20 January 2018

Movie Music

Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer

This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.


How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here…


  1. John, my response grew so large, it's become an article. Yes, it's happened before. In the spirit of your column, I can't list Buz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, but I can mention the television theme Peter Gunn because Mancini's piece has appeared so often in films.

    It occurs to me my favorites mostly relate to mood. Except for a handful like Tom Tykwer, Thomas Bergersen, and Danny Elfman, some of my recommendations expand upon musicians you've already mentioned:
    • Ennio Morricone – The Big Gundown
    • John Barry – The Ipcress File
    • Angelo Badalamenti – Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks
    • Philip Glass – The Hours, Dracula
    • Jon Vangelis – Chariot of the Gods, Blade Runner

    Finally, Leonard Cohen darkens just about anything his music appears in. Yeah!

  2. John and Leigh - yeah, you right about great music in movies like the ones you mentioned. Did you mention THE APARTMENT?
    The other night we watched a forgettable movie with underwater scenes and I asked my wife, "How did they get that orchestra underwater?"

    Sometimes - quiet is best but we're so used to scores in the background, it's like one of those 'ring the bell and get fed a treat' tests run on animals. "Better come back into the room, Babe, the music is rising so this must be the climax."

    Music and songs are great but sometimes the score can be annoying and often too loud.

  3. Though I have collected recorded music in many forms (cassette tapes, albums and 45s, and CDs), my soundtrack collection is quite limited: Easy Rider, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Woodstock, and Zachariah.

    But something else caught my attention in your post, John: The mention of your musical skills. Many SleuthSayers are musically inclined. Some compose music, some have performed (or do perform) in public, and others (like us, John) play for our own enjoyment. I wonder if this holds true across a wider selection of writers. How many are creative in more than one art form, and how did writing become the art form dominant over the other(s)?

    On a related note: If all the SleuthSayers showed up at my house one weekend, we could put together one heck of a jam band. I have everything we need--drums, keyboard, multiple electric and acoustic guitars (including a bass), banjo, harmonica, tambourine, and even an autoharp for Robert.

  4. Zorba the Greek; Dr. Zhivago; Romeo & Juliet (the Zefferelli one); Whalerider; Tuck Everlasting; Cloudstreet.
    And for the best soundtracks that DO include contemporary tracks, High Fidelity, Withnail & I, and Pleasantville.
    And Michael - I can't believe someone other than me saw "Zachariah"! I saw it at the Lowe's on Hollywood Boulevard back when it first came out in 1971. It came and went pretty fast... But I've never forgotten it.
    Thanks for the post, John!

  5. I think of the score to LAWRENCE as being integral to the movie, as a for instance. THE WIND AND THE LION is a Jerry Goldsmith that sounds like Maurice Jarre. I'm crazy about the Poledouris score for QUIGLEY (and he did LONESOME DOVE, too). With all due respect, you left out Elmer Bernstein's MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, and THE WILD BUNCH - Jerry Fielding, who did a number of Peckinpahs and not a few Eastwoods. This is a wonderful piece, and very evocative. Many thanks.

  6. John, you’re definitely right about music in movies. It often adds to a scene or overall feel of the movie. But sometimes it can detract, if it’s the wrong music or at the wrong time. And sometimes background silence is what makes a scene work. That said, if you’ve ever seen a rough cut of a movie before they put in the music or sound efx it can be a very different beast. And when you see the final cut you can see how much the music adds to everything and helps make it all come together and work as a whole.

  7. Great post, John, and yes, LOTS of terrific music.

    I'm nowhere near the cinema buff that many of you are, but I agree with your lists, at least as far as my viewing goes. Maybe add The Lion in Winter? I love the play and have seen many unsatisfactory productions of it. I didn't care for Hepburn's interpretation in the film, either, but I love the music.

    Somewhere, I have a recorded interview with Bernard Herrman discussing music in film.

    Remember that period (was it the 80s?) when people used songs from the pop charts rather than having music composed specifically for the films...and most of them didn't work because of the missing emotional connection?

    Having said that, who can forget watching Tom Cruise cavorting in Risky Business to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll?"

    Michael, great idea for a jam. We could be the opening act for the band that used to include Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Stephen King and someone I don't remember. The something something Remainders?

