The film scores of the 1990s were as rich and varied as the films themselves, as the decade saw — well, heard — established masters peak (John Williams) or push themselves in new directions (Philip Glass), bold outsiders bring new genres into the narrow conversation of what movie music “should be” (Tom Tykwer, The RZA), and singular iconoclasts revolutionize how that music is recorded (remember the time when Neil Young just improvised the entire score for “Dead Man” by watching a rough cut in his studio?).
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Women like Rachel Portman and Deborah Wiseman continued to make headway in a field from which they’ve long been excluded, while some of the most essential composers of the 21st century (Carter Burwell) began to hit their stride and point towards an even brighter future. Hell, even “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” had Alan Silvestri going absolutely nuts over the soundtrack.
Here are our picks for the 25 best movie scores of the ’90s.
Adam Solomons, Steve Greene, and Emma Stefansky also contributed to this article.
25. “Candyman” (composed by Philip Glass, 1992)
Philip Glass may be one of the most celebrated, boundary-pushing composers of the past half century, and yet the concert hall isn’t his only habitat: he’s been known to moonlight as a plumber throughout his career to keep his work grounded. And it’s that level-headed everyman side of him that allowed Glass to produce a score of grandeur and empathy for Bernard Rose’s 1992 film about the legacy of trauma at a neglected Chicago housing project, where a turn-of-the-last-century Black artist was killed by a white lynch mob and lives on as a ghost (Tony Todd) to haunt those who dare not believe his story. In the present, the Black Chicagoans of the Cabrini-Green project both revere — and live in fear — of his legend, while navigating ongoing racism and marginalization in their own time.
This is the stuff of operatic lore as much as Glass’ own operas, and his “Candyman” score — full of relentless chromatic peaks and valleys on organ, piano, music box, and choir — is of a piece with his celebrated “Akhnaten” and “Satyagraha” and “Koyaanisqatsi.” Classical music is often a part of horror movies, from Dracula playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” to Kubrick using Berlioz, Ligeti, and Penderecki in “The Shining.” These, like so much of horror movie history, are white stories in which Black people are often absent or disposed of as collateral damage; “Candyman” stands out by centering a white character (Virginia Madsen) who discovers that she’s really just a player-piece in a Black story, the film tacking against the current with Glass’ score as the gale-force wind behind its sails. —CB
24. “Il Postino” (composed by Luis Bacalov, 1994)
Luis Bacalov was of highest regard for his work on spaghetti Westerns (“Django,” “The Price of Power,” “His Name Was King”) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” but the music he composed for Michael Radford’s 1994 schmaltz-fest couldn’t be any more different to what played as Franco Nero pulled a coffin through the desert. His Oscar- and BAFTA-winning “Il Postino” score was the beginning of a slowdown for Bacalov both in output and in the tone of his scores. It’s apt, then, that his transitional subject should be Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet whose fictionalized (though not entirely fabricated) exile to an Italian fishing island was a state-sanctioned slowdown under threat of imprisonment.
Dulcet woodwind tones and a “Mamma Mia”-esque accordion riff produce an infectious main theme that’s as warm-hearted — or sickly sweet — as Radford’s film, about the friendship that forms between Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and titular postman Mario (Massimo Troisi). Few films deploy a couple of catchy bars as often or as effectively as Radford does with Bacalov’s music, a testament to the score’s appropriateness, and in no small part an asset to its awards season success. Sometimes a great score is all a movie really needs. —AS
23. “Wilde” (composed by Debbie Wiseman, 1997)
Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde is such perfect casting it seems divinely pre-destined. Uncanny resemblance aside, the comedian turned British national treasure always embodied a warmth and biting wit similar to that of the Victorian poet and playwright he plays here (not to mention that it was still rare in the ‘90s for a gay man to be played by an openly gay man).
Nevertheless, Brian Gilbert’s biopic wouldn’t feel as on-target as it does if not for the extraordinarily gentle beauty of Debbie Wiseman’s score, which seems to understand Oscar Wilde just as well as the film’s leading man. Wilde himself once said that the only people he was interested in were “those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is.” And that is the spirit in which Wiseman’s score enhances each moment it’s heard, with an exquisite prettiness underscored by unshakeable melancholy.
