A few weeks ago our friend Chelsea started playing a game (though it’s not REALLY a game, it’s all part of some top-secret project) on Twitter. Every weekday morning she tweets a film related category and we reply with our top three choices. She then averages out the responses and posts the Top 3 according to Twitter and then she spotlights three individual people’s answers as well as her own. It’s all very complex and awesome.
As soon as she asked for possible category suggestions, I capslock-tweeted her: “MOVIE THEMES”. I am a gigantic movie score nerd. Back in the days when people used to buy CD’s I had loads and loads of scores. I had mix CD’s with all my favorite themes. I listened to them while I would zone out in between classes at Acting School. I often listen to my now gigantic Spotify movie music playlist while I am writing this blog or while I am reading. That scene in The Holiday where Miles embarrasses Iris in the video store by singing movie themes aloud? Yeah. I’ve been that person.
So what constitutes a good movie theme to me? It’s GOT to have a strong and recognizable melody (which is why you won’t see Inception‘s blaring horns on this list, despite what many of my friends on Twitter said) and be evocative. A good movie theme will also have a strong sense memory…as soon as you hear it, you will instantly be transported to that scene in the movie or see those characters in your mind or remember the first time you saw that movie. Music can be one of the most powerful emotional manipulators. The right music combined with the right characters and moments can make you laugh or cheer or cry or maybe all three at the same time. That’s what these 15 movie themes do for me. I’ve put them all in one playlist and embedded it here for you to listen to as you read. Enjoy!
15) “Heart Asks, Pleasure First” – The Piano (Michael Nyman)
While I am very “meh” on The Piano as a whole (I mean…it’s FINE. It’s just not one you want to watch often), I love love LOVE the score. “Heart Asks, Pleasure First” is the main theme of the score and it is just a gorgeous piano composition. I find it very soothing. The score as a whole is a great one to read by!
14) “Forrest Gump Suite” – Forrest Gump (Alan Silvestri)
I know, I know. It’s cheating to name a suite as an individual movie theme. The “Forrest Gump Suite” encompasses all the main musical themes in the score. The feather theme. The running theme. Jenny’s theme. They are all there in this beautifully arranged composition. I love it because it is all so evocative of Forrest Gump as a whole. Like I said in the intro, the best movie scores are the ones that can instantly evoke a scene from the movie. I hear the lilting piano of the feather theme and I instantly see Forrest sitting on the bench in my mind’s eye. The swelling strings of Jenny’s theme make me see Forrest at her bedside telling her that she WAS there with him as he ran across the country. It’s all so beautiful and perfect.
Plus, the score is only AVAILABLE as the entire suite. SO THERE. NOT cheating.
13) “Glasgow Love Theme” – Love Actually (Craig Armstrong)
There’s a reason the “Glasgow Love Theme” is now the go-to music for most emotional moments in romantic comedy trailers. There’s a reason How I Met Your Mother lovingly used it as the score for The Wedding Bride. And that’s because it is constructed to make your emotions swell in tune with the music itself. If you don’t heave a contented sigh when it finishes, you may need to make an appointment with a cardiologist. Because you don’t have a heart.
12) “Hedwig’s Theme” – Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (John Williams)
The thing that makes John Williams a fucking GENIUS is his knack for creating themes that are not only instantly recognizable but are COMPLETELY evocative of the subject matter. It’s almost like…that was ALWAYS the music that was associated with that character or that moment. He just happened to write it down for us all to hear it. Williams is on this list five times and very easily could have been on it much more. I’m not even sorry.
“Hedwig’s Theme” is so perfectly Harry Potter one wonders if Williams just put a plug directly into Jo Rowling’s head and let her thoughts come out in music form. It’s whimsical. It’s magical. It’s a bit mischievous. It’s basically perfect.
11) Main Titles from Star Wars (John Williams)
I know, I know. HOW COULD I HAVE STAR WARS outside the top 10?!?! It’s iconic. It’s quite possibly Williams’ most famous score, though I will definitely argue with you there. It is probably the greatest Sci-Fi movie theme of all time. You instantly know it is Star Wars as soon as you hear those first few notes and you see that prologue text scrolling up your screen. So why is it at number 11? I just had stronger feels about my top ten, that’s all 🙂
Also Harrison Ford in that gif? Rude.
10) Back to the Future Theme (Alan Silvestri)
The Back to the Future theme is pure unadulterated popcorny goodness. It evokes the excitement and thrills of time travel and the true peril that Marty was in trying to get back to 1985. How can you NOT see the accelerator building towards 88 miles an hour when you hear this?
9) “Raiders March” – Raiders of the Lost Ark (John Williams)
Is there a more perfect Action-Adventure theme than this? I think not.
