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.

4. Out of Africa (1985) John Barry

Two major love stories unfold in Out Of Africa. Firstly, there's the romance between the aristocratic Karen (Meryl Streep) and the adventurer, Denys (Robert Redford).  But there's also the broader, more arching love affair between the two lovers and the unspoiled vastness of the African plain (specifically, British Kenya, c. 1919).

Much of the lover’s musical underscoring is practical in nature. For example, Denys gifts Karen several acoustic 78 recordings of Mozart – played on a whirring, wind-up Victrola - which in turn underscores dialogue, helps pinpoint the time frame of the story and also reminds us these people are both cultured and from the upper class. Additionally, the period song, Let the Rest of The World Go By, is used as a love theme, played first as live dance music by a small band at a hotel party and later freely used as underscoring when played by Karen on her Victrola.

John Barry’s score, however, is ultimately about superimposing Karen and Denys’ bitter-sweet and mortal love affair (Denys, a solo pilot, dies in an airplane crash) and the lovers' relationship to the African continent. In one highly charged moment, Denys invites Karen for a ride in his small, single engine plane; flying her high into the air as they share the extraordinary view from the open cockpit. It is here – approximately two-thirds into Out of Africa, that Barry provides an indelible and sweeping love theme which represents -  through his expansive use of contrasts in orchestral range -  both the sprawling African landscape and the intimate connection between the film’s ill-fated lovers.

                           Out of Africa: The hook of the love theme begins @c.2:00

 5. Glory (1989) James Horner

As in Out of Africa, James Horner’s magnificent score for the film Glory supports two large, thematic ideas set during the American Civil War. In the foreground is the true story of Colonel Robert Shaw (Mathew Broderick) - who led the first all-African American unit in the Union Army while struggling  to obtain equal treatment for his poorly clothed and underpaid Black enlisted men.

Horner’s score is epic in scope, but also often intimate in its evocation of the church choir,  underscoring the ascension of former slaves who must make the ultimate sacrifice in a suicidal attack against the Confederate Army's formidably defended Fort.  Glory’s main musical theme supports the nobility of their cause for freedom, while at the same time employing military cadences that stirringly bring heroic honor to scenes of death and destruction.

The final music for the charge against Fort Wagner, off the coast of South Carolina by the colored, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, deftly transitions from the spiritual (with a wonderful assist from the Boys Choir of Harlem), to an exuberant military charge – only, upon their defeat, to be suddenly returned to the eulogistic main theme. 



  1. Most interesting post. Of course, there's also Bernard Herrmann, whose themes for Psycho, Vertigo, Marnie and other Hitchcock classics are legendary film characters in themselves.

    1. Yes, and thank you. Regarding BH, I'd have to include (yes, here it comes), Citizen Kane and (believe it or not), the Rococo-styled score for the "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver".