PICK 3, Vol. 3: Movie Soundtracks

We’re back with a new installment of “Pick 3!” This time, the team reveals their desert island film scores and soundtracks.


1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Composer: Howard Shore; 2001)
Key Track: “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”

It should come as absolutely zero surprise that Howard Shore’s magnificent trilogy of scores takes my first slot, as I am guaranteed to pick LOTR whenever possible, but also because there is no better work of film music this century. Sweeping, majestic, powerful, melodic, memorable…these are just words, really, and music this good has to be felt, experienced. Not only does it perfectly support and give depth to Peter Jackson’s vision (earning two Oscars in the process), it stands tall on its own as a solo listening experience. Evoking Wagner’s classic “Ring Cycle,” Shore’s compositions are operatic in scope and style, utilizing dozens of leitmotifs across three films: from the pastoral, sprightly “Shire” theme, to the heroic, brassy “Fellowship” theme (heard in the cue above), to rumbling ostinatos for the Ringwraiths and ethereal vocal solos for the Elves, the score to Fellowship of the Ring has it all. It incorporates Tolkien’s own languages, it evolves with the narrative, and never flags in momentum or purpose. It’s perfection. I could write a thousand more words on it. I could have just picked Two Towers and Return of the King for my other two slots, but…

2. The Incredibles (Composer: Michael Giacchino; 2004)
Key Track: “100 Mile Dash”

Michael Giacchino is quite simply my favorite “young” composer working today, and has been long before he won his first Academy Award for Pixar’s UP. He came up through the ranks writing for video games, but broke out thanks to his efforts on a pair of J.J. Abrams TV productions: Alias, and a little thing called LOST, which earned him an Emmy. It was only a matter of time before filmmakers started vying for his attention, and one of his first feature scores was The Incredibles (also the first of many collaborations with Pixar’s Brad Bird). It’s a gleeful throwback to the John Barry big band soundtracks of the 1960s — a James Bond score in superhero spandex. You get the impression that it was just as much fun to play as it is to listen to, and Giacchino’s interpretation of the moment when the young son, Dash, first realizes he can run on water (heard above at 2:21), helps make it, not kidding, my single-favorite moment in ANY animated film. If you somehow aren’t familiar with everything Giacchino has done, get familiar. No one is better positioned to pick up John Williams’s mantle. (Literally so — he’s doing Jurassic World next year.)

3. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Composer: John Williams; 1999)
Key Track: “Duel of the Fates”

Speaking of the Master himself…I can hear it now: “PHANTOM MENACE? THAT’S the one you choose?” And it’s true, Williams has done more famous work, some of which will be mentioned by the rest of the team. He’s the greatest film composer in history, and we could do an entire “Pick 3” just of Williams scores. We totally could. But I’m picking The Phantom Menace not because it’s a great film (which it is not), but because it’s a great score, one that I listened to on the school bus over and over in its entirety. (Yeah, I was that kid.) Williams, writing for Star Wars for the first time in 16 years, is completely re-invigorated; his thematic material is as strong as ever (catch how he re-works the Imperial March in “Anakin’s Theme”), and while the following installments would devolve into lazier, choppily edited “underscore,” TPM is — on its own — a near-masterpiece. Williams uses the entire orchestra on the iconic concert track, “Duel of the Fates,” which continues to impress another 16 years later. Sure, the prequel films are failures in various ways, but, at least for Phantom, Johnny Williams is entirely blameless.


1. Atonement (Composer: Dario Marianelli; 2007)
Key Tracks: “Briony” and “Two Figures By A Fountain”

Full disclosure: I originally chose Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice – a soundtrack also composed by Dario Marianelli – until fellow Fellowshipee Nathan reminded me of Atonement’s brilliance. The thing is, everyone is abundantly aware of the film’s genius, and its sister film is often overlooked. I implore you to listen to P&P’s soundtrack, particularly the opening scene, and dare it not to stick with you for years. However, no piece of music — I repeat, no piece of music — has ever had quite the effect on me as the Atonement’s opening bars married with the introduction of the main character Briony. The “tap tap tap” of the typewriter, coupled with the discord of the piano, is at once pleasant and provocative; both intriguing and a bit frightening — a shade of what’s to come. Alternately, the sweetly intimate “Two Figures By A Fountain” details a tempestuous love story in a matter of moments. Its dance with the scene of the same name is so apt one could close his eyes and see it playing out. Lovely. A love story more about forgiveness than lust, the sweet tones of the piano combined with the harsh strokes of winds and strings perfectly fit the film.

2. Boyhood (Music Supervisor: Meghan Currier; 2014)
Key Track: “Hero,” by Family of the Year

It should be no surprise that the greatest film I’ve ever seen, a film (literally) twelve years in the making, takes great care to include highlights of each year represented. Music Supervisor Meghan Currier painstakingly pieced together a soundtrack of unrelated tunes that, once placed together, add up to a story of our past: a symphony of the years in a boy’s life. From an eclectic list of genres and artists with wholly diverse backgrounds, Boyhood’s soundtrack plays like a musical with movements and acts: the ultimate mixtape. A scene between father Ethan Hawke and young Ellar Coltrane in which they discuss the fundamental Beatles mix is dramatic irony at its best. Richard Linklater and editor Sandra Adair place the songs in exactly the right place for optimal emotional impact. I have simply run out of words to describe my utter devotion to this piece of cinema – best to move on.

3. The Virgin Suicides (Composer: Air; 1999)
Key Track: “Playground Love”

I would describe Sofia Coppola films as “experiences;” the sights, sounds, and emotional impact of each frame radiate off the screen to affect the viewer so that they may also take part. French electronica sensation Air infuse The Virgin Suicides with exactly the right amount of dreamlike quality, as if the events presented could all exist in the narrator’s mind. “Playground Love” is a bridge between the decade detailed in the diaries and the late nineties’ revival of the frame story. The young suicidal sisters are goddesses of legend, not victims of a cruel situation, and the music adds to their unattainable mystery. The soundtrack, like that of Boyhood, adds another layer to the film as a whole. A fitting conclusion to my contribution in this article, as I have long respected those directors that embrace the relationship between music and film.


1. Moulin Rouge (Composer/Music Arranger: Craig Armstrong; 2001)
Key Track: “El Tango De Roxanne”

Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is a daring movie musical, offering up a kaleidoscope of filmic stylings with a heavy penchant for out-sized slapstick segueing into baldfaced melodrama.  Craig Armstrong’s remarkable musical arrangements of well-known songs — ranging from the pop world, to punk, to heavy metal, opera, and classic show tunes — is the glue that holds Luhrmann’s ludicrous vision together.  Armstrong makes each established song new again, and most astoundingly, makes them seem like a natural extension of this technicolor vision of Paris in the year 1900.  But his piece de resistance is the film’s show-stopping “El Tango De Roxanne,” hauntingly combining The Police’s 1978 hit “Roxanne”, about a man who falls in love with a prostitute, with “Tanguera” by composer Mariano Mores and melding it into a satanic, lustful, Argentinian-flavored tango.  It is easily the dramatic high point of the film and it shifts gears powerfully to prepare the audience for all the tragedy that is about to occur.  Moulin Rouge remains the high-water mark for film musicals post-Fosse’s brilliant 1972 adaptation of Cabaret, and much of that is owed to Armstrong’s bold re-imagining of already immortal music.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Composer: John Williams; 1982)
Key Track: “The Magic of Halloween”

E.T. is the first film I can recall seeing.  It is the film that made me fall in love with the movies.  It is the film that changed my life forever and made me want to be involved with the medium until the day I die.  John Williams wrote the best score of his career here, filled with awe, spectacle, and childhood wonder.  Yes, it’s better than Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jaws combined.  To this day if I even hear a snippet of E.T.’s wondrous music I am immediately brought to tears.  And no moment in film history can top the pure movie magic of E.T. and Elliot flying in a Kuwahara bicycle over a huge, bright white moon.  And so much of that moment is owed to Williams’s score – the way the strings and bells pulse nervously through the fog, the call and response from the horns as E.T. and Elliot glide over the forest, and of course that breathtaking moment as the music swells to an overwhelming crescendo just as their backlit frames pass over that glorious full moon.  Like I said, pure movie magic.

3. Cloud Atlas (Composers: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Tykwer; 2012)
Key Track: “All Boundaries Are Conventions”

Say what you will of the film (I myself am a staunch defender and there are many of us out there), but one thing can’t be denied – the score is one of the most beautiful pieces of music written for the screen in quite a long while.  It is a score both classical in approach and absolutely timeless, which is befitting a movie that jumps centuries and even genres in a matter of mere seconds.  And the music is directly tied to the plot of the piece, not to mention the film’s notion that through time, space and history we are all connected.  Cloud Atlas’s most moving track comes when all of its characters are at a crossroads of discovery that is at once romantic, spiritual, and philosophical.  Starting with a simple piano motif and growing in complexity through lush orchestrations, the score is the driving pulse of Cloud Atlas, and its marriage to the film’s startling imagery is decidedly moving on a deeply personal level.


