10 Composers, 10 Great Movie Themes

Recently I decided to expand my horizons beyond the visual artistic merits of video games into the thematic scores, looking specifically at the soundtracks from last 20 years and selecting a range of tracks that had a personal, subjective impact on me. This led to the inspiration to delve out beyond gaming and decide upon my own personal top ten movie soundtrack themes, a more traditional subject matter but one considerably more challenging both due to the depth and range of the choice available by composer to consider in contrast to a more limited range of noteworthy video game scores. Whilst, it is relatively easy to select the bigger more, renowned themes and scores the joy of this personal challenge was to actually listen to some of these pieces once more and try and decide why this was important to me and what impact it had upon me then and now.

As before in my previous list the only limitation I placed on my selections was to restrict myself to one theme per composer. On certain selections of course this was an easier task but as mentioned due to the size and scope of the body of work of each composer this posed a far more, enjoyable challenging list to compile. The purpose of the restriction of course to avoid familiarity and repetition to a degree but mainly to challenge myself to consider a greater body of music, which to a large degree has worked as looking at the various scores has provided a vast range of music to consider. As an intended consequence, a broad list but one that covers a large period of time, genres and musical styles given their own unique qualities and practises during the soundtrack process. These tracks aren’t presented in a rank, order, no weight or preference given to their merit only that each track has had an impact on me subjectively, to a degree over the course of my life as I have grown with access to these musical treats. So, here I present my personal top 10 movie soundtrack themes.

John Williams: Superman Main Title

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A wealth and abundance of riches, choosing a single piece from this composer whose scores are as renowned as the worlds he brings to life in his compositions was daunting prospect. A number of his tracks have had a different impact on me as I have grown up and become aware of the impact he alone has had on the cultural resonance. In my youth, I would have perhaps chosen the more simplistic and festive score from Home Alone, one of the earliest movies I recall seeing at the cinema in my  youth. Equally the more bombastic score of Jurassic Park a fond memory. Perhaps echoing traits of his contemporaries but subjectively I would argue perhaps to a lesser degree you presume to know the work of John Williams based on certain stylistic choices be they orchestral, grand and bombastic in nature with a strong central narrative but unlike the work of James Horner which on occasion tended to repeat certain riffs in his other work, there is a strong individuality and measure to all his soundtracks that work, almost as their own character in the films they inhabit.

Quite simply, the score to Superman, specifically the main central theme had a significant impact on audiences across the generational gap, from those who witnessed the spectacle on the silver screen to the impact of the main theme that has resonated across the decades and continues to permeate in the present day. Arguably, one of the negative impacts on the reason push to present a more grounded, ‘realistic’ world view with a darker more base theme in the rebooted franchise was the loss of the optimism and positivity found in the central theme. Perhaps no longer pertinent or appropriate in the modern climate and prism we view these heroes and characters through, I would position that level of positivity is a lost commodity. The ideology of Superman as a character has been discussed and dissected to a great degree, as to his true nature and reflection of the society he lives and exists. Quite simply, and perhaps a naive interpretation whilst Superman has always been perhaps a less nuanced character in terms of depth and believability, he is the personification of the ideals and values as a society you can only aspire to. This score, the positivity that radiates, the energy that carries through in its entirety I would argue makes it one of the finest compositions of John Williams.

John Barry: Out of Africa Main Title (I had a farm in Africa)

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A composer best known perhaps for his legacy and connection to the James Bond franchise, like many of his contemporaries his scores tend to have a thematic connectivity on occasion. As a great fan of the Bond franchise it would have been quite an easy decision to go in this direction but there was another score that I’ve decided to praise, one that I heard and enjoyed at a young age and continue to appreciate to this day with a growing fondness and respect, an orchestral score that is both melodic, powerful and moving eliciting nothing but a purely joyful and positive state and that is the opening theme from Out of Africa. Using a similar structure to the Bond theme, the opening bars build up before giving way to the large orchestral score and images of the African plains. This of course, on its own merits is a fabulously moving piece but of course this is before the main score begins with the sweeping strings and brass sections creating a truly great theme for a classic movie of which the soundtrack by John Barry plays a crucial and impactful part.

