Lost In The Crowd After The Credits Rolled: 10 Criminally Underrated Film Scores
Main Image: John Williams at work via IMDb
The art of making a memorable film score is one which is frightfully finicky and which hinges on a lot of things going right for a composer. Putting together a film score great enough to stand out, regardless of the quality of the movie, is a tricky dance. If they were to create an amazing score but have it buried in a movie that few people saw, you could have the second coming of John Williams mostly unappreciated; it ultimately lies outside of the composer's hands. As such, this leaves thousands of film scores forgotten in the dustbins of history, and we decided to highlight 10 of these hidden gems which, for one reason or another, aren’t nearly as iconic as they should be.
The 1994 retelling of Rudyard Kipling's classic novel was scored by the late Basil Poledouris, who worked also on Free Willy and The Hunt For Red October. Coming off the back of those movies, it would have perhaps been easy to phone it in. Instead, Poledouris delivered a soaring symphonic masterpiece, stuffed to the gills with dancing woodwinds and booming brass horns, utilizing an insanely catchy motif that finds its way into virtually every song on the score.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Barely breaking its budget and starring the unknown (now and then) Jason Scott Lee didn’t exactly get people rushing out to the theaters. It being a faithful adaptation of the book made it less than appealing for families to take children to a showing also, what with the disturbingly accurate deaths and all.
Most Memorable Part: The score as a whole stays on the bombastic side, with sweeping string sections and brass throughout. It all comes together nicely, but what makes this score stand out is the instrumental motif Paledouris landed on called “The Caravan.” The technique finds its way onto nearly every song on the score - one listen and you’ll understand why.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening: Something daring, bold, adventurous, and possibly illegal (but in a sort of swashbuckling sort of way). So, pretty much just freeing animals from the zoo shirtless or trespassing on someone's forest estate to rage against colonizers then.
This depressingly bleak film about the lack of honor among thieves, playing out amidst the lows of suicidal desperation was directed by William Friedkin of Blue Chips fame. When it came time to score his magnum opus, rather than borrowing from the provided list of established film composers he had access to, he decided to just casually ask his favorite band, electro-synth rockers Tangerine Dream if they’d like to score the film. Using just the script, and provided with no cuts of the film, the German band put together forty-five minutes of appropriately eerie music exactly in line with what a film like Sorcerer deserved. Friedkin alleged never felt the need to change a single thing about the final score.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Mostly because the movie was released around the same time as a little film called Star Wars
The Most Memorable Part: As composers, Tangerine Dream never fell slaves to memorable hooks, instead opting to utilize ambience and atmosphere for their music to great effect. But if one song does stand out, namely for its prevalent use in the film, it’s “Betrayal.” The underlying three bass notes repeating under the swirling synth effects contribute to a very claustrophobic and foreboding feeling.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening To It: Inviting your friends over for an intensely terrifying conversation in a room with poor lighting, while they wonder when you picked up chain smoking and what it is you keep checking through the window blinds for.
Directed by Andrew Dominic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, rather than go for a traditionally cheesy spaghetti-western route for the score, brought in Australian composers Nick Cave (of the rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis. The two went for a much more melancholic theme. Instead of being used to invoke a sense of adventure, the presence of slide guitars and mandolins only serves to add a western-noir feel to proceedings. The lovely string sections, ever-present pianos, and the use of chimes and bells are all strategically placed throughout the score - the depressing icing on the cake that is The Assassination of...
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: The music, ironically, is one of the only things most people seem to remember, thanks to the movies massive run-time and pointlessly long stretches in which nothing happens. The film was only released in select theaters, and the beautiful score didn’t even get a nod for an Academy Award.
Most Memorable Part: There are a lot of contenders. Throughout the movie, the eerie piano number “A Song For Jesse” is as good a song as any of the score. It’s the tone-setting “A Lovely Thing” (later reprised as “Another Lovely Thing”) though, will stick in your head long after the credits have thankfully rolled.
The Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listing To It: Driving aimlessly by a liquor store with the window down, pondering as to whether or not you should buy that cowboy hat and matching boots.
Danny Elfman is frequently associated with three things: Tim Burton; the zany scores he produces for him that sound borderline slapstick at times, and putting together the single greatest Batman theme of all time regardless of what Hans Zimmer might think. But, every so often, Elfman has worked beyond Burton and revealed a more nuanced style that’s still distinctively Elfman - but with some wrinkles. In this case, Black Beauty, aka: the movie about that horse that you vaguely remember, features an ethereal, almost soothing score to accompany the scenes of pristine nature. Granted, there’s still the old Elfman cacophony composed of galloping horns, pianos, and string sections he likes to employ, but they are used sparingly and work well with the horseback riding scenes.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Despite the big-name attachment, it’s one of Elfman’s less brought up compositions. Black Beauty is favored as a cult classic for some, but was almost universally panned by critics at the time of release. To be fair, it is a film which employs the storytelling device of the titular horse having a voice-over provided by Alan Cummings.
