For this, my final issue, I have set myself the task of selecting my top ten favorite soundtracks, which is something I’ve never before undertaken. The following parameters are in place: they must be predominantly instrumental scores, not song scores; these selections are my favorites, the ones I listen to again and again; I’m only choosing soundtracks which I own; and the selections are for the soundtracks as a whole, not just one or two particular themes. There are certainly themes or sequences, such as Airport’s main title, the climactic showdown in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, or the desert chase sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, that would be included on a “favorite themes” list. Perhaps that list would be more interesting, but I didn’t have the time or the inclination to attempt it. So instead, below is a list of my favorite film soundtracks, in ascending order.
# 10: Predator (1987) Alan Silvestri
Dark, muscular and rhythmic, Alan Silvestri’s music for the action film Predator — and for Predator 2 a few years later — is dynamic, tough and full of drive. It’s the same type of music that Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the Rambo movies, but with increased vigor and flair. Silvestri’s score fits the movie precisely, detailing the characters’ mounting desperation while enhancing their flight from an otherworldly hunter with suspense and an underlying dignity. It’s an absolutely terrific action movie music score, one that doesn’t overwhelm its subject but rather augments its effectiveness.
Prime Cuts: “Main Title,” “Jungle Trek,” “Blain Gets Killed,” “Goodbye,” “Billy,” “The Chase,” “Preparations,” “Bad Idea,” “The Trap,” “End Title.”
# 9: The Natural (1984) Randy Newman
Another score that fits its subject like a glove is Randy Newman’s magical, sensitive, nostalgic score for the baseball film The Natural. Gloriously mythic, playful, tender and dramatic, the music evokes a golden Americana that may have never been, yet which somehow feels like a treasured part of our past. This score not only fortifies the movie’s dramatics, it also establishes its mythos, heroic structure and jazz age foundation. The majestic main theme will live forever enhancing sports highlight reels; it is very possibly the ultimate anthem in sports-related film music ever written.
Prime Cuts: “Prologue 1915-1923,” “The Whammer Strikes Out,” “The Majors: The Mind is a Strange Thing,” “Knock the Cover Off the Ball,” “The Natural,” “Wrigley Field,” “Winning,” “The Final Game,” “End Title.”
# 8: The Big Country (1958) Jerome Moross
My favorite Western film score is Jerome Moross’ majestic, exuberant and poignant score for The Big Country. As full of life as music can be, Moross’ score is, like the music of Aaron Copland, steeped in the tradition of Americana, brimming with bold brass, tight syncopation, vivid harmony and dynamism that propels the film’s action forward. It is, I think, the second greatest soundtrack I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Moross only wrote fifteen film scores during his career; this is his masterpiece.
Prime Cuts: “Main Title,” “The Welcoming,” “Old Thunder,” “The Raid and Capture,” “Polka,” “The Big Muddy,” “Cattle at the River,” “War Party Gathers / McKay in Blanco Canyon / The Major Alone.” (1988 Silva Screen CD version).
Prime Cuts: “Main Title,” “The Welcoming,” “Old Thunder,” “The Raid (parts 1 and 2),” “McKay’s Ride,” “Big Muddy,” “Pat’s Mistake,” “The War Party Gathers,” “McKay in Blanco Canyon,” “The Major Alone.” (2007 La-La Land CD version).
# 7: Live and Let Die (1973) George Martin
As a teenager I began collecting music albums through Columbia House, and Live and Let Die was in the introductory order I made. I love John Barry’s early James Bond scores yet feel that George Martin, who was best known as record producer for the Beatles and who only composed eight soundtracks in his career, actually improves upon the Bond sound. Perhaps my feeling is due in part to nostalgia (though I don’t have nostalgia for the film itself, which is not very good), but I do listen to this soundtrack more than any of the other Bonds, marvelous though they are.
Prime Cuts: “Live and Let Die,” “Bond Meets Solitaire,” “Whisper Who Dares,” “Snakes Alive,” “Bond Drops In,” “Trespassers Will Be Eaten,” “Solitaire Gets Her Cards,” “James Bond Theme.” (1988 EMI-Manhattan CD version).
Prime Cuts: the same as above, plus “Boat Chase.” (2003 Capitol CD version. While the music is essentially the same on both of these releases, this version’s tracks are usually a few measures — and seconds — longer).
# 6: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) John Williams
The greatest film composer of our time is John Williams, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial astutely displays his incredible virtuosity in creating an score that firmly and quite grandly connects its otherworldly story to shared human experience. Actually, this is one of Williams’ less complex scores, yet it is among his most emotionally powerful, particularly during the first flying sequence and the final, epic fifteen-minute suite. As the alien ship rises into the night, the score reaches its zenith, the most triumphantly sustained twenty-second crescendo of pure emotion I’ve ever heard.