The film centers on the doomed romance between Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law), which Wiseman wraps in lilting oboe sequences and languid piano solos. The scenes that look towards the warm but ultimately dissatisfying love the writer feels towards his wife are played with soaring strings atop a mellifluous undercurrent of heartbreak and betrayal.
There’s a sense of tradition to this orchestral score and — beyond one sudden gear-change into a richly textured hoe-down — it’s absent any big surprised. Wiseman honors (rather than reinvents) those old notions of beauty, bringing a sophistication and energy to the score that builds upon the Gilbert’s steady direction. One can’t help but suspect that Wilde himself, who longed to spend each moment surrounded by elegance, would have approved of such a classically rich approach, having once famously said that “Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm.” —LL
22. “Legend of 1900” (composed by Ennio Morricone, 1998)
If anyone but Ennio Morricone scored the 10-minute piano duel (yes) that comes about halfway through Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Legend of 1900,” the world might have spun off its axis. Already one of the most incomprehensible and frankly ridiculous films of its decade, “1900” — or, per its Italian title, “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean” — utterly depends on Morricone’s respectability not to be laughed out of the room. In much the same way John Barry’s arrangements for “The Cotton Club” had the power to win over that film’s (misguided) doubters, the 26 original pieces that Morricone contributed to “Legend of 1900” makes the film credible.
Tim Roth plays 1900, a virtuoso pianist played who never steps foot off a ship that taxis between Europe and New York, and the piano duel he fights against “inventor of jazz” (Clarence Williams III as Jelly Roll Morton) finds Morricone at his most stretched. Piano refrains to accompany the film’s sombre scenes of self-entrapment are aplenty, but in this truly manic sequence, it’s clear why Morricone signed up to score “1900” in the first place. It helps that Morricone and Tornatore are a good match: Morricone co-wrote the music for “Cinema Paradiso” with his son Andrea — Tornatore’s immensely successful arrival on the world cinema scene — and composed the last film music of his life for another Tornatore film, 2016’s “The Correspondence.” Presumably they saw something in “Legend of 1900” that most didn’t because, beyond aesthetics, it’s as unmoored as The Virginian. But we’ll always have the piano duel. —AS
21. “Raise the Red Lantern” (composed by Zhao Jiping, 1991)
There are long stretches of Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous chamber drama that are silent except for the ambient sounds of the Chen palace echoing through the compound’s hallways and out its open-air corridors. But Zhao Jiping’s music gradually becomes the accent points along a new way of life for Songlian (Gong Li) once the bankrupted woman accepts her role as the master of the house’s fourth concubine. The score is a fitting complement to the film’s visual surroundings, “lavish” and “thrilling” and “intricately patterned” and all the deserved descriptors that Leila Latif included in her overview of the film in our list of the ‘90s’ greatest films.
With that lavishness comes a power at all volumes, whether in the driving percussion following people as they move around the grand estate or in the pulsating, almost-otherworldly sound that kicks off the film’s opening credits. Zhao does what the best composers do for stories set in a bygone decade: capture the spirit of a time and place without being confined by it. The longer the film goes on, he finds new ways to weave together some lyrical vocal melodies, sweeping strings, and that persistent drummed rhythm, even as they independently feel like they’re raging against each other. It’s all part of the battle between beauty and tragedy that’s made this Zhang classic still feel fresh over 30 years later. —SG
20. “Heaven and Earth” (composed by Kitaro, 1993)
If New Age innovator Kitarō’s sparkling music for “Manhunter” helped invent the modern film score, his score for Oliver Stone’s otherwise forgotten Vietnam drama “Heaven and Earth” is decidedly old school. Undoubtedly arresting and as large-scale as anything you might hear in Stone’s other epics, the score for “Heaven and Earth” is more Hollywood than Kitarō may be willing to admit. There are more swelling violins and a catchier central hook than we might expect from one of film music’s edgiest masters; indeed, Kitarō took pride in not knowing what the “Hollywood sound” even was, and delighted in Stone’s rather reductive instruction to write something with “a kind of Asian feeling.”
Kitarō’s score nevertheless ages better than the movie for which it was commissioned thanks to flashes of brilliance in its thornier side. Integrating the sounds of helicopter blades, gunfire and explosions into percussion, Kitarō creates a strikingly effective warlike atmosphere with only one of the senses. His ingenuity in exploiting sound effects for music is also an antidote to the already-clichéd sounds that overlaid Vietnam movies by the early ’90s, the kind of sound Stone was presumably acting against when he hired the unorthodox composer-keyboardist. It’s a shame Stone didn’t follow his own advice when it came to the film itself, which is uncharacteristically hokey save for a score that resonates from the soil to the sky while stoking our imaginations in a story that otherwise has precious little need for them. —AS
19. “Perfect Blue” (composed by Masahiro Ikumi, 1997)
A DePalma-like story of violent obsession that soon accelerates into the stuff of a full-on psychic collapse (or two), Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue” stretches classic paranoid thriller tropes into sinister new shapes by introducing them to the early days of a media age where self-identity was already becoming its own kind of public bloodsport. In hindsight, that seems like an obvious progression, but at the time people struggled to wrap their heads around the project — after all, no one had ever seen a Satoshi Kon movie before. Lucky for us, composer Masahiro Ikumi knew exactly what one of them should sound like.
The music that Ikumi composed for “Perfect Blue” keeps the beat with Kon’s wildly volatile story about the fractured self-image of a former J-pop star named Mima. One early cue finds clear piano notes being suffocated by sickening layers of synth unease, mimicking the way that Mima’s sense of self is being unmoored. Later tracks bring the apocalyptic clatter of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s “Akira” score down to a personal level, as Mima begins to feel betrayed by her own mind — and, by extension, the movie around her. It’s the perfect soundtrack for disintegration, and yet still beautiful enough to leave you searching for new harmonies. —DE
18. “The Cider House Rules” (composed by Rachel Portman, 1999)
British composer Rachel Portman’s Academy Award-nominated music for “The Cider House Rules” is nostalgic for rural New England in the mid-1940s, and also for those times your teacher would wheel a television fatter than it was big into the classroom. At least one of those is intended. A quintessentially ’90s score, Portman’s major-key music is one of that decade’s most skillful accompaniments in a highly specific category of its most wistful — and politically suspect — movies (Alan Silvestri’s music for “Forrest Gump” being the definitive example of the genre, if not necessarily the best).
Aggressively appropriate for what plays as a rather inappropriate film — somehow, its near-odious gender politics make the Weinstein Company credit unsurprising, and the less said about its take on race, the better — Portman’s work elevates a piece of Oscar bait that doesn’t deserve it. It’s among her strongest work in a prolific decade in which she wrote no fewer than 32 scores for feature films on both sides of the Atlantic. That her sincere, sometimes painterly style made her among Hollywood’s most sought-after composers is less of a surprise when it’s considered just how sincere most movies were back then. By the time “The Holiday” comes around, a Portman score has a reputation not too far off from what Jack Black’s character is tapping away on his desktop piano at the beginning of the movie. Her work on “The Cider House Rules” remains a golden example of how that decade’s movie music came and went, and what we might be missing now. —AS
17. “Eyes Wide Shut” (composed by Jocelyn Pook, 1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece is known for its needle drops, which range from rocker Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” (the director asked Nicole Kidman to bring CDs with her that’d make it easier for her to act the film’s nude scenes, and that was what she brought), to a litany of classical selections, including a Shostakovich waltz the movie deploys so well that the piece is now widely known as “The Theme from ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’” Most iconic of all might be the use of György Ligeti’s minimalist piano work “Musica ricercata,” an assertive piano note played over and over again when Tom Cruise’s character is summoned before the master of ceremonies at an orgy to which he was most definitely not invited. It’s the ultimate soundtrack for quickly crystallizing anxiety.
