Way back in 1984, my Dad took me and my elder brother to see Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. I didn’t really know what to expect - at the time, I hadn’t seen the first Indy film - but Jones’ blend of all-action heroism and laconic wit quickly won me over.
Several things about that trip to the cinema stick in my mind. I distinctly remember not being able to take my eyes off the movie’s breathless 20-minute opening sequence and, later on, the look of disappointment on my Dad’s face when I asked him to take me to the toilet right in the middle of the white-knuckle mine cart scene. One of the things that struck me most, though, was John Williams’ stirring score.
I wouldn’t nominate the Indy theme as the greatest in film – I’ll get to my favourites shortly – but, perhaps because of the memories it brings back, it still has the power to set my pulse racing. Just hearing it playing over the trailer for the soon-to-be-released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was enough to convince me that the new movie will be worth watching.
Others, though, are less convinced of Williams’ talents – a discussion in the MusicRadar office led to him being described as both “The Status Quo of soundtracking” and “the most overrated film composer ever”.
It is true that some of his scores sound similar – I discovered this when I was a child, when I’d start off singing the Star Wars theme and inadvertently switch to the main riff from Superman – but I’d still wager that you can know more of his stuff than anyone else’s. Oh, and I’d also argue that nothing says ‘impending shark attack’ quite as well as Williams’ main Jaws motif.
If you’re looking for a truly great film composer, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to nominate Ennio Morricone. His score for Once Upon A Time In America is easily the most touching I’ve ever heard – I even chose parts of it to be played at my wedding reception – and his work on Brian De Palma’s film version of The Untouchables turned a good film into a great one. I’d put both of these on my list of favourites; in fact, Morricone has written so many great scores that he almost deserves a list of his own.
Going back a bit, I’d also suggest that Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven has achieved greatness (try singing the main theme with a mate, with one of you taking the rhythmic ‘bass’ part and the other covering the melody) and surely everyone reading this can hum a passable version of his theme from The Great Escape.
Other ‘Best Score’ nominations from the MusicRadar team include John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy (no one suggested his James Bond soundtracks, incidentally) and there were a couple of votes for Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver. Philip Glass’s name was mentioned twice, too – for his work on Koyaanisqatsi and The Hours – and everyone – Slash included – seems to love Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather.
If you’re looking for rock musicians who’ve written rather than butchered great scores, you could do worse than seek out Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood and Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero. Electronic musicians who’ve credibly written for film include Vangelis (Blade Runner), John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13) and Air (The Virgin Suicides).
Sadly, though, synthesized scores don’t always work – in fact, my nomination for 'worst score ever' may have to go to Harold Faltermeyer’s Beverley Hills Cop. The soundtrack album and lead single Axel F may have done swift business, but the score itself (which, thankfully, was never available to buy) has dated horribly. Faltermeyer also deserves to be exposed as the writer of the offensively bombastic Top Gun Anthem.
Let’s not focus on the dross, though – tell us what you think is the greatest ever film score. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about soundtrack albums here, so no Saturday Night Fever or Reservoir Dogs. We’ll save those for another time…
By Ben Rogerson