Simon Moore presents the ten most engrossing movie soundtracks...
Let me put you on the spot for a moment. Think of a great film. Right now. An uncompromisingly fantastic piece of cinema you’d be proud to shout your love for at the top of your voice in a crowded elevator. I’ll give you a minute to think of one. Hell, take two minutes, so you can cheat and sneak a peek at the IMDb.
Now that you’ve thought of a great film, ask yourself this – would it be anywhere near half as great without its musical soundtrack? Imagine The Godfather without that trumpet theme. Half the story of Star Wars is in John Williams’ breathtaking score. But consider this too – even the crummiest, the cheesiest, the most head-mashingly daft films can be potentially saved by their soundtrack. Ennio Morricone spent almost all of the sixties saving B-movie spaghetti westerns from obscurity with his wild, stirring themes. Lord knows there’s no other reason to remember something as bombastically stupid as Navajo Joe, if not for that rumbling, majestic title music.
So which movie scores truly engross you in the story? That’s the question I hope to part-way answer with this list, starting wiiiiith....
10. Flash Gordon (1980, dir. Mike Hodges), music by Queen
Unless you are the Duke of Edinburgh (in which case, hello dear boy, are you lost?), the word ‘Queen’ immediately speaks to you of sheer unadulterated fun of the hard rockin’, Live Aid show-stealing variety. And for a sci-fi fantasy about an American football player having sexy adventures in space alongside Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton, you could hardly demand anything less than this shining jewel of a score. It dazzles the ears with ornate guitar orchestras, galloping synth ambushes and possibly the coolest rendition of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March ever recorded.
9. Batman Returns (1992, dir. Tim Burton), music by Danny Elfman
True, that insanely catchy and haunting theme was first written for Batman (1989), but Danny Elfman really rounded out the characters with his music second time around, without the distraction of Prince’s odd little contributions. Selina Kyle isn’t really Catwoman until that terrifying unravelling of sanity in her apartment, set to Elfman’s frantic strings. Chilling stuff.
8. From Russia With Love (1963, dir. Terence Young) music by John Barry
John Barry scored a great many Bond films, but ultimately, when you think of Bond music, this is the template. Bringing his swing jazz mentality to this sleek sequel all but defined the sound of a genre. Machine-gun brass section stings partnered with those lush, longing, eastern-tinged strings make this a score brimming with all the tension and seduction a film is physically capable of containing.
7. Rocky (1976, dir. John G. Avildsen), music by Bill Conti
It’s simple. You start training for something, anything, be it a marathon, a duel, an end-of-term exam, it doesn’t start until somebody hums that trumpet melody. Thanks to Bill Conti, we walk with Rocky every step of the way, from Philadelphia Morning’s gutter scraping dog days to bloody battle of wills that is Going The Distance. There’s no denying that this vivid, punchy soundtrack made a great film genuinely unforgettable.
6. Highlander (1986, dir. Russell Malcahy) music by Queen
Who said there can be only one Queen soundtrack on this list? If they were well-matched to the glitzy space glam thrills of Flash Gordon, Russell Malcahy’s music video-style action fantasy was all but made for Freddie and the boys. Delving straight into the central theme of immortality, these songs effortlessly capture the majesty and the magic of the film’s mile-wide ambitious streak.
Punch some air to the bombastic hard rock fanfare of Princes of the Universe; wave your lighters to the heartbreaking power balladry of Who Wants To Live Forever; snap those fingers for the anthemic A Kind of Magic. Whatever you do, get hold of this soundtrack.
5. Easy Rider (1969, dir. Dennis Hopper), music by Various Artists
I’ve purposely avoided mentioning other soundtracks of non-original material; for the most part, hearing a familiar song pulls you right out of the story, swapping definitive characterisation for easy track recognition. Easy Rider is another story. Dennis Hopper was the first director to insert a dozen or so AM radio staples into key scenes and call it a soundtrack.
Technically, this means he can be blamed for all the others that followed, but because the film deals so specifically and definitively with the emergence of counterculture, any other sounds than Jimi Hendrix Experience or The Band would just be wrong. And then there’s that Steppenwolf song – the same song that inspired a hundred thousand trips across America, the way only Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road had ever done before. This is the definitive ‘Various Artists’ album.
4. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone), music by Ennio Morricone
If you can think of a leaner, meaner, more definitively western soundtrack, I would dearly love to hear it. This score lives and breathes Leone’s vivid landscape of blood and trail dust, matching every jaw-dropping shot he takes with a passionate trumpet flourish or a menacing guitar twang.
You always know where you are in this story by the music; each of our three bounty killers have their own version of that infamous coyote howl motif. There’s the flute for Blondie (Clint Eastwood), an ocarina for Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and voices for Tuco (Eli Wallach). Set those alongside masterpieces of mood-setting like The Strong and The Sundown or the dizzying, operatic Ecstasy of Gold, and you have yourself a western score that will influence every other exploration of the genre for the next 40 years and beyond.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, dir. Hayao Miyazaki), music by Joe Hisaishi
One of the lesser known long-running director/composer partnerships, Hayao Miyazaki has been looking to Joe Hisaishi’s musical genius since the very beginning of Studio Ghibli. Howl’s Moving Castle is but one of his many achingly beautiful scores, centred around that timeless theme, being in love with a wizard. We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like when your one true love turns himself into a giant bird and can’t remember what his feet look like.
So many things about this score make it Hisaishi’s crowning achievement. There’s the irresistible catchiness of that title theme waltz. There’s that certain lightness of touch that pervades even the darkest of moments. Everything just clicks into place, from the climactic orchestral movements as airships pass overhead, to the slightest piano cue as our heroine sits on her worst enemy’s bed and confesses she’s in love with a man who barely knows she’s there. It might not be Miyazaki’s best film, but it’s a strong contender for Hisaishi’s best score.
2. Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott), music by Vangelis
The end credits of Blade Runner promised an imminent release of this soundtrack on Polydor Records. The album took 12 years to show up. Presumably this was a reflection on the poor box office performance the film suffered, pitched as it was against sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T. and The Thing. Bootlegs and sound engineer rough cuts abounded in the ‘80s, but this bold, richly detailed soundscape deserves to be heard in the best quality possible.
Queue up that title theme right now if you can; tell me you don’t see the dark city of Los Angeles 2019, spewing fire and smog, skyline dominated by the looming Tyrell pyramid. Listen to Rachel’s Song and try not to picture Sean Young and Harrison Ford striped in dim light by the blinds he’s pinned her against. As for Tears in Rain, just you try whispering Rutger Hauer’s speech to yourself without those trickling synth melodies bleeding into the background. Tell me you can imagine those pictures without the music, or vice versa. Tell me all you like; I will not believe you.
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner), music by John Williams
The first thing you need to know is that it always starts with the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Always. You’ve assumed the conductor’s position, now it’s your turn to be John Williams and guide us through the opening title crawl, waving your arms around like you’re signalling a plane in to land. This is what Star Wars music does to a man, and why the hell not? Like no other kind of film before or since, the Star Wars trilogy gave you giddy thrills; it stirred you up with the same passion, the same rebellious madness you were witnessing on the silver screen.
“Fair enough”, you say. “That’s my Saturday afternoons nicely summed up. But why for the love of herding Nerfs would you pick The Empire Strikes Back?” Listen to the album is my answer. For every shadowy frame and underlit villain Irvin Kershner throws at us, John Williams has a darkly delightful refrain or a tender, romantic air. Williams uses every instrument at his disposal to evoke mystery and menace in this story of endless night.
Wherever you look in Empire, the London Symphony Orchestra play to the story. Whether it’s longing looks in the south passage with Han and Leia, stalking Vader in the service tunnels of Cloud City or riding shotgun on a white-knuckle chase through an asteroid field, this score puts us in the moment. We are completely and totally there with the whole rebel gang, right where we want to be.
The Last Waltz (1978, dir. Martin Scorsese), music by The Band with special guests – easily some of the greatest live performances ever caught on film, but with no narrative tale to tell, it just missed out on this list.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964, dir. Richard Lester), music by The Beatles – fluffy day in the life of a band story, but when the world’s greatest rock band is your soundtrack, that doesn’t much matter.
Got some suggestions for more engrossing soundtracks? Do tell.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.