Top 10 Underrated Film Scores

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?

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