EDITORIAL: My picks for the greatest movie scores

(Image: brianlauritzen.com)

(Image: brianlauritzen.com)

Recently on my website's Facebook page, I shared a post about movie scores from ScreenJunkies.com, a website whose work I really enjoy.  I'm a big fan of their "Honest Trailers" produced for their YouTube page.  They are must-see movie humor and sarcasm.  Anyway, the website's editorial post entitled "The 10 Greatest Film Scores Ever" and written by Dustin Seibert grabbed my attention like any good social media click bait.  

As an amateur film critic and ardent movie lover, there are certain elements that draw me to movies and the music has always been one of them.  It's one of the first things I notice, complement, and judge about any film, large or small.  Personally, I prefer film scores to popular music genres and they have become my background music at home, work, or in the car.  As a father of two babies under two, I have elevated that love by using movie scores to replace boring repetitive xylophone lullaby music around them as well.  I recently wrote at length about this topic, first with my goal on improving the "Mozart Effect" with movie music and second with an ultimate (and share-able) playlist of movie lullabies for children.

I shared Seibert's post on my Facebook page with my comment of "This wouldn't be my list, but it's ok."  My friends and followers kind of poked the bear and encouraged me to make and rank my own list.  Well, I love a good challenge and I knew this one would be easy.  Movie scores and I get along.  

If you need a bigger and more official list than the one from ScreenJunkies.com, check out the American Film Institute's "100 Years of Film Scores" master ranked list of 25 made in 2005.  Chances are, you'll see a few selections from my list and Seibert's that appear there.  Personally, I think that list is flawed too because nothing newer than 1986 made the list.  I don't buy that we haven't had something great or memorable since Ennio Morricone's work on "The Mission."  Challenge accepted.

As on most of my lists and editorials found on my website's blog and archive, I need to offer my criteria first.  If someone is going to sling around adjectives like "greatest" and "ever," they need to offer reasoning.  Here's how I look at the qualifications to be on this list.

  1. To be a great movie score, the music has to be memorable and be an indelible reason that makes the film it represents memorable as well.  Sure, some lesser known films and hidden gems can have great musical scores, but the greatest come from truly great films.  This list will feel populist, but sometimes the music was a key factor to make them popular.
  2. To be a great movie score, the music has to be a full body of work that weaves itself into the entire movie.  Any good composer with a piano, some brass, or a string section can nail a good opening credits and/or closing credits piece.  That's not enough.  That's the movie music equivalent of a one-hit wonder where the rest of the album is weak and forgettable.  A great score fills an entire film and has the range to maintain its presence, tone, and ambiance.
  3. To be a great movie score, the music has to be a trailblazer or watershed for the genre itself.  Too many movie scores are repetitive, plain, or simple when compared to each other.  Uniqueness is important.  Great movie scores stand out for their uniqueness and success with the first two items of criteria. 

With those requirements, let's get this started.  Here's my official list of my top 10 movie scores with three unbreakable ties.  I can't call them the "greatest," but I'll put my list next to anyone's and defend my choices.


1)  John Williams- The "Star Wars" trilogies-- The AFI didn't get this one wrong and neither will I.  There is, simply, no movie score more memorable, more richly developed, and more iconic than the multiple themes of this body of work.  John Williams is the unquestioned best film composer in history and won't be caught by anyone anytime soon.  The man has 49 Oscar nominations, second only to Walt Disney himself.  Within the "Star Wars" trilogy, everyone remembers "The Imperial March" and "The Force Theme," but dive deeper and you'll find strong softer themes like "Princess Leia's Theme" and "Yoda's Theme" that make this a complete masterpiece from high to low and top to bottom.  Even Williams' more divergent work on the new prequel trilogy's scores are still strong.  That "Duel of the Fates" finale from "The Phantom Menace" is big, bold, and ballsy.

2)  John Williams- The "Indiana Jones" trilogy-- Get used to the John Williams drum being beaten.  He's the best for a reason.  If "Stars Wars" is #1 for most memorable, detailed, and iconic, this one is easily #2 or even #1B.  This score is instant ambiance, instant excitement, and instant perfection.  Its themes grouped in suite form are incredible and flow so well together.

3)  John Williams- "Superman"-- This heroic work rounds out the "Holy Williams Trinity" of my three highest ranked movie scores of all-time.  Williams is known for his marches and the main theme of "Superman" is as good as the main theme of "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" above it.  For goodness sake, the film score musically almost speaks the word "Superman" with its crescendo.  What gives this score the necessary complete work is its deeply romantic "Love Theme" that sweeps you away from the marching action and surrounds you with decadent romantic energy.  Thanks to that grand love theme and the other in-between cues, this film score is bigger than just the best opening credits sequence of music ever.  It's so good, when they tried to bring back Superman to modern movies in 2006 with "Superman Returns," composer John Ottman couldn't top Williams' theme and used it in the movie instead of original work.  Only Hans Zimmer's drum-centered work on "Man of Steel" has dared to veer away from the legend.  

