Sounds of Cinema

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The American Film Institute's Greatest Film Scores

An addendum to Episode 327 and 328.

On Sunday, February 27th, Sounds of Cinema completed a two-part series of episodes that showcased the American Film Institute’s picks of the twenty-five greatest film scores of all time. This list was released in 2005 as a part of the institute’s "100 Years" series. Although I think the organization made mostly good choices on this compilation of film scores, I do have some criticisms of the AFI and their lists.

First is a practical criticism. The lists are never really definitive because films continue to get made and work that surpasses the motion pictures and scores on this and other AFI lists could be superseded at any time. There is also a related question of quantity. All other AFI lists included 100 choices but for some reason this list of scores was limited to twenty-five. Both concerns highlight the arbitrary nature of these lists.

Second, the AFI's list is imprecise in its criteria. The description on the AFI's page about the list indicates that these are the most memorable film scores of all time. Memorable is not necessarily synonymous with "good" and "good music" can have radically different meanings to different people at different times. The scores of John Williams tend to use a leitmotif technique, in which themes are established and manipulated to link the music closely to the action and editing of the film. Other scores, like those of Bernard Herrmann, tend to create a musical atmosphere. Neither style is necessarily better than the other, although some film and music critics may argue otherwise. But what is to be judged as art, or for that matter as a definitive example of film music, varies over time as techniques and sounds come in and out of style.

Third, this particular list of film scores is specifically directed at original compositions. It is an understandable caveat, but as a result the list ignores a broader use of music in film. The AFI’s list of great scores excludes adaptations and interpolations of classical works into a film, such as the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey which effectively uses music by Richard Strauss in one of the most memorable marriages of music and moving imagery in any film ever made. The list also excludes the use of popular music or the combination of pop music with score. This leaves out soundtracks to films like Top Gun, Do the Right Thing, and American Graffiti.

My last major criticism of these lists is that the AFI shows preferential treatment toward big budget films from Hollywood studios. Independent films are mostly absent from all AFI lists and its register of great film music is almost entirely made of large orchestral scores that conform to a classic Hollywood sound. Synthetic or electronic music is entirely absent and scores limited to piano or a small ensemble are few in number. This leaves out music from films like Shaft, Halloween, and Requiem for a Dream.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of scores that I think rival at least half of the AFI’s picks. I’ve listed them alphabetically by film title. In assembling the list, I have omitted film musicals but I have retained films that use popular or vocal music as a part of the soundtrack or include musical performances as part of the diegesis of the film.

