Who doesn’t love a good film score?
Writing music for film is a true art form. At its best, film music enhances the story and fills the screen (and by extension, the viewer) with emotion. The actors and the lines provide the context, but the score is where the real emotion lies. It can make our hearts race with anxiousness, share in the triumph of the protagonist, feel the love between a couple, and so much more.
It is also a collaborative effort – a collaboration between the composer and the vision of the director. The best composers compliment the director’s action and drama on screen. Not calling attention to their work, but letting it work in tandem with each scene – perfectly balanced, as a certain mad Titan is prone to say.
A great score can also elevate the movie to heights the writer and director never dreamed. Even the pedigree of a categorically bad film is raised slightly because of the astounding amount of dramatic wind the music puts in the sagging story’s flimsy sails.
It may be a bit daring to say that film music can sometimes bring home the emotional theme to a story. In my personal experience, I have often had the spiritual theme to a film I’m reviewing revealed to me by remembering the music.
Over the past three months, I’ve enjoyed a free trial of Apple Music, the iTunes streaming service. It’s quite good with lots of variety. Not sure if I’m going to continue the service. But this trial enabled me to listen to a variety of film scores from some of my favorite composers. It really got me thinking about who the greatest composers are today.
So as a thought exercise, here’s my list of the ten greatest living film composers.
10. Randy Newman
While he started out in pop music with hits like “I Love L.A.” and “Short People,” Randy Newman brought his unique (and often lampooned) creative voice to film to great effect. Newman’s melodies have a sweetness to them like they’ve had all their edges sanded smooth. But like his popular songs, they have a deep mix of hope and melancholy hidden beneath the smoothness.
Newman’s greatest modern film collaborations have been with the talented folks at Pixar Animation Studios. Starting with Toy Story in 1995, Newman set the “Pixar sound” – a sweet sound that could be as tender and epic as necessary. His music enhanced the genuine emotion for which Pixar is most famous. The “When She Loved Me” sequence from Toy Story 2 is still one of the most heartbreaking in film history. And the ending of Toy Story 3 is cinematic perfection because of the emotional catharsis made palpable in Newman’s score. Newman also wrote the score and songs to one of my favorite modern Disney animated films, The Princess and the Frog.
9. Howard Shore
If one thinks of The Lord of the Rings films, no doubt the enchanting, epic, and sometimes haunting music of Howard Shore comes to mind. It’s arguably his magnum opus – as fantastical and powerful as the scores of any of the old masters of the medium. But it also has an intimate side, with many humble solo pieces, reflecting the smallness of the protagonists (quite literally, in some instances). The Rings scores are full of both hope and despair, helping the audience connect with the fantasy world and the characters.
Shore deserves a place on this list for his work on The Lord of the Rings alone (he even elevated the bloated Hobbit Trilogy with his music). But he is very prolific outside of Middle-earth. He has had decades-long collaborations with other notable filmmakers including David Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese. These films have a wide range – from large epics to strange science-fiction and horror to smaller dramas.
My two favorite non-Middle-earth scores of Shore’s were for Ed Wood and Spotlight. The former is a perfect compliment to Tim Burton’s tongue-in-cheek look at the worst purveyor of 1950s sci-fi schlock – complete with a bouncy rhythm and instrumentation using genre signatures like bongos, organs, and the delightfully eerie theremin. The latter is a quiet and powerful piano-centric score that only emerges above the action when needed for dramatic resonance, very reserved and sparing but effective.
8. James Newton Howard
If there was ever an unsung hero in today’s film scoring world, it would be James Newton Howard. He’s a stylistic chameleon, able to follow and duplicate the style of many of his contemporaries in sequels, including a few on this list. He has also picked up scores from other composers at the last minute and created some truly great work in not much time, such as the case with Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong.
Moreover, Howard’s scores are great at hitting the viewer directly in the emotional gut. In a matter of seconds, one understands exactly how the characters feel in the scene, and then Howard pours it on even more. The aforementioned King Kong is one of these scores. In the third the act, the music becomes the emotional center of the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow, which follows all the way to the tragic ending.
James Newton Howard’s best-known director collaboration is with M. Night Shyamalan. Howard’s emotional center is one of the reasons Shyamalan’s earlier films were so effective. The music gave the films and characters the added emotional depth that the script lacked. My favorite of these collaborations is Unbreakable, which gives the normally bombastic tone of superhero films a melancholic and tragic angle.
7. Danny Elfman
The eccentric of my group of favorites is definitely Danny Elfman. Originally the frontman for the 1980s experimental band Oingo Boingo, Elfman made the leap into film scores reluctantly and has since become one of the most iconic voices in the medium.
