We tasked our writers with picking their favourite film soundtrack, anything ranging from a compilation of popular songs to an original score. You may think it sounds (pun intended) an easy task but it really isn’t…
Fargo (Carter Burwell) – Oliver Rowe
Fargo is a fantastic film in practically every aspect, and this is especially true of its brilliant soundtrack, composed by Carter Burwell. Excellent soundtracks, orchestrated scores or music (or a combination of both), should really make you feel something as a viewer. They don’t detract attention from the visual storytelling, they add to it. So that the next time you hear, say, Stuck in the Middle With You, there’s only one thing that comes to mind. Fargo has this and more. Its score is the definition of hauntingly beautiful. It’s the reason you remember the opening credits of the film so well. It’s the reason you feel just as stuck in the Minnesota snow as the characters do. It’s the reason you feel just about as emotionally distraught as some of the characters do by its climax.
It succeeds on every level it needs to – it’s bleak and desolate, to match its setting and story, as well as being dark and foreboding, to match the broad structure of the film, all whilst having enough similarity piece to piece for it to really hit some emotive high notes at the key narrative moments. Another reason why the soundtrack works is because the Coens know when not to use it – it’s not in any of the more darkly comic scenes, but the more melodramatic dynamic scenes – when you hear the soundtrack, something is happening, and that something is probably not good. This is added to by the establishment of a familiar theme that runs throughout a lot of the different pieces of the score, and makes it feel even more particular to the film because of this. I can’t think of a soundtrack that more perfectly fits every minute detail of its film, and that is why Fargo is my choice for the greatest film soundtrack of all time.
Notting Hill – Amelia Conway
Notting Hill (1999) has a soundtrack that perfectly captures the melancholy sentiments of the film and nature of the ‘hopeless romantic’, characterised by the king of rom-coms himself, Hugh Grant. The journey of Will and Anna’s love story is told through the changing mood of the music, beginning with the tender tones of Ronan Keating and Elvis Costello, depicting that engulfing and uncontrollable feeling of falling in love.
…a poignant backdrop to Will’s aimless and lonely wandering through Notting Hill market…
The highs of this whirlwind romance rapidly come crashing down when reality checks in, Will is faced with the harsh fact that matters of the heart are not always simple. Al Green’s ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart‘ accompanies this feeling of desolation and sadness, evoking the utmost level of sympathy from the viewer.
When the protagonist is left heartbroken, once again, his anguish and emptiness is portrayed through the fitting choice of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine‘. Bill Withers’ voice serves as a poignant backdrop to Will’s aimless and lonely wandering through Notting Hill market as the months and seasons pass him by.
The soundtracks of romantic films are often guilty of excessive soppiness. Yet the carefully crafted choices of this one in particular take the viewer through the motions of falling for and losing that significant other, in a way that has the power to stir the hearts of most.
American Beauty (Thomas Newman) – Morgan Jenkin
In my opinion, there are very few film moments as iconic as the opening scene of American Beauty. Sam Mendes’ use of an aerial shot of suburbia, overwhelmingly lacking in any colour, yet perfectly symmetrical, foregrounds the monotony of the character’s lives. When this is placed alongside Kevin Spacey’s outstanding performance as the soon to be dead Lester Burnham, it serves to captivate a viewer within the first thirty seconds. What I feel really sets it apart from other ‘see before you die films’, however, is Thomas Newman’s score.
It’s minimalist, which helps to build upon the sense of mundanity that rules Lester’s life, yet the use of differing drums, xylophones and even the tapping of metal mixing bowls to create the underlying rhythm adds a sense of mischievousness that is pervasive throughout the entire film. Between the score and the voice over, the tone is set, adding another layer to Lester’s complicated personality. Once you watch the film, it becomes no surprise that Newman won a Grammy for this soundtrack. Without the score, this film would struggle to show that it is more than a sad story of a man who is having a mid-life crisis. With the score, it’s one of the best films of the 20th century.
Batman (Danny Elfman) – Jeremie Sabourin
When talking about the greatest film scores, there may be no better than Tim Burton’s superhero masterpiece, Batman. By now, everyone should be familiar with Danny Elfman’s quirky spirited sound but it wasn’t until he started scoring Burton’s films that he became synonymous with great movie music.
The music of Batman is big, bombastic… It was an impeccable match for Tim Burton’s vision of the character…
With Batman, Elfman was tasked with creating an iconic theme for the dark knight. The result was legendary. There’s nothing quite like the classic Batman march that’s frequently revisited throughout the film’s run time. It’s intimidating, triumphant, and epic all at the same time. The theme went over so well that it was recycled for Batman: The Animated Series and, more recently, it was used in the Lego Batman video games.
Along with the main theme, the rest of the music is phenomenal as well. During scenes with Batman taking down villains, the music can be quite sinister yet there is a hint of playfulness to it still due to its bouncy, anxiety ridden sound. Scenes with Jack Nicholson’s Joker are especially lighthearted with pieces that resemble circus music and waltzes to counteract the darker aspects of Batman’s music.
Before Batman, superheroes were never taken all that seriously. The music was just another step in turning the character into the brooding, fearsome figure that we know him as today. Danny Elfman’s score mixed with the dark, gothic visuals in the film were the perfect pairing. He was able to create a cohesive sound throughout all of his pieces no matter how polar opposite the characters, and their themes, were. The music of Batman is big, bombastic, and simply magnificent. It was an impeccable match for Tim Burton’s vision of the character and will always be one of the best film scores of all time.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone) – George Storr
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s soundtrack is perhaps the most iconic of all time. Masterminded by Oscar winning composer Ennio Morricone it creates immensely evocative moments and offers the film the lasting appeal that means it’s still so watchable today.
