The 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.


James Horner: An Appreciation

I was deeply saddened to learn that James Horner had died in a plane crash near Santa Barbara, California. The two-time Oscar winner wrote some of the most evocative theme music for movies in the past thirty years. He was a composer whose work not only enhanced films but became an integral part of the complete movie experience. It’s hard to imagine Glory or Braveheart or Field of Dreams without his score flowing beneath the action, and you have to wonder if Titanic would have become the mammoth hit it did without his score.

James Horner

Horner was born in Los Angeles in 1953. He began studying the piano at age 5 and pursued music at the Royal College of Music in London as well as at USC (where he got his bachelor’s in music) and UCLA (where he got his master’s). He taught music theory at UCLA and later completed his doctorate in Composition and Theory.

In the 1970s Horner moved from academia to films. Like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and others, Horner’s first work was under the auspices of producer Roger Corman. Among other Corman movies he did the score for The Lady in Red, a retelling of the John Dillinger story that was written and directed by a young John Sayles.

Horner’s major break was when he did Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, following Jerry Goldsmith who’d scored the first movie. He would do that one more time when he did Aliens, his first collaboration with James Cameron. His string-heavy theme for Khan built on the original theme while creating a unique sound that was stirring and thrilling. Horner also made his only appeared on-screen in the film as an uncredited Enterprise crewman. To listen to the theme, please click here. For good measure, Horner also scored Search For Spock two years later.

The 1980s were a good decade for Horner where he scored several successful and respected films, two qualities that don’t necessarily describe the same movie. He did the box office successes 48 Hrs., Cocoon, An American Tail. Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and The Land Before Time. For respected, he did Testament, In Country, and The Journey of Natty Gann. But at the end of the decade he did two classics: Field of Dreams and Glory.

The soundtrack for Field of Dreams is quirky and restrained, such as the piano theme when Ray finds himself stepping back in time to meet Doc “Moonlight” Graham. It’s a perfect match for the mysticism of the movie. Yet at the end the story is resolved in the richly romantic strings that accompany Ray’s reconciliation with his father.

Glory brought Horner his first Golden Globe nomination for best score. (He’d been nominated for best song a couple years earlier for “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail.) The theme is definitely martial music but with a strong dose of wistfulness and even melancholy at the tragic bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. For the piece “A Call to Arms” Horner blended choir voices singing the theme to give it a truly ethereal feel at first, then ends it with a counterpoint of chimes and trumpets that communicate the confusion of battle. To listen to “A Call To Arms,” click here.

In the early 1990s Horner worked on a wide variety of films, from the off-beat comedy I Love You To Death to the nostalgic action of The Rocketeer. The theme he created for that film was one of his best; click here and see if you don’t agree. Horner also did high budget action flicks with a literary base, such as Patriot Games and The Pelican Brief, but he could also create the dark yet playful theme for Sneakers.

Beginning in 1994, he scored a string of prestigious and well-loved films, beginning with Legends of the Fall. The next year he did Braveheart, having first worked with Mel Gibson two years earlier on The Man Without A Face. While some were upset that he used Uilleann pipes rather than actual bagpipes, you can’t argue with the result, such as in “A Gift of Thistle.”  In comparison to the script which made Braveheart one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made, the use of the different pipes is minor.

That same year Horner also scored Apollo 13, supporting the action with a heroic score. He followed that with a couple smaller films that are beloved by those who know them such as Jumanji, Courage Under Fire, and a personal favorite, The Spitfire Grill. But it was the next year, 1997, when Horner created the intensely romantic and emotional score for one of the most successful movies ever – Titanic.

Titanic was not supposed to be a success. It had made news for a year with its cost overruns and maniacal filming schedule. One crewmember had died after falling asleep at the wheel while driving after an extended shooting day. Many expected Titanic to join the historic failures that destroyed careers, films like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate. But then the movie was released and it became a cultural phenomenon. While most movies will spend one week atop the box office, Titanic spent four months. If you want to stump a person with a movie quiz question, ask them which movie finally knocked Titanic out of the top spot. (Answer: Lost In Space).

