So this post came about because a) I have to push back the other post I was planning for today because I haven’t finished the research for it and b) the film I am focusing on for what is now next week’s post has a particularly iconic and important score in terms of film history. I also really don’t care for it. Not to give too much away, it’s a very bass heavy and monotonous score and not very motivic. Well, it has one motif. Still, I started thinking about what I do like in film scores and that naturally lead me to some movies that I really enjoy the music of.
I’ve talked about music in film before. This list is going to cover films with mainly non-diegetic music, meaning that the music is present in the film, but isn’t happening within the world of the characters. All of these films also have wholly original score, save one notable exception– mostly because saying that Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 have great scores is fairly redundant. I also managed to only repeat one composer (no surprise as to who that was though). The films are listed in chronological order as well, because the films I picked really aren’t a fair comparison to rank.
Let’s get started.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Orchestra: The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
The score for To Kill a Mockingbird is deceptively simple. I was actually torn between this and The Magnificent Seven for Bernstein, but while the theme to The Magnificent Seven is certainly iconic, Mockingbird is solid throughout. It’s very fitting for the story as well– Bernstein manages to sonify the essence of bittersweet nostalgia with thin orchestration and a mainly minor tonality. It matches the story of a young girl growing up in troubled times quite well.
Also, point of trivia, the studio pianist for the film? A young musician by the name of John Williams.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Composer: Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, György Ligeti, Aram Khachaturian
I can’t say that I particularly agree with Stanley Kubrik’s philosophy on film score, that “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms.” I wouldn’t be writing this list if I didn’t think that film composers were on equal measure with art music composers. On the other hand, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course there’s the Strausses, both Richard’s “Also Sprach Zarathrustra” and Johann’s “The Blue Danube”– but then there’s the matter of Ligeti’s 12-tone scores that act as the motif for the iconic Monolith. The unsettling and almost grating nature of the modernist is perfect for the mysterious object. And the pieces fit perfectly. One day, I would like to sit down and listen to the Alex North score for the film, but I do love the one that ended up in the film.
Star Wars (1977)
Composer: John Williams
Orchestra: The London Symphony Orchestra
I mean… it’s Star Wars. While the score for the original 1977 film does lack the iconic “Imperial March” (which wouldn’t be introduced to the franchise until The Empire Strikes Back), it lays the foundation for the rest of the films. The main theme, Princess Leia’s theme, “Binary Sunset”, “The Cantina Band”– I once said that John Williams was the modern master of the motif. Nowhere is that better shown than in Star Wars.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Composer: John Williams
Orchestra: The London Symphony Orchestra
I don’t think I could have done this list without having John Williams on it more than once. It was down to this and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but given that it’s a “favorites” list and not necessarily a “best” list… I like “The Raiders March” better, what can I say? Plus there’s “Marion’s Theme” and “The Well of Souls”– it’s a great action score. It does have the one problem that many of John William’s scores do in that when I listened to Star Wars and Raiders back-to-back one sort of blended into the other, but that’s just as much his personal style as anything else.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Composer: Alan Menken
Lyricist: Howard Ashman
The original one, please. Beauty and the Beast wasn’t originally supposed to be a musical. Richard Purdum was initially slated to direct and his version was much more in line with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of the story. Jeffery Katzenberg, the head of animation at the time, wasn’t thrilled with the project, but rather than scrap it completely, he brought in directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale as well as Menken and Ashman fresh off of The Little Mermaid. The change was definitely for the better– sure, the Cocteau version is good, but we have one of those already. Ashman’s story in particular fills the film. He wrote the film from his deathbed as he was dying of AIDS, and in particular sympathized with the Beast, and is why the Beast becomes such a strong deuteragonist in this film as compared to other adaptations.
The Lion King (1994)
Composer: Hans Zimmer, Elton John
Lyricist: Tim Rice
An opening sequence so good they slapped some trailer tags on it and called it a day. I would argue that The Lion King has the best original score of any Disney film, and by that I mean I would physically fight anyone that tried to convince me otherwise. This is definitely Hans Zimmer’s most underrated score– he is excellent here. A good 90% of your anxiety in the wildebeest stampede is from the music, and the epic building in “King of Pride Rock” is just perfect composition. In fact, even though I will maintain that Julie Taymor’s The Lion King is the best film-to-stage adaptation, the “King of Pride Rock” sequence is in fact weakened by the transition. The rest is still amazing, of course. And then there’s Elton John’s contributions, which I think are also underrated in terms of John’s discography. While he has his own versions of “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that have become hits on their own, there’s a distinct stylistic shift from the film version. The African influence of the film’s songs give it a wildly different sound than his standard fare.
Inside Out (2015)
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Listening to them right next to each other, there’s no way that Giacchino wasn’t influenced by Bernstein’s score for To Kill a Mockingbird when he was writing this. Maybe that’s why I like both of them so much. Still, the Inside Out score has much more whimsy to it, as it is still a PIXAR film and not a film about growing up in Depression-era Alabama at a time of heightened racial tensions. However, they are both coming-of-age stories and have significant themes of leaving childhood behind. Giacchino tapped into that same sense of nostalgia that Bernstein did, which is especially fitting considering that the yellow memories changing into blue ones could be interpreted as a growing sense of nostalgia. Plus, the titles of the songs all have Giacchino’s signature puntastic flair.
Composer: Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i
Lyricist: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetiaia Foa’i
There are so many things to talk about with Moana‘s score, at least, like, twelve, so I’m going to try and say as many of them as I can. Lin-Manuel Miranda was hired before his smash hit Hamilton premiered, but they also totally capitalized on his involvement in the marketing, which was after Hamilton. “Shiny” is in fact a tribute to David Bowie, and was also inspired by Jemaine Clement’s band Flight of the Concords and their own Bowie tribute. In addition to English, the English version of the film also has lyrics in Tokelauan, Tuvaluan, Samoan. Miranda wrote several songs for the film that weren’t used, including “Unstoppable” and “More”. “Unstoppable” gets recycled into the score of the film at several points. Personally, I think Miranda’s Bowie impression is better than Clement’s. Also– they translated the entire film into Maori and released all the translated songs on the Disney Music YouTube channel.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL (Wonder Woman theme)
The only thing I legitimately love about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the Wonder Woman theme. It’s probably the most iconic film theme that has been written this decade. The closest thing that we had so far was “Let It Go”, and while that’s a great song, it’s not really a motif in the same way that, say “The Raiders March” is. And Wonder Woman’s theme is a very 2010’s theme in its writing as well– written for the electric cello, of all instruments, as a collaboration between an established film composer and a DJ, this could not have been written in the age of John Williams. And of course, just as the No Man’s Land sequence is a stand out of the film, “No Man’s Land” is the soundtrack’s stand out. I think the lack of stand out motifs in contemporary film scoring is to the detriment of the most popular contemporary films– superhero movies. Danny Elfman’s return to the character in Justice League meant the return of his iconic theme, and he even twisted John William’s Superman theme for the film as well, but do we really have to reach back to the 80’s for memorable superhero motifs? And on Marvel’s side, sure the Avenger’s theme is recognizable, but does Thor have his own motif? Black Widow? The Hulk? And no, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” doesn’t count. Still, Wonder Woman’s theme is awesome, and the score around it is great.
What is your favorite film score? Do you have any particular favorite film motifs? Let me know in the comments! Also, like if you can, and subscribe so that you don’t miss any posts!