But “Eyes Wide Shut” also features the most distinctive original music in any Kubrick feature since Wendy Carlos’s electronic score for “A Clockwork Orange.” Choreographer Yolande Snaith, who was helping to stage the infamous orgy, drew inspiration by playing Jocelyn Pook’s “Backwards Priests,” a vocal work that featured a chanted Romanian Orthodox service played in reverse. Kubrick liked it so much he got Pook to rearrange it for the scene, adding a heavy dose of strings, with Pook herself playing viola. The work feels exactly like the music for a ritual you shouldn’t be seeing. Is that ritual sacred or profane? Are “sacred” and “profane” limiting concepts we impose on ourselves? Pook also composed the sensuous, string-fueled pieces “Navy Officer” and “The Dream” for the film, which, with just their bare hints of melodies, help leave the viewer adrift. Some movie music tells you what to feel; Pook’s work is so effective because it allows you to experience so much without knowing what it is that you’re feeling. —CB
16. “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (composed by John Williams, 1999)
Those with low midichlorian counts may not like the hard left turn George Lucas decided to take with his saga in 1999, but few would dare to quibble with John Williams’ score, which shows the movie music master had truly accomplished a Jedi-like feat: unlearning what he’d learned on the previous films, and shaking up the sonic palette of a galaxy far, far away.
There had been a brooding men’s chorus supplying the Emperor’s theme at the end of “Return of the Jedi” (which Williams recycles almost instantly in Episode I), but voice dominates in “The Phantom Menace” like in no “Star Wars” movie before it. There’s “Duel of the Fates,” the menacingly percussive choir piece that accompanies the film’s series-best lightsaber battle. The women’s chorus that sets the mood for Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar’s underwater swim to the Gungan city. And the liturgical-sounding funerary music for Liam Neeson’s fallen Jedi that was infamously labeled as the track “Qui-Gon’s Noble End” on the soundtrack released before the movie hit theaters (ah, 1999, not only America at its apex, but the days when spoilers didn’t matter because experiences were enough).
Then Williams gave us one hell of a sonic joke: The Emperor’s theme? He sped up the tempo, replaced the baritones with a children’s choir and made it the silly party music for the celebratory finale. But it’s the same damn theme. Building this bit of bouncy, confectionary fun around that evil core, it becomes a turn of the 21st century warning: Your victories already hold the seeds of your defeat, your civilization, to you at its unassailable zenith, will, in less than 20 years, have plunged into fascism and forever wars… maybe “The Phantom Menace” wasn’t as silly as it seemed. —CB
15. “The Shawshank Redemption” (composed by Thomas Newman, 1994)
It would have been all too easy to give “The Shawshank Redemption” a saccharine, forgettable musical accompaniment and send it off to its forever home on basic cable in peace. But Thomas Newman recognized a degree of greatness in Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation — the story of a wrongfully accused man (Tim Robbins) who’s sentenced to life in prison, but refuses to die there — and he pulled out all the stops to ensure the movie delivered on its potential. “Shawshank” might seem like a musty relic from another era of Oscar bait, but Newman’s music amounts to the kind of movie score that makes people sit up a bit straight in their seats.
It’s the flitting piano riffs that sound like rain on pavement, and the harmonica that acts as an extension of Andy’s partner in crime (Morgan Freeman). And it’s definitely the deeper tones that Newman scrapes away underneath the surface, evident in a “Stoic Theme” that you can hear in your bones, and in the repeated theme of “So Was Red,” a relatively simple composition of strings, oboes, and cellos that amounts to one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for a film. Newman’s music is suffused with an appropriate darkness for a film that takes place in a maximum-security prison, but it abounds with moments of levity and beauty while bearing witness to the rest. —ES
14. “Braveheart” (composed by James Horner, 1995)
James Horner had already fit an entire career into the first half of the 1990s, a decade for him that started with “Another 48 Hours” and wove through heroic period action movies, animated VHS mainstays, political thrillers, blockbuster literary adaptations, and the odd muted biopic. “Braveheart” wasn’t exactly a synthesis of all those, but it’s maybe the best example of the way Horner could bring a blend of muscle and tenderness to the big Hollywood swings that demanded both.