…spaghetti westerns aren’t known for their complex dialogue but Ennio Morricone’s expertly crafted soundtracks more than fill any void.
The films’ opening theme is instantly recognisable and an icon of the Western genre but looking beyond it reveals a score that is excellent from start to finish. Scenes that would otherwise feel dated to the modern viewer are still immensely emotive as the soundtrack plunges the audience into an un-paralleled level of immersion.
The scene for example that see’s Tuco arrive at the graveyard late in the film is immensely soundtrack driven. Morricone’s ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ makes it one of the single most memorable scenes in cinema as Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, tears headlong down rows and rows of graves in an attempt to complete his search for treasure. There is a feeling at once of release, in reaching the destination of the graveyard, and a frantic pressure to complete the search. The sound of The Ecstasy of Gold combines so perfectly with the way the scene is shot and the building atmosphere Morricone and director Sergio Leone create throughout the film.
While I’ve singled out that scene, the soundtrack is a consistently gripping one. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns aren’t known for their complex dialogue but Ennio Morricone’s expertly crafted soundtracks more than fill any void. The Good the Bad and the Ugly is a seminal work in that respect- watch it and the audio-visual memory will be hard to erase.
Amélie (Yann Tiersen) – Anna Whealing
Welcome to the world of Amélie Poulain, where ordinary things are made fantastical, where all of love and life is put under a strange microscope and where everybody is bathed in the beauty of the Parisian evening light. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, or simply, Amélie, is a film about imagination, sensation and love wrapped all together in a beautifully poignant soundtrack.
…not only does it ticks all the boxes of being moving and memorable and well used within the film, it conveys something more.
Accordion and piano composer Yann Tiersen composed a soundtrack which sets the mood of the film entirely, capturing the lively spirit of Amélie together with the romance of Paris. Producer Jean-Pierre Jeunet immediately fell in love with Tiersen’s music when his assistant producer played a CD in the car. Jeunet bought all Tiersen’s albums then commissioned the musician to compose select pieces for the film. This music clearly helped form Jeunet’s vision of the wonderful world of Amélie.
In Amélie music is used expertly alongside cinematography, it weaves in and out of shots, sometimes coming from an on screen referent, like a Merry-go-round, sometimes purely as a soundtrack to the action and sometimes seemingly connected to only Amelie’s inner reflections. There are also many moments where music is absent, meaning the music becomes a feature as important as any other and not simply background.
The score was nominated for five awards, winning two and also becoming no.1 in the French albums chart. Amélie should be recognised as being one of the all time ‘best soundtracks’ because, not only does it ticks all the boxes of being moving and memorable and well used within the film, it conveys something more. Some implacable romance, some collective beauty that no matter how fantastical or implausible everyone can and wants to believe it as long as the music is playing.
Forrest Gump – Arran Byers
1994’s Forrest Gump is considered one of the greats, charting with care and an astute reflective skill the conservative values found in the USA from the mid 20th Century onward and how it clashed with the famous counter-culture, thus providing a vivid 30 year backdrop to Forrest Gump’s incredible life.
…it was one of the biggest selling albums of the 90s and is still selling today; capturing the imagination of many…
To truly capture the spirit of this era Tom Hank’s character interacts with historical events and some poignant personal moments symbolic of a wider American experience whilst what has to be the most thoughtful selection of songs accompanies him on his journey. If you were to purchase the soundtrack you would receive an album containing 34 songs each as strong as the last and in effect could be seen as a compilation of the USA’s identity in a period when the idea of being American was facing heavy criticism. Starting with Elvis, who also features in the film, the soundtrack follows Forrest into the 60s and features many of the famous Vietnam War songs that in effect became an anthem to the war and many subsequent US wars.
Not many albums can feature Rock ‘n’ Roll, Swinging Sixties, the music of Woodstock, 70s rock bands, folk music and classic Southern anthems and yet make sense. It is eclectic yet specific; each song tied to a scene or mood and adds to it, yet every song is unique and different from the last bringing such a variety to the album. If you search hard enough you can find additional songs that are in the film which takes it to the next level… in effect it is your quintessential guidebook to American music from 1950 to 1980. Maybe that’s why it was one of the biggest selling albums of the 90s and is still selling today; capturing the imagination of many and worthy, due to its cultural significance, of a place in the American Archives at the Smithsonian.
Some Notable Soundtracks Not Featured…
Pulp Fiction – As with all the soundtracks from Quentin Tarantino films the caliber is high but Pulp Fiction had something more about it, going on to become one of the biggest albums of the 90s. The Surf-rock genre, Kool and the Gang and Urge Overkill received significant boosts due to being featured and these songs, contrasted with the dramatic quotes from the film that feature as singles, make this surely one of the greatest of all time.
Star Wars (John Williams) – It would be accurate to describe John Williams as one of the most influential composers of his age with his scores accompanying many great films. However, his work on Star Wars has proved timeless and has spanned all 7 films and extra releases from the franchise. The iconic main theme being perhaps one of the most memorable orchestral pieces written in the last 50 years; its not Beethoven but it is awe inspiring.
Purple Rain (Prince and the Revolution) – Prince was in the midst of a historic streak of success with his music was widely lauded with praise and his style was indicative of the ‘New Romantics’ movement in Britain. So when Prince wrote a film, not remarkable story line wise, he penned the soundtrack and it was an instant classic. ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and, one the greatest guitar songs of all time, ‘Purple Rain’, all featured leading to the soundtrack winning an Oscar and being considered one of the best of all time.