The Magic of Film Music


by Gordon Meyer

I love a great film score. In many cases, the musical soundtrack of a movie is almost like another character, guiding and shaping audiences’ emotional responses to any given scene. During my film school days at USCinema, I had the pleasure of producing a tribute to composer Jerry Goldsmith, who had written the a number of iconic scores, including the original “Planet of the Apes,” “Patton,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (later used as the title music for “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), “The Wind and the Lion” and his Oscar winning score for “The Omen.”

At Goldsmith’s request, John Williams presented him with his award that evening and our audience, largely composed of motion picture industry pros, were blown away by the range of his composing styles.  And as anyone who’s seen “The Omen” knows, a big part of what made that movie (directed by HMS alumnus Richard Donner) so scary was Goldsmith’s score featuring his version of a “Black Mass.”

During the original run of Hollywood’s Master Storytellers, although we talked about the importance of film music with many of our guests, we only had one composer as a guest, John Ottman, and he was part of a large panel discussing “X-Men 2,” which Ottman also edited, so we didn’t have the time to discuss his musical contributions in much detail. We never got around to inviting a composer like John Williams or Danny Elfman as our primary guest. When we resume production, I plan to correct that omission.

In the era of silent features, organists often accompanied what was on the screen either with music they came up with themselves (often cribbing classical music that was in the public domain) or performing a score commissioned by the studio written especially for the higher profile movies. These days, when silent movies are seen on DVD/Blu-ray or on outlets like TCM, they routinely have full orchestral scores accompanying them.

As an aside, when French filmmaker Abel Gance’s 1927 epic “Napoleon” was restored, two very different scores were used. For the four hour long 1981 US release presented by Francis Coppola, the film had a mostly original score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola featuring both a full orchestra and an organ (to give the orchestra a periodic break). 30 years later when a longer five and a half hour restoration was released,  Carl Davis created a totally different score, mostly comprised of 19th Century orchestral music.

Walt Disney recognized early on the importance of music in motion pictures, beginning with the often rocky transition from silent to sound movies. Although he had already made a number of successful animated silent shorts by 1927, the one that really established his production company was “Steamboat Willie,” the first Mickey Mouse cartoon released to the public and the first cartoon of any kind to have synchronized sound. The marriage of music to the visual gags proved to be a sensation with the public and established Disney as a Hollywood force to be reckoned with.

Disney’s recognition of the importance of music in movies directly led to his “Silly Symphony” series, which wed visuals to music. But this was a warm up for what was initially dubbed “Disney’s Folly” – the first feature length animated cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The tone of this movie was radically different from the slapstick 6 minute shorts Disney was known for. It was a dramatic story that ran the emotional gamut from broad slapstick gags to tear-invoking pathos. Audiences had never seen anything like it before. And music played a key role in that movie’s success. Fans of Broadway musicals like to point to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic “Oklahoma!” as the first musical to use integrated song and dance to advance the story, but Disney pulled off that accomplishment 5 years earlier with “Snow White.” He made sure that songs created for all his subsequent animated features were organic and integral parts of the stories.

Yes, music has been an important part of the movies pretty much from the beginning. And there have been talented composers creating original scores for the big screen for over 90 years. But, with all due respect to composers of all eras, (and I’m a big fan of some of them), when it comes to film music, to me the Golden Age was between 1958-78 with composers like Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, Nino Rota, Burt Bacharach, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were at their prime.

During this period, we saw the introduction of high fidelity recording and playback technologies, beginning with the then new magnetic sound technology which enabled the first multichannel sound systems heard in theatres. Although towards the tail end of the Golden Age of the studio system, most studios still had in-house fully symphony orchestras to provide lush sound. And, even if the soundtrack was played using a monophonic mix, it still sounded pretty good, especially compared to the audio quality of the 1930s and 40s.

With that in mind, if I were to program a concert of my favorite film music from that 20 year window, here would be my selections in more or less chronological order:

“Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) Victor Young

“North By Northwest” (1959) Bernard Herrmann

“Ben-Hur” (1959) Miklos Rozsa

“How The West Was Won” (1962) Alfred Newman

“The Great Escape” (1963) Elmer Bernstein

“The Pink Panther” (1963) Henry Mancini

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) Burt Bacharach

“The Godfather” (1972) Nino Rota

“The Wind and the Lion” (1975) Jerry Goldsmith

“Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977) John Williams

Obviously, this is a very subjective list. And there were some tossups for me. For example, in choosing one Bernard Herrmann score, would I go with “North By Northwest,” “Psycho” or “Jason and the Argonauts”? But I love the off beat rhythms used in “North by Northwest.”

For Henry Mancini, one of the most prolific composers of the 60s through the 90s, there were a number of great scores, but none quite as iconic as his jazzy “Pink Panther” theme. Although Burt Bacharach is best known for his songs, especially those composed in collaboration with lyricist Mack David, as much as I loved the playful score of the 1960s spoofy version of “Casino Royale,” his score for “Butch Cassidy…” is one of his best known, especially with its Oscar winning song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.”

Of all the examples I listed above, my favorite is the score of “Ben-Hur” by Miklos Rozsa. This score evokes a majesty, humanity and, yes, spirituality in its soaring themes. I invite you to hear for yourself by clicking on the link above.



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