My brother-in-law, Kee Ramsorrun, sent me this message yesterday:
Well, Kee, you probably just wanted me to send you the names of 5 films and be done with it, but so many options began to rush through my head that it quickly became apparent that a simple Whatsapp response wasn’t going to be possible. I needed to explain my choices, talk about why I loved the music, etc etc. Had I the time, I’d have made a vlog in response, but perhaps I’ll have to do that when I’m a little less busy.
(Note: I know you asked me about soundtracks but hopefully you don’t mind that most of what I discuss will be regarding scores, because it’s something I’m more familiar with. For other readers who aren’t sure of the distinction - soundtrack = any music used in a film, including synced pre-existing music; score = music written specifically for the film).
There are a ton of scores that are must-listens to me, but you’ve asked me to choose five, and today these are the ones that I’m choosing. Not necessarily the best, just a great variety which all have different strengths. All of the scores I’ve chosen stick with me because they are rooted so firmly in the world of their film - the composer does an incredible job of creating a distinctive, memorable sound. I’ve also chosen 5 different composers and 5 different types of story.
So, Kee, here are 5 film scores that - in my opinion - you must listen to.
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Film release: 2014
Never have I heard a score that so successfully creates a distinctive sound-world for a film as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Arrival. There are a number of masterful decisions that not only work to create a unique sound, but also work conceptually with the film’s central themes of time and communication.
As soon as the title track begins, we hear a rich texture of piano tones; layered up through a tape machine without the attack of the note to create a drawn out sustain, almost as though the piano itself exists outside of time. After almost a minute of this single sound, a voice enters, offering short phrases which sound oddly alien. Performed through reverbs and filters, the voice takes on an almost synthetic quality, and to me is reminiscent of old-school sci-fi scores, as well as actual radio recordings from the solar system.
The use of vocals continues in Heptapod B, where repeated phrases whirl around the listener in stereo, combined with wooden percussion and a simple synth kick to create a sound world that’s somehow fused between the mechanic and the organic.
The score continues to work with these minimalistic ideas rooted deeply in concept. Xenolinguistics continues the drawn out tones, seasoned with gentle brassy gestures, while Hammers And Nails fuses the percussive and vocal ideas from Heptapod B with expansive string chords.
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Director: Martin Scorsese
Film release: 1976
Man, they don’t make scores like this anymore. Bernard Herrmann is one of the great fathers of modern-day film composing and I probably could’ve chosen any one of his legendary scores for this list (he also wrote the scores for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Psycho. Insane kudos). I’ve chosen the Taxi Driver score for this as it’s the one I know best, and I love the way it swings wildly between two extremes; Betsy’s pretty saxophone theme, and the heavy, brooding brass and snare material - the instability reflecting Travis’ own mental deterioration.
It’s as though Betsy’s theme takes us out of the darkness of the rest of the score in the same way Betsy herself brings Travis out of his darkness, and the darkness of the city, which lurks around every corner with the harsher brass and percussion material.
To quote from Consequence of Sound:
The score holds up as pure art about anxiety.
Herrmann allegedly created the score in only two days. He passed the night of December 24, 1975, the last day he worked on Taxi Driver. The score was nominated for an Academy Award (Herrmann was also nominated that year for his work on De Palma’s Obsession – he won for neither film). Scorsese, in that 1999 interview, joked that Herrmann cancelled himself out from winning. Herrmann’s score is a chilling work of beauty, a poetic flow of emotions made musical for the most dangerous man in New York City, and it endures as a work of gorgeous Gothic American film composition, equal to the obsessive music of Vertigo or Kane. It’s a classic anthem of angst. Academy Award-winning composer Elmer Bernstein characterized the music of Taxi Driver as that of “menace” and “madness,” but praised it for its multi-faceted nature. And above all, it sticks.
It really does stick; a hugely distinctive work that still holds its own 40 years after its composition. Sure, it doesn’t have the subtlety of modern film scores, but that’s what makes it so exciting; its rapid, unpredictable changes, surprising instrumental choices, and memorable melodic motifs.
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Director: Christopher Nolan
Film release: 2010
One of my favourite films ever, and with a score that epitomises Hans Zimmer’s approach to scoring - making heavy use of rhythm, texture, and motif. The Inception score was written with Johnny Marr, his distinctive guitar tone laced throughout the score.
