Monday, December 19, 2011

Our Favorite Soundtracks and Scores

We talk a lot about movies here on F This Movie!, because we are slaves to our own mission statement. What we don't often address is music in movies (unless we're talking about Garry Marshall movies, because we won't stop talking about Garry Marshall movies), which is a shame because it's such an important part of the way we remember a film. Jack Black gets it.

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Mike: I really tried to think outside of the box when choosing my favorite score/soundtrack. I wanted to blow peoples' minds with my choice. Have the F Heads say, “Holy shit, I never thought about blahblah, but Mike is totally right! That music is amazing!” My goal was to pick something that made me seem smart, or at least educated in the world of cinema and film scores. Should I go with a foreign film? Fellini perhaps? Or maybe something small, like some movie only seen by 23 people at Slamdance four years ago.  But as hard as I tried, as much as I went through the IMDB in my brain, I couldn’t shake the obvious answer for me.

Star Wars has my favorite score of all time. Not an original answer, but there’s probably a reason why it’s not a new thought. There are many great movies with equally great music. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, has a beautiful score. I own the soundtrack and put it on every once in a while. It’s awesome. The difference, however, between LotR music and Star Wars is when I think of LotR, the score isn’t one of the first things I think of. I might think of the story, performances, special effects, scope, etc., and somewhere in there I’ll think of the music. With Star Wars, every time I think of those movies, I hear the music playing underneath my memories of the films. The music is so organic to the movies that to not think of the score is to not think of the films properly.

When Lucas re-released the original trilogy as “special editions” in theaters in 1997, it was the first time that I had seen Episode IV on the big screen. When the music explodes at the very beginning to reveal “Star Wars” on the screen followed by the famous scroll, the theater cheered, myself included. I realize this isn’t anything new -- people cheer at movies all of the time, especially an older movie that audiences are revisiting in a theater after years of only viewing the movie on VHS or DVD or TV. The difference is that this time, I cheered, too. That’s not to say I’m above yelling at a movie screen with an audience in excitement, it’s just that I’ve simply never done it. But with Star Wars it just happened. I cheered. That was as much about the music as it was everything that followed. Many boxers say that they need to get that first punch to their face early in a fight to know they’re in fight, and to me those first few notes of the Star Wars theme at the beginning of the movie is like a right hook to the jaw.

The Star Wars score is everywhere. From the films themselves to sporting events to cartoons to weddings, we’ll never be without John Williams’ timeless music. Now if we can just get more characters to blink…

Mark Ahn: The Mission (1986) – Sometimes, in their effort to pass on their cultural genes to me, my parents took me to things that were way above my level. Operas? Check. Orchestral performances? SHHHH. Visits to museums? My feet still hurt. However clueless I was at the time of the benefit of these outings, I definitely appreciate them now, with the perspective of an adult. Included among these cultural activities was going to the movies. This is not a story of cinematic genius instantly born; I remember a particularly brutal string of movies that bored 11-year-old me to death: Iceman, Amadeus, and The Mission. Obviously, I’m not the intended audience, and clearly these movies have merit beyond what this thickheaded child could comprehend, but I clearly remember the soundtrack from The Mission. I remember later on finding a CD copy and listening to it while writing papers for school or driving to work during college. Music sophisticants could perhaps tell you that Ennio Morricone perfectly balances the duality of nature and civilization, the primal and the modern, the white and the native, in the clash of orchestral strings and a single oboe, but what I can tell you is that it is rare in any kind of music to feel the genuine emotional poignancy that this score has.

Oh, also, this movie is terrific.

JB: My two favorite scores are both by Bernard Hermann: Psycho and Taxi Driver. Both scores instantly invoke their respective films, but they could not be more different. It was Hermann's idea to score the famous shower murder in Psycho solely for strings. Legend has it that Hitchcock was originally against the idea. The shrieking sound of violins and cellos turns out to be the perfect soundtrack for knife murders. Download the music and try it yourself one day at home!

The Taxi Driver score was the last Hermann ever wrote, full of lost love and lonely saxophones. It is sad, intense, and beautiful all at the same time.

I have always maintained that a good film score should disappear and not call attention to itself. The two examples above are exceptions to this rule.

Alex: Inception (2010) - An anecdote: I have had an iPhone for nearly a year and a half. The only music I have uploaded to it in all that time is the Inception soundtrack. It's not simply that Hans Zimmer's boisterous, booming tones are an enjoyable listen; it's that, from the movie's opening moments, Zimmer is waging psychological warfare on your mind before you even know you're in a fight. Case in point.