  • 28 Days Later (2002) John Murphy, et al.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Various Artists
  • Aliens (1987) James Horner
  • Amadeus (1984) Various Artists
  • American Graffiti (1973) Various Artists
  • Apocalypse Now (1979) Carmine Coppola, et al.
  • August Rush (2007) Various Artists
  • Back to the Future (1985) Alan Silvestri, et al.
  • Batman (1989) Danny Elfman & Prince
  • Beverly Hills Cop (1984) Harold Faltermeyer, et al.
  • Black Swan (2010) Clint Mansell
  • Blade Runner (1982) Vangelis
  • Born on the Fourth of July (1989) John Williams
  • Braveheart (1995) James Horner
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Henry Mancini
  • The Breakfast Club (1985) Various Artists
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Franz Waxman
  • Candyman (1992) Philip Glass
  • Cape Fear (1991) Elmer Bernstein
  • Casablanca (1942) Max Steiner
  • Chariots of Fire (1981) Vangelis
  • Chocolat (2000) Rachel Portman
  • Cinema Paradisio (1988) Ennio Morricone
  • Citizen Kane (1941) Bernard Herrmann
  • Cleopatra (1963) Alex North
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971) Wendy Carlos, et al.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) John Williams
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982) Basil Poledouris
  • Crash (2005) Mark Isham
  • Dances With Wolves (1990) John Barry
  • The Dark Knight (2008) Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
  • Die Hard (1988) Michael Kamen, et al.
  • Dirty Harry (1971) Lalo Schifrin
  • Do The Right Thing (1989) Various Artists
  • Doctor Zhivago (1965) Maurice Jarre
  • Double Indemnity (1944) Miklos Rozsa
  • Dr. No (1962) Monty Norman & John Barry
  • Dracula (1992) Wojciech Kilar
  • East of Eden (1955) Leonard Rosenman
  • Easy Rider (1969) Various Artists
  • The Exorcist (1973) Steve Boeddeker, et al.
  • Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Various Artists
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966) Bernard Herrmann
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) Various Artists
  • Fight Club (1999) The Dust Brothers
  • Finding Neverland (1994) Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
  • The Fugitive (1993) James Newton Howard
  • Forrest Gump (1994) Alan Silvestri, et al.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) Elmer Bernstein, et al.
  • Gimmie Shelter (1970) Various Artists
  • Gladiator (2000) Hans Zimmer
  • Goldfinger (1964) John Barry
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Ennio Morricone
  • The Graduate (1968) Simon & Garfunkel
  • Halloween (1977) John Carpenter
  • A Hard Day’s Night (1964) The Beatles
  • Hustle & Flow (2005) Various Artists
  • In the Heat of the Night (1967) Quincy Jones
  • Into the Wild (2007) Eddie Vedder
  • The Jazz Singer (1937) Louis Silvers
  • The Last Picture Show (1971) Hank Williams Jr.
  • The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Peter Gabriel
  • The Lion in Winter (1968) John Barry
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Howard Shore
  • Lucifer Rising (1980) Bobby Beausoleil
  • Manhunter (1986) Michel Rubini, et al.
  • The Matrix (1999) Don Davis, et al.
  • Naked Lunch (1991) Howard Shore
  • Natural Born Killers (1994) Various Artists
  • Navajo Joe (1966) Ennio Morricone
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) Various Artists
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Charles Bernstein
  • North By Northwest (1959) Bernard Herrmann
  • The Omen (1978) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Ennio Morricone
  • The Passion of the Christ (2004) John Debney
  • Patton (1972) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) Danny Elfman
  • Platoon (1986) Georges Delerue
  • Plunkett & MacLeane (1999) Craig Armstrong
  • Poltergeist (1982) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Predator (1987) Alan Silvestri
  • Psycho II (1983) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Pulp Fiction (1994) Various Artists
  • Purple Rain (1984) Prince
  • Raging Bull (1980) Various Artists
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) John Williams
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Reservoir Dogs (1992) Various Artists
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000) Clint Mansell
  • A River Runs Through It (1992) Mark Isham
  • Rocky (1976) Bill Conti
  • Rocky IV (1985) Vince DiCola, et al.
  • Romeo and Juliet (1996) Craig Armstrong, et al.
  • Rudy (1993) Jerry Goldsmith
  • The Sand Pebbles (1966) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Schindler’s List (1993) John Williams
  • Scorpio Rising (1964) Various Artists
  • Shaft (1971) Isaac Hayes
  • The Shining (1980) Wendy Carlos, et al.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Howard Shore
  • Slumdog Millionaire (2008) A.R. Rahman
  • Spartacus (1960) Alex North
  • St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) Various Artists
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) James Horner
  • Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) John Williams
  • Superman: The Movie (1978) John Williams
  • Suspiria (1977) Goblin
  • Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) Earth, Wind & Fire
  • The Thin Red Line (1998) Hans Zimmer
  • Taxi Driver (1976) Bernard Herrmann
  • The Ten Commandments (1956) Elmer Bernstein
  • The Terminator (1984) Brad Fiedel
  • There Will Be Blood (2008) Jonny Greenwood
  • This is Spinal Tap (1984) Various Artists
  • Titanic (1998) James Horner
  • Top Gun (1987) Harold Faltermeyer, et al.
  • Toy Story (1995) Randy Edelman
  • Unforgiven (1992) Lennie Niehaus and Clint Eastwood
  • Walk the Line (2005) Johnny Cash, et al.
  • Where the Wild Things Are (2009) Karen O. and the Kids
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Alex North
  • The Wind and the Lion (1975) Jerry Goldsmith
  • Woodstock (1970) Various Artists

This list is not definitive. That's not really the point. The value of the American Film Institute’s lists, as well as the many lists created by critics and fans in response, is in their ability to highlight some great and important music and force viewers to think about what it is they value in film. Lists like this are made to incite debate and thereby prompt people to think about film. In the end, the purpose of the AFI’s “100 Years” project was to deepen and broaden the public’s appreciation of film.That’s a goal I can get behind and it's why I spent two episodes of this show on it.

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