Scores to swoon over

Oscar-winning composers Maurice Jarre, John Barry and James Horner weigh in on creating lasting romantic themes

From the moment the first projector started whirring, music and the movies began an enduring affair. And as filmmakers discovered the box office potential of the love story, music figured prominently in the telling. Oscar has richly rewarded the love song (and the instrumental love theme) over the years, starting with the first music honors in 1934 (“The Continental” for song, “One Night of Love” for score).

Music often plays as crucial a role in the romantic film as the script or performances. Think of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” without Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” or “The Sandpiper” without Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Both films are today better known for their songs than for their stories — and they’re not alone.

“Music is important in all films,” notes director Sydney Pollack, whose movies have been graced by scores from the likes of John Barry (Oscar winner, “Out of Africa”), Marvin Hamlisch (Oscar winner, “The Way We Were”), Dave Grusin (Oscar nominee, “Tootsie”), John Williams (Oscar nominee, “Sabrina”) and others.

“After we do everything we can with words and images and editing and acting, then there’s always that little gap that can be bridged with music,” Pollack says. “It takes people so directly to (an emotional place) — it short-circuits everything that’s intellectual. And if one is doing a more lyrical, romantic kind of film, I think it’s an enormously helpful tool.”

Some filmmakers have turned to the classics, often in the belief that a contemporary composer can’t possibly top the greats. David Lean, for example, tracked Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” throughout 1945’s “Brief Encounter.” In 1967, “Elvira Madigan” turned Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21” into a worldwide favorite. And in 1979, Woody Allen set all of “Manhattan” to the music of George Gershwin.

According to film historian Rudy Behlmer, the concept of a “love theme” dates back to the silent era, when original songs were sometimes written for the pit orchestra (sometimes, just a pianist) to play, and were often hawked as sheet music afterwards — decades before “marketing” and “promotion” became hot words in the lexicon of every studio exec.

By the late 1930s, Behlmer notes, the lush romantic film score became an integral part of Hollywood moviemaking. Alfred Newman’s passionate music for the doomed lovers in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights,” and Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score for ugly duckling Bette Davis and urbane Paul Henreid in 1942’s “Now, Voyager” are early examples.

In an era when fan mail usually went to movie stars, composer David Raksin received an unheard-of 1,700 letters asking about his haunting theme for 1944’s “Laura.”

Gene Tierney, who plays a supposed murder victim who turns up alive, doesn’t even appear until far into the picture. It was the composer’s job, he explains, to evoke the presence of “this absent, lovely creature. You have to reach the audience on a subliminal level.”

Raksin turned the theme into a song, enlisted Johnny Mercer to write the lyrics, and “Laura” wound up on radio’s popular “Hit Parade” for 14 straight weeks.

By the ’60s, movie songs were not only common but expected, and the romantic films were among the biggest hits. French composers were especially in vogue: Francis Lai with “A Man and a Woman” and then 1970’s Oscar-winning “Love Story”; Michel Legrand with the songs from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and later “Summer of ’42,” 1971’s Oscar-winning best score; and Maurice Jarre, whose “Lara’s Theme” from his Oscar-winning music for 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago” became one of the best-known film themes of all time.

Director Lean “was very, very picky,” Jarre recalls. “I had to write four different themes before he was satisfied.”

And while Jarre wrote an elaborate, balalaika-filled score that included several other strong motifs, it was “Lara’s Theme” that was repeated most often and, as a result, struck a chord with moviegoers and record buyers. The album spent a remarkable 157 weeks on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy.

Britisher John Barry won the 1985 Oscar for his expansive, sometimes melancholy score for “Out of Africa.”

“I tend to try and look for a musical theme that captures the whole essence of the picture,” he says. “It has to do with the personalities, with the story, with the physicality of the movie. This was a story that took place in Africa, but the main focus was the relationship of these two people and their love of Africa.”

Composer James Horner, a double Oscar winner for the song and score of “Titanic” (whose soundtrack sold over 25 million copies), prefers the subtle approach. When penning a love theme, he says, he doesn’t set out to write a song.

“I don’t think in terms of four-bar phrases,” he explains. “I think much more like Schubert, where I have a long continuous melody, and I narrate the scene with it. I try to make it as longing as I can, and as winsome.”

Later in the process, if the filmmakers want a marketable tune with lyrics, “then I reconstruct it as a more conventional song,” he says.

That’s what happened with Rose’s theme in “Titanic,” which became the Celine Dion megahit “My Heart Will Go On.”

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