Prime Cuts: “Three Million Light Years From Home,” “Abandoned and Pursued,” “E.T. and Me,” “E.T.’s Halloween,” “Flying,” “Over the Moon,” “Adventure on Earth.” (1982 MCA CD version).
Prime Cuts: “Far From Home / E.T. Alone,” “The Magic of Halloween,” “Escape / Chase / Saying Goodbye,” “End Credits.” (1996 MCA CD version). (This version is more complete and comprehensive; I like the original better anyway).
# 5: Hoosiers (1986) Jerry Goldsmith
Sadly, this soundtrack has only been issued on a British disc for which the movie was titled Best Shot, but Jerry Goldsmith’s music remains phenomenal. Hoosiers contains two distinct themes; one bouncy, propulsive, action-packed theme for the basketball scenes, and a stirring, haunting main theme (and love theme) which is one of the most beautiful themes Goldsmith ever composed. It is the love theme, played in the movie when Gene Hackman first drives into town, and again when his voice-over repeats “I love you guys” as the end credits begin, that thrills my heart. It finishes “The Finals.”
Prime Cuts: “Theme From Hoosiers,” “The Coach Stays,” “Get the Ball,” “The Finals.”
# 4: Hatari! (1962) Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini probably composed more memorable themes than anyone else in cinema history. Hatari! boasts at least three of them. Mancini’s adventure music, accompanying sequences of John Wayne and company capturing African animals for transport to zoos around the world, is outstanding. It’s rhythms are remarkable, supporting the action without overwhelming it in any way. Even better are the comic themes, one of which, “Baby Elephant Walk,” became an unforgettable, international hit.
Prime Cuts: “Theme From Hatari!,” “Baby Elephant Walk,” “Your Father’s Feathers,” “Big Band Bwana,” “The Sounds of Hatari!,” “Crocodile, Go Home!”
# 3: Our Man Flint (1966) Jerry Goldsmith
My love of film music starts with this movie, which is probably significantly better than the movie itself. Our Man Flint satirizes James Bond spy movies yet its Jerry Goldsmith theme music is not jokey at all. It is stylish and sly, a simply constructed three-note motif that resolves over eight measures repeated in inventive variation throughout the film. At its best, when it accompanies hero James Coburn as he destroys Galaxy’s island fortress, it is simply great action music. My all-time favorite single cut is in this sequence: “You’re a Foolish Man, Mr. Flint.” It’s my personal daydream music.
Prime Cuts: “Theme From Our Man Flint,” “Galaxy-a-Go-Go,” “You’re a Foolish Man, Mr. Flint / It’s Gotta Be a World’s Record / Stall! Stall! Flint’s Alive! / End Title.” (1994 Tsunami CD version; paired with the In Like Flint score).
Prime Cuts: “Our Man Flint,” “New York Skyline,” “You’re a Foolish Man, Mr. Flint,” “End Titles.” (1998 Varese Sarabande CD version; paired with the In Like Flint score; this disc has better quality, separated tracks and is the better of the two available versions).
# 2: In Like Flint (1967) Jerry Goldsmith
The sequel to Our Man Flint isn’t as good a movie, but Jerry Goldsmith’s music is even better. The familiar Flint three-note motif is present, but a more lyrical theme pervades the action. Variation is in abundance, keenly displayed in the Russian sequence and as Flint blasts off into space to save the world. Goldsmith was clearly having a blast creating the backdrop for Flint’s adventures because his music is endlessly spirited, inventive and, above all, loads of fun.
Prime Cuts: “Where the Bad Guys Are Gals,” “Ahh, Your Father’s Bob-Lip / Mince and Cook Until Tender / Odin, Dva, Tri, Kick,” “Westward, Ho-o-o,” “Lost in Space,” “Your Zowie Face,” “Hail to the Chief / Main Title.” (1994 Tsunami CD version; paired with the Our Man Flint score).
Prime Cuts: “Where the Bad Guys Are Gals,” “Ahh, Your Father’s Bob-Lip,” “Mince and Cook Until Tender,” “Odin, Dva, Tri, Kick,” “Your Zowie Face,” “Westward Ho,” “Lost in Space,” “Flint is Alive,” “End Titles.” (1998 Varese Sarabande CD version; paired with the Our Man Flint score; this disc is the better of the two available versions).
# 1: Superman (1978) John Williams
My favorite film soundtrack is also the greatest score I have ever heard. It is John Williams’ score to Superman. As great as Williams’ scores for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Jaws movies are, it is his score to the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman adventure that I feel is his best. It is truly epic, with a memorable main theme / march, meaningful and sometimes cute themes for secondary characters and scenes, and an absolutely gorgeous love theme that takes center stage during Lois Lane’s flying sequence. This superhero movie is emotionally grounded by Williams’ brilliant scoring; he transforms ordinary scenes into grand drama. Coming the year after his Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind scores, Williams didn’t receive the credit, or the Oscar, that he deserved. This is his penultimate score, and it is my favorite movie soundtrack of all time.
