Brian LaGuardia - Composer/Conductor/Arranger

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Top 10 Underrated Film Scores

by Brian 0 Comments

Recently, I stumbled upon this video:

While I absolutely agree with some of these, there are others that left me scratching my head…especially when it comes to a score seriously elevating an otherwise mediocre film – but even without that category, there are some scores that toil away in obscurity and/or somehow got snubbed at the Oscars. So once more taking it upon myself to do nerdy rankings, here’s my own personal list.

1: Hook, John Williams

Very glad this one made it into the video, but I’d put it at #1 for two reasons. One, even though it may not be anywhere near as popular as Star Wars or Superman, or as Oscar-winning as Jaws, it is very much his finest work. There are dozens of character themes here, all deftly woven together in a brilliant tapestry of orchestral brilliance. This is straight-up Wagnerian scoring, but without the long-windedness. Glorious. In fact, I’d rate this as my favorite film score period. More about this one here.

Two? Well, forget about two. One is all you need.

2: Star Trek: The Motion Picture / Alien, Jerry Goldsmith

The Motion Picture is my second favorite film score of all time. Yes, I know it was nominated for Best Original Score and therefore may not be strictly as underrated as some of these, but I include it only because it lost the Oscar to “A Little Romance.” This and the Chariots of Fire win are among the most unforgivable sins the Academy has committed in my book. In fact, Goldsmith was frequently undervalued next to John Williams when he was every bit the giant’s equal.

Every last moment of this sore is orchestration genius. Right from the beginning, we notice that the methodical, 2001-esque pacing doesn’t feel nearly as slow as it should, because the music is so damn awesome. The bellicose Klingons are represented by menacing muted brass, alongside snappy Anklungs. As a counterpoint, the entity they are encountering, the cloud, also has a musical representation: the Blaster Beam.

Then there’s also one of the greatest adventure marches in cinematic history that, by Jerry’s own admission, was one of his biggest creative hurdles. Just take a look at how it elevates the launch of the Enterprise to one of the most riveting, exciting moments in Trek history:

There was also plenty of strange aleatoric effects and involved percussion that Jerry loved experimenting with, which lent itself perfectly to the alien feel of the entity.

Alien was in that same year, which didn’t even get nominated. You can chalk that up to the ridiculous shenanigans that went on in the music editing room explained here, but it nonetheless deserved a nod every bit as much as Motion Picture…it’s kind of incredible that he wrote two of his best scores in the same damn year.

3: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, James Newton Howard

I also agree with this one. I really don’t understand why this movie didn’t do so well. Disney took a risk, and I applaud big budget studios taking risks. Moreover, I thought it was largely a successful one. Perhaps a bit silly at times, it is nonetheless a rousing action adventure film with stunning animation, great voice casting and a first-rate score. Check out the main theme here at 2:26:

4: Rescuers Down Under / Silverado /Young Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Braughton

A lot of you probably know Bruce Braughton’s work even if you don’t know the name or the fellow. He is a respected and amazing composer, and I have had the privilege of briefly studying under him. He’s the most mild-mannered guy you’d ever want to meet.

Now, if he’s a respected composer, why is his stuff on the list? Because only his score to Silverado was nominated, and lost to John Barry’s score to “Out of Africa.” All three of these scores, I felt, were more dynamic, complex and ultimately fulfilling. Especially Silverado, which goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Magnificent Seven and How the West was Won and doesn’t blink.

And hell, for that matter, why did Barry win for Out of Africa, but didn’t even get nominated for scores like Thunderball?

5: On Golden Pond, Dave Grusin / Dragonslayer, Alex North / The Wrath of Kahn, James Horner / Tron, Wendy Carlos

Why four in one? Because all of these are better than what actually won: Chariots of Fire. Maybe it’s personal taste, but even though I love Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner and in general have nothing against the synth-ey aesthetic (I LOVE Alan Silvestri’s synth score to Romancing the Stone!), I thought it was completely wrong for the feel of that movie and just wasn’t anywhere near his best work…certainly not oscar-worthy.

Let’s start with On Golden Pond – one of the most gorgeous film scores ever written…soft and intimate, it also manages to avoid the repetitive minimalism that permeates Philip Glass scores like “The Hours.”