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  9. Leigh, I almost put Elfman's Dick Tracy in the list--I like a lot of his (sometimes spooky) music. And I like your additions--thanks! BTW, I enjoy almost anything written by Morricone and John Barry--and It's truly hard to believe how many movies have been scored by Barry (also by Goldsmith, Horner, Williams, and a few others).

    O'Neil, The Apartment remains one of the greats--and yes, there's a lot of movie music that's forgettable. I sometimes find myself not really noticing the music until I re-watch the film, and there are some who say that's not a bad thing: the soundtrack should be a part of the storyline.

    Michael, I'm not sure I would call it "skill" in my case--but you're right, I've known many writers who are also musicians, artists, etc. Creative juices come in many flavors, I guess. I've also heard there's a definite relationship between musical ability and math skills. Strange but true. (And I'm in, for a jam session.)

    Eve, I wish I'd included Zorba--and (he said, red-faced) I am another who's not seen Zachariah. Netflix queue, here it comes!

    David, I loved the Lonesome Dove soundtrack, and left it out only because LD was a TV presentation/miniseries. And I think that was the first time I'd heard of Poledouris. BTW, you have accused me falsely: I did include those two Bernstein scores--the entries just came late in the list. I also loved his music for the old western The Sons of Katie Elder--and many others. Thanks so much for chiming in, here.

    Paul, I have never seen a music-less rough cut, and wish I could. I can only imagine the difference. Try to picture the Psycho shower scene without the music (!). And I envy you your cinematic background.

  10. Thanks, Steve. Believe it or not, I had The Lion in Winter in the list and wound up substituting another Barry score, Out of Africa instead. I took a date to see TLIW while in college, and I still remember listening to that great music during the "intermission." When was the last time any of us saw a movie with an intermission . . . ?

    I think SK's band was The Rock Bottom Remainders. One of my fellow Mississippians, Greg Iles, was part of the group.

  11. Elmer Bernstein, on your list several times, also wrote the theme for NBC's Ellery Queen show -- a piece that I have always thought absolutely captured the essence of the series. Sheet music is on my piano as I type!

    Funnier note -- back in the early 60's when To Kill a Mockingbird was released as a movie there was a top 40s song out at the same time called "Mockingbird" -- older readers will recall it (Mock, mock, ing,ing, bird,bird . . .). A really stupid song. Anyway I managed to convince a gullible friend of mine that the song was the theme from the movie version of the Harper Lee book and that Gregory Peck in fact sang it. The guy was really angry when he saw the film and came back to me reporting that the song wasn't in it!

  12. John - My bad. My eye slid right past Elmer, late on the list. I should add the Bob Dylan soundtrack for PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, which neither Peckinpah nor Jerry Fielding much liked. Also, the Blake Edwards/Henry Mancini collaboration is pretty amazing, overall, even if I can't stand BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S or MOON RIVER, myself. EXPERIMENT IN TERROR a neglected gem, and on TV, not just PETER GUNN but MR. LUCKY, a score I looked for in vain for years, before finding it as a Japanese (!) import.

  13. Eve, I had the Zachariah soundtrack years before I ever saw the movie. When I was in junior high school, the older brother of one of my friends worked as a DJ and he often brought home promotional copies of albums. For whatever reason, my friend gave the Zachariah soundtrack to me, and I loved it. The LP disappeared somewhere over the years, but I never forgot it. I tracked down a CD of the movie about a dozen years ago and finally watched it, and, a few years ago, my wife tracked down a copy of the LP, and I still love it.

    John, Zachariah was billed as the first rock'n'roll western, and it's an odd movie. I'll be surprised if you find it on Netflix or Amazon.

    Steven, the group you mentioned was (or, maybe, still is) The Rockbottom Remainders.

  14. Dale, Elmer Bernstein also did (if I'm not mistaken), Kings of the Sun, The Gypsy Moths, Stripes, From Noon to Three, etc. And I love the Mockingbird trick.

    David, I'm glad to find someone else who didn't like either Tiffany's or Moon River. Even worse is Love Story, but that's a whole nother discussion. Funny coincidence: I just bought the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid DVD from our local trade-in-old-movies store the other day, and looking forward to seeing (and listening to) it again. I also liked the Mancini score for The Molly Maguires, although I'm probably one of the few folks who even know about that movie.

