Davis
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) was Louis Malle's first film, and is accorded classic status for its stylish noir ambiance and eternal close-ups of Jeanne Moreau's face. I found it forgettable, save for Miles Davis's remarkable jazz score.
Barry Lyndon (1975) - The Chieftains, George Frederick Handel, Franz Schubert, et al
A simply gorgeous movie that never quite got its due. Hey, Ryan O'Neal actually even managed to act therein! And the soundtrack is formidable, what with The Chieftains maintaining the Irish nature of the hero, and such luminaries as Handel, Schubert, Vivaldi and Mozart to fill in the classical interludes. The music is as beautiful as the movie.
Women of Ireland, Sarabande (End Title), Piano Trio in E flat, Piper's Maggot Jig
The Big Chill (1983) - Various Artists
Hey, you can't go wrong playing The Stone's You Can't Always Get What You Want for a funeral procession! "A Whiter Shade of Pale", "Good Lovin'", "Joy to the World", Aint to Proud to Beg, and every other great Motown hit known to Mankind. The soundtrack for the Baby Boomer Generation, even after they abandoned their beliefs and adopted cynicism and rationalizations.
Blade Runner (1982) - Vangelis
One of my favorite Sci-fi movies of all time comes wrapped in one of my favorite music scores. Vangelis' unearthly keyboards are the perfect cyber-foil for the androids populating the film. The mournful sax of the Love Theme, the tinkling, wistful piano of Memories of Green, and the End Theme are simply a perfect match for the film.
The Blues Brothers (1980) - Various Artists
Jack and Elwood and the evil nun floating a foot above the ground (she was also my 8th grade homeroom teacher). Any movie with Aretha, Cab Calloway and the master bluesman John Lee Hooker is a'ight with me. Belushi and Ackroyd aren't half bad with Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago.
Casablanca (1942) - Various Artists
If ever there was an immortal song from a film, it is Dooley (Sam) Wilson singing As Time Goes By. Throw in It Had To Be You, the most stirring version of La Marseillaise ever filmed, and Max Steiner's superb Suite, and, like I said, Immortal.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) - Wendy Carlos and Various Artists
One of the first movies to ever use music for malignant purposes other than for what they were originally composed for, A Clockwork Orange presents Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) beating the hell out of a couple to the happy strains of Singin' in the Rain (warning: full frontal nudity!), or the playing of Rossini's lighthearted A Thieving Magpie while Alex bludgeons a woman to death with a giant porcelain penis. And then, of course, the scenes featuring Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance and Beethoven's 9th Symphony (4th Movement). Classical music has never been so fun.
Deliverance (1972) - Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel
Dueling Banjos is a great song and an equally great album (by Weissberg and Mandel), not just a great soundtrack. Although Ned Beatty squealing like a pig is...ummm...quite memorable. "You sure got a pretty mouth!"
Dr. Zhivago (1965) - Maurice Jarre
Maurice Jarre has scored so many great films (Dr, Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India, Witness, Ryan's Daughter, The Year of Living Dangerously, Fatal Attraction, The Man Who Would Be King, The Longest Day, etc.) that to pick one or two seems a slight. Well, here's one, and I've added another later on.
Dr. Zhivago Suite
Easy Rider (1969) - Various Artists
Still one of the greatest rock soundtracks of all time. Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space, indeed! The selections are fantastic: besides Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" they offer a better tune The Pusher, The Band's The Weight, The Byrds playing Dylan's It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), Hendrix's If 6 Was 9 (just after "Don't Bogart Me") and even The Holy Modal Rounder's warped If You Want To Be a Bird.
The Exorcist (1973) - Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield and Various Artists
Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells still gives me the creeps by association with this movie.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003) - Alexandre Desplat
A sleeper of a movie, no doubt, but quite an elegant miniature, as beautiful and reverent as a Vermeer painting itself, tied to the more mundane aspects of Dutch life in the 17th century. Nothing overwrought, nothing pompous, a homely portrait transformed with brilliant colors beaming through the glass of a window, always to the left of the artist. And Scarlett Johannson is hot - even without makeup. Oh yeah, the score...ummm...it's very good too.