Like the film, the soundtrack became the highest selling primarily orchestral recording ever, moving over thirty million units worldwide. Horner had been paid in the high six figures for the score, but his royalties from the CDs went into the eight figures. Celine Dion’s recording of “My Heart Will Go On” held a lock on the top spot of the charts, including 10 weeks on the top of the airplay chart. The soundtrack recording was number one on the album charts for 16 weeks, beating releases from Madonna and Shania Twain. There was an inevitable backlash against its success so some now count “Heart” as one of the worse songs ever. But the theme still works, and listening to a piece such as the “Finale” brings back the best elements of the film. 12 years later, Horner reunited with Cameron  for Avatar, another film that broke a billion dollars at the box office.

After Titanic Horner continued to bring his talent to films. He reunited with Apollo 13 director Ron Howard to score How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Missing, and A Beautiful Mind. His score added poignancy to the tragic story of the Andrea Gail in A Perfect Storm. Other movies he composed for include The Mask of Zorro, Enemy at the Gates, Troy, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The House of Sand and Fog. His final score will be heard in November with the release of The 33, the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped by a mine collapse but finally rescued after 69 days.

Horner would have reunited with James Cameron for the planned Avatar sequels, but now someone else will have to pluck our heart strings for those movies. Horner has left a body of work that ensures his position as one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Il Maestro

In most cases, movie music is subtle shading for a scene. It rarely grabs you by the throat and shakes you until you notice it. At least, it doesn’t unless the music is written by Ennio Morricone. For fifty years, Morricone has written scores for movies that don’t simply add to the film’s emotional impact but become almost a character in the story – one who reaches into your soul and plucks the strings of your heart. His work has been featured in over 400 films.

Ennio Morricone

Morricone was born in Rome in 1928. He studied music at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, receiving a diploma in the trumpet at 18, then went on to study the composition of theater music. In 1953 he did his first arrangement for a series of radio programs, and graduated with a degree in composition in 1954. He worked first in Italian television, but in 1961 he moved on to movies.

His breakthrough came three years late, with the 1964 release of Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which created the Spaghetti Western genre. However, if you looked at the credits at that time, you would have seen the name ‘Leo Nichols.’ Many of the crew took nom de plumes or anglicized their names when the movie was released in the US. The combination of a pan pipe, guitar, and a church bell chime was unlike anything in the American cinema at that time. Leone scored all three of the so-called “Man With No Name” films that Leone did with Clint Eastwood, and with the third movie lightning struck. The theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly became a radio hit, and has remained an iconic theme that has been used time and time again. In the past 10 years, it has shown up in well over a dozen movies and TV shows.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, Morricone worked mostly in Italy, scoring 8-10 movies a year. He did a few more westerns, including Once Upon A Time In The West, working again with Leone, and the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood collaboration Two Mules for Sister Sara, but he showed his versatility by working on all kinds of movies. He wrote a twisty, lyrical yet discordant theme for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, about a chief of detectives who kills his mistress and then deliberately leaves clues pointing at himself as the killer. The film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1971. To listen to the theme, click here.

Morricone’s work with Hollywood developed slowly. One of his first major scores for an American film was for Terrance Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven. It brought him his first Oscar nomination. (Sadly, Morricone has never won an Oscar for a movie score, though the Academy finally acknowledged his brilliance with a special Oscar in 2007.) That same year, Morricone did the score for La Cage aux Folles.

In 1986, Morricone wrote one of the best film scores ever for The Mission. The story of priests in South America first trying to convert the natives and then protect them from the incursion of Europeans is a remarkable film on belief and faith, and starred Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro. If you have seen the movie, it is impossible to remember scenes without hearing Morricone’s haunting themes. To see Morricone conduct a performance of the movie’s main theme, click here. It should have won the Oscar, but it lost out to Herbie Hancock’s jazz theme for Round Midnight. 

The next year Morricone scored one of the biggest hits of the year, Brian DePalma’s update of The Untouchables. The opening theme grabs you with its pulse pounding, staccato beat that reminds you of a gunfight, while the theme winds sinuously through the mix. (To listen to it, click here.) The film builds to one of the most triumphal ending themes that has ever been used in a film.

In 1988, Morricone provided the lush score to accompany a film that was a love letter to movie lovers, Cinema Paradiso. The story of a film director returns to his Sicilian hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, the projectionist at the local cinema, who then relives his discovery of movies and love, provided Morricone with a rich tapestry where he could weave his magic.(To listen to the finale, click here.)

