I've always liked movie music, but I'm pretty sure Michael Kamen's score for Disney's The Three Musketeers
(1993) was what got me to love it. Until this movie, I don't think I
fully appreciate how a film's musical score can affect the energy and
mood of a scene, although I was definitely aware of it. Sometimes the
score can be the best thing about some movies...and later on, I learned that sometimes it's the only good thing about certain films, even some I used to like. (In case you're wondering, no, the Disney Three Musketeers movie doesn't fall into this category of bad movies with good music. I think it's a good, way the hell under-rated movie with excellent music. In fact, it used to be my all-time favorite film.)
it's just me, but I feel like there's been more widespread appreciation
of film music these past couple of decades. True, film music has been
honored at the Academy Awards since the 1930s, and commercial
soundtracks of movie scores have been available for a long time.
However, collectors and special editions of soundtracks seem to be a bit
more common, going back to the special edition CDs of the Star Wars
soundtracks that came out in 1997 (when the movies were re-released in
theaters with new effects). Concerts featuring film music are more common, and numerous venues such as Wolf Trap in
Virginia screen movies with a live orchestra and chorus providing the
music. Classic FM, a British classical music station, regularly plays
film music (in fact, earlier today, they released the results of their
annual Movie Music Hall of Fame
contest). There's even more scholarship on film music out there, such as Doug Adams's in-depth exploration of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings
score, or Emilio Audissino's recent book on John Williams's body of work. (I highly recommend both works - Audissino's book not only has an excellent overview of Williams's work, but also of the history of film music and the changing perception towards it.)
However, films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and most of the movies John Williams has scored are masterpieces of filmmaking in their own right. They're
deservedly popular with audiences and critics alike, and equally iconic
and beloved as the scores that accompany them. Unfortunately, sometimes
a composer will come up with a similarly brilliant score for what turns out to be a bad movie. Such music becomes
unfairly overlooked by people who might have enjoyed hearing it if only
the movie it came from had been better. So to give some of these
overlooked musical scores some attention, here is my personal Top 10
list of favorite movie scores that were far better than the movies they
My sorting criteria for this
list is exclusively based on how much I enjoy the music, rather than how
bad I thought the film it came from was. I'm also not going to go over
each and every single track on a soundtrack, although I may highlight
certain tracks that stand out. I'm sure I don't need to clarify that this list is not a criticism of the composers themselves or their works - just the opposite, in fact.
10) The Crimson Pirate (1952), by William Alwyn
Burt Lancaster was a great actor, except when it came to swashbucklers. Put him in a political thriller like Seven Days in May
(1964), and he's superb. Put him in a costumed adventure movie, and
he's a bore (except for his acrobatics, which I admit are impressive).
However, he wasn't the only thing wrong with The Crimson Pirate,
which suffered from a clumsily plotted storyline and an over-the-top
hokeyness to it. (Also, I've never forgiven this movie for its lack of
swordfighting. What the hell kind of pirate movie doesn't have a
swordfight in it?!) Fortunately, Alwyn's score manages to inject quite a
bit of life into what was otherwise a(n unexpectedly) tedious movie to
get through. The gypsy-flavored theme has a lot of energy to it, and we
get to hear a rousing orchestral version of "What Do You Do With a
Drunken Sailor?" I'd love to hear that done with "High Barbary" one
9) Clash of the Titans (1981), by Laurence Rosenthal
a lot to admire in this movie, particularly Ray Harryhausen's visual
effects (even if I did hate that stupid owl with a burning passion), but
I can't bring myself to call it good. The lifeless acting from Harry
Hamlin and Judi Bowker, our two leads, really hurt this film, and the
first half is kind of dull. It picks up steam when we get to the
monster battles, but by then, the movie's really struggling to keep me
engaged. None of this kept me from really enjoying Rosenthal's
magnificent sweeping score. It promises grand, light-hearted fantasy
adventure with its use of strings and chimes during the main theme. The
menacing music during Perseus's battle with Medusa stands in sharp
contrast, and does a wonderful job of enhancing the sinister mood.
8) The Patriot (2000), by John Williams
American Revolution plods into life in Roland Emmerich's formulaic
war/revenge movie that took me three tries to get all the way through
(Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger's weak performances don't help matters).
Still, John Williams doesn't let us down with a solemn, majestic score.
The main theme builds slowly; it opens with a beautiful fiddle (?) solo
backed by gentle guitar before transitioning into a full string
section, and then we get a grand military march with brass, drums, and
piccolos. The action scene music, such as "Facing the British Lines" is
vintage Willaims, unmistakable with its chords and use of brass and
strings together. The track "Martin vs. Tavington" emphasizes
percussion and rhythm rather than melody - not quite as catchy as "Duel
of the Fates," but effective as hero-villain showdown music. Wasting a
score like this on a film this mediocre is downright criminal.
7) Beowulf (2007), by Alan Silvestri
defended this movie's interesting take on the
Beowulf tale (especially co-writer Neil Gaiman's "Who was Grendel's
father?" approach), and I like a lot of the performances, but that
doesn't mean I'll let it off the hook for its cinematic shortcomings.
As a movie, it felt very incomplete, leaving me wanting much more from
the story and characterizations. Alan Silvestri's Beowulf score,
however, is perfectly suited for the character, heavy on brass and percussion combined with modern synthesized sounds, with chanting in Old English in the background (I assume they're the opening lines from the original poem). The music from the main titles is pure bad-ass, painting the picture of
an unrelenting, unstoppable warrior hero of a bygone age on the warpath,
and may the gods help anyone in his way.
