Music is a vital component of everyday life.
Music can lift us up, embolden us, give us a renewed sense of life as well as allow us to escape from the everyday drudgery into our own imaginations, diving into the songs and gleaning our own individual meanings of what’s being said, or when that perfect note hits and that surge of emotion washes over us. Movies can do the same thing. They can act as an escape from our normal workaday lives, and the marriage between film and song has been an unshakable bond from day one.
Good soundtracks can make a good movie better, and while contemporary music of either the rock, rap, metal or pop genres can elevate a film to lofty standards, I’ve always been a fan of score in film. Give me compositions. An orchestra. Let me envision a composer in a studio with a menagerie of musicians filling in the blank space, their sound bringing the visuals to life in front of our eyes.
There have been many famous and lauded film composers over the decades; John Williams arguably can be called the most famous of all, but today there are four composers I’m going to recognize and give their due, all four are recognized at different levels, with one perhaps; in my opinion anyways, that has never received the full respect he deserves.
4) Ennio Morricone
When I was in high school, I remember being at the bookstore in the mall and leafing through a metal magazine and read an interview with Marilyn Manson. The interviewer and Manson were discussing various subjects, when Marilyn mentioned “spaghetti westerns”.
Modern science states that the frontal lobe of the brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25, and since I was a good 8 years or so away from that milestone, nothing could be more accurate then when my teenage brain tried to comprehend just what a spaghetti western was. No, I didn’t envision a battle between penne noodles and rigatoni on the dusty street of an old west town. I could be ridiculous then, and I can be ridiculous now, but I wasn’t that level of preposterous.
Suffice to say, we (myself included now obviously) know what a spaghetti western is, and while the genre will forever be tied to Clint Eastwood and Italian director Sergio Leone, someone had to supply the music for many of these films.
Enter Ennio Morricone.
Without Morricone and his vision or ear rather, would we have gotten the iconic theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly? A prime example of a film and a musical theme being irrevocably tied together for the rest of time.
Morricone supplied the score for several of Leone’s films, whether it was the “Man With No Name” trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and the aforementioned The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with their influential sound, Once Upon a Time in the West; one of the best selling score soundtracks ever and musical masterpieces such as the haunting “Man with a Harmonica”, to one of my personal favorite pieces of film score “The Ecstasy of Gold”, a composition so grandiose and sweeping in its building intensity, that thrash metal heavyweights Metallica also loved it so much, it’s been the intro to their concerts for over 30 years.
Not content to only score those spaghetti western classics, he also provided the dark and foreboding score for John Carpenter’s The Thing; with the opening theme really setting the tone for the dread that was to come.
While it took several decades and countless film scores to do it, Morricone finally received a long deserved and much earned Academy Award in 2016 for his score of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
3) Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman is a name almost everyone should immediately recognize. If you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s films, especially his work from the 80’s and 90’s like I am, Elfman was Burton’s right-hand man when it came time to lay down some amazing music that will live on long after many of us are gone.
Whether it’s the sweeping and heroic theme for Batman, to the upbeat and mischievous tone of Beetlejuice, to the beautifully orchestrated “ice dance” near the end of Edward Scissorhands, no one matches Burton’s sensibilities quite like Danny Elfman does. How could any of us kids of the 80’s forget the nightmare fuel of seeing Pee Wee’s beloved bike being mangled and destroyed by a team of demented clown doctors in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Only a mad scientist such as Elfman could lay down the audio to perfectly punch up how terrified we as an audience felt alongside Pee Wee.
He even took over the composing duties for DC’s Justice League, and undoubtedly his score was the best part of that film not named Jeremy Irons. And, while the show itself may have jumped the shark in the late 90’s, few television themes will ever be as iconic or live on forever as his score for The Simpsons will. Elfman is as much a citizen of Springfield as Homer, Bart, or Mr. Burns is.
