Film and music have been intertwined since the beginning. Silent films were famously scored by pianists to whatever tune they knew and kinda fit the movie. Thank heavens, technology has evolved, and composers have since been hired to work on music that would work with the movie to give greater emotional impact to the director’s visuals. Manipulation? Perhaps. But when it works, as a viewer, you feel like you’re flying. So, in chronological order as I didn’t have the heart to rank them, here are 25 iconic soundtracks for you.
1942 – Casablanca
One of the most beautiful love stories ever put on screen, and the song that was put in the middle of it only helped make it more iconic. It’s a beautiful song on its own, and intertwining it with this tumultuous love story only gave it more emotional impact.
1960 – Psycho
This is one of the best examples of how music illustrates what happens on the screen: Bernard Herrmann’s moody score added tension to Hitch’s mastery of the film medium, and the screeching violins in the shower scene made it even more chilling.
1962 – James Bond
This is about as iconic as it gets. Starting with Dr No, this tune has become synonym with British phlegm, class and wry humour, and has since been used in every James Bond movie, either explicitly or with more subtle reference.
1963 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn was famously nervous about being able to sing this tune in Blake Edwards’ enduring classic. Moon River, composed by Edwards’ long-time collaborator Henri Mancini, is yet another example of how music illustrates not only the main character’s moods and state of mind, but also their perception and how they perceive their environment. Its nostalgia and beauty have become as iconic as Miss Hepburn’s sleeveless Givenchy dress, sunglasses and cigarette holder.
1964 – Mary Poppins
We had to put at least one Disney film soundtrack in this list, as so many of their songs have become iconic, from Snow White’s Someday My Prince Will Come all the way to Frozen’s Let it Go. But why not simply go to what is reputed to have been Walt Disney’s favourite song, Feed the Birds, from Mary Poppins ? This film was technologically innovative for its mixing of animated images and live action. Yet its music is timeless.
1968 – Rosemary’s Baby
Horror, probably more than any other genre, requires to set a specific mood. Roman Polanski’s classic owes as much to the director’s aplomb and craftsmanship as it does to the music itself. You get chills just listening to it.
1968 – The Thomas Crown Affair
Terrible or even okay films can have great soundtracks. Yet it’s funny how great movies never fail to have great music. This classic crime romance won French composer Michel Legrand one Oscar for the song The Windmills of Your Mind.
1968 – Once Upon A Time in the West
Honestly, we could have put many more Ennio Morricone soundtracks on this list, but this is perhaps his most iconic. Sergio Leone created an entire new genre with his dollars trilogy, and Ennio Morricone’s deeply innovative, tense music definitely helped cement the genre into pop culture. This film gave us the masterful « Man with the harmonica ».
1972 – The Godfather
Not only did this film give us master classes in acting, directing, cinematography and filmmaking, it also provided the music to be played in every pizzeria across the world. Nino Rota composed the theme for this movie, which allegedly now has Francis Ford Coppola walking out of any Italian restaurant faster than a horse’s head can find its way into your bed.
1973 – The Exorcist
Horror again, and what a horror movie it is! William Friedkin’s masterful work, made on a rather small budget, got us all creeped out, thanks to great performances from Ellen Burstyn and Max Von Sydow. Incidentally, this was the last movie with a female lead to reach the top spot on the US box office until The Hunger Games came along.
1975 – Jaws
Two notes. You can play that tune with just two fingers.
« Is that it ?! » said a bewildered Steven Spielberg upon hearing John Williams’ idea for the first time, to which the composer replied « I really think that’s all you need. » and boy! was he right. Not only did it keep us on the edge of our seats, it also became what every child has hummed when going the swimming pool or to the beach.
1977 till now – Star Wars
There’s little explaining to do on why this score works -it just does. It hooks you from the first note all the way to the closing credits, and George Lucas has often acknowledged that John Williams’ work helped maintain a cohesive narrative and just helped the films work. John Williams will be back as composer for the seventh instalment in the saga.
