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  • Joshua Britton

Ten Favorite Film Scores

In no particular order, here are ten of my favorite film scores (limiting myself to one score per composer)

Taxi Driver

Bernard Hermann never won an Oscar, although he was nominated several times, including twice in 1976, for Obsession and Taxi Driver. Hermann is better known for his collaboration with Hitchcock, and I won’t argue if you claim that Psycho or North By Northwest is his best. I love this score, though, the way it represents how screwed up Travis Bickle is in the head, alternating from the genuinely dark horror sound of his violent tendencies, heard right off the bat, to the quickly following lush romantic melody played in the saxophone (even psychos need love).

Dressed To Kill

Brian de Palma wasn’t shy about his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock. He hired Bernard Hermann to write the score for two of his 70s films before Hermann died. Then, beginning with Carrie, he began a lengthy collaboration with Pino Donaggio, who he referred to as his Hermann and his Morricone. I’ve never heard a non-de Palma Donaggio score, but the eight or nine they’ve collaborated on together are pretty good. Body Double has major cheesy 80s-sound influences, and that’s a lot of fun, but nothing beats the art museum scene in Dressed to Kill.

Honorable mention: Blow Out

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I once heard the 70s described as the golden age of cinema. I liked the sound of that so I kind of roll with it. To me, nothing epitomizes 70s cinema and the rise of the anti-hero more than Cuckoo’s Nest. Cuckoo’s Nest is an example of a movie being better than the book, and the music is unlike anything else I can think of in mainstream film. Former Phil Spectre-colleague Jack Nitzche wrote the music, and with his use of bowed saw and wine glasses, he would have made John Cage proud. This score has a mood. Note how quietly the music in the opener begins and how it’s almost a three-minute crescendo.


Even though I love the 80s, I usually consider synthesized movie “orchestral” scores a black eye on the decade. But oh man this one by Jerry Goldsmith is so great. I’ve never cared about basketball, so whenever I see clips of basketball highlights, instead of paying attention, I almost always get the music to Hoosiers stuck in my head. I love the boomy synthesized rock snare drum that mimics a basketball bouncing on the gymnasium floor, and I love the 7/8 b-section when the team is going really well. Great acting, too, although that goes without saying when Gene Hackman is involved.


I’ve never been much for Tim Burton and so by default not much for Danny Elfman. But I grew up on this one. Elfman wrote the music for this and Batman Returns, and the main theme got used for the 90s Animated Series as well, which I enjoy watching with my kids. Great theme! I played it on bass bone during a pops concert a few years ago, and it was a blast (pun!). This is less quirky than Elfman’s Burton scores normally are. It’s solid through and through, and relatively not that weird. They all hit home runs with this one.

When we watched this the first time, at the conclusion of these opening scenes, Tamsin

commented, “That was very clever.”

Elfman Honorable mention: Mission: Impossible (1996)

Young Frankenstein

Peter Boyle will forever be the standard for “The Creature”, and Gene Wilder the standard for the mad scientist. This is a great melody that I’m never sorry to have stuck in my head. Not a whole lot to say here; it’s just good. Plus it has the greatest French horn cameo in all of cinema, and I have a soft spot for the horn. Bummed there doesn’t seem to be a better-quality clip of this scene:

Jurassic Park

My favorite Steven Spielberg-John Williams movie is Jaws, and I like the music for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and E.T. just as well. But Jurassic Park was the CD I listened to over and over in middle school, able to accurately quote the movie in the right spots, and pretending to conduct a full orchestra. Man those were good times. Factoring in nostalgia, this one is my favorite. It’s all great, such as the marimba in the scene where Dennis steals the embryos, but the “Journey to the Island” (“there it is…”) will always be the one for me. It’s not my style to give props to a trumpet player, but that’s some good trumpet playing.


I once heard Charade described as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made,” and that stuck with me. I really like Hitchcock, but I like Charade more. Henry Mancini wrote the score and it fluctuates between lush traditional French-sounding melodies (it takes place almost entirely in Paris) and more intense “running” music with the percussion ostinato. I love the James Bond-like animation in the opening credits to accompany the music. Audrey Hepburn is as cute as ever. These are my favorite performances by Walter Mathau and Cary Grant, as well, and even the toothful James Coburn has an awesome supporting role. Love this flick.

Sin City

Few filmmakers are more “well-rounded” than Robert Rodriguez in that not only does he write, direct, and edit his films (although this one is an adaptation), but he is also an excellent guitarist and often composes the music (John Carpenter is another solid example of a director who has written his own film scores). Few films blew me away more than the first time I saw Sin City.

Seventeen years later, the rock-based and film noir hybrid score still sticks with me.

Honorable mention: Rodriguez also wrote some great music for Kill Bill vol. 2, most of which was left off of the official soundtrack, for some reason.

Raging Bull

This one is cheating, as this music by Mascagni was written for Cavalleria rusticana one hundred years before this film, so we’ll call this one a “bonus,” and not one of my ten favorite film scores. The slow motion of the bull in the ring, in black and white, accompanied by the predominantly string orchestra is beautiful. And show me a better use of classical music in cinema! There are many examples (Kubrick immediately comes to mind), but this is the best. Why this piece doesn’t get included on both movie music concerts and sports-themed pops concerts is beyond me.

American Beauty

Long before we learned he was a creep, Kevin Spacey made a career of playing creeps. But while The Usual Suspects and Se7en have achieved cult statuses, American Beauty, which shares philosophical ideas with The Catcher in the Rye, Fight Club, and Taxi Driver, despite winning the best picture Oscar seems like it’s been forgotten already. A more understated theme of anarchism than those others, this film has a mood like few others I can think of, a combination between the overall tone of the narrative pacing, the cinematography, and the music. Thomas Newman’s score is minimalistic and unique, alternating between a traditional chamber music sound (the opening measures of the band piece, “October,” by Eric Whitacre always make me think of this: and the more percussion-heavy and modern techniques in pieces such as this:

Once Upon a Time In America

The late great Ennio Morricone was the best. Among my favorite Morricone scores are The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Duck You Sucker, Novecento, The Untouchables, and this one. This is a top-five film for me. I love Morricone's music in all of Sergio Leone's films. This one is a four-hour prohibition gangster epic that will break your heart over and over, and Morricone’s score is one of the major reasons why. I can’t think of anything in cinema more beautiful than the lengthy sequence of the gang when they were still children, both visually and musically. Just thinking about it gets me emotional. Notable for its use of “pan flute,” Morricone also does an arrangement of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” which I always found interesting.

I really struggled trying to decide which specific piece of music to share. The pan flute music is what I think of first, when I think of this film, but Deborah’s Theme is gorgeous, and this montage just kills me.

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1 Comment

Feb 17

Huh. Personally love Danny Elfman. 😁

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