As with the other lists, credit is given for not merely one or two sterling scores, but rather a consistently excellent body of work with specific stand-out films. To be blunt, this is a trickier prospect than it at first appears. Just because a film is terrific or well-loved doesn’t necessarily mean that the score is itself a standout. We begin with perhaps the most obvious and celebrated film composer of them all…..
John Williams – Star Wars
Goodness me. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Long Goodbye, Catch Me If You Can, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Star Wars, Superman, ET, Born on the Fourth of July, Home Alone, JFK, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List. More iconic scores than you can shake a stick at, a career spanning almost 65 years, directors including Spielberg, Stone, Lucas, Hitchcock, Donner, Miller, Columbus, Cuaron & Levinson and 5 Oscar wins out of 30+ nominations. It is difficult to build a convincing argument for a more successful, accomplished and recognisable film composer.
But deciding on a “Best of…” then becomes more difficult, due to the wealth of options. Do we go with the most bombastic piece of music, or the film score than as a whole is most resonant? Harry Potter? Jaws? Schindler? Indiana Jones? Star Wars? Superman? ET? In the end, because that percussive brass anthem still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and because the Imperial March is so evocative of all of the villainy for which Vader stands, Star Wars gets the vote.
The simplicity of the Jaws theme is instantly affecting, but that is one (admittedly iconic) riff rather than a whole film of sensational themes. Similarly, the haunting minor key melody of Schindler’s List is beautiful, but Star Wars has so many musical high points, it always seems to keep coming back to the front of one’s mind.
If nothing else convinces you, at least consider this – when you went to the cinema to see Episode I or Episode VII, what were you waiting for more than anything else? The words “A Long Time Ago…” and then that theme. Admit it.
Danny Elfman – Batman
Elfman is easy to dismiss as a purveyor of forgettable quirky riffs for Tim Burton, but that would be a foolish mistake. He has almost 4 decades of work under his belt and although he has worked regularly with Burton (much like Williams always finds his way back to Spielberg), he has also collaborated with directors as diverse as Joss Whedon, David O. Russell, Sam Raimi, Barry Sonnenfeld, Guillermo Del Toro, McG, Gus Van Sant, Peter Jackson and Peter Berg. Spider-Man, Men in Black, Batman – these are all genuinely great films with rich and engaging scores.
The theme from The Simpsons is one of Elfman’s best-known compositions, but we’re really talking about film work here, so the award has to go to his score for Batman. There are other scores of his which are arguably more rich and which showcase his versatility to a better extent, but Batman is so incredibly distinctive and iconic.
In 1989 it was an absolute juggernaut at the box office and its minimalist marketing campaign (remember nothing but the logo on bus stops for weeks on end?) gave little indication of what was to come. Throughout, Elfman’s score is a perfect complement to Burton’s visuals, much like John Williams’ benchmark setting work with Richard Donner on Superman. Whether it was the Batmobile trundling down the street, or the Joker wondering at where Batman got all his wonderful toys, Elfman’s work was perfect and remains far more memorable than any of the scoring for Nolan’s trilogy.
Hans Zimmer – Pirates of the Caribbean
I don’t know about you, but 179 composer credits on IMDB seems like a lot. At the risk of sounding redundant, volume does not equate to quality, otherwise plenty of B-movie journeymen would be featuring in these lists. When you consider that amongst those numerous credits are scores as fantastic, recognisable and enduring as Interstellar, 12 Years A Slave, Man of Steel, Inception, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Lion King, True Romance, Rain Man and Backdraft, it beggars belief that he hasn’t won an Oscar since 1995 for The Lion King.
One could wax eloquent (and I have) about Oscar’s many egregious snubs of the deserving, but rather than getting bent out of shape over it, let’s celebrate what Zimmer has provided that is praiseworthy. The list above is as accomplished a list of credits as one could hope for and it is hard to pick a stand-out. It is nothing short of wonderful that amongst all of his Oscar-fodder he also finds time for Rango, Kung Fu Panda and Megamind but in the end Pirates gets the thumbs up here.