Prime Cuts: “Main Title,” “The Planet Krypton,” “Destruction of Krypton,” “Love Theme From Superman,” “Leaving Home,” “The Flying Sequence and Can You Read My Mind?,” “Super Rescues,” “Superfeats,” “The March of the Villains,” “End Title.” (1978 Warner Bros. CD version).
Prime Cuts: “Prelude and Main Title March,” “Star Ship Escapes,” “The Trip to Earth,” “Growing Up,” “Leaving Home,” “The Big Rescue,” “The March of the Villains,” “The Flying Sequence,” “Superfeats,” “Finale and End Title March,” “Love Theme From Superman,” “The Flying Sequence / Can You Read My Mind? (film version),” “Theme From Superman (concert version).” (2000 Rhino CD version). (This is a 2-disc British import of the complete film score, plus alternate cues).
Prime Cuts: “Theme From Superman,” “Prelude and Main Title,” “The Kryptonquake,” “The Trip to Earth,” “Growing Up,” “Leaving Home,” “Helicopter Sequence,” “The Flying Sequence,” “March of the Villains,” “Superfeats,” “The Prison Yard / End Title,” “Love Theme From Superman,” “I Can Fly (alternate),” “Can You Read My Mind? (alternate),” “Prelude and Main Title (film version),” “The Flying Sequence (album version).” (2007 Film Score Monthly CD version). (This is an 8-CD box set of music from all four Christopher Reeve Superman movies and is astonishingly comprehensive).
These are my favorites. They may not be among the greatest ever made — though some of them undoubtedly are — but they’re the ones that float my boat. I’ve come to the understanding that I often like movie music even more than the movies themselves. That isn’t necessarily a contradiction; the best movie music can certainly stand on its own merits and is often played, concert style, by bands and orchestras both locally and nationally. Many of the images we’ve watched over the years would simply be incomplete without the aural support these fine composers have provided.
To create this list I culled through my large soundtrack collection and quickly narrowed a favorites list of thirty titles. Scores that I really, really like but which didn’t quite make the cut include, in no particular order, Duel at Diablo (Neal Hefti), Jaws, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Cowboys (John Williams), North by Northwest and Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann), The Wild Geese (Roy Budd), Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris), The Right Stuff (Bill Conti), From Russia With Love and Goldfinger (John Barry), Cousins (Angelo Badalamenti), The Bride of Frankenstein (Franz Waxman), The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (James Horner), The World is Not Enough (David Arnold) and The Blue Max and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith). These are my twenty semi-finalists, which represent a classic cross-section of cinema history in themselves.
Still others, like Mysterious Island (Bernard Herrmann), Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Untouchables (Ennio Morricone), Lone Wolf McQuade (Francesco De Masi), The Pink Panther, Arabesque, Touch of Evil and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Henry Mancini), Capricorn One, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, The Swarm and The Great Train Robbery (Jerry Goldsmith), Cool Hand Luke (Lalo Schifrin), Lawrence of Arabia and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Maurice Jarre), King Kong (Max Steiner), Crocodile Dundee (Peter Best), Ragtime (Randy Newman), King Kong Lives (John Scott), Around the World in 80 Days (Victor Young), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Wojciech Kilar), Cat People (Giorgio Moroder), Thief (Tangerine Dream) and The Alamo (Dimitri Tiomkin) are nearly as wonderful, but I am not quite as personally attached to them. That makes fifty-five outstanding examples of film music composition.
I freely admit that there aren’t many older, Golden Age of Hollywood scores in this pantheon. I like composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Leith Stevens, William Alwyn and Ernest Gold and I appreciate their work, but I find it, for the most part, rather short on melody. For me, the greatest era of film music begins with Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini in the 1950s and lasts into the 1980s before it starts to fade. The beauty of Williams, Goldsmith, Barry, Conti, Schifrin, Morricone, Budd and others is that they write melodies and harmonics to match and reinforce the visual action, not just support it as mood music in the background. Listen to most scores today by people like James Newton Howard, Harry Gregson-Williams, Trevor Rabin or Howard Shore and it seems that melodies are almost accidental. That shouldn’t be. Of course there are many ways to write film music. Mood music has its place. What cannot be argued is that cinema offers incredible opportunity to mate image and music in fundamentally powerful, exciting ways.
The ways in which these composers fulfill that opportunity is what stimulates my passion for cinema as a whole and these marvelous film scores in particular. There’s nothing better than a great soundtrack! (10:4).