By now Morricone was established as one of the great scorers of film on both sides of the Atlantic. He did the scores for In The Line of Fire (once again providing music for Clint Eastwood’s performance), Disclosure, and The Legend of 1900, for which he created the lush piano themes played in the movie by Tim Roth. One of his best themes was for 2000’s Malena, another collaboration with Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made Cinema Paradiso and The Legend of 1900. (Click here to listen to Malena)

Morricone is now well into his ‘80s, but he continues to compose in Italy. A few years ago he collaborated on an excellent retrospective of his work performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His previous compositions have been entertaining new movie audiences recently, as they’ve been featured in Inglourious Basterds, The Book of Eli, The Holiday, and Django Unchained. It is like a great actor reprising a role in a new film – and doing it just as well as it the original. That is great music.


The Genius of Movie Songs (Movie Music #2)

For most people, their first live concert is a rite of passage.  Instead of just listening to an artist on the radio or record player, you got to experience them playing LIVE!  Usually it’s a pop sensation that you beg your parents to let you see.  My wife’s first concert was Elton John at the Cow Palace in San Francisco (boas and all).  My first concert may explain my life-long love of movie music.  My parents took me to see Henry Mancini in concert with the Hamilton (ONT) Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was already well-versed in the Mancini oeuvre by then.  We had a five disc collection of his movie music from Readers Digest that I’d listen to regularly, and I’d watched several of the movies he scored multiple times.  Days of Wine and Roses, Experiment in Terror, and The Great Race were particular favorites.

Mancini scored or arranged the music for 178 movies and 39 TV shows during his 32 year career.  Unique among the greatest movie composers, Mancini also produced a string of popular hit songs that first appeared in movies or TV shows.  There were instrumentals, like The Peter Gunn Theme and Baby Elephant Walk, and he also collaborated with lyricists for songs like The Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, Dear Heart, and Charade.  Mancini was nominated for Grammys four times as often as he was for Oscars, and he released over 150 albums in his lifetime.  (His album “Music from Peter Gunn” won the inaugural Album of the Year award at the 1st Grammys in 1958.)  While he started his career with big bands, his style was always innovative.  Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and World music were mixed into his scores, along with the sweeping romantic music you’d expect in movies.

Enrico Nicola Mancini was born in Cleveland, OH, on April 16, 1924.  His father, Quinto, was a steel worker and also an avid flutist.  He taught the instrument to his son when Henry was 8.  When the family moved to Aliquippa, PA in 1936, Mancini was introduced to the primary instrument of his career, the piano.  He was accepted into Julliard after graduating high school in 1942, but his studies were put on hold when he was drafted later that year.  He served out the duration of WWII in the Army Air Corps.

He’d already shown an aptitude for arranging big bands by submitting arrangements to Benny Goodman while still a youth.  In 1946 he was hired as a pianist and arranger for the Glenn Miller/Tex Beneke Orchestra.  (Miller had been lost in a small plane crash two years earlier, flying from England to France to entertain the troops.)  In short order he met the love of his life, Ginny O’Conner, who was a singer and one of Mel Torme’s original Mel-Tones.  Tex Beneke was looking for a new vocalist for the orchestra, and had Ginny come to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown LA to audition.  Most of the orchestra was out playing golf, except for Mancini, who accompanied her on the piano.  Within a year they were married, and they stayed together until his death 47 years later.

In 1952, Mancini was given a 2 week job at Universal Studios, working on the Abbott and Costello movie Lost In Alaska.  Mancini ended up staying in Universal’s music department for 6 years.  He worked on dozens of films, providing scores and/or incidental music, usually without credit.  Several are well known: It Came From Outer Space, The Far Country, Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth, Mr. Cory, Imitation of Life.  But he also worked on other Abbott and Costello movies and a couple of the Ma and Pa Kettle films.  In 1954 he got a big break (and his first Oscar nomination) arranging the score of The Glenn Miller Story.  With his personal experience with the band, it was a serendipitous assignment.  He showcased his ability with writing thriller themes in Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil.  His “Tana’s Theme” (for Marlene Dietrich’s character) blends the sound of a cantina with a melancholy sense of loss.  To listen to the theme, please click here

In 1958, Mancini left Universal to become an independent composer/arranger.  His first composition was for a young writer/producer by the name of Blake Edwards who’d created a series about a private eye – Peter Gunn.  (To listen, please click here.)   It became a signature piece for Mancini, with its throbbing bass line beneath a strong brass section, and was a hit on the pop charts as well.  The theme music album reached #1 on the Billboard charts, and won two Grammys.  This was the start of a friendship/collaboration with Edwards that lasted over 30 years and through 26 films.

Their next collaboration was again on the small screen, an adaptation of a 1943 Cary Grant movie about a gambler named Mr. Lucky.  Mancini did a 180 degree turn, creating a lush, romantic theme that was almost the opposite of the boogie-woogie Gunn theme.  An incidental theme, “Lujon” was later used in both The Big Lebowski and Sexy Beast.  (To listen, click here.)

In 1961, Mancini scored (you could say) one of his all-time greatest hits.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s, directed by Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, featured the iconic “Moon River.”  Mancini collaborated with Johnny Mercer, who’d been a music legend for years before falling on hard times during the rock and roll 1950’s.  This song revived Mercer’s career, and he went on to work with Mancini on several more projects.  Mancini wrote the music so that Hepburn could sing it in the picture.  He looked at a previous movie that she’d sung in, and noted that she sang well in the key of C, hitting notes between middle C and an octave higher C.  Those became the first two notes of the song.  (Click here to watch the opening sequence.)  The wistful music won two Oscars for Mancini (Best Song and Best Score), and it continues to be regularly recorded.  It recently was performed on an episode of Glee.

Edwards and Mancini’s next collaboration was as much of a contrast as Peter Gunn/Mr. Lucky.  Experiment in Terror was a thriller, staring Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, and a very young Stephanie Powers.  For the first half of the movie, you never see the villain, you just hear his asthmatic breathing as he talks in shadows.  (He’s played by Ross Martin, who’d worked with Edwards on Mr. Lucky.)  The slow, walking bass line and discordant theme increases the suspense of the film right from the opening credits.  (Click here to watch them.)

Mancini worked with other directors and producers as well.  His theme for Howard Hawk’s Hatari communicated the feel of Africa, and the movie also yielded another iconic Mancini piece – the whimsical Baby Elephant Walk.  For Stanley Dolan, Mancini composed the theme for Charade, which garnered another Best Song Oscar nomination.  Mancini told of watching the rough film, seeing Audrey Hepburn sitting on her suitcase in her empty apartment and being inspired to write a minor waltz.  In a half-hour, he had the theme completed.  Delbert Mann’s Dear Heart, staring Glenn Ford, Geraldine Page, and Angela Landsbury, benefited from Mancini’s original music, which was also nominated for best song.

But the work with Blake Edwards continued to be stellar.  Days of Wine and Roses was a harrowing portrayal of alcoholism, with much more realism than The Lost Weekend.  Jack Lemmon has told the story of the first time he heard the theme song.  He and Lee Remick were doing a particularly difficult scene (in a movie that had more than its share of them).  Edwards broke for lunch, and then motioned for Lemmon and Remick to come with him, Mancini and Johnny Mercer, who was again providing lyrics.  They walked to the next soundstage, which was dark except for a single light by an upright piano.  Mercer pulled an envelope from his pocket on which he’d written the lyrics.  Mancini hit the first chord, Mercer began to sing, and both Lemmon and Remick were blown away by the piece.  Talking about it decades later, Lemmon still choked up.  It added another Oscar for Best Song to Mancini’s mantle. (To hear Andy Williams recording of the song, click here.)

After the dramas they’d worked on, a change of pace was in orderEdwards came up with a bumbling, pompous French detective on the trail of a debonair jewel thief, and The Pink Panther series was born.  For the opening sequence, Mancini created its jazz theme while sitting at a rented piano in his garage in Northridge, CA.  The bass part came first, then the melody for the saxophone, and within an hour he had the piece completed. To hear the original version, click here.  The animated titles, featuring a Pink Panther running from a cartoon Inspector Clouseau over Mancini’s music, were a sensation.  It took on a life of its own, becoming a popular and long-running cartoon series (and mascot for Owens-Corning Fiberglass Insulation).  Peter Sellers played Clouseau in the original movie and its first sequel, A Shot In The Dark.  (The third installment, Inspector Clouseau, had Alan Arkin as Clouseau and was directed by Bud Yorkin, who later produced Sandford and Son as well as All in the Family; Edwards and Sellers returned for the five later sequels in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.)

Mancini also had a major recording hit in 1969 with a song he did not write: The Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.  His instrumental recording won a Grammy for best arrangement, and it topped the Billboard 100 chart for two weeks.

Together, Edwards and Mancini did the hilarious and underappreciated slapstick extravaganza, The Great Race, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk.  Through the rest of the 1960’s, Mancini continued to produce excellent themes and songs for movies such as Arabesque, Two for the Road, Wait Until Dark, and The Molly Maguires. 

In 1970, he again worked with Edwards on the director’s first major flop, Darling Lili.  A musical comedy about a German spy in WWI did not go over well, and the film grossed back only a fifth of its $25 million budget.  While Edwards continued to work, making movies such as The Carey Treatment and The Tamarind Seed, he didn’t have a big success until he returned to the Pink Panther movies five years later.

Along with his movie work with Edwards and other directors, Mancini returned to television, doing the theme for The NBC Mystery Movie, The Blue Knight, and the miniseries The Moneychangers.  He also wrote the NBC News theme used in the 1970’s.

Edwards still had a couple great movies in him, and Mancini helped those movies become successful.  In the first instance, it was an adaptation of a classical piece, Ravel’s Bolero for the movie “10.”  It’s likely that Edwards based Dudley Moore’s character George Webber, a successful composer, partially on his friend Mancini.  The movie was a major hit for 1979, grossing over $75 million, equal to a $200 to $300 million movie these days.  While Bolero was the piece most people remembered, Mancini did get two more Oscar nods, for best score and best original song “It’s Easy to Say.”

As a follow up, Edwards did a poison pen love letter to Hollywood called S.O.B.  It included Julie Andrews (Edwards’ wife) baring her breasts.  The movie didn’t do well at the box office, a common fate for a black comedy, but it’s definitely worth watching for cinemaphiles who enjoy in-jokes about the movies.  There’s a sequence of friends taking a director’s corpse out for a final night on the town, which actually happened during an earlier Hollywood era and was chronicled in David Niven’s book, Bring On The Empty Horses.  Mancini wrote a saccharin G-rated musical number that opened the movie, which is later changed into an R-rated psycho-sexual nightmare leading up to Andrews’ breast-baring.

The next year, Edwards and Mancini did the classic Victor/Victoria.  The gender-bending musical comedy delivered Mancini’s final Oscar win, for best score.  While it didn’t match the box office of “10,” it has aged more gracefully, and it spawned a successful Broadway musical.  To watch the “Le Hot Jazz” number from the movie, click here.

Mancini did a couple more excellent TV themes in the 1980’s, including Remington Steel, Hotel, and the long-running Newhart. 

On June 14, 1994, Henry Mancini passed away from cancer.  Over his career he amassed an incredible collection of awards: 4 Oscars (18 nominations); 20 Grammys (72 Nominations); 1 Golden Globe (9 nominations); and two Emmy nominations.  Even more impressive is how his songs continue to show up in films.  Movies such as Love and Other Disasters, In Bruges and Monsters vs. Aliens include his work.  They’ve also been used in an incredibly diverse list of TV shows in the last decade, including The Simpsons, Nip/Tuck, Gossip Girl, Cold Case, and Dancing with the Stars (as well as the earlier mentioned Glee).

Mancini’s memorable music will likely still be being played (and used in films) for many more years to come, a testimony to his genius.

First Family of Movie Music

I have always loved theme music for movies.  The very first concert I ever attended was to see Henry Mancini (and it was fabulous).  I’ve had the opportunity myself to write theme music for stage plays, which has deepened my appreciation for the skill required to get the mood right for a whole movie.  Over the course of the next year, I plan to do a series of posts about some of the great composers for films.

It is easy to argue that, for film music, the Newmans are the first family.  Alfred, his brothers Lionel and Emil, sons Thomas and David, and nephew Randy have, between them, scored 497 movies (and counting).  They’ve been nominated for 88 Oscars, and have won 12.  The family has been scoring pictures from Indiscreet (starring Gloria Swanson) in 1931 to the present day with Thomas’ recent scores for The Debt, The Adjustment Bureau, The Help, and The Iron Lady.

