Top 10 Film Composers

This is without a doubt the hardest top 10 I have had to compile so far. Upon thinking of the subject I wrote a list of 25 people without even blinking. That list soon increased to over 40 names and would have easily continued had I not stopped myself.

So in this obligatory pre-amble I have to say a huge apology to many names that deserve a place on this list….but aren’t on it. I know that a couple of my choices will cause major controversy.

Also it won’t take you long to notice that this top 10 is actually a top 11! Again I apologise but it had to be done.

Before getting to the list itself I have a few honorable mentions (which is basically a way for me to fit even more deserving names into the article). These are; Randy Newman (who makes me smile more than any other composer on the list), Ludovico Einaudi (the piano master), David Arnold (Stargate will always slay me), Clint Mansell (Lux Aeterna – nuff said) and Alan Menken; the greatest of the Disney classics composers.

So now you already hate me for missing the above from my run down, let’s see who denied them a place:

11. Elmer Bernstein

ElmerBernstein

The predominant reason for Elmer Bernstein being on this list is Ghostbusters. You will notice that on any top 10 list I will include Ghostbusters where possible, as it is the defining film of my childhood (and adulthood). But what I love about Bernstein’s score for the film is that it isn’t the obvious choice. Any other composer would have gone for far too blatant spooky music, but Bernstein’s largely upbeat and quirky score only hints at supernatural themes in a very subtle way. In doing this it adds to the comedy and gives the film a much more timeless quality than if a quintessential 80s composer had been used.

 

10. Ennio Morricone

enniomorricone

The ultimate Western composer. To imagine the world of the Wild West is to begin to hear Ennio Morricone’s music in your head. His soundtracks to the Spaghetti Western genre’s best films are as indelible and original now as they were in the 1960s.

But my favourite Morricone composition comes from a very different type of film to his cowboy signature pieces. It is in fact a much more romantic movement from the incredible Cinema Paradiso. This song proves that Morricone was a master of all musical techniques. He was not someone to be pigeonholed and in fact could create the perfect mood for any moment.

9. Hans Zimmer (& James Newton Howard)

Hans-Zimmer

People seem to forget the Hans Zimmer of old. The late 80s and 90s Zimmer whose action scores were generally pretty cheesy and blockbusterrific (I just invented a word). There’s also the little factoid about him composing the them for TV quiz Going For Gold. All things considered Mr Zimmer was pretty tongue in cheek. But then the last 13 years happened and Zimmer stepped it up several hundred notches.

Zimmer has become the go to guy for going big and loud! In doing so he has created some of the most unique and memorable scores of all time. His use of massive percussion sections and self-designed synth sounds has carved out a niche that is often copied but never replicated.

You have also probably noticed James Newton Howard next to Mr Zimmer’s name. This is because the scores for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were composed in conjunction with James Newton Howard, and I can’t help but notice the more sweeping, elegant movements carry a lot of Newton Howard’s influence. It may even have been this pairing that gave Zimmer the inspiration to create his scores for Inception and Man of Steel.

Either way, it is easy to admit that Hans Zimmer has been the defining composer of recent action cinema.

8. Thomas Newman

Thomas-Newman

Thomas Newman knows exactly how to tell a story with music. He knows how to capture mood, tone and help to develop character with a specific theme or movement. His music is never showy, but instead serves to enhance every frame it accompanies.

He is also responsible for creating one of my favourite all time scores with Road to Perdition. His work in this film is more than perfect. You can read my full review of the score here which will save me gushing uncontrollably for several more paragraphs.

Also massively influential and heart wrenching is his score to Shawshank Redemption; in particular the track “Brooks Was Here” which captures an alienated and institutionalised man’s struggle with a world that has no time for him.

And I can’t finish my write up without mentioning Wall-E, for which Newman created the best theme to accompany a dystopic future vision you could ever hope for.

 7. John Carpenter

john_carpenter

Carpenter is one of my favourite directors of all time. His films are amongst the most original, the most fun, the scariest and the best that have ever existed. Granted his more recent output has been questionable, but his work between 1976 and the early 90s is unsurpassed.