Zimmer’s work with Nolan has been nothing short of sensational and the Inception/Interstellar tandem is exceedingly strong, but in the same way as POTC resurrected the swashbuckler after the ignominy of Cutthroat Island, so Zimmer’s score effortlessly captured the thrilling comedy-adventure tone of Gore Verbinski’s film. There are probably better films in Zimmer’s CV, but no better scores and in the end that’s what we’re grading here.
POTC gives us an excellent blend of incidental music and rousing anthems for the archetypal summer blockbuster – fun, exciting, bombastic – and even though the franchise would lose its way and become bloated and complex, this surprisingly light on its feet film is effortlessly matched by Zimmer’s score. Top marks.
Howard Shore – The Lord of the Rings
Shore has covered a *lot* of ground during an exceedingly illustrious career. From Cronenberg to Middle Earth via Hannibal Lecter, John Doe and Scorsese, Shore has proved to be as adept at soaring bombastic scores as he is at creeping, gentle and affecting lower-key work.
Consider something like the haunting woodwind melody that is threaded through The Silence of the Lambs, then the shift in tone to the scratchy opening titles from Seven, then the anthemic qualities of the brass that accompanies the camera sweeping across Isengard as Saruman builds his Orc and Uruk-Hai army. And aside from that breath-taking eclecticism, we have the nostalgic riffs of Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator, throw-backs like Ed Wood and That Thing You Do! and films like Crash, Big and Spotlight too. Not every one of those scores is necessarily iconic, but there is huge diversity and a consistent association with the very best directors and some of their very best films.
Shores scores (trying saying that quickly three times in a row) for The Lord of the Rings trilogy is perhaps an obvious choice but also very much the right one. Of course in 11+ hours of film time there is going to be more opportunity to showcase versatility than with something a little more straightforward (like Big), but nevertheless across the three films we see everything a film score should be – choral anthems, hauntingly gentle themes, bombast, emotional resonance.
That Shore manages to mix up not only the style of music but also the choice of instrument to suit the different realms (Hobbiton, Rivendell, Moria, Mordor, Lothlorien, Isengard & Rohan to name just a few) is testament to his skill and experience – it was clearly an epic undertaking and will endure and be celebrated just as much as the other elements of these peerless films.
Ennio Morricone – The Dollars Trilogy
Okay, so I spoke too soon in relation to Hans Zimmer – 522 is a lot of credits to have on IMDB. Morricone is still composing film scores now, having debuted way back in 1960 and despite his enduring collaborations with Sergio Leone he has also (like others on this list) teamed up with a whole host of other acclaimed directors for some of their best work – The Untouchables, The Hateful Eight, In The Line Of Fire, The Mission, The Thing, Days of Heaven, 1900 – whilst always maintaining his distinctive style, without becoming a cliché of himself.
“Oh, the Spaghetti Western guy” is unfair and inaccurate and does Morricone’s considerable versatility a disservice. As the list above demonstrates, he has ventured outside the Old West to just as much success and acclaim, even if Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and The Good The Bad and The Ugly in particular continues to feel like his greatest calling card.
It is perhaps a bit of a cheat to award Morricone for three thematically linked films that are not a true trilogy, but the three films are so interwoven in style, cast and subject matter that it ultimately makes sense to assess them as a set. Astonishingly, none of those films garnered Morricone so much as an Oscar nom, but then perhaps they were dismissed at the time as B-movies or genre pics and therefore not deserving of serious critical consideration. Ironically, it would be Morricone’s belated return to the Western genre for Tarantino’s Hateful Eight that would finally garner him his wildly overdue Academy recognition, even if his scores for any of Days of Heaven, The Mission or The Untouchables would have been just as meritorious.
