Andy Markham pays tribute to some of the under-appreciated movie scores...
As a dedicated student of film music, there are certain films, names, and themes that I hear about all too often. Yes, Jaws and E.T. are two fantastic John Williams scores, but what about all the other dozens of marvellous pieces of work he's produced over the years? Yes, the Oscar-winners get their worthy praise, but what about those who are merely nominated, and then are forgotten forever? And what about those films that were not that great in and of themselves, but happened to have a fantastic score to their name? Here, we pay tribute to 8 of the most under-appreciated cult movie scores of recent years. Next time you want something to listen to that's a bit more off the beaten track, these get my personal recommendation...
King Kong (James Newton Howard, 2005)
Peter Jackson's epic but highly ponderous take on the 1933 big-gorilla classic was met with mixed reception upon its release, but one aspect of the film that certainly deserves high praise is James Newton Howard's score - especially as he composed it in record time after the controversial sacking of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore, who produced an ill-suited score. Newton Howard's attempt would seem to be a more than worthy successor, with the sinister, rumbling main theme for Kong punctuating all the most tense moments of the film and the truly beautiful "Central Park" providing the central character with some much-needed heart (and which, by the way, was the first thing I ever learnt to play on the piano!). Listen to "Central Park" below and feel your heart melt.
Spider-Man 3 (Christopher Young, 2007)
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man saga came to a rather divisive and uneven end with Spider-Man 3, in which every villain in the world turns up at once and Tobey Maguire dances down the street for what feels like an excruciating eternity. It was also an uncertain production for the music department. Steady pair of hands Danny Elfman tired of the series (and Raimi) and refused the job for Spider-Man 3, with relative unknown Christopher Young taking his place. Young introduces several new themes of his own, including the rather delicate theme for the Sandman, and the memorable, catchy motif for Venom. But most notably, he takes the rather generic themes Elfman introduced and applies them to their maximum emotional potential, most notably with an awesome reprisal of the main theme during the final battle. A surprisingly strong effort under the circumstances, and well worth a listen. Also an unreleased score, by the way, which is a crying shame. For a sample, try this clip of a memorable musical moment below.
V for Vendetta (Dario Marianelli, 2005)
The Wachowski Brothers' brisk, ballsy take on the classic graphic novel was received pretty well, but given its rather niche audience and a few rather strange elements (Natalie Portman's accent, anyone?), the film sadly hasn't become the cult classic that it was obviously designed to be. Nevertheless, Dario Marianelli's score has always received very high praise, and deserves to live on in the memory even if the film itself hasn't. A subtle, moody work built around strings and a whole bunch of classical and popular samples, it truly soars in the film's most dramatic moments. By far the most memorable excerpt from the score is "Evey Reborn" (see below), which has returned to popularity following its recent use in the trailer for Interstellar last year, and which stands out as a truly awe-inspiring piece of work.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Patrick Doyle, 2011)
At last we come to a film which actually did receive its fair degree of success. Yes, the unexpectedly brilliant reboot of the Apes franchise re-launched the saga in true style. However, Patrick Doyle's often subtle and forgettable score is very much lost in the melee, what with the intense character work and plotting taking place throughout most of the film, and only really shines when listened to in isolation. The sinister, foreboding theme for the apes' revolt is particularly good, as is the rousing "Caesar's Home", which sees the film out. Listen below and enjoy one of Doyle's better scores in recent years.
Alice in Wonderland (Danny Elfman, 2010)
In probably the most predictable event ever to happen in cinema history, Tim Burton finally released his own take on Alice in Wonderland in 2010, starring (of course) the Depp/Bonham Carter combo and achieving enormous success around the globe. Sure, it's visually spectacular and extremely unique and personal, but for my money the best thing about this film is its soundtrack. Being a Burton film, it's of course scored by Danny Elfman, who nonetheless manages to capitalise on his familiar tropes with a story that really suits his sensibilities and produce a fantastically listenable score with one of the most catchy main themes you're ever likely to hear. The omnipresent "Alice's Theme" is a truly marvellous composition from Elfman - seriously, just try and listen to it and not get it stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Amongst Elfman's many other achievements, this film is often left off his CV, but for "Alice's Theme", credit is due.
A Bug's Life (Randy Newman, 1998)
If I asked everyone right now what you think of when I say "Randy Newman", I'm guessing I can count the number of readers on one hand who wouldn't suggest Toy Story. Yes, Newman put together a trio of marvellous scores for the Toy Story trilogy as well as some wonderful songs, but what's not as well known is that he was actually Pixar's resident composer in the early days. After Toy Story, Newman went straight on to A Bug's Life. For anyone of my age (i.e., 6 at the time of this film's release), the main theme for Newman's typically bold and thematic score will instantly evoke wonderful memories of the late 90s, and is one of the most memorable pieces of music that Pixar has to offer. Listen below (starting at 4:18 for that main theme) and regress to your young, fresh-faced, Hopper-fearing self.
Casino Royale (David Arnold, 2006)
Really, I can't be the only person who thinks David Arnold's score for Casino Royale is better than Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated Skyfall score... can I? David Arnold was by this time a true Bond stalwart, and when the chance came along to see the genesis of 007 with Daniel Craig's debut, David Arnold seized the opportunity with both hands and put together an ingenius score. Working with Chris Cornell to create the thrilling and hair-raising "You Know My Name" to open the film as Bond completes his first mission, Arnold takes Bond on a musical coming-of-age journey throughout the film as the "You Know My Name" theme gradually transforms into the classic James Bond Theme as the story progresses, before climaxing with a full-blown rendition of the titular theme as Bond speaks his catchphrase for the first time. As if that wasn't impressive enough, there's a very beautiful theme for Vesper as well some fist-pumping action scoring that I can recommend as awesome running music, particularly "African Rundown" (see below). A forgotten Bond classic that truly deserves so much more recognition.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (John Williams, 2004)
I know what you're going to say - John Williams on this list? And a Harry Potter score at that? How is that under-appreciated? Well, let me justify myself. Yes, Williams' initial score for the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) was an enormous success and "Hedwig's Theme" and "Harry's Wondrous World" have become perennial favourites of school orchestras around the world, but very few people remember Williams' truly incredible score for Prisoner of Azkaban, his last contribution to the series. With the quirky "Double Trouble" theme punctuating everything, there's a real character to this score that's quite unlike any other in the Harry Potter series. Even better, there's two absolutely gorgeous one-off themes for this film - the soaring "Buckbeak's Flight", and the touching "A Window to the Past" - both of which can be heard in tandem below. This score more than earns its Oscar nomination, receiving universal acclaim at the time. But with so many films and scores to choose from throughout Williams' career, this little curio has been mostly left off the list of highlights. It's time this score got the acclaim it so sorely deserves, and takes its place as one of the best Williams scores in decades.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the