One of the reasons the movie has endured in some ways beyond being a dorm room/cable classic is that Horner gives it all a real, well, heart. There’s a reason that “For the Love of the Princess” is his most-streamed cue, topping contributions from the two biggest movies ever made. Blending Irish bagpipes and flutes from the Andes — Horner never passed up the chance to bring a new-to-him instrument to a project — and giving way to a giant orchestral sweep, he set an emotional bar for the film that has endured well beyond the ’95-’96 awards season. Few composers understood how to convey scope through score better than Horner. Though the following years would take him to the open waters of the Atlantic and even to the moon, this is maybe the best example of him taking all that grandeur and grounding it in a fundamental feeling. —SG
13. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (composed by The RZA, 1999)
Jim Jarmusch made two exceptionally good early decisions as he developed “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” The first was recruiting future Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker for the title role. The second: approaching Wu-Tang’s RZA for his first foray into film scoring, adding a new string to the formidable rapper/producer’s bow. RZA embraced the unknown to create one of the seminal OSTs of the ‘90s, and would go on to compose music for films like “Kill Bill,” “Blade: Trinity,” and his own directorial debut “The Man with the Iron Fists.”
With help from contributors like Killah Priest, Public Enemy, and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan, the RZA created a layered snapshot of the experimental era that followed the “Golden Age of Hip Hop.” That effort began with his willingness to embrace the cinematic potential of his music, the rapper studying Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky in preparation for this new challenge. Characters are announced with their own distinct themes, and animals are too, with pigeons being greeted by a trill of flutes and dogs with a swell of trombones.
When the film crescendos in violence, the score follows suit. Percussive gun shots and Whitaker’s lyrical baritone play against Public Enemy beats, while Ghost Dog’s rooftop meditations are met with the cooing of pigeons and “Samurai Theme,” which mixes a mechanical rhythm against a harmony of woodwinds. That theme recurs in a moment where RZA himself cameos, crossing Whitaker on the sidewalk as the two bow at each other while saying “power, equality, always see everything.” That mantra, an acronym for PEACE, not only alludes to the presence of other samurai in our midst, but also to the harmonious bond between character and composer. —LL
12. “Fargo” (composed by Carter Burwell, 1996)
Like so many of the entries in this growing ‘90s canon, “Fargo” is a little unstuck in time. Like Bill Macy’s suits and the Buscemi turtleneck, Carter Burwell’s score feels frozen in amber, a remnant from a past era that Kumiko and Bunzo might as well have dug up along with that bag of ransom money. His Scandinavian fiddle melody, borrowed in part from an old folk song, strains at the edges. It’s the earliest hint that whatever strands Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) finds out in that endless snow-covered North are going to fray as she pulls on them.
In that way, the music of “Fargo” camps out at the intersection between Western and Noir, as the film around it pushes and pulls against what the law means for everyone who gets caught in the Lundegaard-centered web. Although that opening riff and orchestral fill-out are the biggest part of its musical legacy (helped along by Jeff Russo carrying the baton into the FX series), there’s more to the score than echoes and variations. It’s overwhelming in spurts, particularly when the Coens-induced tension reaches its snapping point. But along the way, there’s still a fragile sparseness — from harp to cymbal — that Burwell has maintained in his best work since. —SG
11. “American Beauty” (composed by Thomas Newman, 1999)
When it comes to the movies of 1999, the only thing that’s aged worse than eventual Best Picture-winner “American Beauty” is the film’s leading man and eventual Best Actor-winner, Kevin Spacey. Already somewhat trite by the time of its release — and made obsolete to the point of being alien once 9/11 marked the true beginning of the 21st century — Sam Mendes’ bitterly tragicomic portrait of suburban malaise wasn’t built to last, and yet some of its flourishes seem as if they’ll last forever: Annette Bening’s high-strung real estate agent (selling a dream she no longer believes in), Thora Birch’s disaffected teen, and, most of all, Thomas Newman’s beguiling score, which invited you to listen closer even when there was precious little to look at.