4)  Jerry Goldsmith- "Rudy"-- I'm going to ruffle some traditionalist feathers and step to something different after the Holy Williams Trinity above #4.  This is a smaller film from a smaller composer, but, outside of the obvious Top 3, I cannot name a better film score that perfectly matches a film's tone moment-for-moment the way this one does for my second rule of criteria.  Goldsmith knows exactly when to slow things down with that soft collegiate flute, when to extract drama with build-up, and when to nail the big moments.  All of it fits the film's setting and plays a huge part to what makes it such a beloved film.  Take it away and the movie is a shell of itself.  Chances are you've possibly heard the "Rudy" theme more in trailers for other films (including "Good Will Hunting") than maybe "Rudy" itself.  

5)  TIE: Bernard Herrmann- "Psycho" and "Vertigo"-- This tie encapsulates the trailblazer criteria clause for this list.  "Psycho" was, at the time, solid and experimental stuff from an old veteran in Herrmann.  Those murderous squealing strings from the infamous shower scene will make your hair stand up to this day.  Beyond that riff, there's more if you listen.  The title sequence sets up a feverish chase underscore of suspense that lingers longer than the shower scene throughout the movie.  With "Vertigo," it's all about the perfectly constructed centerpiece of the "Scene d'Amour," which is the peak of a solid full suite.  

6)  John Williams- "Schindler's List"-- The last entry from John Williams on this list of greatness is his steepest departure from what made him famous.  Putting huge soaring themes aside, Williams collaborated with world class violinist Itzhak Perlman to provide an intimate, heartbreaking, yet proud and stoic background for one of the most difficult films you'll ever watch.  The two made beauty where so little beauty could be found.   The ethereal spirit of this music elevated the film.

7)  Danny Elfman- "Batman"-- With apologies to Hans Zimmer's extremely good modern take of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," I find myself matching what Seth Rogen explained to Zac Efron in "Neighbors," by saying "Michael Keaton is my Batman" and so is Elfman's music over Zimmer's.  Batman has been lucky to have great music in every media incarnation from TV to video games.  Elfman's brassy and gaudy score captures this dark hero's atmosphere perfectly.  This was an instant classic from 1989 that has stood the test of time and even imitators since.

8)  Michael Giacchino- "Up"-- Disney classics could fill their own list of great movie music.  From a score standpoint, one of their newest is one of the best ever, in my opinion.  Relative newcomer (and now Oscar winner for this very film) Michael Giacchino was known mostly for driving the twisted suspense of TV's "Lost" before he went Hollywood with stylish work on Disney/Pixar's "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," and "Up."  Really good movie music stokes your emotions.  Great movie music stirs those emotions even higher and stops you in your tracks.  The early "Married Life" montage in "Up" paints as glorious a picture of character and emotional investment as any four minutes and change in any family film.  Wordless and paced solely by Giacchino's music, the film score from that scene sets the tone of tones and extends throughout the other cues and moments in the film.  It's beautiful stuff.

9)  TIE: John Barry- "Dances With Wolves" and "Out of Africa"-- When it comes to big widescreen epic films set in historic and exotic places for film scores, everyone goes to straight to Max Steiner's "Gone With the Wind" and the Maurice Jarre twin-bill of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago," and rightfully so.  Those three are huge works (preludes, interludes, and all) in great films, but I think John Barry's work in the 1980's that came after those classics is better.  I couldn't decide between "Out of Africa" and "Dances With Wolves," so both are included.  Both are sprawling scores in the epic style but hold back from blasting the screen away.  Both scores have a powerful romantic backbone that soften the need to be grandiose all the time like Steiner and Jarre. 

10)  TIE: James Horner- "Braveheart" and "Legends of the Fall"-- Even though he can be repetitive and unoriginal (see my comments on "Titanic" in the next section), James Horner is still an excellent film composer who makes masterful work.  If he wasn't recycling his own work so much, this tie would be higher.  Just like Barry, I personally cannot choose between "Braveheart" and "Legends of the Fall."  Both are on repeat all the time in my personal collection.  Both film scores use poignant strings coupled with that signature Japanese wood flute (before it became overplayed on "Titanic") and other woodwinds.  "Legends of the Fall" is an underrated, eclectic, and fiddle-driven gem from a smaller and quieter setting.  If you don't remember the score or forget the film, give it a listen.  On a bigger scale, "Braveheart" is the perfect modern dramatic epic score that is built to win Oscars.  It combines equal parts spectacle with majestic beauty.    


