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ClassicsOnline Home » GREAT MOVIE THEMES 2 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Carl Davis)
Great Movie Themes 2
Some of the best cinema music works on two levels: within the film it reflects the mood, deepens the characterization and comments on the film, but it also works on a purely musical level and some of these themes become enormously popular.
Danny Elfman, who often works with director Tim Burton, is sometimes (unfairly) seen as specialising in fantasy films and comic book adaptations. Batman (1989), one of his early big studio films, covers both bases but, unlike the camp television series with music by Neil Hefti, Burton’s film is a dark vision of a troubled crime-fighter. After a mournful opening there is a moment of glittering percussion before the music pulls itself together and launches forward with a driving rhythm.
Henry Mancini played for Glenn Miller’s band before joining Universal Studios, where he wrote stock music. After his first screen credits he moved into television, scoring a hit with Peter Gunn (1958–62). His light jazzy scores include Charade (1963) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) with its hit Moon River. One of his best-known themes is for The Pink Panther (1963), a comedy-thriller about the theft of a diamond with a pink, panther-shaped flaw. Ostensibly starring David Niven, Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau became a hit character, and he and director Blake Edwards made four sequels among their many collaborations. After Sellers’ death in 1980 Edwards made another three with different actors while, with different directors, Alan Arkin played the rôle in 1968, and Steve Martin revived the character to little effect in 2006 and 2009. Most bizarrely there was an animated television series, which featured a would-be-suave panther that was pink. All drew on Mancini’s instantly identifiable tune with its cool sax and vibes and comically chaotic collapse.
The Argentinian Lalo Schifrin is another jazz composer but, unsurprisingly, with a Latin bent: he wrote a song and played piano on Quincy Jones’s classic album Soul Bossa Nova. His film scores include the iconic Bullitt (1968), though he has regularly to correct people: there is actually no music in the famous car chase. He also worked in television and it was there that he had a great success with Mission Impossible (1966–73), about a group of US secret agents, the Impossible Missions Force. Each episode began with a tape recorder outlining “Your mission, should you decide to you accept it”. The tape would then be destroyed or even self-destruct and a lit fuse would fizzle across the screen as Schifrin’s driving main theme kicked in for the credits. The film versions (1996, 2000 and 2006) could hardly dispense with this integral part of the franchise but they occasionally square off the 5/4 beat.
Starring Ryan O’Neill and Ali McGraw, Love Story (1970) is a melodrama about doomed love and death. O’Neill’s father threatens to disinherit him if he marries a fellow student. Nevertheless they go ahead, only to discover that they cannot have children, before she dies. Francis Lai won an Oscar for his score (one of those that is better than the film). Since Ali McGraw plays a music student the soundtrack includes some Mozart and Bach, and Lai counterpoints their classical restraint with a more sweeping romantic theme developed out of a piano concertino. Two years later O’Neill starred in the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? When Barbra Streisand says “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (Love Story’s tagline) he deadpans: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard”.
When it was released in 1993 Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was a new high for computer-generated images, which created the fantastical world where dinosaurs were recreated from their DNA. The story climaxes in a scary and exciting chase but in writing the main theme John Williams ignores both that and the dinosaurs’ terrifying aspects: after a pastoral opening he reflects the giant creatures’ stately grandeur.
Shakespeare’s plays have inspired countless adaptations and one of the most popular is Romeo and Juliet. One of the best known is Franco Zeffirelli’s from 1968, starring teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. After the previous year’s The Taming of the Shrew Zeffirelli turned again to veteran Nino Rota to capture another love story. Based on a song-like melody, the extensive score moves through a panoply of moods and at time takes on a distinctly English folk-song feel (at one point there is an actual vocal version), which Rota underlines by including a guitar in the orchestra. The main theme begins gently but rises to a passionate climax, reflecting the story’s tragic conclusion.
Some of John Williams’s best-known scores are for the sort of films which, were he alive today, would have gone to Korngold. Superman (1978) begins with a famous swaying horn-call, before being developed over a pulsating rhythm. The middle has a thrumming bass and string theme that has a flavour of the imperial music of Walton or Elgar. Unsurprisingly Williams’s main theme was reused in the various sequels and now it is hard to hear it without imagining someone disappearing into a phone box.
