Back in the early days of cinema, when patrons were treated to grainy, jerky movies played out in black and white, the scenes acted out on screen lacked the punch that words could have lent. In their place, orchestras sat below the screen and played music that lent emotion to the events on film. We have come a long way since those early days, but, in truth, very little has really changed. Moviemaking, at least the storytelling side of it, remains almost unchanged, and music is still a major part of every film.
Music has always had the ability to move us and, combined with the power of film; it can transport us to different worlds, exotic places that, for an hour or two at least, can lift us out of the mundane minutiae of everyday life. In the modern movie world the musical score has become almost as important as the script and production values, resulting in a list of big name, must have composers to add to the main credits. Names like, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, and Vangelis have become fixtures on the movie posters of the summer blockbusters.
When it comes to deciding which soundtracks are the best of all time, it would be easy to go with those that have escaped the screen and become part of pop culture lore, those little musical snippets that have somehow transcended their original purpose; when describing someone a little off kilter, we use the shower scene music from “Psycho,” in the swimming pool, how often have you heard the theme from “Jaws,” and it’s not just scores, in recent years soundtracks have become collections of songs, new and old, compiled for a movie with the resulting CD often doing better than the film in which it appeared. Who can hear, “You Never Can Tell,” now without launching into the dance moves from the Jackrabbit Slims scene in “Pulp Fiction”?
As always, best of lists are completely subjective, and are at the mercy of the person compiling said list. With that in mind, here are my personal soundtrack favorites, in no particular order.
“Braveheart,” by James Horner. The opening scene, where the camera glides across the ocean to the rugged Scottish coastline, bagpipes swirling in the background, is one that, as a Scotsman, never ceases to produce goose bumps. The rest of the score has the same effect, jumping from beautiful romantic pieces, to pounding battle scene savagery.
“Chaplin,” by John Barry. Hauntingly beautiful, yet managing to capture the sadness that was a great part of Charlie Chaplin’s life. There is also a bit of a surprise on the CD, a very nice rendition of, “Smile,” by Robert Downey Jr.
“Dances With Wolves,” by John Barry. Another classic by Barry, one that perfectly combines the Old West sound, with the romance that is the theme of the film.
“Edward Scissorhands,” by Danny Elfman. The score here is so good, you barely even notice the transition it makes halfway through the movie, switching from the light, whimsical music in the opening half, to the dark, brooding tones of the second. The CD also contains another little musical gem in, “With These Hands,” by Tom Jones.
“Blade Runner,” by Vangelis. The pulsing synthesized sounds of the Greek musical genius, Vangelis, fit perfectly with the futuristic vision in Blade Runner; bleak and synthetic, yet somehow beautiful just the same.
Those are my five favorites, soundtracks that I can listen to as a stand alone piece of music, rather than just as background noise in a movie.