Alfred Newman

Alfred Newman 

The patriarch of this dynasty was born in New Haven, CT in 1901, to a poor immigrant family.  Alfred was a piano prodigy who was given a scholarship by the great pianist Sigismund Stojowski to study with him at age 5.  However, Alfred needed to provide for his family when his father lost his job.  He found work as the pianist at the Strand Theater in New York City.  He was 13 years old.  Alfred moved into musical theater work, since it paid better, and learned conducting.  Composer David Raskin has called Newman the greatest conductor to ever pick up a baton in Hollywood.  Alfred worked with Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin on Broadway.  When Berlin moved to Hollywood in 1930 to work in the movies, he brought Newman with him.

Newman found work with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn as well as at United Artists during his first decade in the movies.  Then in 1940 he became the music director for 20th Century Fox.  Almost everyone in the world has heard Newman’s music, since he wrote the fanfare that accompanies the 20th Century logo on the studio’s films.  (The fanfare was rerecorded in 1997 under the direction of his son, David; that’s the recording that’s currently in use.)

Newman was nominated for 45 Oscars, the third highest total in film history (behind Walt Disney and John Williams).  He won 9, second only to Disney.  In a stretch from 1938 to 1957, he received an Oscar nomination every year, and had the remarkable feat of being nominated 4 times (for Wuthering Heights, The Rains Came, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the musical direction for They Shall Have Music) in one year.  That was also the year of Max Steiner’s score for Gone WithThe Wind, but both composers lost out to Stagecoach.

After retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1960, Newman continued freelance composing as well as scoring, working on The Counterfeit Traitor, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Nevada Smith, The Flower Drum Song, and Firecreek.  His last assignment was for 1970’s Airport.  His health deteriorated during the work on Airport, and he died on February 17, 1970, at age 68.  The Airport score became his final Oscar-nominated work.

As an example of Alfred’s work, listen to his score for 1941’s How Green Was My Valley.  The winsome use of the violins for the theme makes you feel the longing for home and the memories of family.  Click here to listen.

Lionel Newman

Lionel Newman 

Fifteen years younger than Alfred, Lionel followed in his brother’s footsteps, becoming a pianist and a conductor.  He toured in the 1930’s as Mae West’s pianist and orchestral conductor for her live shows.  When he joined his brother at 20th Century Fox, he started as a rehearsal pianist before moving into conducting scores as well as writing them.  Different from Alfred, Lionel worked extensively in television at the studio, and was named its musical director for the small screen.  He composed several classic TV themes, including The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Daniel Boone, as well as supervising the music for such series as M*A*S*H, Batman, Lost In Space, Room 222, and Trapper John, M.D.

For the big screen, he did more direction of the music, and was Marilyn Monroe’s choice for a conductor on all of her musical films.  Lionel did compose scores for 35 movies, including The Proud Ones, Love Me Tender, Compulsion, and The Boston Strangler.  He also scored the music for Hello, Dolly for which he won his only Oscar, out of 11 nominations.  Lionel retired in 1985, and passed away in 1989 at age 73.

Lionel’s theme for 1956’s The Proud Ones, a western starring Robert Ryan, Virginia Mayo, and Jeffrey Hunter, may have influenced Ennio Morricone who used the whistling motif when he scored Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns eight years later.  Click here to listen.

Emil Newman

Born four years before Lionel, in 1911, Emil joined his brothers in Hollywood near the end of the 1930s.  Like Lionel, he was mostly known as a musical director.  Starting in 1940, he directed the music on movies such as Lifeboat, Laura, Stormy Weather, and The Best Years of Our Lives.  1941’s Sun Valley Serenade brought him his only Oscar nomination, for scoring the picture.  It was one of only two movies that showcased the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and it started Norwegian Olympic skating sensation Sonja Henie.  The film also featured Dorothy Dandridge and Milton Berle (not two names you usually say in the same sentence).

He did compose scores for 40 movies, including three John Wayne pictures, Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and Hondo.  Most of his other scores, though, were for B pictures.  After scoring 1965’s The Great Sioux Massacre, a very poor retelling of Custer’s Last Stand, Emil stopped working in Hollywood.  He died in Woodland Hills, California, in 1984.

