Thursday, June 21, 2012


What is it, Lawrence, that attracts you to the desert?

Its clean.

I'm a big fan of movie soundtracks. The best of them are often modern classical music, with movie studios acting as the same kind of patron as Mozart and Bach had to support their lives as composers. There are terrible soundtracks, of course, but often they're the best part of a movie. For example, the film King Arthur was mediocre in my opinion, but has a fantastic soundtrack.

However, in most movie soundtracks, there's a theme song, the song that is most associated with the film and sets the tone. For example, the Batman theme from the 1989 film, by Danny Elfman was stirring and memorable.

Little did we know that's pretty much all Danny Elfman had to offer for soundtracks, and he's repeated it a dozen times or so afterward. Related is the modified theme used for the Batman Animated Series.

A song like this instantly reminds you of the film and when you see the movie it is welded into your memory, particularly if the intro is as effective as the Batman movie was, with the monolithic batman symbol as the music rolled, building slowly.

The most recent Batman movies had a somewhat similar theme, at least it invoked some of the feel of this song, and was even more powerful. Here's a blend of the theme as it was used in the first two movies:

This one is done by Hans Zimmer, who is a very talented and skilled composer used in many movies these days. Like most, though, he has very similar themes you pick up on if you listen to many of his songs together.

And these theme songs are so powerful they instantly remind you of the movie, of what you enjoyed about it, and what makes you like the characters and the story. Some are so powerful they've become cultural icons that are recognizable world wide.

So here's my choices for top ten movie themes of all time, the best, most powerful, most memorable songs that have been used in movies that I just love to hear and react most powerfully to. The list, in order:

10: Casablanca. You know this song even if you don't remember it from the movie, because the first few bars of this song are what they play behind every single Warner Brothers film when they show the WB credits. By Max Steiner, who wrote... just about every theme song you know from the 40s and 50s. Notice when he folks La Marseillaises into the theme, evoking the most powerful, emotional scene in the film in my book. And of course, "As Time Goes By."

9: King Arthur. Haunting and beautiful. The entire soundtrack is amazing, and I highly recommend it. Liten to it loud. Again, Hans Zimmer

8: The Godfather. What a pretty, evocative song, it just reminds you of Italy... and bloody mob wars. Just hearing a little reminds me of the movies. Called "Speak Softly, Love" by Andy Williams, it has become classic.

7: The Sting. A simple ragtime bit called "The Entertainer" by the brilliant Scott Joplin, you hear a few bars and remember the whole film.

6: Chinatown. Bleak and noir to the core, this movie is about hopelessly trying to fight for what is right against an evil that always seems out of reach. One of the best films of all time, with such a powerful theme song that just oozes cigarette smoke, bourbon from the desk drawer, and the time period.

5: The Pink Panther. Mancini's finest hour, a terrific, whimsical song that fits the movies perfectly and makes me think of those animated credits. Little known trivia: the "pink panther" refers to a fabulous diamond, in the first movie.

4: Magnificent Seven. Just about the most perfect movie ever made, this theme by Elmer Bernstein grabs you the instant it start out and never lets go. There's word Tom Cruise is working on a remake of this movie. Please, just don't.

3: James Bond. This wasn't even going to be the main theme but when Broccoli heard it, he had to use it instead of what was initially going to be the song. Now the whole world knows this means James Bond. This is actually just the theme song for Dr No, but it became so associated with Bond its been used in every single film made to this date over 40 years later. Versions have been done by many people, including Moby, and various people have reinvented it, including this metal version.

2: Indiana Jones, of course. This theme is so powerful I can't help but smile. Its adventure, its fun, its entertainment, it pulls you back into the pulp era and everyone recognizes this song. Called the "Raiders March" and, yes, its John Williams.

1: Obviously, Star Wars. Just that exploding initial chord is enough to remind me of the fun of these movies. John Williams is simply wonderful.