Who would’ve thought that someone in a band named Oingo Boingo would go on to be a celebrated film and television composer, but hey magic can come from many different places, and if you’re Rodney Dangerfield, Elfman will also help you throw a mean party, with his band returning to the stage to perform “Dead Man’s Party” twenty years to the day that they appeared in 1986’s Back to School.
2) John Carpenter
I’ve been a John Carpenter fan for most of my life, and there for me there are three distinct sides to John Carpenter.
There’s the indie filmmaker who made films how he wanted, Hollywood success be damned, then there’s the John Carpenter on his DVD commentaries who loves nothing more than to tell you all about the lighting on his films (Kurt Russell thankfully though ropes him in on the Big Trouble in Little China commentary). Don’t get me wrong, lighting is cool and vital and important to setting the scene and the tone of a film, but after 90 minutes of hearing about it my brain is ready to check out like Homer listening to Ned Flanders yammer on about apples.
Lastly, there’s John Carpenter the composer. When you’re a rogue director filming on a small budget you have to cut corners wherever you can, and that may include scoring your own pictures.
If there’s an argument or complaint to be made about Carpenter’s scores, it could be that they’re a little synth heavy, but let’s be fair, it was the 80’s and synth was everywhere! At the same time, the presence of synth throughout these films easily identifies Carpenter’s scores, and it makes him distinctive and stand out. Just like when you hear an Ace Frehley solo and immediately can identify it as Ace, when you hear a John Carpenter score there’s no question who that is behind the keyboard.
Scores are meant to be iconic and timeless if they’re good and impactful, and the score for Halloween will exist forever as a film classic mirroring the films visual and storytelling achievement. Carpenter has always been synonymous with horror, and his musical contributions for some of his other films like The Fog and Prince of Darkness are just as eerie and as terrifying as his Michael Myers led opus.
1) Basil Poledouris
I mentioned at the beginning of this article how I wanted to give due and recognition to some of my favorite film composers and with one composer in particular, that being Basil Poledouris.
A quick refresher on who I am and what my sensibilities are, even though this should be common knowledge by now. I love heavy metal music and I love fantasy both in novel form; as my love for Dungeons and Dragons and Dragonlance has proven, as well as fantasy being represented through song. Whether it be bands like Manowar or Dio regaling the listener in tales of wizards and warlocks, or of kings and queens who will blind your eyes and steal your dreams.
I also love tales of fantasy and the medieval on the silver screen, and when I saw Conan the Barbarian at a very young age, likely far younger than I should have been allowed to watch it given the level of violence, nudity and sex the film showcases, I jumped on that tiger until I could feel his heart and knew he was mean.
While groups like Manowar, Dio or even Savatage whose song “Hall of the Mountain King” which I also love painted vivid pictures in my mind of these epic clashes and realms, there’s something about a full orchestra playing over a badass sword and sorcery film that gets my blood pumping and raises the hairs on my arms, every time.
When I saw Conan and heard the score throughout the film, I fell in love and the films soundtrack provided by Basil Poledouris is a vital piece of musicianship and a virtual masterpiece.
A friend of mine and I had a conversation a few years ago, where he compared the score of the Hobbit films to elevator muzak. While that may be a little harsh, I felt he was correct in his summation that overall they did feel a little weak, especially when I compare it to the bombastic and otherworldly sounds of Poledouris Conan score, and for me there are few pieces of music across all genres as haunting or as beautiful as “Orphans of Doom” at the end of John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1982 tale of the savage Cimmerian.
Poledouis will forever be tied to the Conan films of the eighties, but he also turned in the unmistakable theme from Robocop along with other significant pieces of music on that films soundtrack as well as composed the score for another Paul Verhoeven classic Starship Troopers.
Sadly, passing away from cancer twelve years ago in 2006, while Poledouris is no longer with us, my hope is more people will discover his musical genius and compositions.
If I could build a time machine, one spot I would love to go to, would be Spain in July of 2006, four months before Poledouris death where he conducted an incredible performance of the Conan soundtrack in full at the Ubeda Film Music Festival.
Jonathan is scoring his way through Twitter.