Eye on the Oscars: Music Preview
Ennio Morricone’s original music for Roland Joffe’s 1986 film “The Mission” landed on top of a Variety poll of 40 active composers who were asked to name their top three original movie scores of all time in order of preference. The survey, conducted with the help of the good folks at ASCAP and BMI, used a point system that rewarded the first choice with three points, the second with two, etc., and offered a telling view of the pecking order of the great composers past and present and what it takes to achieve a state of sonic transcendence.
Or, as Rolfe Kent, who scored such Alexander Payne movies as “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” says: Great film music “must have character, memorable themes, and a strong emotional point of view.”
While “The Mission,” scored by the Italian maestro best known for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, tallied the most points, Bernard Herrmann’s stark, all-string treatment for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and John Williams’ bouncy, orchestral music for Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” tied for second.
Despite Morricone’s preeminence with “The Mission,” it was Williams’ various scores — he was cited for no fewer than 10 movies — that gave him the most points of any composer, Jerry Goldsmith (eight, topped by “Chinatown”), followed by Morricone, cited for seven movies, and Herrmann (five).
Among active composers, Williams stood tall as the runaway favorite, followed by Thomas Newman, whose “American Beauty” score has been oft-imitated, and Gabriel Yared, who won the Oscar for “The English Patient.” Interestingly, it was not “Beauty” that was most mentioned as Newman’s signature work, but “The Shawshank Redemption,” which finished fourth in the poll.
(Tyler Bates, whose credits include “Killer Joe” and Showtime’s “Californication,” says Newman’s “Shawshank” score “could very well be the most influential music in film since ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Jaws.’ “)
Rounding out the Top 10 (11 in this case due to tied scores) were “Star Wars,” “Lawrence of Arabia” (Maurice Jarre) and “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Morricone), all tying for fourth; “Chinatown,” finishing fifth; and “Vertigo” (Herrmann), “Planet of the Apes” (Goldsmith) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (Williams), all with identical points. Six of the 11 top vote getters were either nominated for, or won Oscars.
Of Morricone’s “Mission,” Cliff Eidelman (“He’s Just Not That Into You,” “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), calls it “a timeless work that endures because of it’s emotional power and unique blend of orchestra and choir.” Adds Atli Orvarsson: (the upcoming “Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters”): “The fusion of incredible melodies, choral church music and ethnic elements makes this, in my humble opinion, Ennio Morricone’s crowning achievement.”
Nathan Barr (“Grindhouse,” HBO’s “True Blood”) cites another Morricone work, “Cinema Paradiso,” as his favorite. “It’s the perfect musical interpretation of the story,” says Barr, “all the heart, longing, excitement, angst, tragedy, romance and joy of the film are encapsulated in the score.” Steve Jablonsky (the upcoming “Gangster Squad,” ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”) calls Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” “some of the most original and moving music I have ever heard.”
And Cliff Martinez, Steven Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator, recalls being “flabbergasted” by Morricone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” citing “the novelty and originality” of the instrumentation: “Jaw harp, pan pipe, tubular bells, male choir and surf guitar was a combination of elements that still strikes me as unexpected to this day.”
Herrmann’s “Psycho,” of course, loomed large, as did his other work with the master of suspense. Czech-born composer Izler, who has scored multiple episodes of “Revenge,” calls “Psycho” “the perfect film score — a deliberately limited palette (strings only) chosen to fit the black-and-white world of the movie and unforgettable themes.” He adds, “The fact that there’s no percussion anywhere to contrast the volume of the strings makes the famous slashing motif jump out as if it’s the loudest thing ever recorded.”
Carter Burwell, who has worked with the Coen brothers dating back to 1984’s “Blood Simple,” says the score to “Psycho” “doesn’t play character. It doesn’t play story. What does it play? It’s almost mechanical. That mystery keeps it intriguing no matter how often I hear it.” Anton Sanko (“Rabbit Hole,” HBO’s “Big Love”) says, “Psycho” “set a new standard for thriller scoring,” adding that Herrmann’s “cellular, motivic writing is muscular and compact, and a harbinger of the minimalist movement in ‘serious’ music.”
Herrmann also was cited by David Sardy (“Premium Rush,” “End of Watch”) for his top score choice, but for the composer’s swan song, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). “(Herrmann) manages to capture the feel of New York City with its brash yet somehow mournful dissonance,” he says, “while also giving color to the dirty claustrophobic feel of the unwashed, steaming streets, all the while perfectly mirroring the internal descent of our antihero.”
As exemplified by Sardy, responses to Variety’s survey were often quite poetic.
George S. Clinton (“Austin Powers,” “Mortal Kombat”) called Henry Mancini’s “Charade” dramatic and sexy: “the way he scored the roof fight — big dark chords like gravity threatening to pull them to their doom.”
Mark Suozzo (“American Splendor,” “The Nanny Diaries”) called Goldsmith’s “Chinatown” “unique and specific to the dramatic elements” and “manages to conjure up images of the setting (L.A. in the 1930s), corruption, family secrets and depravity. The music is sometimes languid and sexy, at other times dry as a parched riverbed.”
The participants also articulated the importance of film music to the collaborative form. Oscar winner Michael Giacchino (“Up”) says: “Great film music tells a story. It doesn’t simply follow plot lines. A film score can evoke a character’s inner emotional story which at most times can be impossible to just ‘see’ on the screen.”
On whether a great film score could be a satisfying experience divorced from the movie it supports, two-time Emmy winner Trevor Morris says: “Yes, absolutely. It should be stand on its own feet, while at the same time harkening the listener to the story.”
David Newman (“The Cat in the Hat,” “Ice Age”), insists, “great music and great dramatic scores (are) two very different challenges,” but a strong score “also tells its own story about itself.”
Marco Beltrami (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Sessions”) says, “great music does not necessarily make a great film score and vise versa … however, it’s very satisfying when these achievements are interrelated.”
When asked what score inspired them to become a film composer, John Powell (“Rio,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) might have summed up the visceral aspects of movie music best: “I could tell you some story about ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘The Magnificent Seven’ or ‘Goldfinger.’ But I really think it was ‘West Side Story’ — not exactly a ‘film score’ I know, but it was an experience in the cinema that emotionally scarred me forever, and probably explains why I get into so much trouble trying to write music for films; it always strikes me that the characters should be singing more.”