Most Memorable Part: The haunting “Main Title” features a familiar set of notes played through a rich cello, ridiculously hummable once you get past the talking horse stuff.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening To It: Riding a horse without care, raging against a world that wants to change you. That, or when cutting your neighbor's much nicer lawn.
James Newton Howard, upon being hired to compose this animated film’s score, decided to approach it the way he would have approached a live-action movie. The man no doubt has talent, and has spent his extensive career working on an impressive resume of projects including great films if not necessarily ones that you think of when you think of film scores (Glengarry Glen Ross, Batman Begins, Space Jam). With Atlantis: The Lost Empire though, he attempts to rise above the merely conventional. There are still old parlor tricks he relies on which you would expect from a film composer who’s gotten work in Hollywood as long as he has though; all of the classic big, booming brass sections and the Elfman-esque flourishes are here. Howard, though, goes out of his way to create a separate, alien feel to scoring the second half of Atlantis with a gentler, subtler touch by using Indonesian orchestral sounds, bells, and chimes.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Listening to a James Newton Howard score is like watching an experienced house painter paint. It’ll be good, it gets the job done, and it’s flawlessly executed, but rarely will it stand out in the neighbourhood of similars. Few film score enthusiasts explored his work on Atlantis, and unfortunately the movie itself was considered a commercial flop.
Most Memorable Moment: The main reason this score makes a list like this is because of the motif from “The Submarine”. It’s a simple melody that invokes all of the cliche Hollywood thrills and borderline borrowing from other composers Howard has always dabbled in, but it actually stands out as something all his own. It’s by far the most memorable thing about the movie outside of Michael J. Fox’s adorable lead antics.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening To It: How thrilling do you want your baths to be? Press play and go on a full tub adventure when nobody expects you to be anywhere for several hours and you have all of the toy submarines. That, or when cleaning someone else's pool.
Trevor Jones is a relative unknown, outside of a few hardcore fans of his work, and that alone is criminal. On his resume he has Mississippi Burning, The Labyrinth, and The Last Of The Mohicans, and all he has to show for it is a handful of minor awards and two Golden Globe nominations. Trevor Jones works well with sounds that bring a sense of epic awe, but he knows how to nail the sweeping soundscapes and invoke dread and subtly also. His score for Cliffhanger is not one of those subtle pieces. It does have some beautifully composed moments though, all filtered through a non-stop joyride of crashing horns and drums. It’s a score that grabs you and shakes you, yelling “Sylvester Stallone is the hero of this stupid movie and I’m going to make sure you remember it.” Jones' approach to Cliffhanger, much like Stallone's approach to acting in the movie, is the experience of watching someone gleefully doing what they love with little restraint or care as to whether it works or not. Both are better for it.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Come on. It's a dumb mountain climbing movie that’s wildly inaccurate and stars Sylvester Stallone, just as both he and America where starting to realize that his shtick wasn’t going to age well. Trevor Jones is forgotten enough as a composer as it is, and saddling him with this project was all but certain to make sure most serious fans of music would never stumble upon this cheesy gem.
Most Memorable Moment: Creatively called “Cliffhanger Theme,” this is the song that opens up the movie and gets you set up for exactly what you paid for; something thrilling, cheesy, stupid, and God help you - you're about to love every second of it.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listing To It: Something dumb and physical that you end up psyching yourself about anyway. So, during your warm-ups for Ultimate Frisbee rec league practice then.
7) Gattaca - Michael Nyman
Michael Nyman is a minimalist music composer who prefers to write and play his music on the piano for his own studio albums. That is, when he isn't writing opera, chamber music, or string quartet pieces. To say the least, he was an odd choice for a science fiction film like Gattaca, but it was a choice that paid off in a big way. Rather than approach this score the way a more traditional composer would, Nyman brought his personal touch and experiences with working with much smaller orchestras and symphony ensembles to the project. He also contributed his own piano playing to create a very intimate, and emotionally moving accompaniment to the sci-fi thought-piece. The entire score is tailored specifically around the emotions of the characters and invokes melancholy and loneliness throughout in line with the introspective tone of the film.