What makes Carpenter even more incredible is that he scored many of his own films as well, and these scores have gone on to become as influential to composers as his visual work has to upcoming directors.

His style is very minimal. He is great at stripping back unnecessary layers to create a definite theme for each of his movements which burn themselves into your brain and elevate his films to another level.

His Halloween theme is arguably the greatest horror music ever created, his Big Trouble in Little China score is the most irreverent and fun action music you could hope for, and his theme for Escape From New York remains one of the most beloved scores by fans and filmmakers alike across the world.

6. Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino

Of all the modern day composers that have the potential to be passed the movie score torch from John Williams, Michael Giacchino surely has the best chance.

I remember when I first heard the track Life and Death from Lost and thinking this guy is something very special. But at that point I could never have imagined the sheer range of ability Giacchino possesses.

It is impossible to pigeonhole Giacchino’s work. He literally can do anything. He has created family friendly scores (The Incredibles, Up and Sky High), incredible action themes (Star Trek, Speed Racer, John Carter) emotional minimalism (50/50, Lost) and pure cinematic wonder (Super 8, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol).

The great news is that Giacchino is only in his 40s. This means we are more than likely to get at least another 20-30 years of magic from a man who has the potential to define a generation of film goers’ musical tastes.

5. Alan Silvestri

Alan Silvestri

Silvestri is a composer that goes from strength to strength. Where other composers seem to have their creative peaks, Silvestri has been consistently brilliant for over 30 years.

Much like Michael Giacchino, Silvestri has no one preferred style or genre. Instead he has been able to bring bombast, emotion, subtlety, nuance, power, sincerity, originality and several hundred other superlatives, across a wealth of projects.

A lot of truly great composers find that they work best when partnered with a director who seems to share their wavelength and creative vision. For Silvestri this came from working with the legend that is Robert Zemeckis. This partnership alone yielded such unforgettable works as Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her and Cast Away.

But alongside this already unbelievable credit list sit scores for films such as Predator, Flight of the Navigator, The Abyss, The Bodyguard, The Mummy Returns, The Polar Express, The A-Team, Captain America and The Avengers!

This list only represents the tip of the iceberg for a man whose career will provide inspiration and aspiration to countless musicians throughout the coming years. Moreover it proves that the years have only served to strengthen Silvestri’s grasp of what makes a brilliant film score.

4. Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman

Easily the most influential composer of my teenage years. Danny Elfman was probably indirectly the cause of all emo bands and modern goth culture with his fun yet twisted take on the already insane worlds created by Tim Burton.

Elfman has never been better than when paired up with Burton’s unique visions. The theme from Beetlejuice is what really got me hooked on Elfman’s work. There had never been anything like it and there never really has since. It is the kind of music that creeps you out and then makes you smile, before knocking you on your back with more and more levels and layers until you feel like you can’t take any more!

Then came Batman, where Elfman defined how to write a superhero score (a feat he later repeated with Sam Raimi’s Spiderman), and soon after came the music that millions of impressionable youths would fall in love with; Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. These two soundtracks represent the most beautiful gothic fairytale music you could ever hope for. The former is cited by many as the perfect music for weddings and funerals, and the latter helped create one of the greatest modern day musicals.

Elfman and Burton’s partnership has gone on to give us many more incredible scores, including Big Fish, Sleepy Hollow and The Corpse Bride, but none really had the immediacy and potency of his earlier work.

In more recent years Elfman’s scores seem to be more about ambience and commercial fun than his work in the 90s. But nevertheless he remains one of the very best in the world and will go down in history as one of the most important of all time.

Oh and also The Simpsons Theme!

3. Howard Shore

Howard Shore

If there were no other reason to remember Howard Shore than for the scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he would still earn a spot towards the top of any composers list.

It is largely recognised that the LOTR trilogy represents the most impressive, intricate, enjoyable and perfectly suited music to any film of all time. This is because all of these things are true. From the opening notes of the Fellowship prologue to the closing departure to the Grey Havens by Frodo, this music did everything a perfect score could do.