8) “Keating’s Triumph” – Dead Poets Society (Maurice Jarre)
Just listening to this track, which plays during the final scene of Dead Poets Society, my eyes fill with tears. I love how the downbeats almost SOUND like the boys standing up on their desks as they cry “O Captain, my captain!”. I love the build of it. I know the exact moment when Mr. Keating says “Thank you boys. Thank you.” I know the exact moment when the picture cuts out and “Directed by Peter Weir” comes on the screen. It’s all timed so brilliantly with what is going on with the movie, and that is just plain good composing right there.
7) “Flying Theme” – E.T. (John Williams)
And here John Williams oh so perfectly captures what MUST be the joyous sensation of your bike magically taking flight. The build-up of the theme feels like Elliot pedaling furiously and the moment his bike takes off, the music takes off right with it. I can almost feel the wind in my hair as I listen to it.
6) “Rose” – Titanic (James Horner)
Yes, this is the foundation for what would eventually become “My Heart Will Go On”, which is flawless and I will defend it to my dying day, so shut the hell up. “Rose” is a beautiful piece of music, so haters to the left please.
Titanic as a whole is one of my favorite film scores. If I REALLY wanted to be a cheater, I would have embedded the nineteen minute “Titanic Suite” and been done with it all. But “Rose” is the definitive theme of the movie and comes right at the romantic peak of the movie. I’ll never forget seeing Titanic for the first time and being absolutely bowled over by the flying scene and the build-up to Jack and Rose’s first kiss. It’s still one of my favorite movie kisses to this day.
5) “The Ring Goes South” – The Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore)
The score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy will forever be known as Howard Shore’s magnum opus and there are any number of themes that I could have picked for this list. “Concerning Hobbits”, the Rohan theme and the Gondor theme are definite favorites of mine. But I chose “The Ring Goes South” because it is the true theme of the Fellowship. It’s heroic, it’s hopeful and I always see the iconic shot of the Fellowship walking over the hills Sound of Music style when it plays.
4) “Overture” – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Michael Kamen)
First of all, YES I know that Kevin Costner is playing a British Icon and doesn’t even attempt to do a British accent. I care not. I love Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I always will. Even haters have to admit that this overture is a pretty spectacular piece of music. It’s used in movie trailers all the time and I always get a little jolt of excitement whenever I hear it.
3) “Epilogue” – Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman)
The score for Edward Scissorhands ranks among Danny Elfman’s finest work for me. It’s hauntingly beautiful and eerie and makes perfect use of the children’s choir, which can be a bit of an overdone trope. This is another theme that is often used in trailers, especially quirky fantasy movies, and almost ALWAYS in Tim Burton movies. The full version of the epilogue isn’t available on Spotify, but this mash-up of the main titles and “Ice Dance” will suffice. When ever I see snow, I hear this music in my head…and know that Edward is still out there somewhere.
2) “The Ludlows” – Legends of the Fall (James Horner)
Legends of the Fall is my second overall favorite James Horner score, but “The Ludlows” is most definitely my favorite individual theme. I love how it starts out with the gentle piano medley that Susannah plays in the Ludlow sitting room, but then the strings (led by one mournful sounding fiddle) kick in and then you have this wonderful sweeping theme. The theme makes you see the mountain vistas of Montana and horses running wild. It makes you see Brad Pitt’s twinkling eyes, flowing golden hair and achingly wounded soul…whoops.
One day I will write a post about Tristan Ludlow and the fact that I love him PROVES that I have a serious “my love will save him” complex.
1) Main Titles from Superman (John Williams)
The reason I place the Superman theme at number one is that whenever I hear it I am INSTANTLY transported to my childhood. As I said in my post on Man of Steel, I grew up with the Christopher Reeve movies. I even had a song for this theme and to this day, I sing it when I hear it . It goes…oh so cleverly: da, da-da-da-da, DA, DA, DA, DA. da, da-da-da-da…SUPERMAN!
It totally works you guys.
I also bounce around conducting an imaginary orchestra while listening to this. It’s quite possible that I am a crazy person.
Like I said earlier about John Williams…he just has a gift for writing music that is instantly iconic. There could be no other theme for Superman as a character than this. It’s sweepingly heroic and it’s full of the optimism that is essential to Superman as a character. It ebbs and flows and it SOUNDS like flying (but a different kind of flying that the E.T. theme). It gorgeously weaves in Lois’ theme, which is expanded on later in the movie. It’s why I appreciated how the score for Superman Returns paid homage to this theme and why I abhorred the score for Man of Steel, which basically sounded like Hans Zimmer has gone through his Dark Knight reject pile.
That’s my top 15. Now I want to watch all these movies. While I do…share your thoughts in the comments!