    Okay, Michael, you and Eve are really making me interested in Zachariah. I'll find it somehow.

  15. David mentioned Experiment in Terror. I almost suggested it, but felt he executed The Ipcress file with harder edges and less sentimentality.

    John, I'd read much of Morricone's success was due to a paltry budget that limited hiring musicians but fed his imagination with a variety of sound effects and whistling. Once his soundtracks became successful, he toured with one soprano or another recreating his music, particularly The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

    I very much admired the team of Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil who surpassed themselves with the music of Cloud Atlas.

    A couple of people mentioned cases of the music being better than the movie. Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells was better than its host movie, The Exorcist.

    John, I'll mention one of the most famous unknowns– at least in North America. A way underrated musician with hundreds of film credits is Norwegian composer Thomas Bergersen. Some film work includes Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Twilight Saga, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, and The Dark Knight. I recommend his amazing progressive solo albums, particularly Sun.

  16. I'm not sure it fits your criteria, John, but the music of the crime film Diva both drives the story line and brightens it considerably.

  17. Leigh, I learn something from you every day. I'd heard the same thing you did about Leone, and I loved the music from Experiment, Ipcress, Cloud Atlas, and Exorcist, but I'm not familiar at all with Bergersen and I have not (color me embarrassed, here) seen Diva. I will, though. Many thanks! And I thought the Harry Potter soundtracks were all John Williams.

  18. Bergersen's not only an independent film composer, he was once described as a Hollywood score doctor, the guy brought in when creative juices run dry or time runs short. I mention him not so much because we can sit down and listen like you might John Barry or Danny Elfman, but because of his prolific film credits, and separately his independent albums. I recommend Sun.

    One weekend alone in a strange city with nothing to do, I stumbled upon Diva in one of those 1am hole-in-the-wall dollar theaters where popcorn makes up for the price of admission. I loved it. Little did I guess it would become a cult classic. I almost never watch a film twice (excepting spaghetti westerns for some reason), but I'd like to see it again.

  19. Leigh, I will definitely seek out both Diva and the work of Bergersen. I appreciate those recommendations.

    I can't even imagine the talent required to consistently create outstanding movie scores. I'm in awe of these folks.

  20. Nice to hear about so many musicians in this group! (I can plunk a few chords on the piano!) And I love movie music! By wild coincidence, I've been listening to Korngold a lot lately. Best known for "Captain Blood" and one of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movies, there's been a re-discovery of his work in the last few decades, including concertos. Oh, and one of my favorites is Vic Mizzy's score for the 1960's "The Spirit Is Willing. Very reminiscent of the music for the T.V. "Addams Family," which he also wrote!

  21. Hey Jeff! I could've predicted that you'd be able to come up with some I don't yet know about. But, as I told Leigh, I'll track 'em down! Thanks as always, old friend.

  22. When you think about it, movies had music long before they had dialogue.

  23. Not my favorite movie, but the soundtrack to The Big Chill is pretty amazing.

  24. And McCabe and Mrs. Miller...Altman's use of Leonard Cohen's songs is hard to beat. Also Altman's Nashville.

  25. I love the Big Chill soundtrack, Don--only reason I didn't include it was that it has so many classic songs. I tried to stick to more "original" music scores (otherwise my list would've been twice as long). As for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I liked it as well, and Nashville also. Thanks so much for the comment!

  26. Surprise! Someone posted Zacariah on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3n6Nccb9CM

  27. Outstanding!! Thanks, Michael. I'm headed there now.

  28. John,

    I don't think you or anyone listed the soundtrack from John Wayne's "The Cowboys." Perhaps my all-time favorite cowboy movie and movie music! It just goes so well with all that happens! And of course, it was one of John Williams' earlier movie scores. Love it!


    Besides that, there is also James Newton Howard's haunting music from "The Village." I saw you had "Signs" listed, but "The Village" has even better music in my opinion.

    p.s. Sorry I always seem to come late to the blog...

    Talk soon,

    --Mary Ann

  29. Hey Mary Ann! Good addition--I don't think John Williams ever wrote a bad piece of music. (And thanks for the link.)

    As for James Newton Howard, he's a hidden treasure. Thanks for remembering this one also. Loved both those movies (Signs and The Village).

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