It helped create worlds that don’t really exist and made them believable, it gave us a myriad of memorable themes that can stir emotion and memory when heard in or out of context, it made us understand characters’ emotions, fears, wants and needs and it never put a foot wrong in over 12 hours worth of cinematic genius.

But Shore has created other work, and it too has been as wonderful, if perhaps not as defining as LOTR. Incredible scores such as The Fly, Silence of the Lambs, Mrs Doubtfire,  Se7en and A History of Violence also stand as testament to the amazing talent of a man who approaches a score as more than just a piece of music, but an essential tool to make a movie more than it ever could be with visuals alone.

2. Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

In selecting the order of my top two composers I had to use a technique I’ve employed before when compiling these lists. Upon getting  totally stuck I had to ask myself which one is the best, and which is my favourite. Herrmann is technically the best (Favourite coming up). He is in a class above every composer who ever lived. His style has provided influence to every single composer that followed him, and his refusal to follow any rules meant that his themes and motifs stand out as much today as they did up to 70 years ago.

Herrmann’s scores are so iconic that you have probably heard many of them even if you have not heard the films they accompany. They have been used in TV adverts, film trailers,  radio plays, Simpsons episodes and have even been sampled for rap tracks (Gimme Some Mo’ by Busta Rhymes owes everything to Herrmann).

Like Elfman and Silvestri, Herrmann had a fabulous career pairing that saw him team up with one of the best directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. As with the others, it was this dream partnership that saw each man’s work elevated to a level they may not have reached without the other.

Most importantly I don’t have to go on at length to convince you of Herrmann’s prowess. I can simply list the man’s career highlights to show you that this man defined film music – Citizen Kane, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Taxi Driver and of course Pyscho, whose violent string section is probably the most memorable piece of film music of all time.

1. John Williams

John Williams

So here he is. My number one composer. My favourite of all the music makers. John Williams is the most magical of all the film composers. He has defined millions of childhoods and created worlds through music that nobody else has ever come close to.

Nobody else has created more iconic themes than Williams and nobody else has a body of work as wildly impressive and hugely varied. This is a career that has given more to people’s lives than is easily imaginable.

Williams has been a constant source of inspiration to me. Every time a Williams scored film comes on I find myself wracked with nostalgia, happiness and a feeling that anything is possible.

Whereas with every other composer it is easy to single out a favourite score or theme, it is phsyically impossible to do this with Williams. Everything is a stand out, everything has an impact and everything has an emotional effect. The fact that at over 80 years of age Williams still has multiple upcoming projects, is testament to why he is the number one of all time; he is passionate about what he does. He loves cinema and loves telling stories through music.

I owe so much to John Williams’ music and it’s a debt I’ll never get to repay, so all I can do is watch and re-watch those incredible movies as many times as possible; that’s something that works for me!

So thank you Mr Williams for all those amazing memories and thanks in advance for all that is to come. Thank you for Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Home Alone, Hook, JFK, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Minority Report, War Horse, Lincoln and many many more.

There’s no way I can provide links to all my favourites as it would go on and on, so here are just a few of my Williams highlights:

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.

7 Comments

  1. Jason Childress

    21 June, 2014 at 9:00 am

    “It is largely recognised that the LOTR trilogy represents the most impressive, intricate, enjoyable and perfectly suited music to any film of all time.”

    With all due respect, this is a rather absurd statement, greatly in need of reconsideration.

    The point isn’t that Shore’s work isn’t excellent; it’s that no one can possibly make a statement so sweeping and absolute with any degree of accuracy or hope of supporting, and to do so immediately throws your judgment into question.

    That said: I agree with many of your choices, and especially with Williams at #1.