I can best describe Danny Elfman’s style as “crazy-gothic with a heart.” It’s an offbeat sound that still carries with it an emotional center. There’s an eerie, magical quality to Elfman’s best scores. It fills the viewer with wonder and a little dread all at the same time. He’s also capable of more traditional films scores – though I don’t think those scores are always his best work.
Elfman’s greatest collaboration has been with the equally eccentric Tim Burton – matching the gothic Burton’s weird and wild visuals with a musical grounding that is just as eccentric but accessible.
My three favorite Danny Elfman scores are all from Burton films and are very different: Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice. These are pure Burton/Elfman: raw, weird, and eclectic in composition and instrumentation, yet very different from one another. A very close fourth is The Nightmare Before Christmas – in which Elfman himself not only composed the score but wrote the songs and sang the part of Jack Skellington.
6. Hans Zimmer
This composer pretty much single-handedly changed modern motion picture scores, especially for action films. It seems that every low-level actioner these days has that “Hans Zimmer sound” – somewhat electronic in origin, relentless in its rhythm, dissonant and sometimes without melody, and full of raw emotion.
Most of Hans Zimmer’s best scores have a unique personality, yet still, retain that Zimmer sound. They often include interesting instrumentation choices, such as the relentless drums of Man of Steel or a hammered dulcimer for Sherlock Holmes. Zimmer isn’t afraid to use unconventional instruments or methods to achieve the sound he wants. He also takes advantage of frequent collaborations with other artists like pop star Pharell Williams.
His best current-day collaboration is with director Christopher Nolan, which began with 2005’s Batman Begins. Most of the Nolan scores are exceptional, especially The Dark Knight Trilogy (which was started by Batman Begins) and their latest collaboration, Dunkirk. Nolan knows exactly how to use Zimmer’s thundering, and sometimes overwhelming, musical bravado by maximizing its emotional gravitas with Nolan’s meticulously crafted visuals. And in some cases, the music creates the necessary emotion to endear it to the audience (which is often a criticism of Nolan’s films generally).
I have many favorite Hans Zimmer scores and it’s really hard to choose one or two. I think The Dark Knight Trilogy is probably my favorite, followed by Disney’s The Lion King. With the latter, Zimmer brought African chants into vogue and plucked singer Lebo M from obscurity to become the singer of one of the most famous openings in film history.
5. Alan Silvestri
Back to the Future. That’s all I would really have to mention for Alan Silvestri to make this list. But his credit list is long and diverse. He’s a master of many genres: adventure, drama, science-fiction, romance, and so on. Based on the range of his body of work, he seems to be a very amiable collaborator, able to work with many different filmmakers.
Silvestri’s best collaborations have been with director Robert Zemeckis. It is where all his most famous scores reside, including the aforementioned Back to the Future. Forrest Gump was another exceptional collaboration with Zemeckis; the film’s theme seems simple on the surface (much like the titular protagonist) but gradually becomes more rich and complex with the rest of the orchestra joining in.
What stands out in an Alan Silvestri score the most is his mastery of the strings section of the orchestra. In nearly every film he scores, there is a definite emphasis on strings to build emotion. My favorite is his trademark “tense strings” that really punch up a suspenseful scene. And it can be a dramatically or comically tense scene – like the difference between the climax in Back to the Future or Avengers: Infinity War. Both need tension, but the right kind of tension.
As with Hans Zimmer, I have a hard time choosing favorites among Alan Silvestri’s work. Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, and Roger Rabbit are delightful in different ways. Another close third is the music for Predator. It has a primal edge that emphasizes the action in a way few action scores do.
4. Michael Giacchino
This composer is profoundly talented and has done so much in such a short career when compared to the lengthy careers of the other luminaries on this list. He got his big break in video games, giving scores of games series like Medal of Honor a truly cinematic quality. He then moved on to TV and now film.
Giacchino’s best asset is that, like James Newton Howard, he’s a veritable musical chameleon – able to work in vastly different styles and genres. He’s also adept at adapting earlier works that blend in with the established sound of a film series. Giacchino has scored entries in some of the most profitable film franchises, yet retained the aural legacy of each: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Jurassic Park. This incredible ability has enabled Giacchino to follow franchises into television and video games. His versatility has enabled him to score unconventional things like theme park rides (Space Mountain at Disneyland, for example).
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in particular, was also an example of Giacchino’s brilliant speed – having been scored in a mere four-and-a-half weeks!
