As an avid collector of original motion picture soundtrack albums since the 1970's, being asked to choose the best from among the 400+ I own is akin to a parent being forced to publicly identify their favorite child from among several! So rather than make a ten-best list, I've decided to write about a dozen or so from my collection that I consider significant not only to me personally but in the genre of music composed specifically for the silver screen. Some are former Oscar nominees or winners that remain celebrated today. Others have been woefully forgotten and are deserving of renewed attention.
While the first soundtrack recording I recall buying was the inescapable Star Wars by modern movie music maestro John Williams, it was Williams' follow-up score for Superman: The Movie that really struck a chord (no pun intended) with me. I will never forget the dramatic impact Superman's main title march had on me, accompanied as it was by the film's literally soaring opening credits. Williams brilliantly utilized a variety of styles to underscore the superhero's story, from his origin on the doomed planet Krypton to his climactic showdown with arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. The score also includes the song "Can You Read My Mind?", although it is performed in the film by Margot Kidder as more of a spoken word recitation, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse.
The Superman score was nominated for a 1978 Academy Award but lost to Giorgio Moroder's innovative electronic score for Midnight Express. Moroder would go on to score a number of successful 80's movies, including Flashdance. In my opinion, however, Moroder's best work is his alternately lyrical, intense and sexy score for the 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People. David Bowie co-wrote and performed the film's title song, which was recently resurrected to awesome effect in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
There are many big-screen musicals in my collection including my all-time favorite, the underrated 1967 Doctor Dolittle, but I want to single out another soundtrack LP from a similarly unappreciated movie: Popeye. Robert Altman's big budget, live-action take on the classic cartoon character got a wildly mixed reception, as did its song score by pop songwriter-singer Harry Nilsson. Popeye ended up being Nilsson's first and last feature-length film score, as he unexpectedly passed away just a few years later. It is a charming score, with simple but often witty and emotionally resonant songs performed by Robin Williams in the title role, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, and the great Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy. The soundtrack has never been released on CD, which is a shame as it includes a couple of songs that were cut from the film and better orchestrations.
While the movie-musical for which they were written is painful to sit through, Richard O'Brien's songs for 1981's Shock Treatment are great. This misbegotten sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show attempted to send up both television and the psychiatric profession. Skip the movie, but try to hunt down its rockin' soundtrack. You'll be singing the virtues of "Denton, U.S.A." as soon as you hear the song of that name!
During the Christmas season of 1981, two historical epics were released with primarily instrumental scores by composers accustomed to writing lyrics as well as music: Reds, by musical-theatre titan Stephen Sondheim, and Ragtime, which was Randy Newman's first film score. While both scores are excellent and deserve continued recognition, only Newman was honored at Oscar time with two nominations for best original score and best song, the tender "One More Hour." Sondheim has rarely written for movies since, with 1990's Dick Tracy a notable exception, while Newman has become one of the most sought-after film composers of our time and finally won an Oscar (after 15 prior nominations) in 2001.
No list of great film scores and composers would be complete without the late Jerry Goldsmith, and his Oscar-nominated work on 1982's Poltergeist ranks among his finest achievements. The music zigzags, not unlike the movie, from jaunty, comedic tones to intense sequences of musical menace. Goldsmith's similarly-styled scores for the mid-80's fantasies Gremlins and Supergirl are also noteworthy.
Two other composers who must be mentioned are John Barry and Ennio Morricone. Barry's ravishing, Oscar-winning score for Out of Africa is my personal favorite of his, while The Mission by Morricone has not only withstood the test of time but is one of the most spiritual recordings of all time ... if a recording can be said to be spiritual.
Asian influences in film music have become more pervasive this decade, but the progression began with the acclaimed, memorable scores to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor. Both were composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the latter with an assist from "Talking Head" David Byrne. Also worth noting in this regard is Stomu Yamashta's appropriately magical score for 1982's Tempest, Paul Mazursky's update of Shakespeare's comedy The Tempest.
Danny Elfman crossed over from Oingo Boingo front man to film composer with a series of great scores to accompany director Tim Burton's flights of fancy. His score for the first big-budget Batman movie in 1989 was so successful that Elfman became the go-to guy for a while for superhero movies, including Darkman, Spider-Man and Hulk. But it is Elfman's work on Batman Returns that remains his finest hour. He created memorable themes for the villainous Penguin and Catwoman, and created a cool song for Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Face to Face," out of the latter's.
Lest one think I'm stuck in the 80's when it comes to my faves (although I can see how it is tempting to do so), there are a number of both older and more recent film scores that are close to my heart: Max Steiner's unforgettable Gone With the Wind; the admitted guilty pleasure Lost Horizon (1973), with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; Halloween, composed by its director, John Carpenter; Carter Burwell's haunting Gods and Monsters; the driving, minimalist score for The Hours by Phillip Glass; John Corigliano's passionate, Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin; A Beautiful Mind by James Horner; and this year's fabulous Coraline, with a creepy-cute score by French up and comer Bruno Coulais.
I think I've mentioned more than a dozen here, contrary to what I set out to do. Obviously, when it comes to film music I have difficulty restraining myself! I sincerely hope readers will check out any of these scores you are unfamiliar with, as well as identify your own, time-tested favorites.
Click hereto purchase any of the above soundtracks from Amazon.com.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.