Why It’s Not Remembered More: Gattaca was a critically acclaimed film but a commercial flop at the box office, a film that has only recently been getting the proper recognition it deserves. That, coupled with the fact that Nyman isn’t a name that comes up when discussing classic film composers, hurts this scores chances of getting a nod for an award outside of the Golden Globes.
Most Memorable Moment: “The Departure” - hands down. It sums up the true scope of Nyman’s vision on the score, taking a simple piano piece and amplifying it with a small string section. In doing so, he elevates what, at surface level, is a basic piece into one of the most tear-inducing songs Nyman has ever worked on.
Most Appropriate Activity To Do While Listening To It: Silently crying in your car stuck in traffic, all while pondering the human condition and whether or not you ’ll make it home before Jeopardy starts.
The late Michael Kamen worked on a variety of films implementing a variety of sounds, but seemed to really hit his stride in creating symphonic arrangements for action movies. His work can be heard on four Lethal Weapon films, three Die Hard entries, and he even made Bruce Willis’ Hudson Hawk halfway bearable. When it came time for Brad Bird to find someone to compose the score for his animated robot-baby, Kamen came highly recommended. After initially being scared away from the project by Bird’s insistence on using a lot of 50’s and 60’s sci-fi movie sound influences, Kamen worked with the Czech Philharmonic to knock out the entire score to Iron Giant in under a week. His workmanlike approach is present throughout the score, effortlessly invoking playful wonder and emotion while working in classic sci-fiction sound cues; all without sounding the least bit cheesy.
Why It’s Not Remembered Well: The movie was hurt badly by poor marketing, though the score did later get a node by receiving an Annie Award for Music in an Animated feature Production in 1999.
Most Memorable Moment: That would be “No Following.” For non-fans of the movie, it’s simply a thrilling, beautiful piece that’s evocative of John Williams' earlier works. For fans of the movie, you know exactly why you’re feeling the way you do.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening To It: Going on a hike you didn’t want to go on in the first place, but did after your friends insisted that “the view is totally worth it!” It isn’t. It never is.
The score on The Last Starfighter is a strange detour when viewed alongside Craig Safan’s resume of projects, which include dramas primarily (plus Cheers). But, with this film, he wanted to go “bigger than Star Wars," and employed a massive symphony orchestra to score the sci-fi epic. The result is exactly what you’d expect. While Safan’s compositions never quite landed on something as memorable as John Williams' music, “The Last Starfighter” has everything you’d want from a science fiction movie about breathtaking space battles. It’s a bombastic, dizzying spectacle of stringed instruments and brass horns scoring frantic chases and thrilling dogfights. The Last Starfighter's score is essentially a Safan guitar solo from start to finish and the movie is all the better for it.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Living in the shadow of “it's like John Williams but different” can’t have been good for Safan’s score. Fact is, a lot of what he does on The Last Starfighter wouldn’t be out of place in some of his competitors more whimsical pieces, but no one wants to be the George Harrison to someone else's Lennon/Mccartney. The film has become a cult hit of late, and Safan himself even comes out every now and then to conduct his score for an audience.
Most Memorable Moment: “Into The Starscape” is one of the more relaxed moments of Safan’s frantic score. Also, the main title theme (simply called “Main Title”) is Safan’s stab at creating his own Star Wars-esque theme song.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listening To It: Driving an incredibly dated car to the only arcade in your town that hasn’t closed down yet to beat a 12-year old’s Galaga score.
James Horner was anything but underrated. He won an Academy Award for his (quite literally) Titanic score and was nominated a staggering eight times for his other scores. Some films of his included: Aliens, House of Sand and Fog, American Tail, The Land Before Time, A Beautiful Mind, Krull, Braveheart, and Avatar - meaning he’s worked with the likes of James Cameron, Don Bluth, and Steven Spielberg. So, why exactly is a piece of his on this list? With a body of work that stretched five decades of film, it remains far too easy to forget some of the pieces. Enemy At The Gates found Horner late into his career but certainly not dipping in form. When it comes to sweeping war themes, he delivered with the right mix of frantic snares; a foreboding horn section; haunting strings, and the kitchen sink. A lesser composer would have gotten lost with all the toys on display but, through it all, Horner shows why he was considered a true pro prior to his tragic death in 2015.
Why It’s Not As Well Remembered: Enemy At the Gates was a well recieved, if historically inaccurate film. But, the sheer volume of Horner’s work scoring much bigger pictures really prevented this score from getting the attention it should have.
Most Memorable Moment: “Tania” by far has the most memorable bit of magic, serving as the film’s unofficial theme.
Most Appropriate Thing To Do While Listing To It: Thrilling online gaming with your friends while trying desperately not to be distracted by the thought of how attractive Jude Law's lips are.