Here's where I critique and downgrade some all-time classics that everyone else loves, but I don't adore to the same level.  I already covered "Gone With the Wind," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Dr. Zhivago," so I'll add some more that just miss.  All of these selections below are great in their own right, but not the greatest.  They are all flawed by my criteria.

Howard Shore- "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy-- If there was a #11, this would be it.  Like Williams' great works, all the depth, range, and themes are all here.  I just chose to prop up singular efforts like "Batman," "Up," and "Rudy" instead according to my personal tastes.  Believe me, Shore's work came real close to unseating Jame Horner.  Everyone remembers the Hobbit/Shire theme, but dig deeper for equally good pieces like "Evenstar."  His work on the new "Hobbit" trilogy is equally impressive.

Alan Silvestri- "Back to the Future"-- If there was a #12, this would be it.  Fun and energetic, Silvestri's work stirs every piece of this movie's action and feel and improves the film entirely.  It's so good from theme to background.  It is instantly memorable.

Ennio Morricone- "The Mission"-- For me, this is the most overrated so-called "great" film score.  Everyone loves it, but it puts me to sleep.  The oboe inclusion and instrumentation is lovely, but it's just not memorable enough and occupies a slow, forgettable film.  I apologize to Jack Black's entire character in "The Holiday," a film composer who loves all things Morricone, but I can't follow you on this one.  This is unmemorable dentist office waiting room music to me.

Nino Rota- "The Godfather"-- If you were to judge Rota's single sweeping "Love Theme" alone, it might be the single best movie score theme ever.  It's got power, sweep, depth, everything.  However, could you name a second signature piece from "The Godfather?"  Yeah, me neither, at least one that isn't a remix of the same central theme just in a waltz form or otherwise.  You can't say that about the Top 10.  They have two or more showstopper tracks. This is a perfect central theme backed by unmemorable support.  

John Williams- "Jaws"-- Sorry, but, like "The Godfather, one simple theme, no matter how memorable, great, and appropriate it is, is not enough to be really great.  This too lacks a supporting second signature piece.  

Add Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven," Bill Conti's "Rocky," Ennio Morricone's "The Good, Bad, and the Ugly," and any James Bond movie theme to that same "Jaws" and "Godfather" list of great movie scores overly defined by one single theme and not the entire work.

John Williams- "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial"-- Much like "Jaws," there wasn't enough.  Don't get me wrong.  This film's big musical sequence ending might be the biggest and best finale of all-time (equal to the finale of "Rudy"), but there's not enough in the rest of the film. The talent is there, but not the full breadth.

James Horner- "Titanic"-- This score sold a zillion CDs, but, musically, it's stolen and recycled from too many cues of Horner's better and earlier work.

Alex North- “Spartacus”-- As a classic, I adore the love theme and the sumptuousness a Hollywood outsider like Alex North brought to the work, but it doesn’t stand out quite enough all around.

Hans Zimmer- "Gladiator"-- This score makes a great many top lists including the ScreenJunkies.com one, but it falls short on mine.  It matches much of the criteria.  It has its memorable qualities and it positively fills the entire film with a full body of work.  However, I think some movie scores nowadays are tweaked too high and drown out the movie itself.  This one does that for me.  It's really good, but too overbearing and too much.  

I wish I could name a Hans Zimmer score for my top 10, but he just misses on so many really good scores.  It's not that I can't pick just one.  It's that, as described by "Gladiator," sometimes it's too much.  He's the Derek Jeter of film composers.  He'll go down as having accumulated a great career, but never stands out for any single one thing.  Make no mistake, outside of the senior master John Williams, he's the best and hardest working film composer today.  He's been doing the biggest and best projects for years.  It's a crime that a second Oscar after “The Lion King” has eluded him all these years since his early Bruckheimer/Bay scores from films like "The Rock" and "Crimson Tide."   After branching out from the pure action stuff, no two scores of his are alike and he uses new and excitingly original techniques with each new film he works on.  His range includes the drums of "Man of Steel," the rawness of "The Dark Knight" trilogy, the electronic components of "Inception," the cuteness of romantic comedies like "As Good As It Gets," and even family-friendly fare like "Kung Fu Panda" and "Megamind."  His brand new work on "Interstellar" might be one more step closer.  Still, he's never made a slam dunk, without-a-doubt, true great one yet.    

Thomas Newman- "The Shawshank Redemption"-- Lastly, thanks to the grass roots popularity of this film to make it the redemptive all-time classic it is now, its musical score gets a lot of airplay.  It's memorable only due to the repetition of the movie itself, but not to the quality of the music.  To me, it has opposite the problem of "Gladiator."  The music is very good, but too subtle and not memorable enough.  The same goes for the older classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" with music composed by Elmer Bernstein.  It too is beautiful and properly light for its subject, but not quite memorable enough.