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March 5, 2010

In advance of Academy Awards, weigh in on your favorite film scores

As faithful readers iof my humble blog posts have determined, I'm not inclined to rush out to see the latest flicks, but more likely to be at home with golden oldies. It's not that I don't enjoy new movies, but today's at-the-cinema experience often leaves something to be desired -- like people more interested in what's on the screen than how many tons of food and drink they can cart to their seats. Ah, but I digress.

On Thursday afternoon, I was a guest on WYPR's "Midday With Dan Rodricks" to discuss film scores (there's podcast available), and the discussion reminded me all over again just how movie music, from the silent era to today, can yield a satisfaction equal to (sometimes surpassing) what's on the screen. It takes remarkable talent to compose a score that serves a movie fully, one that supports the action, enhances overt and subtle emotions with equal skill, perfectly evokes moods and things and places.

On Sunday night, an Oscar will be handed to a composer of this year's best original score. The odds favor "Avatar," but you never know what's inside that elegantly sealed envelope, do you? I thought I'd take a little poll and see what you think of the nominated scores. (Especially since I haven't seen/heard any of these movies yet.) Then, I'd like to hear from you about your favorite film scores from any year.

(I won't address the topic of Best Song, since that particular Academy Award category was, after a long string of questionable decisions, finally rendered irredeemably useless for me the year the Oscar went to that timeless ditty, "It's Hard Our Here for a Pimp." Puleeeeeeeezzzzze.)

So here we go. Round One. Which of these nominees for Best Original Score do you think should win the gilded statuette Sunday night -- and why?

"Avatar," James Horner

"Fantastic Mr. Fox." Alexandre Desplat

"The Hurt Locker," Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders

"Sherlock Holmes," Hans Zimmer

"Up," Michael Giacchino

And now, Round Two. Which film scores from any era do you consider most Oscar-worthy (whether they won the award or not)?

I'll start off the discussion with with my own choice for top score (it wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award)

 -- the one Bernard Herrmann fashioned for "Vertigo," with its gripping blend of Wagnerian richness and striking moodiness. The music becomes as crucial a component in the film as the excellent actors and the vivid San Francisco location.

Herrmann had an incredible track record for creating scores that, in terms of cinematic effectiveness, were note-perfect, from "Citizen Kane" to his iconic collaborations with Hitchcock ("North by Northwest" and "Psycho" rank right up there near "Vertigo," and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" isn't that far behind). But for communicative brilliance, it's hard to beat the "Vertigo" score.

I could go on and on, but this isn't about me. So, what do you think of my choice?

No wait, what I really meant to say is: What are your favorite film scores?


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:47 AM | | Comments (6)


Bernard Herrmann is arguably the greatest film composer ever. "Vertigo" is a towering achievement. (I would love for the BSO to showcase "Vertigo" the way they did "Psycho" last year.) Although Herrmann is my favorite composer overall, I'd have to say my favorite film score of all time is Hugo Friedhofer's for "The Best Years of Our Lives."

This year's crop of film score nominees proves once again that the Academy listens to movies with organs other than their ears. With that said, the winner will be "Up" because it is the most tuneful and emotional of the bunch.

Thanks for the response and the, um, firmly started opinions. I also think it would be really cool to see 'Vertigo' with live orchestra soundtrack. TIM

The Herrmann scores are great, especially "Psycho" when driving in the rain at night! But don't forget his great work for fantasy and science fiction--"Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Fahrenheit 451," and "Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

Other personal favorites: "The Big Country" (Moross), "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Bernstein), "Lawrence of Arabia"&"Doctor Zhivago" (Jarre) and "The Lion in Winter" (Barry)

Thanks for the colorful list. TIM

The Right Stuff while not the most original score with respect to classical music, was one of the most thrilling. Oscar winning it was for a film that soared even higher with Bill Conti's suppport. This from a composer who made Rocky's Theme a standard and did quite a bit of other scores including the live Oscar telecasts.

Other favorites-Eric Wolfgang Korngold did the best swashbucklers with Errol Flynn, Henry Mancini did Touch of Evil and Breakfast at Tiffany's, Elmer Bernstein scored The Great Escape and Magnificent Seven.

Thanks very much for the list. (If I recall correctly, that "Right Stuff" theme owes a little something to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.) TIM

Round One: Winner this year -- who cares? None of these scores does anything exceptional. Of the composers, my favourite would be Zimmer (who is often in auto-pilot mode anymore, though that's still impressive), with Desplat a distant second; the others write the kind of scores that drove me away from contemporary film music. Horner's a hack; his early promise has materialized into nothing that'll strike interest 100 years from now. I'd put him in the same boat as Alan Silvestri.

Round Two: I _greatly_ admire Herrmann, but I don't _enjoy_ his work as much as that of my personal favourite, Ennio Morricone. The diversity of his work is staggering. What would his single-greatest achievement be? "Once Upon A Time In The West," hands down. All of his "Spaghetti Western" scores interact with their films on a very intense, visceral level, but OUATITW is as beautiful as it is brutal; the film would be an empty shell without the music.

One of my fondest memories: watching the opening titles to De Palma's "The Untouchables" and hearing Morricone's music. The experience still impresses me (and this was before I realized how silly De Palma's movies tend to be, though "The Untouchables" is one of his, a-hem, "best"). Ironically, I hate the harmonica, but it's used in both scores I've mentioned!

For a score that reaches into your soul: "Blade Runner" by Vangelis. He may have won the 1981 Oscar for "Chariots of Fire," but the _real_ slice of genius came a year later and has never been equalled by him since.

Finally, for a seriously-overlooked score, I nominate Edward Shearmur's "K-Pax": it's pure genius and covers a _lot_ of territory, all with a surprisingly-high level of consistency (considering that his other film music has done nothing to impress me -- I almost can't believe the same person is involved). Another one-hit-wonder, apparently...

Thanks, as always, for your thoughts. Fascinating list. I'll have to check out some of those . TIM

Just as a follow-up, I heard Morricone's "Moses & Marco Polo Suite" on WBJC just now, featuring the ubiquitous Yo-Yo Ma, and was reminded just how bloody amazing Morricone can be --- beautiful! I had first heard the "Moses" score as a kid, when the TV replayed the Burt Lancaster movie, but only years later did I realize who did the music -- a major "A-HA!!!" moment. (And I passed up a chance to buy the complete score album about a decade ago -- I'm going to have to go digging for it, argh...)

Ennio's still very much alive and composing at 81, and I hope he lives to 181. Or at least let's clone him or something -- he's a keeper!

(Then again, so was Herrmann.)

I like anything by Bernard Hermann, too. Let's also not overlook his scores for the Ray Harryhausen special effects extravaganzas, like "Mysterious Island", "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad", "Jason and the Argonauts". Among other composers, Georges Auric's score for Cocteau's version of Beauty and the Beast is one reason I keep going back to that movie. (The score is available newly recorded on a Naxos CD, too.) Auric (one of Les Six) wrote wonderful scores for other movies, including some of the Ealing Studios comedies. I also like Elmer Bernstein and recently watched "The Man with the Golden Arm" with his jazz-influenced score. If you don't mind a cult favorite, check out Christopher Komeda's weird music for Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers". Out of more recent composers, I like the exotic scoring that Thomas Newman did for "Lemony Snicket" and "Road to Perdition".

Thanks for the great list. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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