1979 – 1941
Those who have heard of this film are prone to pan it. And by any given standard, it’s definitely not Spielberg’s best output, as he was on a roll that gave us Jaws, Close Encounters of the third kind, Indiana Jones and ET. In the middle of this is 1941, a zany comedy from the minds that were to give us Back to the future. Granted, this film is a mess and all over the place, and its exuberance is reflected in John Williams’s score. It even has cannons in the recording. Yet it’s one of the most joyous and entertaining scores ever written, and does a great job carrying the film and is a very enjoyable listen.
1982 – E.T.
Only Spielberg and Williams could make us believe in a world where aliens talk with a heavy smoker’s voice and can make bicycles fly across the moon. Yet as these attempts go, this is definitely on the top of the list.
1983 – Yentl
It was only a matter of time until the powerhouse talents of Barbra Streisand went behind the camera, and what a debut it gave. Steven Spielberg called it the best debut since Citizen Kane. As a musical, it works beautifully as Streisand brought together the amazing talents of her friends, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman and composer Michel Legrand, who won for best score.
1990 – Edward Scissorhands
When such a singular storyteller as Tim Burton is paired with such a singular composer as Danny Eflman, sparks are bound to fly. Or in this case, snowflakes. Their partnership had already given us the Batman theme, and was going to give us The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, and so many others. The famed Ice Dance remains one of the most iconic visual and musical moments in Tim Burton’s entire body of work.
2000 – Amélie
A staple for every piano player, Yann Tiersen’s work is as exceptional as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visual quirkiness, and their pairing works beautifully in immersing their viewer in a world full of poetry.
2000 – Requiem For A Dream
When they first met, director Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell agreed that they didn’t like any contemporary film soundtrack. With this film, they definitely gave Hollywood and the world something new. The score is key in giving the film its disturbing edge.
2001 till 2011 – Harry Potter
Imagine yourself as a film producer. Imagine that you’re adapting one of the most popular children’s book of your time. Imagine that you’re creating something that might well become one of the most popular franchises of all time. Who are you going to ask to create a musical universe for this? Well… Quite simply: the best. John Williams did it again, and his successors have all done highly competent jobs following in his footsteps.
2001 till 2014 – The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit
Howard Shore was probably in the same place, when he had to create a score for an iconic and beloved book trilogy. Under the helm of director Peter Jackson, he gave us some of the most beautiful motifs that have now been adopted by virtually every LOTR fan.
2008 – The Dark Knight
Hans Zimmer is probably one of the best composers working in Hollywood, and has been for many years now. Yet his creative partnership with Christopher Nolan has seemed to put him in an entire different realm. He has created deeply innovative scores that have quickly become iconic. It was apparent with his work on Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
2009 – Once
This film was a hit when it first screened at Raindance. A few days later, juror Mick Jones (from The Clash) called Elliot to say that he hadn’t been able to get that song out of his head ever since he’d heard it. That song was Falling Slowly and it went on the win the Oscar for best song.
2010 – Moonrise Kingdom
It seems that many of the greatest soundtracks ever written stem from deep, long-term collaborations between composers and directors. When they find a kindred spirit, composers seem to be pushed to the edge of their creativity, and Alexandre Desalt and Wes Anderson are no exception.
2010 – Inception
Christopher Nolan took a break from Batman to bring to the screen a screenplay that he’d spent ten years writing. He took most of his creative team along with him; DP, producer, and, of course, his composer. Their collaboration also brought about the score to Interstellar, which deserves a mention as well.
2011 – Drive
This is one of the most untraditional scores of recent times, as it is mostly electronic and worked as efficiently as any other. This can open a lot of possibilities for you indie filmmakers out there.
As I had to limit myself to twenty-five, I put some more in this playlist.
And as I probably forgot some there, share your favourites in the comments !