    • James Weller

      21 June, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Interesting that you think it’s a sweeping statement. I agree with James, i think its easily one of the best scores of all time. It regularly tops polls and won countless awards including an oscar, not that should be an opinion swayer, but just shows it is well regarded. John williams is the master, weird to think our kids, kids won’t grow up with this genius creating scores

      • Jason Childress

        21 June, 2014 at 9:17 pm

        Hi James, thanks for your reply. (Wait…did I say that already?) 😉

        When I say “sweeping,” I’m referring to the words above (“the most…of any film of all time”), which by their nature render the point unprovable, and therefore somewhat meaningless.

        But I think we all know what James meant to say–that it’s (to use your words) one of the best scores of all time; and with that I agree.

        The winning of an Oscar is definitely a point in its favor, as only the best scores typically get nominated, let alone win.

        Indeed, we are lucky that John Williams is still alive in our lifetimes! I hope to meet him one day…it’s on my bucket list! (I wonder what John would have done with the LOTR score? The mind boggles…)

        Best regards to you,
        Jason

    • James Plummer

      21 June, 2014 at 10:44 am

      I may have gone to town a little on the superlatives (an offence I’m often guilty of) but I would disagree that my statement was lacking ‘accuracy or hope of support’.

      Given the several Grammy Awards, World Music Awards, BAFTAs and Oscars the scores won I’d say the industry agrees that it is at least “impressive” and “enjoyable”.

      The fact that the score was so well received and revered was proven by the decision to take the score on a tour of the world which sold out several nights globally including London, USA, Australia, Monaco, Netherlands, France and Germany (amongst others).

      In terms of its noted “intricacy” the score was recently made the subject of an in-depth analysis tome (by Doug Adams) which brought to light just how detailed the leitmotifs were in reflecting the on screen action they were accompanying e.g the Fellowship theme second phrase is based around a 9 note theme – one note taken from each individual’s own theme – which acts as a reflection of other prominent mythologies; 9 muses in Greek mythology, 9 worlds in Norse mythology etc. Shore then takes this 9 note concept and applies it directly to the enemies of the Fellowship: The History of The Ring theme contains 9 notes which, when played simultaneously, form the signature chord of the Ringwraiths, This is just one small example of how detailed the thinking and work was, as applied by Shore to the scores – pretty intricate eh? In fact I’d highly recommend the book, it’s a great read!

      In terms of “best suited” I guess that’s me being a little on the subjective side, so I’ll accept the guilt on that.

      • Jason Childress

        21 June, 2014 at 9:13 pm

        Hi James, thanks for your reply.

        I agree with pretty much everything you say here. The sticking point for me is the absolute wording, “the MOST…of ANY film of ALL time,” which is entirely subjective, and by its absolute nature simply can’t be proven. Even the numerous plaudits and kudos you’ve cited only elevate the score to the level of “ONE of the most…of all time.” At best. And even that could be debated.

        However: rather than belabor the point, I would rather agree with you that the score is indeed a monumental achievement, well deserving of the awards it garnered. (P.S. I caught that live performance a few years back, with the full orchestra and two choirs before a massive screen. What an experience that was!)

        Best wishes,
        Jason

        • James Plummer

          22 June, 2014 at 11:46 am

          Hey Jason,

          Yeah I can see that the addition of “one of” would give a little more credence to my overexcited fanboy love. Glad to hear you saw the live show, it was a totally surreal experience for me. There were times I caught myself watching the movie on the big screen and kind of forgetting the musicians and singers were there beneath – so perfect was their playing. Although saying that the majority of the time I was in total awe of them, choking back tears of unworthy respect at the brilliance of it all.

          • Jason Childress

            22 June, 2014 at 8:16 pm

            James, your reverence of these works of art is quite touching. “Choking back tears of unworthy respect.” I appreciate that kind of emotion! I too was filled with emotion by that concert (especially when the lone boy’s voice rose up, accompanying the moth’s flight–a magical moment).

            John Williams stirs my heart in a way similar to how you seem to feel about Howard Shore. His brilliance is off the chart (as you noted by putting him at #1). We really are fortunate to be living in his era; I put him on a par with Beethoven.

            Thanks for a great discussion!

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