Silence and Light (Piano), Colours in the Clouds, Griet's Theme
Gladiator (2000) - Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard
There are a few superb performances in this epic, particularly Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus; otherwise, it's a fairly forgettable film, and about as historically accurate as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. However, the score is touching and memorable. Probably the best of Hans Zimmer's long career.
The Battle, Now We Are Free, The Glory of Rome, Elysium
The Godfather (1972) - Nino Rota
You gonna argue wid da godfaddah? I just wish Francis Ford Coppola had stopped at two movies (both in my top ten or twenty). But the third was absurd.
Immigrant Theme, The Godfather Theme, I Have But One Heart
Gone With the Wind (1939) - Max Steiner
Like Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind's score by Max Steiner is immortal. Take me to Tara, Rhett!
Gone With the Wind Suite
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) - Ennio Morricone
If there was a Hall of Fame for composers of musical scores, Ennio Morricone would be in the first batch elected, along with Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly Intro, Duel Finale
The Goodfellas (1990) - Various Artists
Martin Scorcese's use of song and scene was brilliant throughout the movie. Each song mirrored in one way or another the action that was taking place, and he often used the songs in an ironic manner. The best was the juxtaposition of several brutal murders with Derek and the Dominos' beautiful piano outro of Layla, another was Robert DeNiro's inherently evil bit of chain smoking to Cream's Sunshine of Your Love (of all things!), and still another beating to Donovan's Atlantis. Of course, Muddy Water's Mannish Boy is in there as well.
The Graduate (1967) - Simon & Garfunkel
Interweaving songs from three different Simon & Garfunkel albums (Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and Bookends) to marvelous effect, director Mike Nichols catches the confused, disaffected and rebellious nature of Benjamin Braddock and a whole generation.
The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair/Canticle, April Come She Will
A Hard Day's Night (1964) - The Beatles
Okay, I may be breaking my own strict caveats and provisos regarding not using musicals here, but the greatest single opening note in rock history (a G7sus4, by the way) opens up the song A Hard Day's Night, so sue me. But aside from Elvis movies, this is one of the first extended rock videos, and it actually has a plot! Well, it's a thin plot, but the movie is so damn entertaining one ignores conventional film criticism. Why, even The Village Voice was laudatory, proclaiming A Hard Day's Night "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals".
If I Fell, Tell Me Why, Can't Buy Me Love
Harold and Maude (1971) - Cat Stevens
One of my favorite soundtracks of all time, the songs of Cat Stevens make a black comedy genuinely heartwarming and elegiac. I would definitely put Harold and Maude in the most underrated film category. Ruth Gordon's performance is superb.
If You Want to Sing Out, If You Want to Sing Out (sung by Ruth Gordon), Where Do the Children Play, Trouble
Jaws (1975) - John Williams
People still pee their pants hearing this. It must be aquaphobic in nature. Robert Shaw's performance was outstanding: "Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies..."
The Jaws Theme
King Kong (1933) - Max Steiner
Peter Jackson may have spent several million dollars more to produce his 2005 remake of King Kong than the 1933 original; unfortunately, he did not exhume Max Steiner. Besides, Merian C. Cooper did a far better job filming the original.
King Kong Score Suite
King Of Kings (1961) - Miklós Rózsa
Miklós Rózsa may have won an Oscar for his score of Ben Hur, but the sheer emotion and power of his score for King of Kings is breathtaking. One of my favorites, and I'm not even a Christian.
Part I, Part II, Part III, Resurrection and Epilogue
Last of the Mohicans (1992)- Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman
Such a beautifully filmed movie. I even appreciated the muffled sound of black powder shot from musket and cannon (much different than the gunshots one hears in Detroit these days). "The Promontory" (ie., "The Gael") is a particularly moving piece of music. And, of course, the end of the movie when Chingachgook gets his revenge on Magua is damn kick ass! Ummm...sorry...guy moment.
Elk Hunt, Promontory, I Will Find You (Clannad)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - Peter Gabriel
I didn't care for this movie's plot in the least. I've never been a big Oliver "contra-fucking-versial" Stone fan. But I went right out and got the Peter Gabriel soundtrack. Stunning!