Built around a series of circular phrases, Newman’s jangly and percussive music is a soundtrack for anyone sleepwalking through the American Dream; close your eyes while listening to this intricate pas de deux between life and death and you can practically see a pile of brown leaves swirl around each other on a gray fall afternoon. The forced smile of the marimbas on the first cue (“Dead Already”) establishes a visceral distance between the upbeat tone of the film’s music and the catatonic misery of its characters, Newman’s composition wrenching suburban life wide open like the jaws of life so that Mendes can shine a light inside. The glassy sadness of “Any Other Name” and the devastatingly wistful pianos of “Blood Red” create a far richer tapestry of emotion than the movie earns on its own, as the score jostles these characters awake by playing against their torpor. No disrespect to John Corigliano’s justly lauded work on ”The Red Violin,” but this is the Oscar that “American Beauty” deserved to win. —DE
1o. “The Virgin Suicides” (composed by Air, 1999)
“Playground Love” is so inextricably bonded to “The Virgin Suicides” on a molecular level that it might be easy to forget that Air — the French electronica duo that consists of Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin — wrote so much other music for Sofia Coppola’s moody, tragic, and oh-so-insouciant debut feature. Nevertheless, the band’s full score is every bit as rich as the famous single that it spawned, each track capturing its own turbulent part of teenage mystery.
A guitar strum cuts through the organ melody of “Afternoon Sister,” punctuating a sacred memory with strange desire, while “Dead Bodies” races with the end-of-the-world confusion of an adolescent fantasy slamming headlong into awful fact. The retro-futuristic “Dark Messages” plinks along like the sound of alien transmissions the Lisbon girls don’t even know they’re sending to the boys across the street, while “The Word Hurricane” blows into an “Amnesiac”-like storm of overheated lust.
With Air, Coppola found the first of many collaborators who intuitively understood her obsession with texture, as well as the resonant meaning that she’s always been able to mine from it. “The Virgin Suicides” would still have been haunting as a silent, but it’s because of its score that it gets so deep under your skin, and takes you back to a time when the Lisbon sisters were still alive. —DE
9. “Run Lola Run” (composed by Tom Tykwer, 1999)
Tom Tykwer is one of the rare directors who composes music as powerfully as he does images (and perhaps even more so). For his frantic 1999 thriller “Run Lola Run,” a breakneck experiment in cinematic velocity that follows its title character (Franka Potente) as sprints through Berlin three times over in a desperate effort to save her boyfriend by finding a bag full of Deutschmarks — each of her failed attempts resulting in death and a video game-like respawn — Tykwer had an equally galaxy brain idea for a score. Working with fellow composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, he combined the sprinting wall of sound from ’90s techno beats with chords from Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” a musical conversation in which representations of “Druids” watch silently as “Fighting Answerers” attempt in vain to solve “The Perennial Question of Existence.”
It only sounds like heady stuff until the movie actually starts and the music’s pulsing beats and thrashing energy begin to shudder through your entire body. Riffing on itself with every repetition and always in time with the action on screen, Tykwer’s score for “Run Lola Run” is so visceral and effective it makes the movie it was written for feel like a piece of music unto itself. —ES
8. “Malcolm X” (composed by Terence Blanchard, 1992)
Growing up, there was something particularly totemic about the two-cassette “Malcolm X” VHS tape: That giant gray X on a black backdrop made it seem as much like two stone tablets handed down from Mt. Ararat as tapes on the shelf at Blockbuster. It burned itself into my brain years before I actually watched the movie. Incredibly, Lee’s epic lived up to the stark, singular idea its packaged image conveyed, in part because it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Terence Blanchard delivered a score of orchestral grandeur that could place it alongside Elmer Bernstein and Miklos Rozsa’s sweeping music for the late studio era’s swords-and-sandals epics, but by way of the Black artists who weren’t given those opportunities: there’s a little bit of Florence Price here, a little bit of Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” there, as Blanchard delivers a smash of cymbals to open the “Malcolm X” main theme, followed by a lone, pleading trumpet, and a thudding, measured bass drum. It’s funereal. Malcolm’s life was cut short at 39, and the story of his fight had only been passed down fitfully until Spike Lee brought it to cinematic life in such triumphant fashion. Blanchard’s music swells with the loss of that history.
