My Favourite Film Scores: Orchestral

To coincide with Neil Brand’s new BBC4 series ‘The Sound of Cinema,’ counts down his five favourite film scores

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Neil Brand’s BBC4 ‘The Sound of Cinema’ series began this week, with the ever-enthusiastic host taking us through the history of the orchestral score. I must confess, however, that I found myself distracted from the programme, trying to decide on my own favourite scores. The result is this list, which is by no means an attempt to be definitive. Instead, these are just some of my favourite pieces. I’m certain that almost nobody will agree, so if you have suggestions that you think might educate me, by all means throw that brick of knowledge at my glass window of ignorance.

1. John Barry – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Barry is 1960s cool incarnate. Try walking down the street listening to the theme from The Persuaders and I guarantee, girls (and guys) will swoon, the sun will shine, and perhaps a Mini Cooper will drive past. His work on Bond is even better though, hitting a peak with the score for George Lazenby’s outing as 007. The title track is electrifying, starting with a single, downward-crunching synth progression before charging headlong into a full orchestral fanfare. The theme’s magnificence comes from Barry’s ability to hit heroic without ever being corny. It’s the stoic, grim-faced Yorkshire cousin of the theme from Rocky, and all the better for it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8VUGVX9jbA

2. Hans Zimmer – Inception

With one note, Hans Zimmer changed trailers forever: BWOAAAAAAR. This entry is a tad contentious, given Zimmer’s extensive use of electronics, but come on: can you even hear them beneath the horns? While the action cues are certainly memorable (“Dream is Collapsing” and “Mombasa” are highlights), my favourite is “Time”, which accompanies the end of the film. Sadly, it’s been montaged to death in the last few years (ahem, BBC Wimbledon coverage), but it remains potent. It’s an exemplary exercise in the slow build, starting with distant piano chords, then gradually ramping up into a triumphant wave of brass and strings. Interesting fact – the electric guitar parts throughout the score were played by Johnny Marr of The Smiths. Presumably Morrissey turned down the offer to cover “Non je ne regrette rien”.

3. Ennio Morricone – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

An incredible score by an incredible composer, whose work on the Spaghetti Westerns defined the genre in a cacophony of bonkers percussion, chants and coyote wails. The piece I’ve chosen has none of those. The Ecstasy of Gold plays out over the film’s climax, as the titular characters scramble around an abandoned graveyard looking for treasure. Yet this is one of those moments in which score quickly transcends the scene it has been written for. Epic is a word thrown around all too often, but here it’s right on the money: frankly, if Jesus were to pull a shocker and reveal himself to the world, this would probably be on his iPod while he did it.

4. John Williams – Jurassic Park

The Williams sound is so distinctive in its Wagnerian, old Hollywood influences that it is easy to forget just how well his music fits its visual counterparts. ‘The Imperial March’ is Darth Vader. ‘Raiders March’ is Indiana Jones. But those scores would be easy choices. Instead, I’ve gone for the cue that accompanies the arrival at Jurassic Park, for the very reason that this piece is the moment you first see a real-life dinosaur standing in a field. The cue consists of two themes; a gentler, string-based motif, then a brassy, bombastic number. Both are pure wonder. The orchestrations are magnificent, but would be nothing without that incomparable Williams warmth.

5. Michael Giacchino – Up

Have your hankies at the ready. Taking the style and sound of an old-time swing band, Giacchino’s score for one of Pixar’s finest is full of nostalgia for a time gone by. It buzzes with energy, gleefully bouncing around the orchestra in a similar manner to his earlier work on The Incredibles. Where Up excels, though, is in its heart (I know, I sound like a greetings card, sorry). ‘Married Life’ takes a four-note motif and wrangles from it an entire lifetime’s worth of emotion, from the joy of a blossoming marriage to…well, you know. The last few bars of solo piano are heart breaking, not just because of the beautiful visual moment that they accompany, but because they’re so full of the wistful sadness of old age that the film explores. You’ll excuse me, I think there’s something in my eye…

Next week, electronic scores – hello Vangelis!

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