The Girl Next Door (2004) - Not a bad collection of tunes for a movie that will probably be most remembered for not living up to the considerable potential of its first half hour or so. It even manages to take a grossly overused songs like Queen and Bowie's "Under Pressure" or The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and use them in a way that transports you instantly back to your final days of high school and remember them fondly, even if they weren't that fond when they were occurring. While I'll admit that some of the cues are a little on the nose, it's tough to argue with a selection like Elliott Smith, David Gray, Thunderclap Newman, Lynyrd Skynyrd and even "that one great Filter song."

Erika: I love movie soundtracks. Just ask Mike! He can verify.

I am going to go with the poppy for this list. Short and sweet, kids!

Mine are obvious choices. Forgive me. I just know that they represent a special feeling and/or special time in my life (not necessarily all groundbreaking music).

  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Once
  • Hairspray (dir. By John Waters)
  • And  I have to choose Notting Hill, though it’s only because my husband and I danced to Elvis Costello’s “She” at our wedding.
  • Goodfellas. Boogie Nights. Magnolia. The Godfather. Drive. Wuthering Heights (1939).
What about 1989's Batman? "'Batdance', anyone?" Patrick understands.

Patrick: I do understand! We're married.

I should have realized before I thought of doing this list (it was Mark Ahn who thought of doing this list) that narrowing down my favorite movie music to one or two choices would be almost impossible. And I'm going to actually disagree somewhat with what JB said about how a good score goes unnoticed, mostly because he can't really respond back to me while I'm typing because that's not the way the internet works. I think it's ok to notice a score -- to find it moving or beautiful or effective, the same way you can notice a particular performance or camera composition. It can still be doing its job. When you notice a score because it's calling unnecessary attention to itself, or because it is at odds with what's on screen, that's bad. The same could be said for any element of a film.

I say this because there are plenty of scores that I find moving or beautiful or effective and I like noticing them during the movies in which they appear. Alex already addressed the cleverness of Hans Zimmer's score for Inception (one of the most influential scores of recent memory; there's rarely a trailer these days that doesn't feature some variation on "Bonnnnnnng....BONNNNNNNG!"), and the fact that I saw it a bunch of times in the theater was because I was always chasing the feeling I got during the final sequence, when SPOILERS Cobb wakes up on the plane and makes his way through customs as Zimmer's "Time" swells. It's one of my favorite pieces of a movie score in a long time, and something I'll play in my iTunes just to try and recapture the feeling I get every time Cobb and his crew pull off their heist.

I also find myself really loving most of what Michael Giacchino does these days. The suite at the start of Super 8 can reduce me to tears while the Bad Robot logo is still on screen; same goes for hearing just a few bars of his Oscar-winning score to Up (and I don't even love that movie). His music for Cars 2 was the best (only good) thing about that movie. His new Star Trek theme? Great. Let Me In? Very pretty. The Incredibles? Awesome. He even reworked the iconic Mission Impossible theme in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in a way that made it feel new and cool while at the same time still belonging to the cool spy movie scores of the '60s. I get excited when I see his name during the opening credits to something, the same way I do when I see "written by Akiva Goldsman" or "starring Kate Hudson." Movies!

Doug: It's funny that Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the only movie soundtracks I actually own on CD (that, and Wayne's World 2, obviously), because I'VE NEVER SEEN THE ENTIRE MOVIE. Sure, I've seen parts of it. That clip of Winona Ryder running down steps in a clingy white robe (NSFW)? Seen that dozens of times. WHO HASN'T? But the rest of the movie is a blur. Whenever I even think about Dracula, scenes from Interview with the Vampire pop into my head instead. Chalk it up to my fascination with an eternally preteen Kirsten Dunst.

And, honestly, I want to see it! Even though I know it's flawed! I had planned to in October as part of #ScaryMovieMonth, but never got around to it (too busy watching Buried, which is neither scary nor a movie). I took a trip to Napa, Calif., this past fall, and made it a point to visit the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. That place is a shrine to the great director's work (and some really good wine). There's a museum, called the Movie Gallery, which features film props and memorabilia, including Coppola's Oscars for The Godfather.

It also showcases artifacts from Dracula. Here's a pic of my brother-in-law (for the purposes of this write-up, let's call him "Stu") posing(?) in front of a few costumes. You can tell by the look on his face that he's EXCITED TO BE THERE.

Way back in the 1990s, I blind-bought the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula one random weekday night at Rolling Stones Records in Norridge, Ill. For those of you who aren't from Chicago, Rolling Stones is one of the last remaining "independent" record stores in the area. It used to be the best, too -- lots of bootlegs and imports and rare stuff. I haven't been there in years, probably because the quality and selection of their wares diminished over time.