Then there’s Dragonslayer, written by another giant in the film score world, Alex North. This one’s a little avant-garde given his MO, but nonetheless effective.

Then there’s Wrath of Kahn, which didn’t even get nominated. That’s preposterous, because it’s easily Horner’s best work. He often repeats himself, and does so in this score, too. But what sets it apart from his others (and Chariots) are scenes like this, where the desperate tragedy of Spock’s death is contrasted with the sunrise of a new world…death in the shadow of new life. It has a desperate beauty and inevitability to it that’s just stunning. And the two themes here really are beautiful and some of his most original.

And even if you want to stay in synth territory, there was a score that was FAR better deserving than Chariots: Tron. Wendy Carlos managed to combine her trademark synth sound with really fantastic orchestral chops into a masterpiece:

This one is also a perfect microcosm of the evolution of film music in recent years: the new Tron WAS nominated for a score, but was nowhere near as good musically (it did well at building mood and staying out of the way, but was increadibly repetitive and uninteresting musically).

6: The Mission, Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone is another fellow that got snubbed a lot at the Oscars until recently, with his score to Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” But honestly, there are a couple of his scores that were better than that one that didn’t earn a win, and this is one of them. Just listen to this gorgeous melody.

7: Anatomy of a Murder, Duke Ellington

This one didn’t even get nominated. I guess John Williams is the only one allowed to write an ass-kicking jazz score for a film and get a nod?

8: North by Northwest, Bernard Hermann

Really any Bernard Hermann score that isn’t Taxi driver is worthy of much more praise. He never even got nominated for his best work on the classic Alfred Hitchcock scores, my favorite being the demonic tango theme from North by Northwest:

Also be sure to check out the masterpieces of innovation and craft that are the OSTs to Vertigo and Psycho.

9: Back to the Future, Alan Silvestri

While this may now be a cult classic and on everyone’s top-ten list, it was never even nominated for an Oscar, and Silvestri himself, a towering figure in the A-List composer world, has never won. To me, his entire career is underrated as a result.

10: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Shirley Walker

Another name that all too often ends up overshadowed by others equally deserving, Walker consistently wrote stunning, world-class music for a ton of animated Batman adventures like this one.

11: Punch Drunk Love

Now, just to convince you that I’m not totally down on minimalism, I’ll throw in a bonus. There are plenty of scores that truly pull minimalism off well, even if they’re not necessarily fun to listen to by themselves. This is my favorite example. Not a melody in sight, but my god, it so flawlessly contributes to the constant sense of tension you feel as you endlessly hope the film’s protagonist, Barry Egan, doesn’t snap and end up doing something he regrets (with early scenes making it clear how vicious his fits of rage can be). The score just simmers along with this constant stress, only crescendoing in scenes like this. Warning: lots of cussing.

People always ask why I haven’t seen Waterboy or Little Nikki. I proudly reply “well, I love Punch Drunk Love.”

There you have it. What do you think of my list?

2014 Oscars

by Brian

I recently had a chance to catch up on this past year’s films, so naturally I watched the five films that were nominated for best original score. It has indeed been my experience that Oscars and Emmys don’t always necessarily go to those who deserve it. Was this year one of those times? Well, it was so close that I can’t really fault the decision one way or the other. All of these scores deserved each others’ company, so I can imagine how difficult it must have been to choose.

So, I’ll do a little analysis and review for each of them!

Philomena

I enjoyed this score a great deal more than most of Desplat’s previous endeavors. This is mainly because the score’s catchy main theme is brilliantly just an arrangement of fair ground music during that pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life when she decides to go against the church’s wishes and explore her sexuality with a handsome young man.

fairground

As the movie is about her as an old woman trying to find the child that resulted from that night, it is a perfect thematic and emotional microcosm. She ends up being separated from him early in his life because the group of nuns she was staying with sold the child off to American parents both because they needed money and because they believed it was proper penance for Philomena succumbing to pleasures of the flesh. They then did their best to hide parent from child. So catholic guilt, thoughts of her son (the search for him, memories of him being taken away)…all buried within this deceptively simple little waltz:

Fairground Carousel

Philomena Main Theme

Her

Let me start by saying that while I thought all of these scores were pretty equal, this was actually my favorite of these movies. Yes, I know, take away my man card. It is basically a love story. But there are so many things going for this movie that most “chick flicks” don’t have (if you even want to call it a “chick flick”). One of them is truly real characters that shatter those incessant gender stereotypes. The male protagonist has just as many feminine characteristics as he does masculine ones, and so does Samantha, the OS.  In fact, the writer/director poked fun at the stereotypes he deliberately avoided in the form of video games and media the characters are exposed to. He was completely unashamed to present his male lead as someone with substance and nuance.

theo

Similarly, the character arc of Samantha is not only profound…it’s also very much what gives this movie a philosophical and sci-fi element to compliment the drama. And what surprised me most of all was that I didn’t have to work hard at suspending my disbelief. I found myself instead caught up in such questions as “wow, are we really heading in that direction collectively as humans? Or is that just AI? Would a sentient AI really be that different from a sufficiently advanced human? Would we be able to love 628 people simultaneously in a few thousand years?” The core romance of the film had no issues reaching me emotionally…but these questions on top of the core elements made this easily one of the best movies last year had to offer.

So…enough babbling about the movie itself. The score was of course perfect for the tone and scope of the movie. It was on the minimalist side and indeed pretty simple, but nowhere near as vacuous or irritatingly repetitive as scores that like can sometimes become. Two of the pieces were actually composed by Samantha within the story, which perfectly capture the moments that she was writing them for.

In addition to the many solo piano works in here, I’d say the rest of the material was reserved for particularly intense or poignant scenes, such as when Theodore and Samantha make love for the first time. Note how this cue not only captures the erotic nature of the scene, but also how ethereal and transcendent the experience is for the two characters:

Some Other Place

As you can see, there’s a little bit of synth thrown in here, but not much. In contrast, when Theodore starts to realize that Samantha and her definition of love is evolving too quickly for him to handle, we get a much more distorted cue:

Milk & Honey

In spite of how this may seem depressing, the movie actually ends on a very “zen” note. It is of course obvious that Samantha has the hugest arc, but Theodore comes a long way, too. He goes from completely broken by his divorce to deeply in love, and then finally healed and even evolved by these events. Some of Samantha’s insanely rapid growth rubbed off on him. His final action is to write a letter to his ex wife, basically trying to make amends for all of the anger and bitterness there has been between them and to assure her that she is still a part of him. It goes hand-in-hand with the movie’s themes of evolution and universal love.

Dammit, there I go again talking about the movie and not the score. I guess it was just something that affected me very deeply, and it’s the last thing I expected. And certainly the score was a part of that. Props to Arcade Fire.

Gravity

This is the one that took home the Oscar. And while I can see why the decision was made (as well as the quality of the score), I also don’t believe that it said anything as unique or new as people are claiming. A lot of these techniques were pioneered by the Industrial Music scene decades ago. Perhaps within a film medium it is novel, but I don’t have quite the obscure film knowledge to make that claim. And indeed, there are a couple of things in the OST (not necessarily in the score) that really started to get old (the sudden silence was super effective and awesome the first time…by the fourth time, I got actively annoyed with the composer).

However I must say that the use of distortion, synth and other artificial sound techniques serviced the film quite well. For example, in this particular cue, the protagonist is sent hurdling through space due to high-speed debris ripping her ship apart and severing her connection with it. It does indeed capture the terror one might feel of being caught in a perpetual tumble away from Earth.

Debris

And of course, I give it kudos for not sounding too cheesy or fake (as synth-heavy scores are prone to do), but it just didn’t give me quite the emotional connection that either Philomena or Her did. Part of that might simply have been that after a certain point, my suspension of disbelief took more of a pounding than the numerous satellites and space stations in the movie (a bit harsh, but everything works out a little too conveniently for the plot). Though to be fair, it’s an exceptionally difficult balance to find in a movie like this: realism vs drama.

Ahhhh, and I can’t forget the shot in the beginning where the characters are admiring the view. What a gorgeous musical moment.

GRAVITY

Above Earth

Saving Mr. Banks

As someone who grew up with Marry Poppins, I was very much looking forward to this movie. It did not disappoint and ended up exceeding my expectations. The score, while it was basically just more Thomas Newman, did hit all of the right beats. And of course, fittingly, there was plenty of material taken from Marry Poppins. However, I would have liked to see the relationship between Marry Poppins material and original score material mesh a little more. The thing I really noticed was that old and new music were almost entirely kept separate. It was either piano source music or an arrangement of a Poppins song,

Let’s Go Fly A Kite

or totally new and original thematic/melodic material by Newman.