Why I’ve always had a respect for John Barry as a composer is the stylistic approach he took to his orchestration when given the opportunity, shown both here and the other track I had considered, the 007 theme as composed for the From Russia with Love soundtrack scored a number of years later. Using a similar style of building up gradually before the main orchestra kicked up. In truth, there was very little to differentiate, perhaps the sole deciding factor being as with other musical scores the 007 theme very specifically fits a more action oriented narrative which taken out of context and on its own merits whilst a stirring piece of music lacks a little of its punch. The Main Title theme from Out of Africa has a far greater serenity and movement to it, an impactful introduction sequence which is a genuinely beautiful piece of composition in its own merits before transitioning into the more traditional John Barry style of scoring with the brass and strings movement progressing towards the end. A great composition.

Basil Poledouris: Starship Troopers Klendathu Drop

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A sound and score of a defined era, like Horner and Barry there are elements of familiarity when listening to the compositions of Basil Poledouris, most noticeably the use of brass and strings so prominent in each of the soundtracks. I’ll admit with certain composers it was only as I grew older and began to appreciate these scores beyond the initial impact of the movies that I began to realise they came from the composer quite simply for the differences in the narrative themes. With Basil there are certain beats you begin to recognise, a familiarity in his work that is both enjoyable and moving in his work. One of my guilty pleasures of recent years was the sequel to Under Siege which, despite its many arguable faults had a fantastic score, one I would eagerly and willingly go to see live in some shape or form. Given the generally negative view and reception to the movie despite gaining a certain cult status in recent years this is one occasion where I have to detach the movie solely the soundtrack and appreciate the score on its own positive merits.

It was his score and indeed one of the first CD’s I owned and brought with my pocket-money, the score from Starship Troopers that really had the biggest arguable impact on my appreciation of cinematic and movie scores. As with the movie it was based on the music is generally militaristic in nature and suits the brass overtones quite perfectly. The Klendathu Drop theme is the personification of his style of work, bold, loud, a strong strings and brass overlay fluctuating in the positive and powerful as it plays before subsiding towards the end although the central theme permeates throughout. It has echoes perhaps of the Robocop theme, not necessarily in terms of the specific beats but just a general familiarity. When you listen to and appreciate these scores there is of course a connection between a certain specific scene and the music that plays over it, this theme revolves around revenge, passion, anger and pride, strong emotions and connections that are familiar and recognisable. Whilst certain elements of the soundtrack echo the film’s approach of shining a bright light on overt nationalism and patriotism, this track and theme in its own merits is quite simply a powerful and lifting musical sound.

James Horner: Clear and Present Danger Main Title

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In certain selections, I have attempted to approach the task with a certain measure of objectivity, to repress the temptation to just marvel and celebrate well-known and triumphant scores at the expense of more refined and superior scores. I’ll readily admit when it comes to this composer and his repertoire of orchestrations, the soundtrack to Clear and Present Danger and indeed the motion picture in general is one of, if not my own personal favourite film of all time with an accompanying score to fit a movie of its stature. A composer known for often lifting and using scores across his soundtracks, certainly there are echoes of his other compositions, most notably rifts from Aliens in part but with a strong enough identity of its own that sets it apart from his other works. In contrast to the more ethereal tones of its predecessor which certainly had an influence from its Irish setting, whilst there are certainly hints of the Latin American in the general score, the overwhelming and dominant motif is of America.

A rousing, patriotic, bombastic and anthemic score and that best describes the opening track let alone the soundtrack in its entirety. Like the best compositions I’ve listened and heard, as a single piece there are different riffs and themes that play during the course of this track, an entire narrative from the opening solo brass sections to the slower melodic strings, the continual percussion of the drums that play in the background to the bells that erupt and signal the onset of a different tonal shift. Tracks such as these are always a pleasure to listen to with the different elements used and utilised, thematically how the track shifts from the positive, to the bold, the downbeat, the calm to the rousing. Within the context of the film of course there is a reason for this of course however taken out and listened to on its own merits it’s a smart, well written and beautiful piece of music to listen to.

Patrick Doyle: Carlito’s Way Remember Me

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Another great British composer, perhaps not gaining as much credit or recognition in comparison to his other contemporaries but still a great presence and creator of some iconic scores and themes in their own right. It was his composition for the movie Carlito’s Way that had an impact on me when I first saw this film, relatively recently in comparison to other works but still a moving and memorable soundtrack incorporating a full orchestral style to chart passage of emotional transition in such a short space of time. The opening high-pitched violins giving way to the other strings creating a moving and impactful sound. One of the issues with selecting a great musical theme that happens to feature on a soundtrack is the issue when it’s hard to differentiate the track from the film, a great track will stand on its own merits, in my subjective opinion this does.