Whilst scanning the soundtrack rack, I stumbled upon Dracula. Perhaps I was going through some sort of weird, "I need to own atmospheric music so I can write poetry in the dark," period. Or perhaps Patrick simply bullied me into buying it (Exhibit A: the "Stanley Kubrick Collection" DVD box set). Whatever the reason, it actually turned out to be a great purchase. FOR ONE VERY SPECIFIC REASON:

One night, shortly after buying the disc, I had a few friends over to my parents' house to hang out and watch movies -- specifically, Patrick, and two female friends of ours. For the purposes of this write-up, let's call them "Gillian Jacobs" and "Alison Brie."

The house was all mine, as my folks were visiting my older sister in Green Bay (or, more likely, at yet another key party). Patrick and I [weirdly] decided that we wanted to scare the girls. That's right -- our genius idea was to ATTEMPT to frighten two confused ladies whose only mistake was deciding to hang out with us.

Classic Doug and Patrick -- always ruining chances to kiss girls in favor of tormenting them with misplaced, fantastical pranks.

Now, my family's unremarkable suburban house wasn't huge, but it did have plenty of nooks and crannies and places to hide. And that's what Patrick and I did. We hid. After one of the movies ended, we killed the lights and ran upstairs, leaving the girls sitting on the sofa, confused (and, I can only assume, staring at each other with "WTF?" looks on their faces).

Our plan? To blast the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula as loud as we could on my stereo, thereby frightening the girls into ... what, exactly? I have no idea. Running into our arms? Proclaiming their love for us? Or, were we really just maniacal and immature? Probably. WHY ON EARTH WERE WE TRYING TO SCARE THESE GIRLS? Listen, I'm exactly one-half of Doug and Patrick -- I participated in this charade -- and even I have no idea what we were thinking. I honestly don't know if we thought that far ahead. As far as we were concerned, the idea to "scare the girls with the soundtrack to Dracula" was enough of a plan for us to act on.

So here's what went down. We turn the movie off and make a hasty exit (giggling the whole way, probably). They're all like, "Why are the lights off?" and "Where are you going?" and "Why did we come here?" And those are good questions to ask. They should have asked, "Can you drive us home now?" I wouldn't blame them.

We get to my room, and I turn the soundtrack on. I don't remember the track number, because ...


I have to crank the volume to 10 just so the sound reaches the first floor. But here's the rub -- we're five feet from my stereo's speakers. The girls are 50 feet away. We can physically feel the strings and the bass and the timpani reverberate through our bones. The girls hear what sounds like a hushed TV in the other room. We're still in the pitch dark. The girls probably turned the lights back on.

Not only is our plan stupid to begin with, it also COMPLETELY BACKFIRES ON US. After only a minute or two, Patrick and I look at each other. Our eyes lock. And we both say (scream?) the exact same thing: "AAAAAHHHHHH!"

We freak out. We freak the F out. That soundtrack is INSANELY effective, and by turning the volume all the way up, it delivers the goods. We both shriek and run back downstairs. WITHOUT TURNING THE CD OFF.

And when we get back downstairs? The girls are gone. VANISHED.

Initially unbeknownst to us, they moved to a back room (the farthest room from the stairs), where they were hiding. They completely turned the tables -- not only were we the ones terrified by the music, but now we can't even find our "friends." Our nerves are completely frayed, and when they decide to jump out from beneath their well-concealed hiding spots, we crumble in a heap of terror and shame (and maybe a little pee).

The students (torturees) had become the masters (torturers).

The worst part? I had to go back upstairs -- by myself, IN THE DARK -- to turn off the stereo!

Thus the evening ends. Two juvenile, foolish boys scare themselves senseless by playing the Dracula soundtrack, only to be later outwitted by Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie, the two nubile, buxom young coeds they initially intended to frighten.

No wonder they never called us back.


This is such a dumb story. Nothing about it is cool or cinematic or even reflects a good light on Patrick, myself or F This Movie! Ugh. Sometimes, we're the worst (me more than Patrick).

So what's my point? Simple. Big ups to Wojciech Kilar, the composer of the film's music. I can only assume that he is a direct descendent of Vlad the Impaler.


  1. This list sucks, where the hell is "Purple Rain"! It's only one of the greatest albums of all time, done by one of the greatest artists of all time. Sometimes I wonder if you guys know anything about movies or if you just make all this up.

  2. ADAM!I was in a rush! I totally would have added PURPLE RAIN. -Erika