Critics weigh in on the year's best original movie music

What are the best scores of 1997? We put that question not to film critics — who rarely even mention the music in their reviews — but to people who regularly write about movie music for five diverse publications. Their choices range from eclectic to sometimes surprising. Whether they hint at possible Oscar nominees in the original-score categories is anyone’s guess.

Only one film appears on three lists: Basil Poledouris’ full-blooded action score for Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers.” More interesting is the appearance of a relatively new name on four of the five lists: Canadian composer Mychael Danna, whose innovative sounds for arthouse hits “The Ice Storm” and “The Sweet Hereafter” are clear favorites of the people who are paid to listen to film music.

Says Royal S. Brown, film-music critic for Fanfare magazine, about “The Sweet Hereafter”: “Rarely has film music, whether Danna’s quasi-medieval instrumentals or the half-folk, half-country songs he wrote with actress Sarah Polley, played such an integral role in the overall structure, narrative and otherwise, of a film.”

Steve Pond of Movieline, on the other hand, favors Danna’s “Ice Storm” music: “A cold, austere, elegant score that becomes surprisingly emotional without getting overly sentimental; minimalist music with a mixture of Indonesian and Native American instruments that I found very interesting.”

Veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith makes three lists but for different films — two of the citings for the universally acclaimed “L.A. Confidential.” Notes Brown: “Goldsmith succeeded in giving director Curtis Hanson what he wanted, which was music that captured the spirit of the film more than the spirit of the period. The opening cue is a tour-de-force of frenzied energy, and I find myself still haunted by that final bit in 7/8.”

Philip Glass’ score for Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is the focus of two writers: Glenn Kenny of Premiere finds that Glass’ familiar repetitiveness “serves an artistic purpose in evoking the timelessness of the Tibetan culture, their resistance to modernity. It has a beautiful sound and a flowing lyri-cism, but also a kind of strength.” Pond sees Glass and “Kundun” as “an ideal marriage of composer and subject matter… a very meditative, spiritual quality that was ideally suited to the movie.”

Brown offers a dissenting view, saying, “The music for Scorsese’s film is filled with so many stale Glass cliches that I found it supremely irritating.” Lukas Kendall, editor of Film Score Monthly, is the only writer to mention a score by perennial nominee John Williams, and it wasn’t for either “Seven Years in Tibet” or “Amistad.” Instead, he likes Williams’ music for the little-seen “Rosewood”: “This was Williams writing in his bluesy American style, as in ‘The River,’ ‘The Missouri Breaks’ or ‘Conrack.’ He also wrote a couple of original gospel tunes. It was so subtle, but so rich and melodic.”

Kendall also singles out Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s music for Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn”: “quirky and eccentric, even referencing some Southwestern instruments — not like the spaghetti westerns but similar in that he used Jew’s harp and harmonica. For someone who has been doing music for 35 years, to still be relevant and original and exciting on a contemporary American movie was very cool.”

James Horner’s music for James Cameron’s megahit “Titanic” draws widely opposing views. Premiere’s Kenny is “blown away” by it: “I liked its economy. It’s a subtle theme, and his variations on it in terms of highlighting the different emotional climaxes and action in the story worked like a charm.”

Not for Jack Smith of Films in Review, however, who says, “Horner can compose some stretches of poignancy and drama but here he’s as turgidly ponderous as the film is long.”

Smith is downbeat about the field in general. “Dramatic scores this year continued the painfully wretched decline of film music to the level of New Age minstrelsy,” he says. And while he cites “L.A. Confidential” as the year’s best score, he qualifies the choice by saying he thinks it’s derivative of Goldsmith’s earlier “City Hall” and that “together, the two actually make one great score.”

Brown calls Edward Shearmur’s music for “Wings of the Dove” “the great Romantic/tragic symphonic score of the year. Shearmur creates an ongoing mood of sadness and tragedy that works well for the film.” He also praises “Gattaca’s” music by Michael Nyman (“The Piano”), saying that the composer “pulls off the minor miracle of writing something close to a conventional film score that still retains many elements of his personal brand of minimalism, which definitely complements the film’s visual language in particular.”

Among the more offbeat choices are Pond’s selections of Ry Cooder’s “The End of Violence” and Mark Isham’s “Afterglow.” “One thing that Wim Wenders and Cooder discovered long ago is that if it’s done right, there’s nothing more foreboding than the sound of one guy with a twangy guitar.” He terms Isham’s small-combo jazz “winning” with “an assurance and relaxation to it,” the interplay between musicians mirroring the interplay between characters in Alan Rudolph’s film.

Movies that failed to score with viewers but whose scores impressed this crowd included “Copland,” whose Howard Shore music Brown calls “a really good score for a really rotten film; Shore has taken over from Bernard Herrmann as the great composer of dark film music,” and “The Edge,” whose Jerry Goldsmith score marked “the best of what he’s doing today while also revisiting a lot of his purely orchestral textures from the past” in Kendall’s view.

Premiere’s Kenny also cites the memorable use of Johnny Mercer songs threaded throughout Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” “I think that’s as much an accomplishment in terms of creative soundtracking as any score might have been. That album probably works better than the film itself.”

As for Poledouris’ “Starship Troopers,” Smith finds it “unpretentiously straightforward” and Kendall says, “It was a movie where the tone was nearly impossible to catch — sort of a spoof, but also serious, but also very provocative. Basil captured the military aspect and the goofiness and the multimedia aspects of it in a really dramatic way.”

Pond thinks of it as “noisy fun, basically. It’s kind of insane, which is the proper response to the movie. You’re never quite sure how seriously Paul Verhoeven is taking himself, and I got the same feeling from the score. It’s either great action-movie music or a parody of great action-movie music or something in between. Whatever it is, I thought it was a blast.”

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