Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Most Iconic Instrumental Movie Themes (Part One)

If I weren't doing what I do now, I would surely have been a film scorer.  For some strange reason, I have always been more moved in film by music than by dialogue.  And for me, where the greatest movie moments are, the most poignant melodies are lingering near.

With the encouragement of Eric, who just celebrated his birthday, I am listing what I feel are the most significant movie themes of all time.  These are the film scores that have continued to haunt me, and to bring me back to a certain place every time I hear them.  On a personal level, perhaps they stand for something I felt while experiencing that moment in the film, or represent a stage in life that I had been in.  But on a grander scale, they probably mirror the pop culture then, and have made and indelible mark in society.  Whatever the case, these strains of music are to me, iconic.

I guess this will therefore be a subjective list as there is no way of scientifically ranking the appeal of sound, let alone their impact on our collective consciousness. Your list will obviously differ from mine, but hey, this makes a lovely playlist that will surely let your spirit wander.

There will be forty songs in this countdown to the top.  The first ten are described here, from #40 to #31.  Come back for the rest of the list.   But if you want to listen to the ones discussed here, feel free to click: MY TOP 40 MUSIC THEMES (40-31)

This piece of music, I did not experience first in the context of the film.  I first heard it during a Reading of Honors ceremony when I was in prep.  The song was used as a fanfare to open the event.  I later learned from my sister Eileen who owned a cassette of the soundtrack, that it came from the movie version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I eventually got to see the film much later and discovered for myself how the music was used as a backdrop to scenes of the birds in flight.  For his work, Neil Diamond won a Golden Globe for Best Score in 1973, beating John Williams and Michel Legrand.  Very 70s pop, but soaring nonetheless.

#39 THE CHILDREN OF SANCHEZ (Chuck Mangione)
Another piece I had encountered prior to watching the film. Another sister, Monique, owned an LP of Chuck Mangione carrying the track. I must have been 13. I was quite engrossed with the syncopation of the music and was so aware of the fusion of jazz and world music here. The experience was intense.  The film, I watched years later.  It was about a Mexican farmer, I believe.  I remember little about the plot, but recall being ecstatic during those scenes when the music unfurled. Mangione was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1978.

#38 DYING YOUNG (James Newton Howard)
First, a disclaimer: this is not among my favorites. But it surely penetrated our consciousness in the early 90s, and even I could not escape its ubiquity--so consider it iconic. Blame it on the popularity of Julia Roberts, or the star power of Kenny G. then, who performed the track and included it in one of his widely successful CDs.  The song played non-stop in jazz radio stations, and reminded us how film music, even the instrumental kind, can be so part of pop culture.

#37 HEAVEN CAN WAIT (Dave Grusin)
Ok, the music here is what started it all for me.  It was the first film score to make me literally cry, and told me: gee, I wouldn't mind writing music for movies some day.  It also began my love affair with Dave Grusin's work. I remember distinctly watching Heaven Can Wait in 1978, melting in my chair during the last scene, and staring blankly at the credits as the music played. Maybe I'm just a sucker for dramedies.  Maybe it was surprising for me how the theme, through its various movements, embraced both the tragic and comic aspects of the film.  Whatever the case, Grusin was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to someone else's work which will appear in my list soon.

#36 IL POSTINO (Luis Bacalov)
I'm not even sure if many are aware of this film or its music. Eileen sent me a copy of the movie sometime in 1995, and I fell in love with it immediately.  Albeit a fictional story, it chronicles the relationship between real-life poet, Pablo Neruda and a postman who learns to love poetry.  Bacalov's music is rustic, romantic and sincere.  His work, which eventually won for him an Academy Award, was also used to score recorded readings (by Sting, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Gelnn Close, among others) of Neruda's poetry.  And his melodies have been mimicked in TV commercials set in South America.

#35 FORREST GUMP (Alan Silvestri)
The hovering feather during the film's opening credits accompanied by the lilting score tells you instantly that Forrest Gump is a magical movie.  Silvestri's music is as charming and innocent as the movie's main character.  It has that power of making you feel warm and comfy inside.  I'm a fan.

#34 FAR AND AWAY (John Williams/Enya)
Those who used to tune in to 88.3 when its programming consisted mostly of smooth jazz and new age will recognize the music of this movie.  John Williams's score, coupled with Enya's mesmerizing vocals complete the Celtic mood and tone of the film about Irish immigrants seeking their fortune in the U.S.  It has a rhythmic quality that is most calming.  To prove it, check your blood pressure before and after listening to the track.

#33 THE EXORCIST (Jack Nitzsche)
Naturally, I watched the movie years after it was released in 1973. And when I did, I recognized the music instantly though  didn't know from where. Maybe it was used to score local dramas. I'm not sure, but the repetitive melodic line obviously left a huge impression. Hypnotic and numbing.  Subtle, unlike most horror flick scores. The movie earned 10 Oscar nominations, and though Nitzsche's work was not among them, it gets my nod.

#32 LOVE AFFAIR (Ennio Morricone)
The first of many in my list by this acclaimed Italian composer. Ennio Morricone has written and arranged music for over 500 film and television productions, and this one for Love Affair has been a favorite of many.  Rich, romantic and sweeping, Morricone's melodic line is deeply emotive--a perfect match with Love Affair's sentimental plot.  The version in my playlist is the one Morricone dedicates personally to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, the leads of the movie.  Attend a wedding sometime, and you are likely to hear the same strains.

All right, so I've never seen this quiet film about a deaf-mute man who befriends a lonely teenage girl in his boarding house.  But listening to the theme music makes me feel I've actually watched this story of alienation and love.  Woven into the plot is one of Grusin's simplest melodies; easy to hum, it sinks quickly into the heart and stays forever.  You may have heard it before (the film was released in 1968) and may remember.  Many musicians who know the piece warn: watch out for the killer key change.  It's solitude set to music.

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