When it comes to the Dollars films, Morricone delivers across the board – riffs, anthems, that uber-iconic screech/cry. We’re left with music that feels definitive of the Western, yet transcending it at the same time. Amidst the seemingly endless iconography of all three films – sweaty faces, Clint’s poncho, Mexican stand-offs, shoot-outs – those scores hold their own too.
Max Steiner – Gone with the Wind
Steiner is not as familiar a name as others on this list, but that is no reflection on his ability or reputation, simply a product of him not working today and so not cropping up in the credits of the films we regularly line up to see at the cinema. But if we say that he wrote the scores for Gone With The Wind, The Big Sleep, King Kong, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, White Heat and The Searchers, you might respond with, “oh THAT guy!” Indeed, quite the composer and richly deserving of his place on this list.
Gone With The Wind’s swooping and soaring orchestrations are probably Steiner’s most instantly recognizable, so deeply has the film embedded itself in the collective cinematic psyche. Much can and should be said of most (if not all) of GWTW’s many rich facets and Steiner’s score is a huge part of the film’s abiding success. Twenty four Oscar nominations, including being nominated twice in the same year on four separate occasions tells its own story and ironically he failed to win for Gone With The Wind, losing out to (of course) Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz. But if your greatest accomplishment as a composer loses out to something like Oz, you can’t really complain – it is good to be in such exalted company.
As with Howard Shore’s work on the Rings films, it is fair to concede that the length, themes and tone of GWTW gave Steiner plenty to work with, but still he crafted something that is instantly recognizable and cherished down the decades. A master craftsman and a beautiful piece of composing.
Bernard Herrmann – Psycho
Shrieking strings vs trumpeting bass brass – that is the tussle to be had in relation to Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock loved him and rightly so; the scores for Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest and Marnie are some of Herrmann’s best and Hitchcock’s most instantly recognisable. It is also worth noting that Citizen Kane wasn’t just Orson Welles’ scintillating debut – it was Herrmann’s first score too.
But nestled in amongst the above, along with film scores as varied as Taxi Driver, Jason & The Argonauts and Fahrenheit 451 was Cape Fear, whose menacing central anthem tells you everything you need to know about the film and Max Cady’s malevolent intentions. Scorsese clearly felt that whatever else needed to be updated for his remake, that ominous brass theme didn’t.
But how do you weigh that against the none-more-distinctive Psycho score? However affecting the Cape Fear score is, Psycho’s strings have entered the collective consciousness just as much as Norman Bates, taxidermy, motel showers and unhealthy mother issues. And it is this transcendent quality that gives the score for Psycho the edge over the almost absurdly rich competition within Herrmann’s repertoire. Jarring, jangling, unnerving, propulsive – Herrmann’s score gets under the skin, even on repeat viewings.
James Newton Howard – The Dark Knight
Until relatively recently, Newton Howard was relatively squarely in the “well known but not outstanding” category – if you look through his early credits there are plenty of well-known and much-loved films in there, but you’d be hard-pressed to hum any of the scores – Pretty Woman, Flatliners, My Girl, Prince of Tides, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alive, Falling Down. Even The Fugitive doesn’t necessarily have the most recognisable score.
Then as 20th century gave way to 21st, Newton Howard’s scores seemed to become more identifiable in their own right – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Collateral, King Kong, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Hunger Games, Fantastic Beasts – when Nolan, Shyamalan and Mann come to you, it is likely that you are doing something right.
Films as varied as Nightcrawler, Gnomeo & Juliet and Green Lantern suggest a versatility which is generally a pre-requisite for these sorts of lists, but you do then need an Ace in the Hole – something barnstorming that elevates your whole body of work and The Dark Knight is it. Building on his own themes from Batman Begins, Newton Howard crafted a score that was percussive, dramatic and powerful. Clear water separates the style of Newton Howard’s scores from Elfman’s efforts alongside Burton’s Batman (which is intended to be no slight on Elfman) and given the now ubiquity of comic book films and therefore scores it is entirely to Newton Howard’s credit that this score remains instantly recognisable.
