Showing posts with label soundtracks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label soundtracks. Show all posts

13 January 2021


I was thirteen, if memory serves, when my dad bought me a record player, and bought me some LP’s to go with it. Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Benny Goodman with the Boston Symphony (Benny playing classical), and Dvorak’s New World.

I wonder about his choices, but the Brubeck’s stayed with me sixty years. I don’t think I would have appreciated Shelly Manne or the other West Coast guys without it, or Henry Mancini. The theme from Peter Gunn got a lot of airplay, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-da-DUM-da-dum, but the score I went nuts for was Mr. Lucky. And that organ, backed up with big-band arrangements, led me straight to Jimmy Smith. Walk on the Wide Side, charts by Oliver Nelson, was huge. I’m guessing the biggest R&B hit on AM radio after What’d I Say?

I’m skipping through some of the personal chart-toppers, of course. Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and Olé, with McCoy Tyner’s amazing left hand. I spent a couple of years in Europe, in the military, and there was no shortage of great live jazz, but I’m thinking more of the albums we listened to, and what was on the jukebox. Does anybody else here remember the Electric Prunes, or Mass in F Minor? That was when Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, but the single most evocative song of the era was A Whiter Shade of Pale, which then and now, is an anthem for Berlin.

I spent the 1970’s in a haze of Van Morrison, and I don’t regret it. Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, Veedon Fleece. (I can listen to “Tupelo Honey” or “Snow in San Anselmo,” and conjure up the very place I was. “Linden Arden,” “Streets of Arklow,” and “You Don’t Pull No Punches,” as a suite; it never gets old.)

I don’t know that I’ve quite embraced the more recent. I love Sarah McLachlan. I wonder how much of that is due to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Hejira. Bonnie Raitt. Maria Muldaur. It isn’t that the new music isn’t any good, or it’s derivative, but I think a certain template is set. You listen to Ray LaMontagne, and you hear Jackson Browne, or even, God help us, Dave Van Ronk. (Boy, that was an anthem, the summer I was seventeen, driving a load of mattresses from Rochester up to a friend’s family cottage in southern Ontario and getting wired on bathtub benzedrine a lab rat pal of Phill Gleason’s cooked up.)

Probably, a subset of the above. We associate the music very specifically. It’s apparently second only to our sense of smell, as a trigger, of memory, of emotion, and of deeper psychic energies. Is it regret? I can’t listen to James Taylor and “Sweet Baby James” without tearing up. It wrecked me the first time I heard it. So there.

Yes, it’s association. And it conjures up youth. But we suspect something larger. I think the playlist is a lot more than background music. I don’t think it’s accidental, or incidental, however much is left to chance. Something gets our feet tapping. We might not consciously choose the score, but it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

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…

23 August 2014

Play It Again

My home office, as you might imagine, is stuffed with books. Two of the walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with hardcover novels, and an unfortunate number of books and story manuscripts are usually piled on the floor and all other flat surfaces.

My wife has said she's afraid to come in without a machete and a hard hat (I tidied things up a bit before taking the photo shown here), and she remains convinced that the weight of all my reading material is one reason we had cracks in our foundation years ago. But what can I say? There's something oddly comforting and peaceful about being surrounded by books.

A friend asked me recently why I have so many. He says he understands why I buy them--I can't seem to wait for the library, or for the paperback versions--but why keep them? My standard answer (that I sometimes re-read them) is only partially true. The real answer is that, God help me, I just can't make myself part with most of my books. I like being able to look up from my computer anytime I want to and see them there, and recall the pleasure it gave me to read them. It's one reason I own more printed books than e-books. I like to touch them and feel them and smell them.

The second time around

The fact is, I often do read them again, especially if my un-read cupboard is bare or unpromising. I chain-read the way folks used to chain-smoke: I light up a new one off the butt of the one I just finished, with scarcely a pause in between. And I often find myself remembering some little something I liked in a book long ago and going back and finding that chapter or that passage and reading it again. (I know, I know . . . that's weird. But it's true.)

I do the same thing with movies. I also own DVDs, you see, a lot of them, and I sometimes watch them over and over again. I was thinking about that the other day, and a strange thing occurred to me:

The movies I re-watch the most often are the ones with great soundtracks.

Mad for music

Several years ago I wrote a column for Criminal Brief called "Strike Up the Band," about movie music. Writing that piece was fun for me, because even though I am no music expert and am only an amateur musician, I dearly love movie scores. (Former mystery blogger James Lincoln Warren and I have spent hours e-discussing this subject.) I honestly believe the right kind of music can not only make a bad movie good, it can make a good movie great and a great movie unforgettable.

But why watch a film again, one might ask--unless it's a musical--in order to hear the music? Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to just buy or download the soundtrack and listen to it while doing something else? Sure it would. I do that too. But what I really like is hearing the music along with seeing the action on the screen. That kind of thing was so important to some directors, like Hitchcock and Sergio Leone and others, that they often filmed scenes to fit the already-written music, rather than doing it the other way around.

Perpetual emotion

I doubt that anyone could say he or she didn't brush away a tear during the final theme of Gone With the Wind, when the camera pulled slowly back from the silhouette of Scarlett under the live oak to reveal Tara in the background--or get goosebumps from the scene where Charles Bickford and Charlton Heston and all their men ride into Blanco Canyon in The Big Country. Without that blaring symphonic music, those great moments would have lost much of their impact. 

For anyone who might be interested, here is a quick list of movies (excluding musicals) that I have seen several times--and will certainly watch again in the future--primarily because of their soundtracks:

Once Upon a Time in the West -- music by Ennio Morricone

Psycho -- Bernard Hermann The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones

Superman -- John Williams Cool Hand Luke -- Lalo Schifrin Legends of the Fall -- James Horner

The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith Dick Tracy -- Danny Elfman The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand

The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach The Molly Maguires -- Henry Mancini Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer The Natural -- Randy Newman Amelie -- Yann Tiersen The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel King of Kings -- Miklos Rozsa Shane -- Victor Young

Signs -- James Newton Howard The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti Escape From New York -- John Carpenter The Godfather -- Nino Rota A Summer Place -- Max Steiner The Sting -- Marvin Hamlisch The High and the Mighty -- Dmitri Tiomkin Lonesome Dove -- Basil Poledouris Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre The Big Country -- Jerome Moross Forrest Gump -- Alan Silvestri

Somewhere in Time -- John Barry

Closing notes (pun intended)

I included only one score by each composer, but I've found that I like almost anything by John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. (Several by Barry--The Lion in WinterBody HeatGoldfingerOut of Africa, The Ipcress FileSomewhere in TimeDances With Wolves--are among the best soundtracks I've ever heard.) Of those five composers, I think Williams is the only one still alive and working.

Please add your favorites to this off-the-top-of-my-head list. If you do, I'll happily fetch them from my stacks or grab them via Netflix and give them another look-see (and listen-to).

Question: Do any of the rest of you suffer from this addiction to movies and movie music? (I know Stephen Ross and Jeff Baker do.) If so, I warn you, it can be an embarrassment to friends and family.

Excuse me--I think I feel the urge to go watch the opening credits of Top Gun . . .