Predominantly or almost entirely a strings based composition the contrasting pitch between the themes that play during the piece almost an octave apart creating a range of emotional resonance as the track nears its conclusion. Melodic, well written with a depth of sound despite the absence of brass its a moving piece of music to listen to. By happenstance, a number of years later when watching the second reboot of the Jack Ryan series and listening to its stirring and moving finale piece ‘Ryan, Mr President’ again predominantly orchestrated on the strings to reach its grand finale there was a certain connection to the same style. In contrast to the finale from the first film this had a rousing and uplifting crescendo of sound and style elevating the audience and listener on this occasion to a positive and motivational place. Purely, for the impact and purity of the score from Carlito’s Way would be the reason I go with the Remember Me theme. There is no, positivity to this track only a sense of closure both fittingly as the finale of this great film but also as a whole from the narrative of the track.

John Murphy: Sunshine Surface Of The Sun

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Quite often a well written piece of music transcends its source material and becomes more well-known than its origin. This is very much the case with this track, a score written for a modestly budgeted relatively independent film called Sunshine that became a grand and rousing anthemic track in its own merits. Now perhaps known for its use in cinematic trailers such as Days of Future Past and of course the announcement trailer for Civilization 6 both recognising the positivity and drive in this short, theme of music that builds and lifts towards its conclusion. There in of course lies the problem of over saturation and to an extent, arguably dilution of the impact of this piece now no longer synonymous with its original source but more a cross media orchestration and theme spanning genres and platforms.

Why this theme specifically resonated and seems to gain traction with a number of listeners I would argue is the simplicity of this piece, mainly strings with synthesized elements echoing in the background reflecting the science fiction aspect of the films universe building up gradually in scope and tone before subsiding to a confident and strong piano theme that carries on its own merits before the various elements escalate towards its conclusion. Fairly simplistic in style compared to the more bold orchestral pieces of other composers, none the less it has discovered an audience beyond its source material, used selectively but a favoured go to piece for trailers to quickly emphasise a core message of a film. If the track itself has become over saturated in its use in recent years since the movies release this isn’t a fault I would necessarily attribute to its quality of repetition, more an appreciation of a uniquely uplifting piece.

 

Mark Isham: Spartan Suite

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of creating a list of this nature is the opportunity to rediscover and appreciate some less well-known scores and compositions, and composers, none more so than Mark Isham and for this selection the suite for Spartan that was released, for free on his website for a movie with a very modest budget that didn’t have a formal retail release which is a genuine shame as it has a truly unique sound that echoes the cold, desolate world of the films setting. It also has a unique character to it in contrast to some of his other more well-known movie scores such as Blade and Point Break however it was another of his late 90s works that did tempt me to consider which was the theme from October Sky. Each of these soundtracks in my opinion having its own, unique personality and tone, never a derivative note or riff that permeates between scores.

There is a central theme that runs the length of the piece however this is very much a composition theme that highlights the various melodies that plays throughout the film. I do appreciate the different elements and sounds that run and play at different stages built around the piano notes that play, contrasting well with the pipes and percussion that echos in the background. There is a slight, haunting melancholy to the theme that permeates, despite the escalation and energy always present that carries through the various sounds, be they brass, strings or percussion. Taken as a single piece it does well to showcase the accomplishments of the composer in approaching a fairly dark tonal film and bringing a different kind of energy to the equation. The films underlying message throughout is a continual push and drive to achieve a set destination, I would argue this is replicated in the musicals narrative, occasionally subsiding but never concluding until the final bars. A great, dark melody never sadly released or given greater awareness in the public eye beyond the movie it was written for.

Michael Kamen: What Dreams May Come Summerland (Painted Heaven)

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With a musical repertoire ranging from the bombastic horns of Die Hard to the synthetic challenging score of the first X Men film there certainly was a great deal to decide upon from a range of scores that have had an impact on me. Both the first two Die Hard movies were an instrumental element of the films alongside the cinematography on display but neither were especially memorable. In contrast the X Men score had a handful of memorable themes but not a consistent soundtrack for me personally. It was the release of the 1998 Robin Williams film What Dream’s May Come that had a deeper impact upon me when I first saw this film, marvelling at the visual style and the soundtrack score. A beautifully shot film with a rich tapestry of artistic styles, most memorably the use of oil colours almost as a visual filter, used to present one version of the afterlife, one of which is the score from Michael Kamen who penned a moving and striking soundtrack utilising a full orchestral suite, subjectively a greater level of depth fluctuating between the moving and uplifting to the more sombre and melancholic motives.