1. The Social Network (Composers: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross; 2010)
Key Track: “Hand Covers Bruise”

A masterwork of dark ambience, Reznor and Ross’s score is the perfect musical companion to David Fincher’s film about the intelligence, urgency, and, ultimately, isolation behind the creation of the world’s biggest digital social network. I’m not a big Nine Inch Nails fan, but Ross and Reznor’s history with electronic sounds pays huge dividends here. Composed largely of drones, pulses, and blips, the connections to a film detailing a revolution in the technological world are impossible to miss, and the matching tone is perfection. “Hand Covers Bruise” is the obvious highlight, evoking both loneliness and an undercurrent of power with just some heavy drones and simple piano.  A digitized version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is an unexpected treat, adding an Old World feel to the film’s Oxford rowing scene. The score earned Reznor and Ross an Oscar and was highly lauded in the industry, and for good reason. It’s heavy and it’s dark, but, man, it’s beautiful.

2. There Will Be Blood (Composer: Jonny Greenwood; 2007)
Key Track: “Convergence” (sort of)

Continuing with the theme of rock musicians-turned-composers, my second pick is Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. Taking a different route than Social Network, Greenwood’s official score is crafted by traditional instruments, evoking the time period of the film. Haunting strings abound, evoking the feeling of wide open spaces and a land not yet wholly tamed by men. The ominous strings and piano of “Prospectors Arrive” provide an unsettling tone to a scene where Daniel Plainview’s workers arrive in west Texas, a seemingly harmless scene that the viewer knows symbolizes the end of an era for the town. Frustratingly missing from the official soundtrack is “Convergence,” which was likely left off to avoid disqualifying the score from Oscar voting due to preexisting elements (unfortunately, the score was disqualified anyways). A dramatic exercise in exquisite minimalism, it’s the film’s best musical moment. An arrhythmic tapping with random interspersed staccato strings, it’s the sneakily effective background that ties the oil rig fire scene together. Played over one of the film’s best scenes, it’s pure rapture to me.

3. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Producer: T-Bone Burnett; 2000)
Key Track: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”

Not a score, per se, but has any film of the new century been as closely tied to its music as O Brother? The combination of folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, and blues is key to the film’s depiction of the rural 1930s south. The songs aren’t just a sideshow to the film’s main production; they’re an integral part of the film in theme, setting, and plot. Featuring the assembled talents of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, and Dan Tyminsky just to name a few, the gems on the soundtrack are too many to mention. Among the many highlights is Krauss, Harris, and Welch’s rendition of “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” a traditional song urging the film’s protagonists to fall asleep by the river in the company of beautiful women representing the Sirens of ancient Greece. But the obvious standout is “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” which took on a life of its own amid the film’s success. It’s kind of easy to forget just how popular the soundtrack was, winning several Grammys including Album of the Year, but give it a few spins in your CD player. You’ll remember.


I’ll make this quick, because after all that educated prose you’re probably ready to get to the end of this. I can’t objectively review music because I… just lack that skillset, so I’m going to tell you what these songs mean to me.

1. Beverly Hills Cop (mastered by Greg Fulginiti; 1984) (p.s. – I’m totally watching this movie as I write this)
Key Track: “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer

The opening alone does a masterful job setting the tone for the locale of the hero, which contrasts beautifully once our protagonist lands himself in the glittering hills of Cali. Beyond that, say what you want, you know the theme song of Beverly Hills Cop. I don’t care if you haven’t seen the movie – if you’ve ever been to a “80’s” party you’ve heard the song, if you’ve watched Family Guy you’ve heard the song, it’s everywhere. The soundtrack exudes a mix of timely pop and synth magic that echoes of the era and happens to be featured in an R-rated film that’s delightfully obscene yet just tame enough to share with your kids. There’s nothing in this soundtrack that doesn’t help craft the world of smooth-talking, baddie-stopping Axel Foley, it’s perfect, absolutely. That said, this was the first R-rated film I ever saw and I hope to show it to my kids one day, so that they, too, will hum “Axel F” on the playground for years to come:

2. Jurassic Park (John Williams; 1993)
Key Track: There is no “key” track. The whole thing is gold.

Okay, I picked a John Williams score, which is kinda like picking pineapple in the fruit tray – EVERYONE wants the pineapple, and if the supply is low you either selfishly take the pineapple that’s left or you leave it for someone who hopefully will enjoy the pineapple more than you. This time I took the damn pineapple, because Jurassic Park is the soundtrack that I maintain I enjoy more than the guy behind me. Jurassic Park owned my youth (after Godzilla – see below). I owned JP’s soundtrack on cassette (AND CD – for the car) and played it on loop on my plastic, one-speaker boombox. It was the most gorgeous piece of music I’d ever heard until I started playing really GOOD video games, but I digress. Jurassic Park is one of my favorite cinematic experiences and the music is an integral part of that magic.

3. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (Composer: Akira Ifukube; 1991)
Key Track: “Godzilla March”

IMPORTANT: 29:30 is where the magic happens.

I grew up on a strict diet of tiny olive-drab colored toy soldiers and Godzilla movies. Of those movies there was a recurrent theme song, a battle-hymn, if you will, of the greatest monster of all time. When you heard that song you knew Godzilla was about to wake up from his watery slumber and completely throw down on some evil monster and violently wipe said monster from the face of the Earth. I would fight bears if this song was playing. Seriously.


1. Inception (Composer: Hans Zimmer; 2010)
Key Track: “Dream is Collapsing”

Hans Zimmer is one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood, and while his work now is probably most often associated with the popcorn escapism of the summer season, a closer look at his scores reveals an artist of deep thought and impressive ingenuity. His work on Inception is probably the best example of his approach, and while most of us remember the score of that movie for its loud, mechanical foghorns – or simply “BWAAAAAAAAMs” – Zimmer’s compositions revolved around a stunningly complex idea. Inception itself involves a highly detailed plot where characters move between dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams, and rather than rest on his previous work, as Zimmer occasionally does (see Hard Rain and Batman Begins), he rose to the occasion and created a score that reflected the film’s central plot device. Starting with Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien,” a reference to star Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning role in La Vie en Rose, Zimmer slowed down the song with each layer of Nolan’s dream world, eventually coming to an unrecognizable blast of intensity that fit somewhere between a warning alarm and a vuvuzela. It was a bold stroke of genius, instantly recognizable, and it continues to hold influence four years later. Zimmer’s work is easily recognizable, but as Inception showed, it should not be so easily dismissed.

2. Road to Perdition (Composer: Thomas Newman: 2002)
Key Track: Title Theme

Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition remains one of my favorite movies of all time, a criminally underrated tale of loss and redemption during the Great Depression. Tom Hanks’s amazing performance of a dark, broken man holding on to the one thing he has left in his son, combined with Paul Newman’s triumphant return to Hollywood, is probably enough to make a classic. That we also got an incredible score from Thomas Newman was something of icing on the cake. Newman had the difficult job of composing a score that embodied some traditional sounds of Irish culture and the music of 1930s America, all while maintaining the brooding melancholy most associated with Sam Mendes’ work. It was surely a difficult task, but you’d never know it from the incredible dynamics Newman creates throughout the movie. From the energetic call of the bagpipes that introduce the all too brief moments of hope to the stark, aching piano of the film’s heartbreaking theme, Newman achieves the impossible. In a movie filled with stars giving career performances, it’s his score that sits with you long after the credits roll.

3. The Road (Composers: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis; 2010)
Key Track: “The Mother”

While The Road’s film adaptation is frustratingly uneven, there is one element of the movie that was absolutely pitch perfect. Nick Cave had already established quite a career with his band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but his film work with bandmate Warren Ellis took a different tone, as the two have created music of dark, sparse folk, punctuated by a looseness that evokes the broken movie characters it often supports. For The Road, Cave and Ellis created a score that reflected the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s classic while also allowing for the defiant sliver of hope that shone through his book. A boy traveling through a desolate, post-Apocalyptic wasteland with his father is not the sunniest of setups, so the sadness of the score is expected and appropriate. But on sections like “The Mother” and “The Beach,” Cave and Ellis pause to allow the characters room to reflect, both on things lost and time left to acquire. It’s this quiet contrast they create on The Road that stands out. It’s a pity the film didn’t quite approach the source material as delicately.

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