Walking Bus

I mean, this movie would not have been made if it weren’t for Marry Poppins…so why not develop and do interesting things with the building blocks of that music – you know, akin to Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Hayden? Though perhaps he tried this and it ended up not servicing the film properly. And don’t get me wrong: the contrast works pretty well as there is some darkness and more nuance to this film than there is in Marry Poppins numbers. But a little bit of thematic blending would have been so cool, because it would have allowed music nerds like myself to catch those building blocks within the context of the drama and score. This is hardly a major fault of the score, though. Just something on my personal wish list.

In any case, it’s another good score Newman can add to his list (let’s be honest: Skyfall should have won last year. Poor Newman).

The Book Thief

This was a very surprising entry for John Williams. All of his scores have been intensely lyrical, thickly orchestrated and pretty unabashedly romantic or at least majestic. And this story certainly had the makings for another one of those scores: a WWII story about a family of Germans who take in a Jewish boy and attempt to hide him. But what do we end up with? A more restrained, minimalist approach akin to all of these other entries. And what surprised me the most was that it was great! He may be used to writing grand, sweeping scores, but he has a natural talent for the gentler touch as well. True, some projects were leaning in that direction (Memoirs of a Geisha, for example), but this is the only one of his scores I would consider truly minimalist.

thief

Ilsa’s Library

I’m glad I had the opportunity to catch up on these, and I look forward to more amazing movie scores this year!

The Banner Saga

by Brian

Austin Wintory is one of those rare composers that, rather than trying to be as prolific as possible, takes his time and crafts the scores to the point at which they become masterpieces. So months, even more than a year go by and you’ll only get one score from him…but that score will be stunning. This is how I want to be.

At any rate, The Banner Saga is just the latest example of this. In his own words:

THE BANNER SAGA was my first real experience with Kickstarter, and there is something very different about being “hired” by 20,042 backers instead of a single team. The sense of responsibility with this score felt hugely magnified by that. So I hope I have delivered something worthy because not one day passed in the year and a half of work that I didn’t think about that trust.

The first track on the OST, named “We Will Not Be Forgotten”, is the leitmotif of the whole show arranged for brass choir. It is chilling in its power, but also (as the composer states himself) contains an air of vulnerability. Some of my favorite tracks (aside from that one) are Cut with a Keen-Edge Sword, Walls No Man has Seen (when all of the story lines finally converge at the mighty Varl city of Einertoft, this cue is coupled with a pretty impressive reveal shot of the city), weary the Weight of the Sun, Long Past the Last Sigh, Of Our Bones the Hills (climactic final boss fight cue, with a particularly sad moment thrown in) and We are all Guests upon the Land. Many of those have the leitmotif sprinkled in (or arranged in full force). You’ll also notice a second recurring musical idea first heard (I believe) in the beginning of Cut with a Keen-Edged Sword. It is basically just a minor triad (played melodically) with a 4th at the end. Having played the game myself, I actually can’t be sure what this other theme represents. Perhaps it is the mystery breadcrumb theme Wintory talks about in the video below?

This score is a very interesting one, and not just because the noticeable absence of string sections. A little more than half of the album is devoted to either gorgeous, dynamic wind ensemble pieces or a combination of that and hearty solo instruments (largely fiddle). The other half is essentially just a series of nordic folk songs for each “godstone” the player comes across (which, interestingly, were determined by the heftiest backers in the kickstarter campaign). These folk songs are solo voice, usually with a smattering of other instruments as sparse accompaniment (most notably the Bukkehorn). Not only do these little folk tunes add variety to an already dynamic and expressive score…they are also sung in Icelandic, which lends a certain authenticity to the sound. Of course, the meaning of the songs were painstakingly developed as well, with the composer researching viking and Norse mythology for inspiration and a few of his colleagues helping out with the translation.

I also love the other aspects of the game. It’s not visually flashy and hyper-realistic at the expense of other elements. It simply contains a good story, good characters, mechanics that help you shape the narrative…a lot of things that are missing from big commercial games. I’ve noticed that these kickstarter-backed indie games that have been coming out lately (Bastion is another example of this) have been amazing in quality in all the right ways, especially score.

There’s plenty more to rave about here, but I don’t think I can do better than to offer you a link to the bandcamp page for the score, as well as a particularly fantastic interview with the man himself. That’s the thing about composers these days…they are really good at nerding out about their own work, so I have less room to do it without being redundant. 😛 So I’ll just say that this guy is another in what I hope becomes a long line of young, grade-A media composers for the next fifty years. I can’t wait for his next project!

Update 3/16: Look at this! I figured out the chord progression for the leitmotif and posted on Austin Wintory’s Facebook wall. He replied almost immediately with a beautiful response. What a class act! 🙂

Austin Wintory’s Facebook Page

Alien

by Brian

Jerry Goldsmith was one of the greatest film composers of all time, and there is no better example of why than the score to Alien. It also happens to be one of the most tampered with scores in movie history on top of being so effective and innovative.

This was a result of two things: disagreements between composer and director, and also lack of communication between the two. Goldsmith stated to director Ridley Scott:

You can’t communicate! I was on the picture for four months and I talked to you three times. All during the recording you didn’t say a word to me, and I need some feedback.

Add to that the frustration of stubborn creative adversity. The best example is the main title the composer wrote that captured the “romance” of space exploration and saving the surprise and terror mostly for later in the score. The director (and the majority of the filmmakers) wanted to be scary right off the bat, so he re-wrote it. It apparently took him an hour, as opposed to the day-long process of writing the original. Everyone loved it but Goldsmith. In spite of how a composer needs to be OK with this (as it is how the business works), I can see how it can be frustrating at times.

But this isn’t even half the story. Jerry completely scored and recorded the entire film before the whole thing was cut down by eleven minutes, with the film editor essentially treating the score as library music. He ignored sync points, grabbed parts of tracks and not the whole…because certain sequences no longer had the same pacing or even tone at times. So the entire musical arc the composer had in mind was more or less gutted. In fact, in some points, the temp tracks were brought back, which were famously all taken from a previous work of Jerry’s: Freud (1962). Ironically, this was done because the editor had much respect and admiration for Goldsmith. But Goldsmith hated temp scores and so ignored them altogether as he went about his creative process. Jerry was also apparently criticized for repeating himself due to the inclusion of his old score, which is doubtless a very frustrating thing to hear when it was outside your control.

It’s worth noting that Scott was very young with little experience interacting with composers, whereas Goldsmith was a veteran and expected certain things as a matter of course. Ultimately, I think both the composer and director were to blame in this case. We still ended up with a fantastic movie…though it does teach us that communication is important when it comes to scoring, if for no other reason than to maintain one’s own sanity.

Now, let’s dive into why the soundtrack was a masterpiece. Probably the largest criteria I have when I make remarks like “greatest composer” is what kind of innovation is going on as well as command of techniques that have been honed by centuries of music history. Alien has both of these things in spades. There’s gorgeous traditional thematic writing when the Nostromo is preparing to land (actually contains the main title theme that was scrapped when he was asked to re-work it):

The Landing

But then, once we start getting a glimpse of the actual aliens, he introduces brilliant new sounds. Namely the use of the Echoplex with various instruments. It starts off with a single Conch, giving us the “alien effect.”

The Passage

Then when the “space jockey” is discovered, more traditional instruments are used. Snap pizzicato, random high-register whole tones and sudden rips in the strings are sent through:

space jockey

The Skeleton

That cue never fails to send chills through my spine. It isn’t even fear at this point…more like timid curiosity and unease. But it is so effective that when something does eventually happen, you are thrown out of your own seat. I also particularly love how the devastating use of the Echoplex reflects how open and devoid of life the chamber is.

During some of the classic horror moments, he introduces a Serpent and even Didgeridoo:

Parker’s Death

Many of the effects I just listed survived the brutal editing process. While there are still examples of both in the film, I’ve noticed that the less dense, more atmospheric stuff tended to survive more often than the larger, more traditional cues.

By the way, if you want to hear the original score in its entirety, Intrada released a 2-disc set that contains both the original soundtrack release (that Goldsmith oversaw) and the actual full score before it was cut up for the final release. It’s a listen as fascinating as it is frightening, and comes with some great liner notes.

big-alien-ost