Blanchard, having gotten his start with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra as well as The Jazz Messengers, has made it a priority to celebrate Black artists of the past, and the “Malcolm X” soundtrack is full of actual tracks by Hampton, Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner. In short order, Blanchard maneuvers from the original track “Fire,” in which Malcolm’s childhood home in Michigan is burned by by the Klan — a lone oboe explodes into an entire string section wailing in grief — to Hampton’s Lindy Hop-ready “Flying Home.” His music honors the past, pushes forward into the future, and always acknowledges those on whose shoulders it stands. —CB
7. “Princess Mononoke” (composed by Joe Hisashi, 1997)
“Princess Mononoke” is perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s darkest film. It’s a fairytale in which the lines between good and evil are blurred; where heroes live in violence and villains are fierce protectors. Joe Hisaishi, the master composer who has done the scores for almost all of Miyazaki’s films, wrote an appropriately dark and sweeping score to match, with a main theme that buries itself in your brain.
The motif that blasts through the ending of “The Legend of Ashitaka” is as overwhelming as Hisaishi’s plucked strings theme for the little Kodama spirits, “The Tatara Woman Work Song” as orderly and charming as the Great Forest Spirit’s climactic transformation is wild and terrifying. What’s most moving is the subtle transition in the pieces accompanying the demonic creatures that come running from the forest, shifting from horror to tragedy as the ultimate cause of their destruction becomes apparent, layers of complexity echoing the film’s refusal to give any of its characters an easy way out. —ES
6. “Jurassic Park” (composed by John Williams, 1993)
There is an aspect of John Williams’ multilayered score for “Jurassic Park” that is often overlooked among the crashing cymbals and soaring strings of the main theme: its open-eyed tenderness. The “Jurassic Park” score is sweet, taken as a whole, an almost overwhelming amount of major-key beauty allotted for a film that is mainly about people trying not to be eaten by an island full of bloodthirsty dinosaurs. It fits perfectly with Steven Spielberg’s take on the material, written as a math-heavy cautionary tale by Michael Crichton and retooled into the increasingly rare type of summer adventure movie that is as beloved by children as much as it is by their parents.
That’s not to say Williams didn’t throw in the requisite amount of mysteriously plucked bass strings and staccato marimba to remind us that we’re trapped on a scary tropical island, but there are moments of calm — sleeping in a tree and getting sneezed on by a Brachiosaurus —and awe — our first view of the valley covered in creatures like something out of a prehistoric nature book — to balance out the terror. Despite the creeping, dissonant strings, you can’t help but want to stay on Isla Nublar just a little longer, and maybe even go investigate what’s watching you from over there behind that tree. —ES
5. “Dead Man” (composed by Neil Young, 1995)
We live somewhere between choice and chance, Jim Jarmusch’s Western tells us, though never in so many words. Good poetry never over-explains. Fastidious Cleveland accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) chose to make the journey out West, accepting a job in a hateful town called Machine. Not only does he find the job no longer available, he also finds himself on the run as an outlaw, and then in the company of a Native American (Gary Farmer) who befriends him — and possibly seals his fate. Chance won out.
For all the decisive choices Jarmusch makes in telling this story — his long takes and Robby Muller’s monochrome photography helping make this Western seem less like a Western than any Western ever, while also being deeply rooted in indigenous culture — he let chance rule its score. Neil Young simply played his custom electric guitar, Old Black, improvising in his own free-radical way over an assembly cut of the movie while alone in the studio. Sometimes he pounds the strings, sometimes he plucks them, sometimes the amp distortion is turned all the way up. It’s as much the accompaniment you might find at a poetry reading: something that doesn’t tell you what to feel but provides a distance from what you’re seeing, making it timeless.
Young adds acoustic guitar, piano, and organ at key moments, but his score is always starkly minimalist, with analog pulse and drone that anticipates the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross scores of the 2010s. It’s music that gives you the space to think, look up at the sky, and drift out to sea. —CB
4. “Schindler’s List” (composed by John Williams, 1993)
How do you depict an atrocity? It’s perhaps the most frequently asked question in the annals of Holocaust cinema. Less common — but, in its way, no less crucial — is the question of how you score one. John Williams was already among the most accomplished conductors in film history by the time Steven Spielberg inevitably tapped him to write the music for “Schindler’s List,” writing the musical accompaniment for a genocide presented him with a challenge unlike any he’d ever encountered before. He responded to the assignment with rabbinical care, zhuzhing up ancient Jewish prayers and melodies with the usual Hollywood bombast (wailing choirs are always a safe choice for historical epics).
