Monday, July 06, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Movie Composers?

A regular reader, Jason, writes:

“The passing of James Horner finally spurred me to suggest another question for you: who do you think is the greatest composer of film music?  

Whom do you like best?  

Who are the up-and-comers you think we need to be paying attention to?”

Jason, those are some tough questions, and I don’t know that I can answer them all adequately. 

There are so many great composers out there whose work I adore, and I’m afraid that I will forget someone important.  If I do, I humbly apologize.  

But here goes…

Who do I think is the greatest film composer of all time?  For me, it is a photo finish between three artists.

Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

Certainly, Herrmann is one of the most influential film composers of all time, and he composed – unforgettably -- for virtually every genre imaginable, working on films as diverse as Citizen Kane and Psycho, the 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Birds to name just a few. 

His score for Psycho absolutely dictated the sound of horror films for several generations.

Jerry Goldsmith (1929 – 2004)

Goldsmith score for Planet of the Apes (1968) added so much menace and atmosphere to that film, augmenting the visuals almost infinitely. 

But that score was just one among many triumphs for Goldsmith, who also composed the scores for Chinatown (1974), The Omen (1976), Logan’s Run (1976), Alien (1979), Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984).

His Star Trek theme, created for The Motion Picture (1979) and re-used in The Final Frontier (1989), First Contact (1996) and other films (and TV series) remains the best Trek music, in my opinion. I get chills when I hear it, or when I watch the Enterprise in drydock in The Motion Picture. I also love the martial alien-ness of his Klingon theme.

And last but not least in my top three:

John Barry (1933 – 2011)

Barry scored a whopping eleven James Bond films in the 1960s, 70s, and 1980s, and I absolutely love those scores. I have them all on vinyl.

These adventurous, romantic scores haven’t aged, in my opinion, and define, at least for my ears, the universe of 007.  I think his best is the score for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).


Other composers have succeeded Barry on the series, but none have replaced him. 

But outside of the Bond films, Barry produced one of the most beautiful genre sound-tracks ever: Somewhere in Time (1980), as well as King Kong (1976) and The Black Hole. 

Outside of the genre, he scored such classics as Walkabout (1971) and Out of Africa (1985).  His music, more than any other composer’s, can literally cause swooning in listeners.

I appreciate the works of other composers as well, and honestly, I connect them specifically with the works of a specific director.

For example:

John Carpenter should always score his own films. The combination of his music and images is incredibly potent.  There's nothing else in the world like that particular vibe.  I find myself looking for it often, and never quite finding it.

And if I’m watching a Tim Burton film, I want it to be scored by Danny Elfman.

If I’m screening a film of David Lynch, by contrast, I want to hear the music of Angelo Badalamenti.

If it’s Steven Spielberg, or George Lucas in the director’s chair, some John Williams is an absolute requirement.

If I’m watching an Atom Egoyan or Mira Nair film, I want a Mychael Danna score to accompany it.

I’m in an Argento or Tarentino film, I must have some Ennio Morricone music.

In terms of underrated genre composers, I’ve must point to two favorites: Elliot Goldenthal, whose Alien3 score is amazing.  And, in my opinion, Christopher Young is the only composer who should ever be permitted to score a Hellraiser film.

James Horner, meanwhile, as I wrote in his tribute a few weeks back, is a musical voice from my childhood and teenage years that I absolutely adore.  His work on Star Trek II and III are immortal to me, and take me right back to the first time I saw those films.

As far as up and comers, I really like the work of Marc Streitenfeld (Prometheus, The Grey) and would like to hear more from him.  

Alas, outside of that example, I find that a lot of the big franchise movies in the Tolkien and Marvel universes sound pretty indistinguishable to me. 

You didn’t ask about television, but for me, Mark Snow is tops there, for his work in the productions of Chris Carter. I also love Barry Gray's work on the productions of Gerry Anderson.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at


  1. Felt compelled to bust out with not just a top three or five or even ten, but TWENTY of my favorite film composers. Great film scores are truly transportive, even on their own. The canvas of exceptional work is too great to list but a few.

    Along with each my favorites, I've listed an additional 3 scores that best, if only barely, reflects their mastery and distinction.

    20. Ennio Morricone
    - Wolf, The Thing, Red Sonja

    19. Brad Fiedel
    - The Terminator, Terminator 2, True Lies

    18. Hans Zimmer
    - Radio Flyer, Broken Arrow, The Thin Red Line

    17. Danny Elfman
    - Batman, Hulk, Alice in Wonderland

    16. James Newton Howard
    - Waterworld, Hidalgo, Lady in the Water

    15. Howard Shore
    - The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey, The Aviator

    14. Dimitri Tiomkin
    - Red River, Lost Horizon, Land of the Pharaohs

    13. Elmer Bernstein
    - The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters

    12. John Barry
    - You Only Live Twice, Moonraker, Somewhere in Time

    11. Ry Cooder
    - Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire, Paris, Texas

    10. Tangerine Dream
    - Thief, Firestarter, Legend

    09. James Horner
    - The Wrath of Khan, The Mask of Zorro, Brainstorm

    08. Michael Kamen
    - Highlander, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

    07. Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    - Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk

    06. Bruce Broughton
    - Tombstone, The Rescuers Down Under, Silverado

    05. Vangelis
    Blade Runner, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Alexander

    04. Miklós Rózsa
    - Double Indemnity, Ben-Hur, El Cid

    03. John Carpenter
    - Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Ghosts of Mars

    02. Basil Poledouris
    Conan the Barbarian, Quigley Down Under, The Hunt for Red October

    01. John Williams / Jerry Goldsmith
    So with these guys, let's go with some underrated scores:

    - The Sugarland Express, The Witches of Eastwick, Rosewood
    - Supergirl, Extreme Prejudice, Congo

  2. Agh. Geez-Louise. So many other much deserved shout-outs:

    Max Steiner
    Alex North
    Bernard Herrmann
    Alan Silvestri
    Carter Burwell
    Kenji Kawai
    Bill Conti
    Shirley Walker
    Lalo Schifrin
    Osvaldo Golijov
    Elliot Goldenthall
    David Shire
    Brian Eno
    Maurice Jarre
    Leonard Rosenman

  3. The Star Trek The Motion Picture music is some of my favorite film music ever. If I'm not mistaken it also employed the same advanced synthesizer (the Con Brio ADS 100) which was used for sound effects work in the movie. Some of the synth lines in the music sound like no other synth I've heard.

    I love Barry Gray too. He gave us one of the most amazing evil fuzz-guitar lines ever recorded in the Space 1999 theme and actually listening to his music outside the context of the visual media it often accompanied is quite an experience.

  4. Some great composers on your list. Of course I'm a huge Jerry Goldsmith fan, so I had to cheer when he was in your top three.

    Herrmann is really one of the most influential composers out there. I don't think people realize how much of modern film music was influenced by his creations. He really did some amazing stuff. Most people know his Hitchcock work, so I was pleased to see you give a shout out to his adventure scoring. His work on the Harryhausen films goes a long way to adding to the adventure and overall feel of the movies.