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Top 10 Original Music Scores

April 17, 2014

Sound – one of the four key cinematic elements (along with cinematography, editing and mise en scène). Just as musical scores can be kop-outs for lazy filmic storytellers, music can have a legitimate, sensuous place in cinema. And, if used appropriately, it can engender just as much meaning and emotion as a clever edit, a great line of dialogue, or an amazing performance.

Immediately, off the top of my head, here are my 10 favourite original music scores that have inspired me the most. Yes, they’re all a little contemporary and Euro-American centric, but still, it’s a starting point for my journey into the music of cinema (please click the links below – the music speaks better than I possibly can)….

Bright Star (composer Mark Bradshaw, 2009)

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Perhaps the most purely beautiful score I think I’ve ever heard. And that’s so fitting for a film that is all about the sheer sensuousness of poetry (music’s closest kin). What I love about Bradshaw’s work (linked below), is how he’s not afraid to use unusual instruments. The opening, solitary harpsichord is starkly gorgeous, and the way he layers the score up to build the poignancy – finishing on a flowery orchestra of violins – is superb.

Blade Runner (Vangelis, 1982)

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Ridley Scott. Call him many things, but the man is a master of cinematic spectacle – and I could have selected any number of his films’ musical scores, as they’re all so evocative and suit the spirit of his pieces superbly. It feels remiss to leave out Alien and Gladiator, but, in the end, I limited myself to A Good Year (further down) and his legendary collaboration with Vangelis for Blade Runner. The hum of bluesy synthesisers is the haunting sonic accompaniment to the film’s melancholic sci-fi musings, and never is that more acute than in the beautiful “Blade Runner Blues” which helps out the pathos in the death of one of the replicants (Zora), and clues Deckard in sonorously to his kinship with these people.

Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel, 1988)

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The Last Temptation of Christ with a hybrid world music-folk-rock-classical-electronic soundtrack from Peter Gabriel: it so easily couldn’t have worked, but it does, and miraculously it’s quite brilliant. What Gabriel’s score achieves is doing away with any obligation to a sense of reverential grandeur re: the subject matter (mirroring Scorsese’s on-screen deconstruction of the life of Jesus, and showing that the Holy Land wasn’t just a place populated by RSC thesps, but a real ethnic and religious melting-pot).  The score lends the story its necessary earthiness and sense of haunting desolation that imprints the physical and metaphysical territory Jesus is embarking on. “Of These, Hope” – the link I’ve provided below – was a great uplifting, continuity piece from Gabriel, marking the point where Jesus was starting to accrue followers, as complimented by Scorsese jump-cuts of the disciples that emphasises the brio of Jesus’ popularity superbly.

Taxi Driver (Bernard Herrmann, 1976)

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I know I’ve essentially only cherrypicked contemporary music scores, but I had to delve back into the seventies to find this indisputably genius piece of music from Bernard Herrmann. It’s such a clever score that makes literary sense in marking the battle in Travis Bickle between his dark, apocalyptic side (all portentous trumpets and drums), versus a gorgeous, salubrious sax that represents the seductive lure of the city to him. But to get us to that moment of understanding, Herrmann compels us sensuously through his music – it’s great storytelling, as the two polar tones clash sonically on the very same bar of music.

A Good Year (Marc Streitenfeld, 2006)

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Sometimes excellent music can elevate a workmanlike movie into something much better, or conversely, the terribleness of a film might obscure the merits of a decent musical score. A Good Year is such a case in point. It’s an awfully squandered movie dramatically, but I was always drawn to what a clever little score was bubbling under its surface. A bit like with Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score, it’s a piece of music that beautifully articulates the film’s central Heaven/Hell dichotomy. In the tune I’ve put a link to below, Streitenfeld conjures a pleasing upbeat cello to imprint the restorative nature of life in Provence, before around the 1:20 mark, the score begins to unravel, becoming more layered and contemporary, reflecting the sinuous, metropolitan steel of the City of London and its financial corruptness.

