Ten Great Movies: Scores

When Luke and Han fought off the TIE fighters in “Star Wars” and when Marlin watched with content and happiness as his son went off to school into the deep blue sea at the end of “Finding Nemo.” Let us remember the horror and thrill of the infamous Shower Scene in “Psycho”; or the flush of emotion as Ilsa boarded the plane in “Casablanca.” Or perhaps the hauntingly heartbreaking theme from “Grave of the Fireflies” or the lonely jazz rhythms of the ‘70s from “Taxi Driver” will stand the test of time. Or maybe a less appreciated score like that from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Whatever it be, one statement stands above them all: music completes a film.

For this list – which is never ranked by order – I have decided to focus on Original Scores. John Williams has been disqualified due to his work being the definition of a film score, his list will come. I have also made the decision to not include music from Westerns as that too is its own list. Musicals need their own list and so they too will not be included. I have also chosen not to repeat composers.

Anna Karenina” (Dario Marianelli): Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is far from perfect. Perhaps the complexities of the text cannot be shown on the screen. Dario Marianelli incorporates Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony to create the “Russian-ness” of the film.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Henry Mancini): “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a beautiful title for a movie. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly is the epitome of class and female beauty. The scene where stops writing to find Holly singing “Moon River” is such a beautiful moment. “Hi” she says. “Hi” he says back. “Whatchya doin?” “Writing.” Then there’s the final scene. Classic. The two go out into an alley to find Holly’s cat and when they do, they kiss. In the rain. In New York. Classic. Composer Henry Mancini only added to this beautifully made movie, but as far as I’m concerned, he made it a classic.

Cinema Paradiso” (Ennio Morricone): The ultimate love letter to the movies. “Cinema Paradiso” is good simply because it plays on that human love for the moving picture. We watch as Toto grows up in a little movie house in Sicily starting off as a projectionist before finally returning to see the kisses that the priest had refused to be seen by the movie going townspeople projected in a breathtaking montage that ties the entire film together. Ennio Morricone’s score is so filled with melancholy and nostalgia that it almost hurts to not listen to it. It’s the first love, the first idea, the father and mother figures you looked up to, the short reels that played before the movie all wrapped together. If that is not the mark of a modern master, than one has never existed.

The Godfather” Parts I & II (Nino Rota): There are times when “The Godfather” and “Part II” are separate movies; but then they are simply both a part of a bigger piece. Composer Nino Rota told two different – but similar – stories in both movies with his music. Director Francis Ford Coppola used the now infamous trumpet to capitalize his masterpiece just before Bonasera said, “I believe in America…” In the second film, the young Vito Andolini escapes death from Don Ciccio to America. When the ship pulls into New York Harbor, hundreds of immigrants – including young Vito – look towards the Statue of Liberty that had inscribed at her feet “The New Colossus.” From that day on, Vito Andolini was now more, and Vito Corleone was born. How could he have predicted that one day, he would have the entire city under his control? The Godfather. In the first film at the end when Michael takes his father’s place. Kay asks him if he killed Connie’s husband. He says no and Kay believes him for that moment. Then she looks back and sees Michael surrounded by his men as the door shuts on her. She knows who Michael is now. The Godfather.

Gone with the Wind” (Max Steiner): “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…” I am obligated by my love for “Gone with the Wind” to include that opening title card. If film making is truly a collaborative effort, then “Gone with the Wind” is the best example of that collaboration. Without Producer David O. Selznick, the direction of Victor Fleming (among others), the screenplay by Sidney Howard (among others), the production design of William Cameron Menzies, the acting by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable (among others), or the cinematography of Ernest Haller, this movie would not exist. With that said, Max Steiner took this “pretty world” and made it prettier with the infamous “Tara’s Theme.” Steiner’s score is musical beauty and it binds everything together.

Lawrence of Arabia” (Maurice Jarre): There are movies that exist that are a part of a category of movies with a capital “M.” Whether it be the exotic locale, the cast of thousands, or the sweeping shots of the vast Arabian deserts, “Lawrence of Arabia” is one those movies with a capital “M.” Maurice Jarre is the composer and what he created was the detail of this world. In the suite, there are chaotic tribal drums that are accompanied by even more chaos. Then the chaos stops, and we are taken to the Arabia of storybooks. Of course, the Arabia in “Lawrence of Arabia” is not that of storybooks, but the music reminds us of  stories of genies and magic carpets and caravans made up of thousands of camels as they snaked through the sand dunes. There are moments like the Attack on Aqaba where director David Lean lets the camera glide as hundreds of horsemen charge the city. The chaos and horns of war follow them until finally, they reach the sea. And that is when the music swells.

The Seahawk” (Erich Wolfgang Korngold): Most of today’s generation have never seen this swashbuckler. To be fair, it is not a film that has aged well. Set during the time of Elizabeth I and the great Spanish Armada, the film is stuck in 1940. But Erich Korngold’s score must be heard. It transforms from an adventurous swell to diminuendo to a relaxing flatness. This film’s score is by far the best swashbuckler’s score to come from the genre.

Sideways” (Rolfe Kent): Being from the Central Coast, I am a bit biased. You’ve just got to love the music for this hilariously sad film about men in the middle of their lives trying to have one more “good one.” The scene at the Los Olivos café as Miles descends into “the dark side” while being bombarded by world-class wine is so haunting and it brings us even closer to this kind of sadness that Miles is experiencing. But director Alexander Payne allows the comedy in the film to show. In the scene when Miles and Jack are on the golf course and they begin to hit golf balls at the people behind them is such a brilliantly funny scene. The reason “Sideways” was able to keep itself funny in such sad circumstances was because of the dry, deadpan wit of its characters that was coupled with outrageous physical comedy. When Stephanie beats Jack down after she finds out that he’s getting married and calls him a fuck-face, she turns to Miles and says, “You, too!” Miles turns to her and exclaims, “Me?” before she drives off. Never to be seen again.

Treasure Planet” (James Newton Howard): “Treasure Planet” is one of those movies that wasn’t given a good enough chance. It had a solid idea that gave new life to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island.” It’s easy to understand, “Treasure Island” IN SPACE. But the spirit of the classic was still there thanks to James Newton Howard. He mixed space exploration with swashbuckling and what came was what I assumed played in Stevenson’s head as he wrote the book.

“Vertigo” (Bernard Herrmann): I am still lost on whether or not “Vertigo” is a horror film. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and playful score underlines Jimmy Stewart’s obsession over Kim Novak as he slowly stalks her through the streets of San Francisco. It is appropriate that it be located in San Francisco, the music winds and spins over hills of stress. It is musical dizziness. Musical vertigo.

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