But the real power of the indelible suite that Williams composed for Spielberg’s most delicate film stems from its deferential sense of remembrance; in the plucky bass notes that summon millennia of inherited strength, in the keening violins that weep for the six million dead, and most of all in the sacred warble of Williams’ iconic theme, in which he and Itzhak Perlman distill the sound of their memory becoming a blessing. —DE
3. “Three Colors: Blue” (composed by Zbigniew Preisner, 1993)
No film music of the ’90s asserted itself more dramatically than Zbigniew Preisner’s score for “Three Colors: Blue,” its sudden cataclysms of strings erupting over the soundtrack with such god-like force that the picture itself sometimes fades to black, as if waiting for a storm to pass. Then again, no film music of the ’90s had a more immense function to play.
It was demanding enough that Preisner had to convey the dissociative tumult of a grieving widow (Juliette Binoche) as she tries to mute any memory of her famous composer husband and the daughter they shared together, but writer-director Krzysztof Kieślowski also challenged him to write the dead husband’s unfinished masterpiece, a song that was meant to represent nothing less than the reunification of Europe. Needless to say, Preisner was up to the task.
By turns airy and apocalyptic, his monumental score reflects ethereal sadness one moment and divine intervention the next, its recursive central motif always returning to a simple melody that refuses to be ignored or forgotten no matter how epic things get. Best of all, Preisner so graciously shares his genius with Binoche’s character — rumored to be the real source of her late husband’s work — that it soon begins to feel like the music isn’t just in her head, but also literally her thoughts themselves. —DE
2. “Titanic” (composed by James Horner, 1997)
There is an undeniably weird element to James Horner’s now-iconic score for “Titanic”: instead of using human voices for the choral elements of the music (of which there are a lot), Horner decided to use a synth programmed with a digital choir, embracing the artificial sounds over music that might make people feel like they were inside a church. Oddly enough, it works, the synths providing a breathy, airy sound that calls forth a steam ship’s funnels, grounded by the churning bass tones of a pumping engine.
Horner turned every element of the film into music, assigning themes to Rose, Jack, the ship itself, and even the doom-laden iceberg, for which he used the sound of a pounding anvil. The only human voice — Celine Dion’s — appears as a wordless leitmotif in Rose’s theme, singing a string of notes that is at once hopeful and sad, like watching someone lost in the memory of a lifetime. —ES
1. “The Sheltering Sky” (composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, 1990)
Malaise is the order of the day in Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music for “The Sheltering Sky,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s follow-up to “The Last Emperor” (which the great Japanese composer also scored). It’s no surprise that Sakamoto has written music inspired by Paul Bowles’ acclaimed postwar novel almost habitually from the moment he was hired by Bertolucci, nor that he has re-recorded and re-imagined plenty of the pieces that appear here, as well — this is some of his finest work.
Most helpfully, Sakamoto seems to understand what Bowles actually meant by “The Sheltering Sky,” a lofty title if there ever was one, and not something Bertolucci’s film ever makes clear. An encircling, alarming violin motif shows us the way in. It never really disappears, even if Sakamoto’s morose mood music must share the stage with terrific, regionally appropriate arrangements by Richard Horowitz (in “The Last Emperor,” Sakamoto’s music similarly coexists with original work by David Byrne, and to similarly wonderful effect.) Perhaps knowing the fact Port Moseby (John Malkovich) is a composer pressured Sakamoto to be on his best behavior.
Not that Port ever writes anything. Indeed, that’s half of what “The Sheltering Sky” is about: Directionlessness coated in sophistication, and Old World “civilization” as empty postwar decadence and existential dread. Sakamoto’s music gets right to the heart of it. A rare score performed predominantly by its composer, it’s also one of the scores Sakamoto is most proud of, if his comments in documentary-memoir “Coda” are anything to go by. Rightly so. —AS
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