And here are the theme songs that almost made it:
Pirates of the Caribbean. I really do like this song, and if I did top 11, it would have made it. Just a terrific theme by Hans Zimmer, again. Although when you listen to the song on its own, it sounds... too fast.
Chariots of Fire. Again, one of those songs you hear and remember the film so strongly. By Vangelis, the original synth version doesn't work as well as the orchestral, for me at least.
Blade Runner. Vangelis again. The whole soundtrack is great, parts that feel just out of the 40s mixed with sci fi and noir. A tough combo, but he pulled it off. Just a masterpiece of a movie. This is actually the end titles, the main theme is a strange, moody piece that fits the film well but isn't as memorable.
LinkPhantom of the Opera. Although technically a play first, this movie had the same music, and although its sappy and difficult to watch, it is really pretty and Emmy Rossum is one of the prettiest girls I've ever seen in my life.
2001. This is not really a movie theme at all, but it was adapted to the film from Also Spracht Zerathustra Richard Strauss (yeah, the waltz guy). Yeah, the waltz guy
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Who can't like this song? It just reminds you of the dry, old west and it snaps like a whip. One of the chanted phrases in the song sounds like "red rope" though, and makes me think of the candy.
Gladiator. Although this movie doesn't have a specific main theme, the "battle theme" is the closest and its a fantastic piece (Hans Zimmer, although he seriously borrowed from Gustav Holst's "Mars" for one song. It made sense, given the setting, but he got sued by the Holst family).
Requiem for a Dream. Clint Mansell's main theme is appropriate for the movie, somewhat disturbing and unnerving but still beautiful.
Last of the Mohicans. "Promentory" is the name of the main theme, by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. It feels period and yet grandiose at the same time.
Halloween. John Carpenter's music is often quite similar, but he really hit it exactly right with this theme song (and the movie, which was the first of the "unkillable teenage slasher" movies).
Superman. This really was another great John Williams theme song that has been all but forgotten. The recent Superman returns movie was wise enough to use the same theme, and it did help tie them together.
Breakfast Club. Don't You Forget About Me... with that breakdown you're waiting for, the drums about 2/3rds of the way through. Middle aged folks around American all wait for that part and play air drums. The Simple Minds actually had a lot of good songs.
Sound of Music. Come on, everyone knows the song and it reminds you instantly of the movie, how cute Julie Andrews was, and all the great songs in it.
Lord of the Rings. Specifically, the Fellowship theme song by Herb Score. Great theme, very broad and soaring, but adaptable to a lot of different moods, such as Gandalf's death.
Harry Potter. The actual song is Hedgwig's Theme, used for the first movie, but it is the song that carries through the whole series, by John Williams, again. It just reminds me of the sweet happy first film and the first time you meet the kids, played so well by those young actors.
Psycho. Bernard Herman's chilling, jarring song that instantly reminds you of the film. Just hearing it is disturbing. This isn't the screaming violins murder song, its the main theme.
The Exorcist. This actually is a variant from a much longer piece called "Tubular Bells" by Michael Oldfield, adapatd for the movie. It sounds kind of pretty on its own but if you've seen the film it becomes ominous.
The Shining. For some reason, this theme played over the desolate looking bare forests of New England, so isolated and hollow looking is just spooky to me.
Rocky. The main theme from the first movie, with the horns, its one nearly everyone who has ever worked out and lifted weights has used. The actual song is "Gonna fly now" by Maynard Ferguson.
Robocop. By Basil Pouledoris, who wrote a lot of great movie soundtracks. The hammers, the driving theme, the sad sections, its perfect for the movie. Incidentally, he's not even a cop at the end of the movie - he's been fired!
Narnia. This is the theme from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by Henry Gregson-Williams. The whole soundtrack is marvelous (especially the battle scene).
The Dambusters. A march that invokes Pomp And Circumstance among others, this theme feels incredibly patriotic, British, and gung ho. As is appropriate for a feature-length tribute to men who fought and died for liberty and their homes. Eric Coates at his best.
Silverado. The main theme for this film is being used by Michael Medved for his theme song on his show, and its one of those instantly recognizable western themes. You may not even know the movie but you instantly can see horses, cowboys, six guns, and showdowns. In fact, nearly every western movie made has had a terrific theme song. A Bruce Broughton composition, who has mostly done video game themes.
High Noon. Another western song, sung by Tex Ritter (although I prefer the version by Frankie Laine). He doesn't mind dying so much, if only his true love will stay with him. And boy did she ever. Trivia: Lee VanCleef has no lines in the entire film. He silenly just looks dangerous and lean.
Jaws. John Williams again, with that lurking theme that builds and builds like something awful under the water you aren't aware of until its too late. Its not often a fish gets a theme song.
Superfly. Curtis Mayfield's "Freddy's Dead." Nobody was cooler, and nobody had a better theme song. Except maybe...
Shaft. The baddest private eye ever. He slapped around white cops and got away with it. The Wah Wah pedal was never used better than in this Isaac Hayes song.
The best of these themes evoke the whole film, like an overture for an opera. At the same time, they have to move, it can't just be one powerful non-stop force that drags you along because it has to tell a little story of its own, too. John Williams is the most brilliant at this, weaving other songs and character themes into the main title, and you get a feel for the whole film.

And a good movie theme song just puts you back in that theater seat seeing the credits for the first time. Its not just about the visual spectacle and the script. The music makes it come alive.


Jonathan Cook said...

Not Lawrence of Arabia? Especially after using that quote in the intro?

That's definitely on my list of the most evocative and memorable movie themes of all time.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I do like the theme, but its not instantly recognizable for most people, so it doesn't evoke the movie the way these songs do for me.

Dirtius Maximus said...

Richard Strauss is not "the waltz guy." That was Johann Strauss.