In the fall of 1968, I went to see the Rock Hudson Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra at the now-defunct Terrace Theater in north Minneapolis. Why exactly I decided to do that is lost to me now, but the 12-year-old me must have been enthralled with the idea of a movie about submarines doing battle under the polar ice cap. Regardless of the reason, it was a dull, stupid movie. Don’t believe me? Roger Ebert called it “a dull, stupid movie.” (See? I know what I’m talking about!) And Variety writing about it in the year of its release called it “bombsville at the box office.”
So why am I mentioning it here? Because this was the first movie that I can remember where the score (by the outstanding French film composer Michel Legrand) really stood out. It was lush, dramatic, and beautifully powerful. In fact, on my way home, I stopped at the record department of the neighboring and now-defunct Montgomery Ward store and bought a copy of the soundtrack. I listened to it over and over until one day it “disappeared” and I think my dad was the culprit.
Film scoring is an art all unto itself. Composers create a magic that binds us to movies in ways that few other movie crafts do. Imagine Jaws (1975) without the menacing bass violin riffs. Or the soaring brass fanfare that opens Star Wars (1977). Or the melancholy and dramatic orchestral swells of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Is it even possible to think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) without thinking about Henry Mancini’s romantic score, the one that includes “Moon River”?
Here are my favorite composers for film, in no particular order.
His score for Ice Station Zebra (1968) wasn’t even his best work. The late Legrand wrote some lovely scores over the years, composing with a flair for melody few film composers will ever match. Legrand composed scores for almost 150 films, including such dreamy scores for films such as Summer of 42 (1971), Atlantic City (1980), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Ode to Billy Joe (1976), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) (with the classic song “Windmills of Your Mind”), Yentl (1983), and Never Say Never Again (1983). My favorite work of his is the score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). This French New Wave film is entirely sung, even including all incidental dialogue. It features one of his most famous songs, “I Will Wait For You.” If you’ve never seen this movie, rent it right now. It’s about as romantic as a movie can get.
Williams may be the most famous film composer of all time. Noted mostly for his frequent collaborations with Steven Spielberg, Williams’s style comes right out of the late 19th century Big Orchestral Sound. Williams likes to use the full range of a big symphony and doesn’t ever apologize for it or back away from it. Which is kind of funny when you think that he got his start writing scores for goofy TV shows like Gilligan’s Island or Lost In Space. Williams has been nominated for more than 50 Academy Awards and dozens and dozens of Grammys, Emmys, and Golden Globes. He is a titanic figure in American film and music. If they ever add another head of Mt. Rushmore, it probably should be John Williams.
It would be difficult to come up with someone more different in style and instrumentation from John Williams than Danny Elfman. Elfman comes straight out of the avant-garde rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s, performing and writing for bands such as Oingo Boingo and Sonic Youth. His breakthrough came with his perky and delightfully amusing score for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). He has added his uniquely catchy and spirited voice to scores for films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Men In Black (1997), most of Sam Rami’s Spiderman movies, and Good Will Hunting (1997). The piece of music you know him best for, however, is the sprightly and madcap theme song for The Simpsons.
I have a theory that Bernard Herrmann’s musical doppelganger is the 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Listen to a Herrmann score and then listen to a Shostakovich symphony and it’s astonishing how similar their musical instincts are. (You might also want to take some anti-anxiety medications after this project and call in sick to work because you’ll be too rattled to handle much the next day.) Herrmann wrote incredibly brilliant film scores, filled with dissonances, piercingly unsettling chords, and fractured melodies. He wrote scores for some of the best films of the 20th century, including Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Jane Eyre (1943), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and his unforgettable score for Psycho (1960). Herrmann is one of the few composers who could have his compositions performed separately from the film itself. To me, his music is Cubism in sound.
Lush. That’s the best word for the astonishing range of Morricone’s film scores. He composes across a wide range of musical styles and eras, but every piece is filled with lush and wildly various instrumentation. Take, for instance, the theme song to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In addition to a full symphony orchestra, Morricone features a recorder, whistling, and an ocarina in the piece, giving it a catchy and eerily addictive quality. You’re humming it to yourself right now, aren’t you? Morricone was a prodigy as a composer (he wrote his first piece at the age of 6), and was a highly regarded jazz trumpeter and arranger as a young man. He started writing incidental music for radio programs in Italy and didn’t really become a film composer until middle age. In addition to Sergio Leone, Morricone has also written scores for such diverse directors as Edouard Molinaro (La Cage Aux Folles; 1978), John Carpenter (The Thing; 1982), Brian de Palma (The Untouchables; 1987), Roman Polanski (Frantic; 1988), Barry Levinson (Bugsy; 1991), Mike Nichols (Wolf; 1994), and Warren Beatty (Bulworth; 1998). He also composed what I think may be the most romantic film score ever: Cinema Paradiso (1988).
Listen to this and think back to that time you first fell in love...
If gloomy Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is Bernard Herrmann’s musical doppelganger, Henry Mancini is Herrmann’s good-natured neighbor across the street, the guy who has a bag of golf clubs at the ready in the trunk of his station wagon. “Come on, Bernie!,” he says. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go play a round.” Mancini wrote scores for more than 100 movies. Not all of the movies were that good. Oh, okay, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) was pretty good. But there were some real stinkers in there -- not his score mind you, the movies. But every once in a while he would hit a real home run, especially with the theme from The Pink Panther (1963). Educated at Juilliard, Mancini got his start as an arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the Big Band Era. His own works are jazz-infused and light-hearted with a tinge of melancholy. I’m thinking particularly of the theme songs he wrote for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) or “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). For me, he became associated with the easy-listening music that my mother listened to in the 1960s to ward off the evil spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters that I was blaring down in the basement. But his music was never as facile or bland as muzak. It was always lively, emotional, free-spirited and joyful, with a little bit of sadness biting at the corners.
Elmer Bernstein is the Georg Philipp Telemann of film scoring. How’s that for a comparative? Never heard of Telemann? Most people haven’t, but this 18th-century German guy is the most prolific composer of all time, having composed more than 3,000 pieces. Bernstein is no slouch himself. He wrote scores for more than 150 movies and another 80 plus television shows. And the range of films he scored is pretty remarkable too: The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Ten Commandments (1956), Airplane! (1980), Animal House (1978), among many others. Remember the scene in The Great Escape (1963) where Steve McQueen is riding along desperately trying to make it to Switzerland? That frantic music is Elmer Bernstein. The scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) where Jem and Scout are walking through the woods? That scary music is Elmer Bernstein. His scores for The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird are considered among the finest in American film. He fused sounds from the Big Band Era, mid-century jazz, and classical symphonic sounds to create memorable and much-loved scores. And he did it over and over and over again. And one more thing: that opening fanfare on National Geographic specials? That was his too.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.