Zaar, A Different Drum, Passion, It Is Accomplished
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - Maurice Jarre
An epic as sweeping as the Arabian Desert needs an equally sprawling score. In this case, Sir David Lean leaned on Maurice Jarre for what is certainly one of the top five scores of all time. One can almost see an oasis shimmering mirage-like in sweltering afternoon sun.
Overture, End Title Music
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) - Howard Shore
It's all the same movie, really, cut into three parts; so, I'm not going to dwell on different aspects or themes of the movies separately. Yet Howard Shore was a marvel throughout the entire series, almost a Tenth Walker of the Fellowship. His themes cut to the heart of each character and place he described with his aural palette. And don't forget the fine songs Enya (May It Be), Emiliana Torrini (Gollum's Song) and Annie Lennox (Into the West) contributed to each movie.
Concerning Hobbits, The Bridge of Khazad-dum, The Realm of Gondor
A Mighty Wind (2003) - Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Annette O'Toole, Harry Shearer
Not so metalically ostentatious as This Is Spinal Tap, but I think A Mighty Wind is far subtler a mockumentary, the characters more genuine, and the dialogues and situations are hysterical. The mythical bands and the songs around which this film revolve are excellent as well, particularly in context with the American folk movement which the movie affectionately mocks.
When You're Next to Me, Never Did No Wanderin', Corn Wine, A Mighty Wind is Blowin'
The Mission (1986) - Ennio Morricone
A lush and moving film with Oscar-winning cinematography, The Mission is further enhanced by the beautiful score of Ennio Morricone. It also doesn't hurt that Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro are at their best.
Gabriel's Oboe, The Mission Main Theme
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - T-Bone Burnett
Another damn movie I could live without ever seeing again, if it weren't for the music! Stellar recordings by Alison Kraus, Emmylou Harris, Harry McClintock, The Whites and the Stanley Brothers. The best old time country and bluegrass compilation since The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle be Unbroken.
Man of Constant Sorrow, Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Keep on the Sunday Side
Once Upon a Time In America (1984) - Ennio Morricone
Criminally edited upon first release for the addled whims of distributors, Sergio Leone's great New York gangster epic will hopefully be restored to its full running time through the efforts of Martin Scorsese. But even with the depredations of crass marketers, Ennio Morricone once again shines in scoring a Leone film.
Deborah's Theme, Main Theme
The Pink Panther (1964) - Henry Mancini
One of the most ubiquitous themes from any film, Henry Mancini's Pink Panther composition is as delightful as Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau. Two geniuses here.
Pink Panther Theme, Cortina, The Tiber Twist
Psycho (1960) - Bernard Herrmann
Alfred Hitchcock himself admitted that "thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music". Quite high praise from such an egocentric director. Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho is perhaps the most influential score of the last 50 years;. Hell, even The Beatles imitated Herrmann's strident and staccato strings for the song "Eleanor Rigby". This is a masterwork of musical tension and anger, used sparingly to increase the menace.
Shower Scene, The Stairs, Finale
Pulp Fiction (1994) - Various Artists
I had thought about Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992)for inclusion here, with the macabre and memorable scene where Michael Madsen (aka Mr. Blonde) does that bizarre dance to "Stuck in the Middle With You" as he tortures a captive policeman, but the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction is as quirky as it gets. Everything from Chuck Berry's You Never Can Tell to Urge Overkill's Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon, back to Dick Dale's Misirlou and then over to Kool and the Gang's Jungle Boogie. So have a Royale with cheese and enjoy!
Purple Rain (1984) - Prince
Okay, the movie was dreadful. Pouting little Prince is not an actor. But damn, the songs from The Revolution and The Time were great! And well, Wendy, Lisa and Appolonia? Ummm...yeah. Them too.
Purple Rain, When Doves Cry...I would love to share more from the film (because consumers often prefer to look before they buy), but Warner Brothers has decided to eliminate just about everything to do with the film on Youtube, so fuck 'em.