For a while this was a relatively easy choice to make, despite his wide body of work there was only one theme that came to mind when considering the best theme of Michael Kamen and that of course was the central main title theme from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, an incredible orchestral piece full of pomp and ceremony giving way to an even more iconic score with the reveal of the cliffs of Dover. I do find this a moving theme however it was another film that I came to appreciate and respect for its depth and conviction in exploring themes and ideas not typically explored or expanded on in traditional cinema. The theme taken from the emergence and acceptance of the afterlife has a melodic string basis which carries throughout the entirety of the piece. It has an air of maturity to it showing the progression of the composers work, whilst I did enjoy the bombastic almost nationalist score of Robin Hood, perhaps the composers most well-known theme beyond the grandeur, it’s the growth and maturity of this piece and the impact on the listener where this piece finds its strength.

Alan Silvestri: Castaway Opening Titles

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One of the more challenging composers to select from, whose body of work spanning a number of decades ranges from the genre defining to the more subdued and melancholy. Arguably, whilst the Back To The Future theme is perhaps more well-known and enduring it does, suffer to a degree from repetition and familiarity given its exposure in popular contemporary culture that continues to endure. Looking beyond that series, one of the great joys of compiling this list was the realisation of just how many films he had scored that had an impact in my youth. Flight of the Navigator another film scored by Alan Silvestri whose score and soundtrack are an integral part of its fabric and identity although to a degree has aged slightly worse than other films of that period. For the sheer, enduring legacy and impact upon me on which its orchestral arrangement inspiring a desperate state of loneliness and perseverance it of course had to be the main theme from Cast Away. Stylistically a contrasting piece in comparison to his other compositions it certainly has maintained a quality and consistency since its release in 2000.

Starting with a woodwind solo that is echoingly haunting before the strings begin to accompany there is such sadness and pathos to the score and yet, deservedly a beautifully composed track. The tonal pitch as the brass begins halfway creates a lovely contrasting sound that adds another layer of depth to this piece. Music, when well crafted and composed has the power and strength to elicit a range of emotions, from the positive and moving to, on occasion the reflective and contemplative. Why I highly rate this track is not only the quality of this piece, the narrative strength of being a musical piece that stands on its own merits and doesn’t necessarily come across as a soundtrack listing easily forgotten is the way it allows you to just stop and reflect. Of what that is relies entirely on the listener, on my part I have no reason to remember a life when I was stranded on a desert island thankfully.  It was a television show I remember watching that once played out the narrative everyone needs a moment to stop on occasion, to be themselves, lower their barriers and find their center. Why I love tracks like this is, it allows you to do just that.

Jerry Goldsmith: Star Trek The Motion Picture Main Title

When I was very young, I remember sitting in front of a small black and white television set in my parents loft to watch a strange show, a vision of the future that would come to have a profound and lasting impact to date. That being the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and the newly launched sequel series the Next Generation whose opening score was a variation of the Main Title theme from The Motion Picture. Whilst other composers scored the episodes and series through it’s run it was the opening titles I remember vividly as I grew up the main title theme that, like the Superman theme at the start of this article resonates in both its positivity and inspiration to me personally. Perhaps fans of the original series in its original incarnation may have been dejected or even put off by this change in direction on first witnessing The Motion Picture in contrast to the more melodic and ethereal sound of the Original Series credits. Certainly in their own way they are as well-known if not more so than the Motion Picture theme and certainly have prevailed into the new motion picture franchise beyond the score of Jerry Goldsmith.

It’s somewhat difficult to discuss objectively when a musical theme has a profound impact on you subjectively, the enthusiasm, the hope of a single track, the opening composition and bars that give way to a grand orchestral score. The strong use of brass with the strings elevating the sound to a more grand platform. There are many positive aspects to this theme and as far as I am concerned very few if any faults or criticisms. Perhaps a degree of repetition in comparison to more recent scores. But like the early work of John Williams who scored bold, distinct tracks and main themes, the Motion Picture and Next Generation march is a solid, complete track, requiring little to no knowledge or fore site of what it applies to visually. As with the great rousing themes of Sousa for example, you can sit back and enjoy the energy and release from this track, envisioning an optimistic future to live towards.

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