Film soundtracks and television theme tunes have long been a passion of mine. I remember the impact that theme tunes from my favourite TV shows — such as ‘The Avengers,’ ‘The Prisoner,’ ‘Mission Impossible,’ ‘The Saint,’ ‘Batman,’ ‘The Man From U. N. C. L. E. ,’ ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Doctor Who’ — amongst many others — had upon me as a little boy.
Having left school at 15 I was then fortunate to immediately land a job at a music publisher / recording studio who were renowned for their television themes / soundtrack catalogue. Those many afternoons spent inside darkened, smoke-filled recording studios in the late 1970s — observing at close quarters talented soundtrack composers and session musicians — certainly whetted my appetite for the genre. In recent years I’ve even established my own soundtrack company, Cineola; my latest score is for the controversial British thriller ‘Hyena,’ which opens this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival on June 18th.
What makes a soundtrack great? Well, it’s not just the melodies, rhythms and production quality of the music itself, of course, but fundamentally the way in which it interacts with the cinematography, the dialogue and the performances of the actors. A great soundtrack can create an additional dimension to the experience of watching a film by communicating between the lines of dialogue and the frames of celluloid. Music possesses a unique power to cut deep into the soul of human beings and consequently imbue a film with an emotional intensity it would otherwise be impossible for it to possess. But, on the other hand, what is the most wonderful soundtrack without a great film to accompany it? And the soundtracks I love the most also happen to form part of the films I love the most too.
Anyway, without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s my Top Five favourite film soundtracks — although truthfully any one of 100 other soundtracks could have appeared on this small list such as Bernard Hermann’s ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ or Ennio Morricone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ and ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ or Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Bullitt’ or John Carpenters ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ or Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ … but I had to stop somewhere.
‘The Conversation’ – David Shire – from the Francis Ford Coppola film of 1974
David Shire created many soundtracks I enjoyed, notably ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ and ‘All The President’s Men ‘ but it’s his soundtrack for the Francis Ford Coppola thriller ‘The Conversation’ which stands out for me, in particularly the simple yet hauntingly beautiful piano motif which features throughout and expresses so much more emotion than a large bombastic score could ever have done. This soundtrack was also notable for it’s pioneering use of sound design and as the storyline follows the disintegration of Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, into a frenzied state of paranoid isolation, the soundtrack pursues perfectly.
‘Solaris’ – Eduard Artemev – from the Andrei Tarkovsky film of 1972
Back in the early 1970s electronic music still had an exotic and rarified quality to it and none more so than the original soundtracks that the Russian composer Eduard Artemyev created for his compatriot the great Andrei Tarkovsky. In part the unique sonic signature of Artemyev’s early work may have been because he used old Soviet synthesiser technology and consequently was drawing from a different sonic palette to his Western counterparts. My favourite score of his is ‘Solaris’ but again it is impossible to divide the music from the images and this film is such a powerful marriage of sound, vision and emotion that it seems to tap straight into that secret little place our deepest dreams reside.
‘The Odd Couple’ – Neal Hefti – from the Gene Saks film of the Neil Simon play of 1968
Neal Hefti wrote some of my favourite film and TV themes, including ‘Batman’ (mentioned above) and ‘Duel at Diablo’ but the main theme from “The Odd Couple’ is my favourite. With its staccato keyboard intro it has a jaunty feel — though shot through with an underlying sadness — whilst upon their introduction the brass and string lines seem to sweep lazily across the Manhattan skyline to establish a unique emotion that’s impossible to hear without being transported straight back to Oscar and Felix’s atmospheric Manhattan apartment. My entire family loved the original movie from the first time we all saw it; especially the superb performances of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and the sharp lines of Neil Simon’s script but the main theme played a crucial part in my affection for this film.
‘Zulu’ – John Barry – from the Cy Enfield film of 1964
‘Zulu’ was another film that was very popular in our household when I was a child. My brothers and I absolutely loved it and once again it is hard to untangle the sumptuous imagery — those scarlet tunics against the deep azure of the African skies — from the pulsating beauty of John Barry’s score. The core element of the main theme is so simple and yet so effective, especially when performed by an orchestra whose size conveys the massiveness of the battle that lay ahead. The most recognisable part of the theme is comprised of just a handful of notes that Barry had apparently based upon some indigenous Zulu songs and chants that the film’s director Cy Endfield had brought back from Africa. Barry was one of those truly great soundtrack composers who just knew how to zone straight in on an audience’s sonic-sweet-spot.
‘Touch of Evil’ – Henry Mancini – from the Orson Welles film of 1958
I wasn’t born when ‘Touch of Evil’ was released in 1958 and only caught up with it in the 1980s, in fact, unusually, I had a copy of the vinyl before I even saw the film. I loved this soundtrack from the moment I first spun it on my record player and I was not disappointed when I saw the film the first time either. Henry Mancini’s bold, brassy score positively drips with sleaze and menace and matches every bead of sweat that drips from nearly every frame of Welle’s noir masterpiece. I was always quite disappointed on my trips to Tijuana to find that none of the bars I frequented had this album playing on their juke box!
Matt Johnson – June 2014