Romeo and Juliet (1968) - Nino Rota
Good Lord, was Olivia Hussey a beauty at 16! It was almost...illegal. Hmmm...I suppose it is illegal in most States. But since Olivia wasn't a U.S. citizen, then I can apply some cultural relativism here and absolve myself of impure thoughts. Anyway, the Romeo and Juliet score is as beautiful as Olivia Hussey was, and has aged a lot better than she has. Sorry Ms. Hussey.
What Is A Youth, The Death Of Mercutio And Tybalt
The Sting (1973) - Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch single-handedly resurrected Scott Joplin from the dead.Hamlisch's arrangements are amazing and bring Joplin to new generations that otherwise would be unaware of the musical genius once known as the "King of Ragtime" who died in 1917.
The Hooker's Hooker, The Glove, The Entertainer
Star Wars (1977) - John Williams
Another series of movies I can't stand. The most overrated movies in the history of film-making, particularly John Lucas' dreadful dialogues (he makes Peter Jackson's addled sub-plotting look Shakespearean). But Williams' score is thrilling nonetheless.
The Imperial March, Main Theme
Super Fly (1972)- Curtis Mayfield
I had considered Isaac Hayes' Shaft score for inclusion, but save for the exceptional theme song, the rest of the tracks are crappy cocktail jazz. Mayfield's score for Super Fly is the real deal for 70s funk and soul. The movie is funny to watch now but the score is still very worthwhile to listen to. One of the best soul albums of the 70s.
Pusherman, Super Fly, Little Child Running Wild, Freddie's Dead
There Will Be Blood (2007) - Johnny Greenwood, Arvo Pärt, Johannes Brahms
This is a soundtrack that comes right out and punches you in the face. Or maybe beats you over the head with a bowling pin. In any case, you feel it. It is visceral and biting in spots, brought to you in most part by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. Dissonant, contrary and barbaric, there is a bit of both Bernard Herrmann and Henry Plainview in the score.
Convergence, There Will be Blood, Prospector's Quartet
This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
A metal mockumentary of megalithically mammoth measure, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and all provide the best musical punchline of all time. This movie so mirrors the excesses of late 70s/early 80s heavy rock and metal bands that I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing was just an accumulation of anecdotes from real performers (certainly Tap's long line of dead drummers matches keyboardist deaths in the Grateful Dead). The movie covers Spinal Tap from their mid-60s British Invasion debut on Gimme Some Money to psychedelia on (Listen to the) Flower People to their metal heyday and comeback on tunes like Big Bottom (where nearly the entire band is playing bass) and Hell Hole.
Trainspotting (1996) - Various Artists
You wouldn't think that a movie about a group of underemployed heroin addicts in the depressed slums of 1980s Edinburgh would be funny. But it is. Insanely funny. Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Danny Boyle has the ability to throw in a song at the perfect time for ironic effect.
Perfect Day, Born Slippy, Lust for Life
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Various Classical Artists
A movie where the music mattered more than the dialogue; in fact, the first and last 20 minutes of the movie are without dialogue altogether. But the music is heavenly, hence its inclusion. The titanic themes of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra are the perfect accompaniment for the vision of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, as is the lovely celestial dance of satellite and spaceship to "The Blue Danube" of Johan Strauss II, as is Khachaturian's wistful and melancholy "Gayne Ballet Suite", mirroring the desolation of being alone in space.
Also Sprach Zarathustra, The Blue Danube, Gayne Ballet Suite (Adagio)
Waking Ned Devine (1998) - Shaun Davey and Various Artists
A little jewel of a movie, ostensibly taking place in an Irish village but filmed on the Isle of Man, where the entire village is in on a plot to convince Lotto officials that the winning ticket (held by a dead man named Ned) is actually held by Michael (who pretends to be Ned). Meanwhile, Ned is buried as Michael. I know, confusing, but the plot is funny and the actors are great in their roles. And the soundtrack is a bit o' Gaelic heaven.
The Parting Glass, Fishermans Blues, Lux Eterna, My Eternal Friend, The Ballad Of Ned Devine/The Witches Reel