Giacchino’s original work has a definite sense of effervescent play with a pinch of mid-century pop, which is delightful to hear. His scores to The Incredibles films and Inside Out are among my favorites. The former recalls the work of John Barry (especially in the brass section) and the latter features eclectic instrumentation that is just as colorful as the visuals. The score of the much-maligned Tomorrowland definitely elevated the film. I didn’t much care for the film itself but loved the score enough to purchase it.
3. Thomas Newman
In terms of sheer emotional resonance, Thomas Newman is the tops. His scores are pure feels – wonderful and transcendent, with a little bit of mystery folded in. They seem to reach right into your heart and stick with you even when you’ve left the theater.
Thomas Newman is also known for his extremely dissonant melodies, punctuated by unusual instrumentation. These instruments give the melody some interesting character and are then supported by some strong traditional strings, which hit the exact emotional chord (pun intended). Newman also often leads with solo performances that give the piece a small place from which to build into an exciting climax. These unique instrumentations often have a smooth, trance-like quality – as if the whole film was taking place in a dream.
Newman seems to work well with many different directors. My favorites of his collaborations have been with Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) as well as Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and WALL·E). The films of Sam Mendes have also greatly benefitted from Newman’s emotionally rich music, especially American Beauty and Road to Perdition. I also loved his scores for the two Mendes-helmed James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. All of these have a traditional sound to them, and then Newman peppers in his eclectic instruments to remind us that he’s still pulling the emotional strings.
2. Richard M. Sherman
It can be safely said that Richard Sherman and his older brother Robert wrote the soundtrack to everyone’s childhood. All the great classic Disney songs came from the minds of the Shermans – from The Jungle Book to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to Mary Poppins. They also musically populated some of the attractions at the Disney Theme Parks, including everyone’s favorite, “It’s a Small World.”
What makes the Sherman approach appealing is his commitment to the three principles of songwriting he learned from his father: keep songs simple, singable, and sincere. Those three words perfectly describe all of Sherman’s compositions. There’s a bounce, a sense of whimsy, to the music that is undeniable. The fun of it all makes you tap your toes and hum along (and you will probably pick up the words quickly). Speaking of words, the Shermans were well known for their use of wordplay, especially with words they just made up like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” It’s what was missing from the recent sequel to the Shermans’ magnum opus, Mary Poppins Returns.
My favorite Richard Sherman score has to be Mary Poppins. Like the character herself, it’s “practically perfect in every way.” It bounces and soars in all the right places – tugging at our heartstrings like a kite caught in the gust of wind. And we can’t help but be taken away.
1. John Williams
Seriously, could this have been anyone else? By any measurable standard, there is no more talented, influential, and prolific living film composer that John Williams. I dare say that Williams is probably the greatest film composer of all time. His scores are pulsing with personality and contain that intangible and immortal magic of the movies – making the films soar to even greater heights.
Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Jaws. Superman. Jurassic Park. These themes and so many more composed by Williams and have taken on a life of their own in the pop culture beyond the films. These are truly timeless scores full of sincere emotion – be it adventure, fantasy, or terror. He has also composed music for other, more eclectic purposes, like the Olympics, NBC News, and the Oscar-winning animated short film, Dear Basketball. There’s something primal and innate within them that makes us have an instant visceral reaction.
Williams’ best collaborations have been with his longtime friend Steven Spielberg. Williams is as much a part of Spielberg’s creative voice as Spielberg himself. It is one of the most perfect film music collaborations of all time. Williams only amplifies the raw emotions on screen and distills them without overpowering the visuals. When John Williams isn’t scoring a Spielberg film (which is rare), it is very much felt (like in last year’s Ready Player One).
My favorite John Williams scores have been for the Star Wars films and Superman: The Movie.
Star Wars has an epic quality to it that even the most untrained ear can detect. The main theme is brilliant, with all the tertiary themes (like the one for The Force) highlighting the emotional highs and lows of the story. Even the prequels benefitted from Williams’ music – capturing that Star Wars spirit that made audiences remember what they were watching.
The music of Superman is simply movie magic at its finest. Williams’ score brilliantly rides the line of epic adventure and tongue-in-cheek fun, just as Richard Donner’s fantastic visuals. It’s a hopeful score that matches the personality of the title character. The marches are triumphant and used to great effect in scenes like the big helicopter rescue. Christopher Reeve’s performance made us believe a man could fly. Williams’ score made him soar.
What’s even more impressive is that John Williams still conducts live orchestras today in his late 80s. Being relatively close to the Los Angeles music scene has enabled my wife and I to see John Williams conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic every summer at the Hollywood Bowl. He is a consummate showman and never misses a step (or a note). I only wish I have as much energy and stamina when I’m in my 80s!
So who are your favorite composers? What does their music mean to you?
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.