Jerry Goldsmith – Chinatown/LA Confidential
Goldsmith retired to the great orchestral pit in the sky over a decade ago, leaving behind an enormous and varied body of work. Percussive action-adventure scores, iconic sci-fi riffs, jaunty melodies – he did it all. Whilst films like Patton, Alien and Planet of the Apes are undoubtedly more memorable than his scores for them, his compositions for films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Chinatown, The Omen, Gremlins and Air Force One have all endured.
His theme for Star Trek is undeniably impressive, but at the risk of repeating ourselves this is about more than just one theme or riff – which score as a whole showcases his abilities most completely? In the end, there is barely the thickness of a cigarette paper between Chinatown and LA Confidential, two films mined from the same vein of greed, sex and violence (and LA).
Given that both films were throwbacks to the noirs of the 40’s and 50’s it made sense for Goldsmith to score both and indeed lightning struck twice. Soulful jazz melodies, the smell and taste of a bygone era, a sense of melancholy that draws you in and then threatens to beat you down – Goldsmith captures a very specific milieu here and the sounds are as much a part of the overall effect as costumes, production design and cinematography.
Michael Giacchino – The Incredibles
Although far from being a whipper-snapper, Giacchino is notably younger and less well-established than the others on this list, but he’s already bagged one Oscar win out of two nominations (Up and Ratatouille). Pixar clearly love him, turning to him for The Incredibles, Cars 2 and Inside Out as well. Other directors and producers have also decided to return to him consistently (JJ Abrams and Matt Reeves seem to be especially fond of him), but it is again a case of not just being associated with well-beloved films, but creating scores that transcend not only the films they belong to, but cinema in general.
The Star Trek reboot had some great elements to it and Ratatouille and Inside Out have great scores alongside their many other charms, but The Incredibles feels like Giacchino’s stand-out effort for the moment. At once feeling like the score for a 60’s spy/adventure pic and the definitive comic-book/superhero score, The Incredibles has so very much to commend it in every one of the film’s elements.
The more memorable details include the opening piece of music, along with the forest battle that first unites the family against Syndrome’s minions and the incredibly effective incidental scoring as our various heroes creep around the villain’s lair. Giacchino has managed to notch up a really effective and enduring score here which will continue to enthrall those who become introduced to it.
Elmer Bernstein – The Magnificent Seven
How on earth do you compare and contrast the scores for The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Escape, Airplane!, An American Werewolf in London, Animal House, Ghostbusters, Wild Wild West, The Age of Innocence, Far From Heaven, ¡Three Amigos! and The Grifters? A crime movie, an iconic western (no, not Wild Wild West), comedies, the finest courtroom drama ever made, horror, period pieces, epics, intimate dramas. Bernstein has done it all (and John Landis clearly couldn’t get enough of him).
If that transcendent quality is one of the keys to featuring in this list, then The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape would suffice on their own – two of the most instantly recognisable move themes of all time. But Bernstein just kept churning out more and more classic scores, seeming to never run dry of inspiration. He never got stuck in a rut, never was pigeon-holed and was just as happy to embrace films as silly as Airplane!, Animal House and ¡Three Amigos! (go to composer for films with exclamation marks in their title?) as prestige pictures like The Age of Innocence or Far From Heaven. Nothing was above or beneath him and he brought the same care and attention to them all.
His scores for Far From Heaven and The Age of Innocence were beautiful and affecting, but in the end you cannot beat the triumphant chords of The Magnificent Seven. James Horner really had no choice but to pick up on and reflect the themes of Bernstein’s score when he worked on Antoine Fuqua’s remake. Bernstein’s score just breathes ideas of adventure, excitement and bravery, its anthems sweeping us along on the journey taken by Yul Brynner and co.