The Double Life of Veronique (Zbigniew Preisner, 1991)

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Kieslowski’s films are like tone poems, and his Three Colours trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique found their perfect sonic correlative in the scores of Zbigniew Preisner. At times they are almost conventionally classical’ but they’re also very stark and mysterious – never more so than in the link below to a piece from The Double Life of Veronique where a pipe (or maybe even recorder?!) plays in before being taken over by the more powerful flute. Simple but striking.

Memento (David Julyan, 2000)

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If you’ve read this far, you’ll realise I know very little technically about music – I cover this lack of knowledge with a lot adjectives! But still, David Julyan’s music for Memento is the best contemporary musical score I’ve heard, period. It’s truly sublime and it’s one of those rare instances where I cannot imagine the images of the film with any other sonic accompaniment. Take the piece I’ve linked below. There’s a slow haze of what I think are synthesisers, before it gradually builds into orchestral strings – the sound is exquisite, so profound (almost Mahleresque?), and finds exactly the right dark, tragic tone for Leonard Shelby’s diegetic condition. I also like that Julyan has managed to merge the classical (strings) with the modern (synthesisers).

Mulholland Drive (Angelo Badalmenti, 2001)

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In some respects, I’m really honouring Mulholland Drive for its overall sound design. But the score by Angelo Badalmenti isn’t half bad either. The piece below is so rich, so dark, like the background to an exquisite Lynchian funeral. And ‘funeral’ in many senses is what these ominous synthesiser tones conjure, particularly when they accompany ‘Rita’ for the first time in that utterly hypnotic, profound limo trip into the heart of Mulholland Dr….

Far From Heaven (Elmer Bernstein, 2002)

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Todd Haynes’ Sirk melodrama was an outright success in just about every respect – in its revision of the genre’s politics, to the revival of a sensuous approach to costume and mise en scène, to Elmer Bernstein’s truly wonderful score. Why Bernstein’s music is so effective is that it recalls the emotional, histrionic tone of melodrama scores of old, but also manages to inject a touch of introspection and reflexivity (as hard as that is to explain!) In the piece below, we start off with the quiet, poignant piano notes which are mirrored visually by the symbolic blowing of Cathy’s purple shawl to Raymond, before an interesting use of clarinet that speaks to me of mitigation (a key theme in the film), before Bernstein very tastefully gets the strings out to fully honour the genre.

The Thin Red Line (Hans Zimmer, 1998)

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Terrence Malick and music – I couldn’t let it pass, and although I think The New World has probably the most beautiful score in the movies period, the best bits of that are not from James Horner’s original score, but from classical geniuses like Wagner and Mozart. Thus, I am reminded of the Melanesian choirs and Witt’s haunting death scene in The Thin Red Line – bold, lush music and image-making to the maximum.

(April 2014)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Hannykha permalink
    November 17, 2014 1:50 pm

    Come on Patrick you can’t leave out Yann Tierson! Either Amelie or Goodbye Lenin – his music is those films creates teh world and narrative everybit as much as the set, writing or cinematography.

    • November 17, 2014 5:59 pm

      You’ve exploited a blind spot in my soundtrack knowledge Hannah! I haven’t seen Goodbye Lenin and I must have been one of the few people who didn’t fall for Amelie, but I’ll certainly check Tiersen out….

      • Hannykha permalink
        November 17, 2014 7:49 pm

        Oh good – well you must check that film out – it’s brilliant. And as I differ from you I’ll offer my 5 favourite film soundtracks to see your take on them. In no particular order:

        1. Goodbye Lenin/Amelie – Yann Tierson
        2. The English Patient – Gabriel Yared
        3. Babel – Gustavo Santaolalla
        4. A better life – Alexandre Desplat – if you dont know this film Patrick I URGE you to see it. Got limited release in this country but is a reimaging of the Bicycle Thieves and has an INCREDIBLE central performance from Demian Bichir a phenomenal actor
        5. The soundtrack to Broadchurch (I know its cheating as tv but Olafur Arnalds scores are haunting

      • November 18, 2014 3:23 pm

        Good stuff Hannah! I did enjoy Santaolalla’s work on Babel, and I thought his score for Brokeback Mountain was amazing (a whisker away from getting in my top 10)…Also, I get you about Demian Bichir – he played Fidel Castro’s in Soderbergh’s Che movies, and was excellent!

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