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film: The Big Score

Actions may speak louder than words, but on the big screen, both need a terrific soundtrack backing them up.


Though arguably not "the" definitive list by any means, what follows is a grouping of movies whose soundtracks demonstrate the various ways filmmakers choose to use music in their movies. It also serves as a primer, highlighting the still-evolving nature of the soundtrack. [Please note: I have purposefully left off the movies scored by John Williams ("Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," "Empire of the Sun") for the simple reason that almost everyone in the free world is aware of his award-winning compositions and the movies that contain them.

The List:

"Vertigo" (1958) — This is the most haunting and hypnotic of all of Bernard Herrmann's scores (which include "Psycho" and "North By Northwest") for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The soundtrack begins with a dizzying main theme that echoes the title's disorder. To this day, the soundtrack remains as powerful and unforgettable as the accompanying images.

"Un Homme Et Une Femme" (1966) — Francis Lai's soundtrack remains the most romantic score ever to grace a film. From start to finish, the music is perfectly attuned to the range of emotions the man and woman of the title are experiencing. Every song, in its own way, relates to the others, either with subtle counter-melodies or sweeping harmonies. The soundtrack, a tribute to the seductive nature of the samba, combines Latin rhythms with the timeless allure of the spoken French language.

"The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) — Paris-born composer Michel Legrand's "symphonic jazz" score perfectly captures the teasing tension of director Norman Jewison's romantic crime caper. Legrand, who worked with the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis when he first arrived in America, avoids the usual pitfalls that come with using a contemporary form of music such as jazz to score a film. There's nothing dated here, none of jazz's passing fads or overused cliches.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) — This Stanley Kubrick masterpiece forever changed the way sci-fi movies are scored. Instead of the expected sci-fi music effects (usually loud, bombastic and overpowering), Kubrick uses a variety of "recognizable" classical pieces to achieve a more ironic approach to the eerie themes of paranoia and "science vs. religion" at play in "2001." Kubrick seems to revel in the incongruity between his images and the music he has chosen. The effect remains chilling and unforgettable.

"American Graffiti" (1973) — Director George Lucas uses 41 jukebox hits from the '50s and '60s to capture and sustain an end-of-summer, end-of-innocence mood throughout the movie. Lucas doesn't use the soundtrack as a shortcut to establish a specific period in time, unlike Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump." Instead, the songs serve to frame the action and characters as they experience one night in suburban Southern California circa 1962.

"Thief" (1981) — Michael Mann's amazing, realistic movie mesmerizes you with the visual flare and heart-pounding suspense that comes with living outside the law. The soundtrack, a powerful, though invisible presence, is the force that delivers you to Mann's thiefdom. For 123 minutes, the score helps to keep you involved in the film, breathing with the characters, stressing and reacting to the situations playing out on the screen. Like some Freudian inner voice, the soundtrack becomes the movie's conscience, telling us when to be cautious or happy or confrontational.

"Mishima" (1983) — Writer-director Paul Schrader's films always are as memorable for their music as they are for their visuals — sometimes more so. And the soundtrack for this look at the troubled life of Japanese poet Yukio Mishima is, hands down, my personal favorite. With its gilded, impressionistic set and its plot-eschewing cinematic vision, "Mishima" depends upon Philip Glass' compositions for grounding. Despite the Japanese setting of the film, the accompanying music is panglobal, typical of Glass' genre-absorbing minimalist style.

"Top Gun" (1986) — Filled with numerous high-powered songs from various artists, this remains one of the top-selling movie soundtracks of all times. Although one could make a strong case for either "Flashdance" (1983) or "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), most movie-music fans and historians look to "Top Gun" as the beginning of the "pop" music soundtrack. And although the sound is very, very '80s, its uncanny matching with the film's images and action is inspiring and ultimately, timeless.

"Dances With Wolves" (1990) — This is nothing short of a modern classic from British film-scoring master John Barry. Utilizing Wagnerian structure, the soundtrack's three main themes recur in magisterial symphonic form. Barry's skillful use of shifting orchestral hues imbue even the most repetitious melodic passages with new emotional weight and texture. The memorable "John Dunbar" theme alone has become an almost subconscious part of modern life. (Thanks in no small part to the ubiquitous Muzak.) This rich, epic soundtrack is audible proof that the art of orchestral film scoring has outlived its purpose.

"Pulp Fiction" (1994) — With Dick Dale's surf-guitar anthem, "Misirlou," twanging out of the gate, the soundtrack for this Quentin Tarantino smash just gets better and better. Unlike "Top Gun" (which also serves up a variety of pop styles), Tarantino uses the tunes' inherent diversity to underscore the very different stories he manages to weave together onscreen. Where else are you going to find Chuck Berry, Maria McKee, Al Green, The Statler Brothers, Kool & the Gang, Urge Overkill (singing a Neil Diamond ballad!) and Dusty Springfield?

"American Beauty" (1999) — A film as unique as this needs a similarly impressive soundtrack, and composer Thomas Newman does not fail to deliver. In fact, the title track shows off Newman's scoring approach to the film — a lot of percussive and rhythmic phrases performed by vibraphones and guitars. More than any other movie soundtrack in quite some time, Newman's soundtrack adds another powerful dimension to the images onscreen.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000) — The music from this Coen brothers' Depression-era film taps into the very roots of country, blues, bluegrass, folk and gospel music. Presented either a cappella or with bare-bones, minimalist accompaniment, the soundtrack features the distinctive voices of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, among others. If Appalachia spawned angels, this soundtrack would be their hymnal. S

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