by Anthony Kershaw
There are so many criteria other than personal taste that make up the list for a successful score. So, choosing a Top Ten is difficult for one person. My list is not so much adherence of the score to the script’s essence or director’s vision, but of pure music that moves me. Quality orchestral music so good, it can stand on its own merit on the concert stage. Here’s where the list owes much to the Golden Years of Warner Brothers and the like. Escaping the war, many great composers emigrated to Hollywood for a little security and some good money. My list is biased in that direction. Your lists, which I would love to read, may be a little more modern. In any case, I hope you discover the scores I love if you have not heard them. And, I hope to discover your favourites, too.
1. MARNIE — Bernard Herrmann (Alfred Hitchcock, director)
My favourite theme for a complex character. Heartbreaking and intensely passionate to match the great Tippi Hedren’s incredible beauty. As she changes character at the beginning of the film (Marnie is a compulsive liar, thief and one step ahead of the police) and washes the black colour out of her hair, listen for Herrmann’s orchestration and dynamic changes. And, then, the shot of Marnie in the mirror, blond, golden, radiant, stunning. And, a melody to match. Unforgettable.
2. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES — Hugo Friedhofer (William Wyler)
Unappreciated composer (more famous for his orchestrations of the great Korngold’s scores) and composer of what I believe is the greatest movie theme tune. Capturing the indomitable American spirit and pathos of returning US soldiers after World War II. The London Philharmonic has an incredible recording of this score.
3. GATTACA — Michael Nyman (Andrew Niccol)
Much better known for his fine score to the abysmal The Piano, London based Nyman’s score to Gattaca is simple and extraordinarily beautiful that gets to the heart of both leading characters. A very special score and film.
4. CINEMA PARADISO — Ennio Morrecone (Giuseppe Tornatore)
Cinephiles would be wondering when the master Morrecone would show up. A genius for melody and irony, his hundreds of scores are legendary. From Duck You Sucker (yes!) to The Untouchables, Morrecone never fails to deliver. And, so many scores feature utterly unique sounds and melodies. A true original.
Cinema Paradiso is my favourite Morrecone score echoing unrequited and lost love, perfectly. Go on, I dare you. Watch the movie. Get to the final scene as the music builds, and WHAM! Tornatore must have freaked when he put the scene together with the music.
5. KING’S ROW — Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Sam Wood)
Not a great film, although Reagan’s best and favourite, but a mesmerizing score. Richard Strauss would have been proud. And, my pick for runner up best movie theme. Korngold misinterpreted the title for a regal setting (it’s a Peyton Place like story with some evil twists) and composed the magnificent theme. But, the rest of the score is wonderful, too. Seek out the National Philharmonic with Gerhardt conducting. An audiophile and musical gem.
I used the score in a few lectures. When used with younger musicians, they all guessed a John Williams score. Hmmmm!!! I wonder what Mr. Williams would do without Prokofiev and Korngold as inspiration?
6. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN — Elmer Bernstein (John Sturges)
Among my favourites just for the best Western theme. I’ll give Jerome Moross’ The Big Country and Bruce Boughton’s Silverado honourable runners up, but no one will ever trump Elmer’s masterpiece.
7. VERTIGO — Bernard Herrmann (Alfred Hitchcock)
Herrmann captures the incredible complexity of Vertigo in his opening 40 bars. Amazes me every time I hear it. Obsessive love, sex, desire, passion, heartbreak, longing — yes, in notes. Have a listen. Salonen/LA/Columbia is a cracker.
8. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA — Ennio Morrecone (Sergio Leone)
Underrated movie and score. More magic from both great men. And, Morrecone following de Niro all the way. Fabulous.
9. NORTH BY NORTHWEST — Bernard Herrmann (Alfred Hitchcock)
Get your hemiola on in the brilliant overture. Another perfectly cast, perfectly executed Hitchcock film. With a score to match.
10. CHINATOWN — Jerry Goldsmith (Roman Polanski)
Another master composer than can capture the essence of film in a theme. Think sex, trumpet, smoky bars and the incredible Jack Nicholson. Along with what many call the most perfectly executed script (Robert Towne), Goldsmith’s film noir score is wonderful.
A few other unmissable scores: THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (Korngold); THE SEA HAWK (Korngold); MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Patrick Doyle), THE LITTLE PRINCESS (Doyle); THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (Max Steiner); BULLITT (Lalo Schifrin), BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Korngold), and many more…
Yes, I know. No Prokofiev, Copland…