Film is an exceptional medium in that it is as auditory as it is visual. Music can make all the difference between something “beautiful” and something “cinematic.” In recognition of that, here are ten movie composers I can’t get out of my head.
- John Williams
Williams is so iconic, it’s almost cliché to include him on a list like this. Notwithstanding, his scores for Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones, Superman, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter, and many, many more, are as legendary as the texts themselves. A musician is lucky to have one success to his or her name, but I guarantee you that Williams’s work immediately started playing in your mind for each of these titles as you read them.
- Danny Elfman
Elfman is to Tim Burton what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Accordingly, his compositions are more “theatrical” where Williams’s are more “epic.” He breathes life into even the most bleak of his projects, including Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld (2013).
- Atticus Ross and Trent Renzor
These two share a spot because their creative partnership earned them the Academy Award for Best Music (Original Score) with David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media with Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Fincher has an eye for literary adaptations, and an ear for music. Ross and Renzor’s accompaniment for Gone Girl (2014) is atmospheric and chilling, and unjustly snubbed at this year’s Oscars.
- Hans Zimmer
When a composer and a director team up, they establish a relationship as rhythmic as the music they put to film. Zimmer has produced for Christopher Nolan music that’s as modern and edgy as The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception (2010). He’s arguably the most influential cinematic composer working today – his influence can be heard everywhere, even in movie trailers.
- Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith had an affinity for neo-noir. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) are two notable examples. My personal favorite is Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), with a theme that’s as seductive and sinister as its classic villain.
- Pino Donaggio
A frequent Brian De Palma collaborator, Donaggio scored Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Blow Out (1981). Body Double (1984) is a standout. Its new wave soundtrack is the mesmerizing highlight of an otherwise mediocre film.
- James Horner
Horner is in touch with his classical Celtic roots at the same time as he progresses into a more “sci-fi” realm. Examples are Cocoon, Aliens, Apollo 13, and Avatar. James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) is his masterpiece, winning him one of the picture’s record-setting eleven Oscars and choking us up every time.
- Max Steiner
The Austrian-born Steiner conducted his first operetta when he was twelve and began full-time work as a professional composer and conductor when he was fifteen. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as well as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) are among the three hundred scores he’s written. “The Father of Film Music” raises goosebumps seventy-six years later in Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939).
- Ennio Morricone
Morricone is a man of vast range. His romanticism comes across in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) and his gritty, spaghetti Western chops are showcased in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. He’s enjoyed a resurgence on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and I couldn’t choose just one of his greatest hits, so I picked two.
- Bernard Herrmann
Herrmann died doing what he loved; on Christmas Eve 1975, he came home from finishing up Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and passed away in his sleep. He was one of the great musical geniuses of the twentieth century, responsible for everything from “Twisted Nerve” (the Kill Bill whistle song) to Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). It’s Hitchcock’s own Vertigo (1958), the best movie of all time, where his talent is on fullest display, a piece of music which raises us to the same dizzying heights and plunges us to the same bottomless depths as the thematic whirlpool of obsession at the heart of the Master of Suspense’s masterwork.