The thing I love so much about the score is the way it’s used to tell us completely subconsciously what level of the dream we’re in. The upper levels of the dream have music that is rhythmically detailed, while the score for the deeper levels is drawn out, elongated, just like time itself.
Check out Mombasa, a cue for a chase scene in the real world, where the music is rapid, rhythmic, and articulate, with repeating string ostinati and synth patterns. Then compare this to the spacious, dreamy Old Souls, which underscores Cobb’s memories of limbo - the deepest level of the dream - with Mal.
Subtle references throughout to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien are also very pleasing, becoming more drawn out through the layers of the dream as time runs out. Check out what the horns are playing about 1:30 into Dream Within a Dream - it’s a hugely time-augmented version of the intro to Edith Piaf’s famous song.
The combinations of synthesiser with orchestral elements is distinctive of Zimmer’s style, and Time provides us with one of his most iconic cues ever.
Composer: Howard Shore
Director: Peter Jackson
Film release: 2001-2003
By anyone’s book, this has gotta be one of the greatest scores of all time. Rich, emotive, with inventive writing that makes the traditional resources of choir and orchestra sound like the armies of the orcs from one side and the forests of the elves on another, using heavy influences from world and folk music.
There’s so much content across all three films that it’s really hard to pick out highlights, and Shore’s operatic approach to the composition means that to fully appreciate his use of leitmotif (using a specific musical motif or melody to represent a character or theme), the whole score needs to be digested to fully enjoy the way he weaves everything together.
Famous leitmotifs in LOTR include The Shire theme, the Fellowship theme, the Rohan theme… There are tons (apparently forty or fifty according to Shore himself), including themes for the Elves, the Nazgûl, Gollum.
There’s loads more great content on woodzie.org about the leitmotifs from LOTR, as well as further examples of each. While you get stuck into that I’m going to have to watch Lord of the Rings again; it’s amazing how a great score can link you so deeply to a film that I’m desperate to be back in that world!
Composer: Howard Goodall
Director: Steve Bendelack
Film release: 2007
Scoring comedy is, in my experience, kinda tricky. You want to give the actors and the jokes space to land, whilst making sure the music complements what they’re doing without stifling or over-egging the humour.
Now here I need to give credit to my good friend James Everingham who opened my eyes to the joys of this score; Howard Goodall has scored Mr. Bean from day one, having met Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson when they all studied at Oxford together, so it’s no surprise that he’s highly adept to writing music that perfectly suits this character. He encapsulates Mr. Bean’s innocence, and adds in the pathos and joy that we get from watching him manage to figure things out in his own roundabout way.
I love the way he writes music that’s unabashedly melodic, emotive, and rich. The film’s opening introduces us to the main themes, at 0:26 and 2:26.
I love these themes because they’re so melodic and uplifting. I’m a massive sucker for harmonica and accordion in film scores (see also: Ratatouille), and this is no exception. The way Goodall uses harmonica for pathos as well as it telling us we’re in Cannes is really powerful.
The score album’s final cue, Playback Time 2, demonstrates a lot of what I think is so great about this score. Whether it’s the swift changes in tone between Mr. Bean and Carson Clay’s art film, to the parody of the art film score itself, this cue demonstrates Goodall’s affinity with comedy film scoring.
We get an amazing payoff at the end of the film as Bean substitutes his own video diary with the visuals of Carson Clay’s film and his theme slowly invades the score to the art film. The two worlds collide before Bean’s music takes over completely.
There’s also a satisfying nod to Holst's music for Jupiter from his Planets Suite at 7:20 - and who is Jupiter? The Bringer of Jollity - a role that Bean himself inadvertently fulfils for both the Sabine and the audience.
You can listen to the score on YouTube as it’s not on Spotify:
The thing that I love about all five of these scores is that they create a distinct musical world for the film to live in, and to me, that’s one of the marks of a great film score.
I know I’ve probably written way too much when you were probably just hoping I’d suggest some stuff for you to listen to last night. Trouble is, I could probably think of another 50 film scores that I love, and had to have some sort of a process for distilling it down!
Had fun making this though, let’s do it again sometime x