Thursday, January 3, 2013

5 Great (and Evocative) Instrumental Movie Themes (Part1)

Going back to the earliest days of early sound, Classic Movie themes have been designed to evoke time and place, identify characters, provide another dimension of emotional support for those characters and - in either explicit or ephemeral ways - underscore the film’s big messages. These themes, which might serve as title music, also provide the melodic and motivic material for creating additional parts of the score. (Of course, this classical approach is not shared by those films going as far back as 1973’s American Graffiti, which rely almost completely on pastiches of popular songs for their sound tracks).

While there’s no shortage of great movie themes, and this wisp of a list could certainly be replaced a hundred times over, the following five movie themes (thank you YouTube), are great examples of this art. (Caveat: Please keep in mind I fully understand there are dozens of great film composers and that Eric Korngold, John Williams, Howard Shore, Danny Elfin and Bernard Hermann – to name a very, very few - deserve their own lists).

1. A Summer’s Place (1959) Max Steiner

A pioneer of early film sound tracks - and the composer for 1933’s King Kong - Max Steiner wrote the tune for this nostalgic and highly memorable top-40s standard. The relaxed, summertime music is the love theme for two teenagers who have accompanied their respective parents to neighboring summer homes.

Steiner's love theme underscores the innocent interaction between the Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue characters, whose relationship soon turns to first love. We know it’s their music because Steiner’s simple, yet soaring string melody is scored over a typical, 50s Rock & Roll triplet accompaniment, supported by woodwinds and a subtle (for the time), pop rhythm section.

 "A Summers Place".

2.   Dr. No (1962) Monty Norman/John Barry

Monty who? The late John Barry scored 11 James Bond films, but actually did not write the Agent 007 Theme. Monty Norman, a lesser known theater composer, deserves that credit (and royalties). But Barry, in addition to creatively employing the theme and its motifs across all his Bond films (Dr. No through Octopussy), deserves the credit for first arranging Agent 007 signature theme in its iconic, jazzy style. 50 years after its debut – and dozens of James Bond films later - the signature 007 Theme has yet to be discarded and is still recognizable (if just barely), as in the most recent Bond production Sky Fall.

With its pungent harmonies, punchy, syncopated rhythms and cutting-edge scoring, this theme tells us everything we need to know about its protagonist. He’s a cool, sexy hipster who bests his opponents and always keeps his act together - despite engaging in highly dangerous and life threatening situations.

And everyone loves that final electric guitar chord: E Minor/Maj7/Maj9!

3. My Body Guard (1980) Dave Grusin

For this smaller budgeted indie sleeper, Dave Grusin makes an inspired choice. In scaling his instrumentation to a modestly sized chamber orchestra, he ingratiatingly supports My Body Guard's coming-of-age story and its wistful sense of nostalgia. A string quartet is used to good effect in evoking a youthful and sunny hopefulness. The main theme appears under the title, gracefully unfolding in ¾ time as Clifford, a high school student, rides his bike through the city of Chicago.

                                      " My Body Guard": Main theme and title music.