After watching far too many Fellini movies of late, I’ve been thinking about movie composers, an oft-ignored part of filmmaking. A great score can add depth or mythos to a movie in way that is not manipulative or saccharine. It’s a tough balancing act, but the five guys I chose below all accomplish it. I’m hardly an expert on movie scores or music, so is in no way is this list meant to be comprehensive, but here are my favorite film composers.
Max Steiner is the father of the musical score, and the first great composer of old Hollywood. One of his greatest ideas was that every character should have a theme of their own that reflects their world views. Take his theme from The Searchers. It perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation of its main character Ethan (John Wayne).
Famous scores: Jaws (1976), Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), the Indiana Jones series (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998)
John Williams is the composer of my childhood. The themes for Jaws, Star Wars, Superman and Indiana Jones are so familiar to me, I can hum them to anyone on cue (The Imperial March is still my favorite score of all-time.) And in case you think, he can’t compose more mournful works, check out his Schindler’s List theme below.
3) Nino Rota
I gave serious thought to putting Nino Rota number one, and on a different day, I very well might have. He is the most eclectic of film composers, as he mixes everything from Baroque classical to Bossa Nova and Jazz. Without him Fellini’s films would have so much less of its verve and life. And consider the effect of Rota’s theme on The Godfather movies, especially The Godfather II. Roger Ebert put it best when he said:
The musical score plays an even greater role in “The Godfather: Part II” than it did in the original film. Nostalgic, mournful, evoking lost eras, it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story, and wouldn’t, if the score were more conventional for a crime movie. Why should we regret the passing of a regime built on murder, extortion, bribery, theft and the ruthless will of frightened men? Observe how powerfully Nino Rota’s music sways our feelings for the brutal events onscreen…
And now I come back to the music. More than ever, I am convinced it is instrumental to the power and emotional effect of the films. I cannot imagine them without their Nino Rota scores. Against all our objective reason, they instruct us how to feel about the films. Now listen very carefully to the first notes as the big car drives into Miami. You will hear an evocative echo of Bernard Hermann’s score for “Citizen Kane,” another film about a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.
2) Bernard Hermann
Consider this: the first movie Bernard Hermann scored was Citizen Kane, which many consider the greatest movie ever made, and the last film he scored before his death was Taxi Driver, which many consider one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. Now that’s a career. But the reason I put him so high are his themes from Psycho and Vertigo, two of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest works. The Psycho theme in particular will always be chilling. Take a listen.
1) Ennio Morricone
In my humble opinion, the greatest of them all. Besides the awards– he’s won 4 Oscars, 3 Grammys and 2 Golden Globes– he has created some of the most iconic and recognizable film scores in the history of cinema (Is there anyone who doesn’t immediately recognize the theme from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly?)
My personal favorite score of Morricone’s is from Once Upon a Time in the West. He created individual music for each of the 4 main characters that matched their temperaments– blaring and harsh for Henry Fonda’s Frank, romantic and thoughtful for Claudia Cardinale’s Jill, goofy and playful for Jason Robard’s Cheyenne and mysterious and brooding for Charles Bronson’s Harmonica. It’s always been my favorite Western, and it is really Morricone’s score that pushes it over the top.