The theme he wrote for Hondo is quite serviceable for the movie, but nothing special.  It must have been hard, to be a middle child between Alfred and Lionel.  To listen, click here.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman

Randy was the son of a fourth Newman brother, Irving, who had also come west to Hollywood but who made his living as a doctor.  Born on November 28, 1943, Randy was a professional songwriter by age 17.  Often his music became hits for other artists such as Judy Collins (I Think It’s Going To Rain Today), Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come), and Joe Cocker (You Can Leave Your Hat On).  But he did have good success as an artist himself with the classic Sail Away, the anthem I Love L.A., and the tongue-in-cheek Short People. He continues to give concerts of his songs around the world.

Randy first dipped his toes into the family business by doing the music for Cold Turkey in 1971.  The movie, about a town where everyone swears off smoking, was written and directed by legendary television producer Norman Lear and starred Dick Van Dyke.  Ten years later he did the music for Ragtime, followed three years later by The Natural.  After that, Randy was regularly working on film projects.  Some of the other movies he’s scored are Awakenings, Maverick, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit.

It was serendipitous, though, when Randy started to work with Disney/Pixar.  His first work with Pixar was for the wonderful Toy Story.  Since then he’s done the other two Toy Story pictures, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, and Cars.  He’s currently working on the sequel Monsters University.  Randy also did the stop-motion movie, James and the Giant Peach, as well as the recent classic-style animation movie, The Princess and the Frog.

He set a record for Oscar nominations without a win (14) but finally got his trophy for Best Original Song in 2002 for Monsters, Inc.  He’s now had 20 nominations and two wins, the second another original song win for Toy Story 3.  He came close to matching Alfred in 1999 when he received nominations for three different movies (A Bugs Life, Babe: Pig in the City, and Pleasantville) in the same year.

The home run scene at the end of The Natural illustrates how music can deepen the emotional impact of a scene.  There’s just a touch of music at first, specifically when Redford sees his broken bat.  Then the music builds on the final pitch until it explodes with the lights.  You could play this piece of music for anyone who’s seen the movie, and they would immediately remember the scene.  To watch the scene, click here.

David Newman

David Newman

David is the older of Alfred Newman’s two sons who have followed their father into composing movie music.  David had studied both conducting as well as violin when he was a music major at the University of Southern California.

His first theme work was for Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie in 1984.  After doing Danny DeVito’s first movie as a director, Throw Momma From the Train, DeVito used David for all his subsequent directing assignments.  David has now scored over 100 films, and for many producers he’s become the go-to guy for scoring comedies.  Like Randy and his brother Thomas, David has scored animated movies, and it was for one of them, Anastasia, that he received his only Oscar nomination.

As an example of his music, I’ve chosen his theme work for a personal favorite movie of mine, Josh Whedon’s Serenity.  The story is basically cowboys in space, and you’ll hear elements of the western motif in the theme.  The adagio that begins this clip fits beautifully with the end of the movie, when a couple of beloved characters are laid to rest.  To listen, click here.

Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman

Last, and definitely not least, is Thomas Newman.  Thomas is a year younger than David, having been born in 1955 when his father was already in his mid-fifties.  He has come close to matching his father’s success, working on prestigious films, and he’s been nominated for 10 Oscars.  So far has not won a trophy, though one hopes that oversight will soon be corrected.

Thomas attended USC like David, but then got his Master’s degree at Yale.  One of the composers he studied under was David Raskin, who was given his start in the movie industry by Thomas’ father Alfred.   Thomas got his start in the mid-1980s, composing the scores for comedies like Revenge of the Nerds, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.  These led to more prestigious work in the 1990’s, doing Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, The Green Mile, and American Beauty, among others.  He also wrote the theme music for HBO’s Six Feet Under.

In the past decade, Thomas has scored The Road to Perdition, Cinderella Man, and Jarhead.  He’s also worked with Pixar like his cousin Randy, doing the music for Finding Nemo and WALL-E.  He’s had a long-standing relationship with Director Sam Mendes, having done all his films, and is currently working on Skyfall, the new James Bond movie that Mendes is directing.

Different from his father’s sweeping orchestrations, Thomas has a delicate touch that blends themes and instruments in a subtle way.  As with jazz, it’s often the parts he leaves out of a theme that make the music even more striking.  You’ll notice this in his theme for American Beauty.  To listen, click here.