Anthony Minghella (1954–2008) was an extremely musical director but he set Gabriel Yared a fearsome task for The English Patient, his 1996 adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. The film’s intensely passionate story of a wartime nurse’s discovery of her badly burned patient’s secret was to be offset with a cooler score. At one point Juliette Binoche finds a shattered piano and plays part of the Goldberg Variations on it. Minghella wanted to carry the feeling of Bach through the rest of the score without relying on the rest of the variations, so asked Yared to write something on the same level. Yared begins with a feeling of the two- or three-part inventions, (or the Well-Tempered Clavier’s C major Prelude), before the strings enter to add a gentle halo to the contemplative melody.
Despite the success of Romeo and Juliet, Rota continued to prefer to work in Italy with only a few forays into Hollywood. One of these was Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic The Godfather (1972 and 1974; for the last instalment in 1990, Coppola’s father Carmine took over, reusing Rota’s theme). The music became hugely popular but Rota could not be Oscar-nominated for the first part, as the love theme was based on a melody from his earlier Fortunella (1958), though it was heavily reworked for The Godfather. However, a rule-change meant that two years later he won for Part Two.
Amongst the extensive music of Superman, Williams wrote a love theme for Lois Lane. It became the score’s second distinctive element, complementing the exhilarating Superman fanfare and march (which actually includes a pre-echo of the love theme). After discussions about how it should be presented in the film it was decided that Margot Kidder, who played Lois, should simply recite Lesley Bricusse’s words Can You Read My Mind over Williams’s music. Shortly after the film’s release Maureen McGowan had a hit with the song version and it was also arranged as a stand-alone concert piece with no narration. Beginning with a gentle rocking, the music begins coyly before its confidence swells, reflecting Lois and Superman’s relationship.
While older pirate films like Captain Blood (1935) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) were popular, more recently the genre failed to catch fire, witness notorious flops like Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Cutthroat Island (1995). But the enormous (and somewhat unexpected) success of the Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) led to two sequels being shot back-to-back and released in 2006 and 2007. Alan Silvestri was to write the original score but he left and director Gore Verbinski approached Hans Zimmer (born 1957). Under intense time pressure, Zimmer suggested Klaus Badelt, his colleague at Media Ventures and together they worked out the main themes. Badelt then wrote the score with some help from other colleagues. Though it is a modern-sounding score and does not attempt to recapture a Korngold sound, Badelt was careful to include lots of hints of jigs and sea-shanties.
Michael Cimino’s first film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was a success and he embarked on the huge and intense The Deerhunter (1978) about three blue-collar Pennsylvanians in the Vietnam war and how it affected their lives back home. Stanley Myers wrote the score with a quietly reflective main theme. Guitarist John Williams later asked Myers to arrange it for him, and, as Cavatina, his recording became a hit. Later Cleo Laine also sang a version of it as He Was Beautiful.
John Fowles’s tragic novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its Hardy-esque heroine, had long been thought unfilmable: Fowles himself occasionally appears to discuss the novel, it includes commentaries on the Victorian times in which it is set, and it has two alternate endings. Though several people had attempted adaptations, it was Harold Pinter who eventually succeeded, cunningly creating a parallel of some of the novel’s effects. Not only does he tell the woman’s story, but he adds another layer, and we watch a film version being made, with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons playing both the characters and the actors in that film. The score by Carl Davis sets the scene on the Dorset coast with a sobbing theme and recitative-like melodies to express the desperation that the film’s heroine suppresses.
Shakespeare in Love (1998) was an international hit, winning seven Oscars, including one for the score by Stephen Warbeck. It is his biggest success to date, though he also scored television’s Prime Suspect, the film version of Billy Elliot (2000) and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001). Another post-modern story, Tom Stoppard’s script for Shakespeare in Love is full of sly jokes as the playwright struggles with his latest venture Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Of course, falling in love inspires him to finish the work. Warbeck’s score, like Rota’s Romeo and Juliet is a modern evocation of Elizabethan times, this time featuring a harp and a colourful percussion section. At the very end there is a sense of a return to earth with a tiny coda for the harp.
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GREAT MOVIE THEMES 2 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic...