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My Favorite Movie Composers
by Spotlight Mike

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Where does the Pink Panther take his trash?

Where does the Pink Panther take his trash?
Note: This column contains both video and (legal) audio clips.

I fancy myself to be a bit of a musician, so naturally I tend to listen more attentively to the music of the movies I watch. Music can make or break a scene, and it is the use, or the absence of it that can create a mood, as much as lighting and scenery. How much different would the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO have been without the famous screeching violins? And who does not have an immediate reaction when you hear the first daaa-dum - daaaa-dum theme from the movie JAWS? And - be honest now - how many of you crank up the sound on your home theater in anticipation of the Opening Overture from STAR WARS? You immediately conjure on a sub-conscious level the movie's imagery just from hearing the music from these iconic films. So much so, that you could be in a different room, and recognize a movie simply by hearing the music.

So today's examination is a look at my favorite movie music composers, those whose styles are distinctive enough to be recognized and whose styles shape the tone of their respective movies:

The jerky, staccato style of Danny Elfman fits the quirky style of director Tim Burton, and like directors in the funny/creepy mood he creates. Originally a part of the group Oingo Boingo, where he did the soundtrack for, among others, WEIRD SCIENCE, his body of work includes PEE-WEE's BIG ADVENTURE, MEN in BLACK, BATMAN, and dozens of other memorable scores. On occasion, Elfman likes to contribute vocally to his scores as he did as Jack Skellington's singing voice in The NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Elfman also provided the singing voice for the Oompa-Loompa in CHARLIE and the CHOCOLATE FACTORY (Burton "cloned" a single actor into as many Oompa-Loompa's as was needed for a scene. Elfman voiced "all" of them).

Keeping in a comic vein, the music composer of choice for director

Who says Opera was boring?

Who says Opera was boring?
href="http://www.matchflick.com/people/4038">Mel Brooks is John Morris, who has composed the music scores for nearly every one of his movies. His style is heard in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Puttin' on the Ritz!), BLAZING SADDLES, and SILENT MOVIE (only Brooks would make a silent movie in full Technicolor and Stereophonic sound!). His music comes off as standard movie musical/comic parody style, just enough to appreciate both without one taking precedence over the other.

Elmer Bernstein was an excellent "mood" composer, creating scores for ANIMAL HOUSE, GHOSTBUSTERS, GANGS of NEW YORK, and RAGE in HARLEM. Bernstein is the most long-lived movie composer on this list, tracking movies as far back as The MAN with the GOLDEN ARM (1955), for which he received an Academy Award Nomination. Bernstein won an Oscar for his score to THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE in 1967 and was nominated for fourteen Oscars in total. He also won two Golden Globes and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Bernstein died in 2004, his last work in 2002 with FAR FROM HEAVEN, which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Score and a Golden Globe Nomination for the same.

It should be noted here that even though popular contemporary music is accented throughout the movies listed here, it is the movies' music composer that sets the background music. For example, even though the music of Harry Belafonte was peppered throughout BEETLEJUICE, Elfman creates the mood of the movie with the background score.

Though not specifically a movie music composer, I have to say a word or two about Carl Stalling. Who's Carl Stalling? We've heard his music all our lives! He is the composer solely responsible for the "sound' of the Warner Brothers' Golden Age cartoons. More of an arranger than a composer, you could just listen to a cartoon scored by Stalling and know immediately what is going on: from the tippy-toe sneaking-arounds of any villainous character, the frantic, crazy strings of a Road Runner chase, to his standard
Singing by Jackson, Scary mood by Bernstein

Singing by Jackson, Scary mood by Bernstein
"themes" - "How Dry I Am" to underscore a drunk or drinking, "California, Here I Come" to accent a character making a grand departure, or "We're In The Money" as a backdrop to a character striking it rich or being rich, just to name a few. As ubiquitous as the vocal stylings of Mel Blanc, Carl Stalling shaped the mood of Warner Brothers cartoons. I have one of his albums, "The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons, 1936–1958"; I can listen to it at work and "see" the cartoon, just from his music.

Probably the most famous, and possibly the richest composer today has got to be John Williams, composer of most of the highest-grossing movies of all time. His impressive resume includes SUPERMAN, HARRY POTTER, SCHINDLER'S LIST, JFK, E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial and the theme music for four Olympic Games (quite an Olympic feat in itself!) Some fun facts: Williams wrote the original theme music to LOST in SPACE (credited as Johnny Williams), was conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra after the death of Conductor Emeritus Arthur Fielder and is now the Orchestra's Conductor Laureate, and is the second most Oscar-nominated person after Walt Disney, tying with Alfred Newman with 45 nominations. But all is not Gold with Mr. Williams: he is one of the few composers that needed explosions to accent his music when composing the score for the Steven Spielberg bomb, 1941 (or perhaps he was just making commentary?). The only other composer to do so to my knowledge is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when he composed his "1812 Overture."

Each of these composers have created a "signature" for their work. Williams' majestic tapestry underscores most of his work. The choppy, eccentric music of Elfman is also quite distinctive. One humorous aside: in the "Family Guy" STAR WARS parody BLUE HARVEST, "Luke Skywalker (Seth Green as Chris Griffin) breaks the Fourth Wall and announces John Williams with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later, when Williams and Orchestra are slaughtered by the Empire, he bemoans that now the
Name a Blockbuster he HASN'T composed

Name a Blockbuster he HASN'T composed
rest of the movie has to be scored by Danny Elfman. You can hear the difference between the styles of these two composers.

Of course there are others: Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold, Henry Mancini, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Howard Shore, all total around 144 composers working in film today

These individuals and many more make up the future of classical music. If I've overlooked a few, the selected composers were just my favorites.

Most of the more famous classical pieces known today started out as "show tunes," themes from operas and ballets. The famous Lone Ranger Theme was originally from the opera "William Tell" by Gioachino Rossini. The theme for the NBC Nightly News, now abbreviated for the MSNBC show "Countdown" came from the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The opening of TRADING PLACES came from the opera "The Marriage of Figaro Andante Cantabile" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which, by the way, had Elmer Bernstein as their music director. My earliest exposure to classical music from from the 1946 short, "Rhapsody Rabbit," in which Bugs Bunny performed the "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." Even today, when classical music stations play Contemporary Modern Music, invariably you'll hear a track from a movie.

Who is the next Bach, the next Mozart? Just walk into your local multi-plex. These composers have left an indelible mark on movie entertainment, and will so until the next crop of "classical composers" make their mark. I just shudder to think that the Toto's soundtrack to DUNE or Paul Williams' PHANTOM of the PARADISE may end up on a classical music station in the future.

Of course, I could be wrong!



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Jon
Nov 3, 2010 7:27 PM
[X] delete
Movies and Music: Made for Each Other (May 6th, 2010)
I devoted a column to movie music back in May this year. I've many favorites like yours. I like your column.
Mike Thomas
Nov 3, 2010 10:07 PM
[X] delete
I re-read your column. Still good. I took a differnt slant and showcase composers more than the movies or the music. We came together on a couple of composers, but I had to get in Carl Stalling and John Morris, probably the best comic composers of their time.

I could have added Hans Zimmer, Alexander Courage, and James Horner (GLADIATOR, STAR TREK and STAR TREK movies), but the column was getting too long, as usual.

Jon
Nov 5, 2010 11:01 AM
[X] delete
By the way I saw Elmer Bernstein in concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2002 for his 80th birthday. Needless to say To Kill A Mockingbird and The Magnificent Seven were the ones creating the largest audience applause.

Bobby B
Nov 5, 2010 3:56 PM
[X] delete
Ennio Morricone! THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and other spaghetti westerns. Ecstasy of Gold is just one of the great, evocative movie songs of all time. People may hate, but they all recognize the theme to John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN the instant they hear it. It's now become an official part of the holiday. And his theme from ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is a cult classic. Giorgio Moroder, SCARFACE, CAT PEOPLE, FLASHDANCE, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Not a personal favorite but everyone also knows the theme from CHARIOTS OF FIRE. And BLADE RUNNER is one of my favorite movies of all time and certainly, the music is part of the spell that is cast.
Mike Thomas
Nov 5, 2010 9:44 PM
[X] delete
I have no issue with John carpenter's theme from HALLOWEEN. it fits the mood and the movie.

BUT

Every other soundtrack he's done (and I use the term loosely) consists of a single theme, then he BLUDGEONS you by repeating it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

Don't believe me? What's the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions John Carpenter's THEY LIVE? That one line theme, "Da Daaaah da..... Da Daaaah da"

A week after I watch that movie (which, by the way, has the single BADDEST knock-down drag out man-to-man fist fight in history), that stupid theme is STILL in my head. It's worse than the "It's a Small World" exhibit at Disneyland!

And if you listen to every one of his movies, which are otherwise better than decent, you get a single theme over and over - you get the picture.

He's got the money - PAY a composer!
Bobby B
Nov 5, 2010 9:59 PM
[X] delete
Sorry, I left off the name. The composer for BLADE RUNNER and CHARIOTS OF FIRE was Vangelis. Uh, Carpenter. Well, that's how the rich get richer you know? I agree his soundtracks aren't especially imaginative. I think he's more enamored of himself as a composer than he admits. But he does kind of beat you over the head with it. I haven't seen THEY LIVE. But the fact that he has yet ANOTHER theme that gets under your skin says something. Maybe he's hypnotist or something implanting subliminal messages. "Buy my merchandise. Rent my videos."
Mike Thomas
Nov 5, 2010 10:59 PM
[X] delete
You haven't seen THEY LIVE? You just explained the plot! Piper is OUTSTANDING, as wrestlers-turned-actors go. If you like Carpenter, this is definitely a renter!



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I Could Be Wrong
Every other Wednesday

Until I find my footing, I'd like to vent on the state of today's movies. I will occasionally praise a movie that piques my fancy. But it's a whole lot more fun railing against a person's work who makes more money on a single project than I would make if I lived 500 years. Oh, I will usually make observations on movies rather than films. The difference? Films are critically acclaimed, while movies are just darned good fun.


Other Columns
Other columns by Spotlight Mike:

Adventures in WonderCon

In Praise of the Movie Producer

The Life of a Film Reviewer

Celebrity

Wishes

All Columns


Spotlight Mike
Born in the Fifties with an extreme phobia for movies in general, I became obsessed with movies when I broke that phobia with the first movie I actually enjoyed, “The Ten Commandments.” I particularly like the kind of movie where you can put your brain on hold. I get enough reality and drama in my everyday life; I refuse to pay someone to subject me to the same.



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Spotlight Mike by clicking here.


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