Even before "talking pictures," a piano or small orchestra played a key role in the movies. And long after the era of silent films, the importance of music remains. WRTI’s hosts and arts reporters recount some of the soundtracks and movie tunes that linger.
Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Ross got rave reviews for her portrayal of Billie Holiday, although the movie didn’t fare as well. The soundtrack is from 1972, when Diana was “supremely” popular. Her portrayal not only brought wider recognition to one of our most important jazz artists, it also attracted a young audience. Ms. Ross’s interpretations of Billie’s best-known songs renewed interest in her original recordings and that has led to ongoing reissued releases.
It was a long time ago, in a galaxy far away...no wait, wrong outer space flick. Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is easily the most perfect music score one could think of for any outer space flick. I saw it in the theater in 1979, the year it came out. To me, the music is as powerful a score as one could imagine. And while Goldsmith scored other Star Trek films, and hundreds of other movies and TV shows in a career that spanned six decades, this remains a personal favorite.
When I heard the love theme he wrote for the character Ilia in the movie, I was in love. Nominated for an Academy Award in that year, it lost out to A Little Romance, scored by Georges Delarue with a little help from Antonio Vivaldi.
My favored movie theme is from the 1960 film Spartacus. I play it often on my show. Alex North scored the film and was nominated for an Academy Award. Peter Ustinov received a best supporting actor award for his role, and Kirk Douglas starred in the production. Alex North supplied scores for a good number of major films during his days in Hollywood. Pianist Bill Evans and flutist Jeremy Steig recorded the theme on their CD, What’s New.
Debra Lew Harder
A film score that always floors me is Michel Legrand’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,) directed by Jacques Demy and starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in 1964. Music is so integral to the film that there's not a word of spoken dialogue—it’s all sung (the singing is dubbed.) The whole movie is like a beautiful jazz-inflected opera with a very French sense of regret and poignancy. That’s especially true in the famous theme song; you may find yourself humming it next time it rains. P.S. The film inspired Justin Hurwitz, the composer of the score for La La Land, who won Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.
My audio pick is actually a Latin take on Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s the album Close Encounters of the Latin Kind, by Julio Gutierrez and His Charanga All-Stars. The final track “Close Encounters of the Latin Kind” starts the same way as the movie's theme and then plunges into a fiery charanga beat. The violin and the flute dominate the polyrhythmic charanga sound created in the early 1800s by Haitians, both African and French. Join me for a taste of a Close Encounters of the Latin Kind on the 41st anniversary of El Viaje this Saturday, the day before the Oscars.
I like film scores, and have many favorites. The greatest of all time are on my list, certainly – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Magnificent Seven, any John Williams film (especially Jaws, The Star Wars trilogy, Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park), The Piano, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Howard Shore’s masterpiece.
But if you are going to pin me down, I adore Rachel Portman’s score for the 1996 film, Emma; never mind that she was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score, but there is such apparent simplicity in a score so rich in its character motifs. I can’t imagine the film without the score, but the music lives brilliantly on its own as a masterpiece of composition.
J. Michael Harrison
Mo’ Better Blues caught me off guard! Jazz has accompanied most of Spike Lee’s films, but here it takes the lead. The focus on jazz musicians, including the real life jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts as a cast member was exciting! Trane, Cannonball, Ornette, Wayne Short, Miles and others are heard throughout the film. The soundtrack also includes an interesting mix of original compositions from Spike’s father, Bill Lee, and Branford Marsalis with a spotlight on the playing of Terence Blanchard. Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes also perform one of the originals. Cynda Williams’ version of “Harlem Blues” is memorable.
The movie that made a huge impression on me as a kid was The Day The Earth Stood Still. In it, the extraterrestrial Klaatu comes to Earth to warn humanity that unless it grows up, stops its aggression and realizes it’s part of a greater whole, the other planets have no choice but to obliterate it. As Klaatu puts it, "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration." Composer Bernard Hermann makes brilliant use of the theremin, an electronic instrument, to lend an otherworldly feel to the classic score. He employs tape-reversal techniques, overdubbing, unison organs, tubas, piano, and bass drum. The score still makes my flesh creep, and the film, despite its rudimentary special effects, holds up startlingly well.
I was 17, maybe 18. Koyaanisqatsi. The title of the film intrigued me. It’s a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance.” The description captivated me: “a documentary without words.” Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film was being shown on local public TV so I set up my VCR to record it to watch later. I remember my disappointment that the image on the resulting video was a bit too grainy and distorted. The soundtrack, however, was crystal clear...and it blew me away. I had never heard anything like this music before –by turns hypnotic, frantic, majestic, and haunting. This was my first encounter with the “minimalist” music of Philip Glass and I was instantly hooked. This score has since become iconic and makes a perfect introduction to Glass’s work.
My pick is sort of a soundtrack of soundtracks. In 1999, trumpeter Terence Blanchard took it upon himself to release Jazz In Film, an album with his interpretation of different scores from classic movies. Jazz is definitely the running theme of his selections, with the theme from “Anatomy of A Murder,” which was composed by the great Duke Ellington, and a haunting rendition of the score from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which is set in the jazz capital of New Orleans. An all-star band plays along with Blanchard (including the late Kenny Kirkland and Joe Henderson), with the addition of strings. Listening to this album is the most perfect way to celebrate jazz and cinema.
I still hear those first gentle notes from the musical theme in the film Moonlight. Several months after I saw it, I had a driveway moment as composer Nicholas Britell described how he changed keys, instruments, pitch, technique and more in the soulful “Little’s Theme” to convey the changing life of the main character, from his childhood to his twenties. I was in the parking lot of a grocery store on in Florida, but couldn’t get out of the car as I listened to this powerful insight into how his Oscar-nominated score enhanced the Best Picture winner, Moonlight. NPR featured a story about the score here.
There is so much great music to choose from! I can’t pick a favorite, but the soundtrack to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has stuck in my mind for decades–especially "South American Getaway." Written by Burt Bacharach, it’s a piece without words, with vocalists, The Ron Hicklin Singers, singing in the style of The Swingle Singers.
For me, it’s the original motion picture soundtrack for the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves. John Barry, probably best-known for the James Bond scores, wrote an atmospheric opus for a film that depicts Native Americans in a positive light. That was something of a rarity at the time. The score won an Academy Award. Kevin Costner financed a good bit of the movie as I recall, otherwise it might not have been made. The “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” is my favorite section.
One of my favorite soundtracks is from the 1983 American epic historical drama The Right Stuff. Featuring an all-star cast, this Hollywood classic is about the seven military test pilots who became astronauts for the first manned spaceflight by the United States. In addition to Oscar-winning composer Bill Conti’s exciting and powerful score, the film is peppered with segments from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, and Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” The film and the soundtrack represent all that’s right in The Right Stuff. Thumbs up!