Film Scores : Cult Gems

A Spontaneous Curation of Great Movie Soundtracks

I love a good film. And let’s face it, most of the good films I love were made in the 1970′s, but that’s not important right now.

Once in a while I’m asked to compose some music for a film and since I love music and film, I usually jump at the chance. It’s a rewarding task but rarely an easy one. While creating a song can be a totally free and expressive process that can take you anywhere, composing music to picture is menaced with all sorts of variables to consider, like dialogue, moods, cues, etc. It’s a finicky little art, and one misplaced gong here or a goofy slide-whistle there and the whole scene is ruined — or it’s genius (Ladyhawke?).

So on the subject of soundtracks, I thought I’d share a few of the goodies from my collection — the ones that I pull from the old virtual milk-crate from time to time as inspiration or just good listening.

This little assemblage doesn’t include the obvious masterworks by the likes of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore and company. (Incidentally there’s a great little doc on Howard Shore here produced by my colleague Gerry Flahive: A Composer’s Dream) Sure, the Star Wars music is probably the most recognized and awesome-est score ever. It should have top billing with big bells on. Agreed. But what I am attempting to pull together here are some of the lesser-known or long forgotten gems, a dirty dozen if you will — the types of scores that you can put on shuffle along with The Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer at your next social without fear of the “Cantina Band” song making you look like a total nerfherder.

Now that you just remembered how the Cantina song goes….stop thinking about it right now.


Blade Runner

Vangelis, 1982

Let’s start with an easy one. Post-apocalyptic cyberpunk nerd-wellians have long lauded the utter genius of Vangelis’ moody, future noir score. His music adds the perfect texture to the film’s already claustrophobic mise-en-scène and beautifully captures the dreary, dreamy chaos of urban overpopulation. Somehow this soundtrack is as integral to the film’s atmosphere as the rain and steam and searching spotlights.

When I lived on the upper floors of an apartment building that overlooked Old Cabbage Town, I used to put on this soundtrack late at night, when the streets were wet, and imagine spinners hovering through the sky and skin jobs sleeping in the alleyway below. Yes, total nerd village. I’d fix myself a drink and say to myself cheerily, “They’re toys. My friends are toys. I make them.”

At least two official releases of the Blade Runner soundtrack have come out, along with a number of bootlegs. My fav is the definitive Esper Edition which became available in 2002.

You may also be tempted to check out the “reinterpretation” of the soundtrack by the New American Orchestra. Simply don’t. Don’t go there. There’s only one way to interpret the score and that’s with Vangelis playing his big old synthesizers. Woodwinds don’t cut it!

Mr. Jóhann Jóhannsson, you have your work cut out for you.

Other Vangelis goodies: Chariots of Fire (1981) and another personal fav, Opéra sauvage (1979)


The Long Good Friday

Francis Monkman, 1980

This movie score is about as bad-ass as it gets. It’s got all of the swagger of a late 70′s London gangster, living life in the fast lane, going all in, win or lose. The music was composed by Francis Monkman, a harpsichord virtuoso who also co-founded the new age prog rock band Sky along with the amazing John Williams (the classical guitarist John Williams, not the Star Wars John Williams).

The “Main Title” song speaks for the entire film — a rich, flashy, gold-rings-on-stubby-little-fingers-counting-dirty-money disco synthesizer masterpiece which compliments this preeminent British gangster film perfectly.

Side note: If you want see a young Pierce Brosnan prancing around in a Speedo showing off his “original” British teeth, this movie is for you.

Side side note: Is “Main Title” the most popular song title ever??


Nineteen Eighty-Four

Dominic Muldowney & Eurythmics, 1984

I don’t say this about many films, but damn I miss my VHS copy of this one. Not only did it have a certain desaturated, gloomy look to the cinematography, but it contained the (semi-) original Eurythmics score. I say “semi” because the actual original score was done by Dominic Muldowney however most of his contributions were nixed by the film’s financiers, Virgin, who wanted their own band, Eurythmics, to produce the music. While the film’s director Michael Radford went to town denouncing the move, I actually think it was a good one by the producers. The mix of both Muldowney’s “Oceania” theme and Eurythmics dark electronic pop give a certain muted hope to the film’s otherwise prevailing despair.

Unfortunately, the MGM DVD in North America did not contain the Eurythmics music (boo!) and as a further insult, the colour-timing of the film was restored to normal saturation levels (Roger Deakins, yes you’re a genius, but this was a dagger to the heart!!). I don’t have anything against Dominic Muldowney’s full score, it’s just that it’s so traditional…it kind of stands in the back doing not much.

Be warned, the official Eurythmics release “1984 (For the Love of Big Brother)” is not the actual soundtrack to the film — it contains mostly thematic pop songs that are not part of the score, making it more of a hybrid pop/movie album, and not a very great one at that. Similarly, Muldowney’s official release, “Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Music of Oceania” is his music only and doesn’t contain any Eurythmics.

So if you want the best of both worlds, the only way to experience the soundtrack the way it was in the original theatrical release is to find a VHS copy….and dust off your old top-loader VCR! Or, according to wikipedia, the UK DVD release actually does have the theatrical soundtrack AND the desaturated colour — doubleplusgood!

And just for fun:


Commando

James Horner, 1985

As far as cheese-ball action flicks go, this one was like Citizen Kane to me. It was my “rosebud” — as much a part of that lost suburban boyhood as my BMX, my firefly skateboard, and my Millennium Falcon toy. I watched it religiously until all of the lines were committed to memory, swapping it out only now and then with one of the other venerable classics: The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), or Bloodsport (1988). I can still recall with instant gratification those melodic steel drums, those scorching saxophones, those tussling flutes and horns all hot and angry as the invincible and unintelligible John Matrix runs Sully down on a dark deserted road.

“Remember when I said I’d kill you last, Sully?” Hell yes I remember! Like it was yesterday….

The soundtrack was composed by heavyweight James Horner, most noted for his work on James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), but also for the heart-pounding Aliens (1986) score. Next time you need a hit of high-octane “macho bullshit”, throw this puppy on and kick into high gear. The steel drums won’t disappoint.

Note the last track, “We Fight For Love” by The Power Station, sans Robert Palmer.


O Lucky Man!

Alan Price, 1973

This is possibly the craziest movie ever made, and also one of my all time favourites. A young Malcolm McDowell plays, among other roles, a naive coffee salesman whose ambition to “make it” sends him on an absurd odyssey rife with oddball characters and bizarre situations. Chocolate sandwich, what??

Alan Price (of The Animals fame) was not only the composer of the music, but also plays a role in the film as a musician, at times appearing on-screen as a singing narrator. His 70′s rock score blurs the line between the diegetic and non-diegetic, and you never quite know whether the music is part of the soundtrack or part of the scene. To further the absurdity, Price also produced many of the songs before filming even began. Mad!

“Smile while you’re makin’ it;
Laugh while you’re takin’ it;
Even though you’re fakin’ it;
Nobody’s gonna know….”

Right? Price also composed music for the 1982 followup Britannia Hospital (also completely bizarre!).


Babel

Gustavo Santaolalla, 2006

Okay, this isn’t exactly one of the “lesser-known” movie scores. Two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla created the score and also produced the soundtrack in which he features prominently and lends his famous “Iguazu” song — the song that must be used in the trailer of every Hollywood film that is set in the Middle East!

Personally, I’ve created a separate playlist that is only Santaolalla’s music for a more consistent listening experience. I love the sparseness of his compositions; how they drift one into the next like dry lonely winds over a muscular desert plain. The acoustic voyage is a moody one, contemplative, spiritual. Good music to write to.

If one day I find myself chained to a tree and left for dead in the middle of some desert, this is the music I expect to hear as I begin to hallucinate that little dwarfs are trying to poke holes in my canteen.


A Clockwork Orange

Walter/Wendy Carlos, 1971

Oh bliss! From the opening note of the title music, you’re pulled into Wendy Carlos’ dizzying electronic world. This is future classical — an assortment of symphonic movements re-imagined through little wires and transistors and doohickeys.

Only Wendy (previously Walter) could compliment a Beethoven masterpiece with such technological wonder, playing the “Ninth” through a modular Moog synthesizer the size of a small washing machine. Even the vocals (sung by Rachel Elkind) were put through a vocoder — long before Air and Daft Punk made it popular!

What I love about this soundtrack is how it puts the synthesizer front and center, emphasizing a strange future London — an ultramodern society threatened by moral decay and roving youth gangs clad in bowler hats and big white jockstraps. Real horrorshow!

“Timesteps” is the only completely original Carlos composition in the film. It appears in its entirety on the “Walter Carlos’ Clockwork Orange” album, but is excerpted for the official “Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange” soundtrack. My recommendation is to pick up the former — it’s all Carlos and none of the boring old Pomp and Circumstance….


Solaris

Cliff Martinez, 2002

Truth be told I’m not a big fan of the 2002 Solaris remake by Steven Soderbergh. Sure it looks nice and works well enough as your basic sci-fi fair, but it lacks completely the existential brilliance of Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic.

Narrative aside, Cliff Martinez’ score is the real shining light here. While Kubrick chose Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” as the soundtrack to the vastness of space, in “First Sleep”, Martinez goes for a more haunting, primal sound — a repetitive tone, mechanical in nature, almost like a pulsing distress beacon drifting through space. This is what cosmic background radiation sounds like. This is the soundtrack to bad hypersleep. If I heard this music on my way to some troubled spaceship, I’d turn around and go home right away. Mission aborted!

Check out another classic: Drive (2011) featuring Martinez’ dreamy score alongside the electro-pop works of Kavinsky, College and Chromatics.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, 2007

Despite not being made in the 70′s, this movie is simply a masterpiece. Every element of it exceeds — the muted cinematography (Deakins), the bleak production design, the brooding performances, and of course, the pensive score.

Produced by longtime Aussie music collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the music is as absorbing as the story, underscoring the wintry, brown yesteryear of the Northern Plains with somber piano melodies and drawling violins. The sound is somehow authentic to the muddy, horse-drawn way of life, each untuned note conjuring up images of wagon wheels, whiskey barrels and old-time bicycles. Overall, a great soundtrack for your next whittling party.

2007 was a (rare) great year for cinema, but I’m thoroughly disappointed that this title didn’t make the Academy’s Best Picture list. Doubly-so that the score wasn’t nominated either, and yet, 3:10 to Yuma??


Midnight Express

Giorgio Moroder, 1978

It would somehow be wrong to leave out the great synth pioneer, Giorgio Moroder, from this list of soundtrack gems after so many fantastic contributions to the world of film music (and of course disco!). It was a tough choice, contending between the likes of Scarface (1983) and Flashdance (1983), not to mention the iconic theme from The Neverending Story (1984). But in the end, it’s really the music of Midnight Express that put Moroder on the map in the film world, garnering him the Academy Award in 1979.

While the “Theme from Midnight Express” presents a perfectly serene, dreamy electro-pop ballad, it’s really the first track, “Chase”, that gets you hooked. And it’s all in the bass — a fast moving synth riff that raises the blood-pressure, dilates the pupils, and makes you feel like you’ve got something to hide. Hopefully it isn’t 2kg of hashish, and you’re not in Turkey. The melody is so addictive it gets stuck in your head for days and the only way to get it out is to replace it with the “Cantina Band” music from Star Wars.

One of the best “Chase” covers is actually performed with an Oud — check it out: DuOud

Moroder has had considerable influence on the disco, dance and electronic music movements over the past fifty years. He even has his own luxury sports car, the Cizeta-Moroder V16T. Which may or may not beg the question, does John Williams have his own luxury sports car??


A few other gems:

Firestarter (1984) by Tangerine Dream

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) by Jack Nitzsche

The Terminator (1984) by Brad Fiedel

The Deer Hunter (1978) by Stanley Myers

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