6) The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex (1939), by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
hard for me to pin down what exactly this movie did wrong, even after
seeing it twice. It's a lavish production with some interesting
characters, and Bette Davis's performance is fantastic (not to mention
how she was transformed into Queen Elizabeth I). Errol Flynn's
performance, however, was uneven, much to my disappointment, and there
was just something about the plot and story structure that didn't work.
I have no such complaints about Korngold's score, with its gorgeous
strings and majestic brass themes that play over the opening credits.
In contrast to the solemnity of the opening music is the triumphant
Essex March, which is a lot of fun to listen to.
5) The Phantom (1996), by David Newman
Based on Lee Falk's still-running newspaper comic that began in 1936, The Phantom
belongs alongside Batman & Robin
and The Spirit
latter of which was also scored by David Newman, sadly) as among the
worst comic book movies ever made. I'll admit that a dynasty of jungle
men fighting piracy in purple spandex isn't the easiest concept to
successfully adapt to the screen, but the filmmakers should either have
tried harder or left The Phantom the hell alone. Newman's music, as
with other entries further down this list, succeeds in capturing the fun
and spirit of an old-fashioned adventure movie more than the movie
itself. It mixes synthesized sounds, intense percussion,
and deep chanting with traditional strings and brass. "The Phantom's
Theme" is just friggin' awesome, fitting for either a comic book or
swashbuckling hero (it helps that The Phantom is both). Part of it was used in
teaser trailers of The Mask of Zorro
(1997), a much better film than this one.
4) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), by Michael Kamen
had a lifelong fascination with Robin Hood lore (as I'm sure you know
if you've followed my blog for any length of time), and I used to like
this movie a lot - I guess I've just outgrown it. There are parts of it
that are still entertaining, such as Alan Rickman's scenery buffet of a
performance, some of the snarky banter and one-liners, and Michael
Kamen's music. The score, especially the overture, evokes a sense of
swashbuckling adventure and romance that is absent from this
surprisingly morose, joyless film (at least when it focuses on our hero
instead of the villains or more colorful supporting characters).
Likewise, "The Escape to Sherwood" and "The Final Battle at the Gallows"
are also fun to listen to, and far more thrilling than the action
scenes they accompany. (This score actually made the Classic FM Hall of
Fame list I mentioned earlier, and it's a well-deserved honor.)
3) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), by Jerry Goldsmith
were a lot of Jerry Goldsmith movie scores (including for other Trek films, particularly The Final Frontier) that were serious contenders
for this list, which is unfortunate for a composer of his
caliber. His score for the very first Star Trek movie
is one of the prominent examples of a beautiful score being wasted on an
unworthy movie. First and foremost, this is the movie that gave us the now-classic Star Trek theme that
would be used for numerous other movies and the Next Generation
series, with a unique opening fanfare that unfortunately hasn't been
used in any other Trek score. (Part of me wonders if the overly long
scene of the refitted Enterprise's introduction was an excuse to
show off Goldsmith's score as much as the ship itself, and that same
part of me can't fault them for that.) We're also introduced to the
"Klingon Battle Theme," which would reappear in other Goldsmith-scored Trek
movies. "Total Logic" and "V'Ger Flyover" have an eerie, other-worldly
vibe to them, courtesy of a variety of synthetic sounds. In contrast,
"Ilia's Theme" evokes the passion for exploration and discovery that Star Trek is supposed to be all about.
2) Batman Returns (1992), by Danny Elfman
is another movie that I used to really like (I originally wrote enjoy,
but I don't know if I ever went that far - it's hard to enjoy a movie
with such a bitter and gloomy tone to it). As an adult, I'm no longer
able to get past the
disjointed storyline, lack of Batman, and the aforementioned cynicism.
The score is probably Danny Elfman at his best, beautifully conveying
melancholy and tragedy the rest of the film is unsuccessfully aiming for. Elfman's score for the first Batman
(1989) had more of a comic book feel to it, laced with a playful
campiness at times alongside the more emotional or grand themes.
There's some of that here, especially in the "Batman vs. The Circus"
track (which makes great use of not only the heroic Batman theme, but
also frantic, fast-paced percussion). In contrast, "Selina's
Transformation" and The Penguin's funeral music in "The Finale" are grim and melancholy, with nothing campy about them. I
also like the music in the scene where The Penguin is making his speech
to his penguin troops (it makes sense in context - sort of) - a slow,
menacing march, and then after a brief fanfare, the tempo rapidly
increases. If only the rest of the movie was able to move me the way
this music was.
And coming in at #1...
1) Cutthroat Island (1995), by John Debney
swear I hadn't intended to start and end this Top 10 list with pirate
movies - it just happened to work out that way. Anyhow, Cutthroat Island is a horrible film in every way, but by God, John Debney's score is among the most fun film music to listen to that I've ever
heard. There's so much energy and life in this music, more than worthy
of comparison to one of Korngold's swashbuckler compositions or one of John
Williams's Indiana Jones scores (it's not better than these other works, but definitely worthy of standing alongside
them). You can't listen to "Morgan's Ride," the main title, without
getting the mother of all adrenalin surges. The choir in the background
might be a bit over the top, but I'm always having too much fun getting
caught up in the rest of the music to care. The two-disc edition of this soundtrack is hard to find, but so worth it.