The Importance of the Soundtrack/Score – Part 2

This second instalment comes fully loaded with the best of the best - music that lifts the film into legendary status!

Writing the first part of my feature was fairly easy. Once I had put my own stipulations and rules into place, I pretty much knew what my selections would be. Numbers five, four, three and two, however, were much harder and required some heavy duty thinking. One thing that has stayed constant throughout though is during the writing of my feature, I have had the compelling urge to watch each film again; proof that each choice really does add an extra layer of life to the films they accompany. So, five to one:

5: Gladiator (2000) – Hans Zimmer and Lisa GerrardSir Ridley Scott‘s massive epic film stars Russell Crowe as Roman general Maximus; a man betrayed, a family murdered and a score to settle, he returns as a Gladiator seeking revenge against the Emperor’s corrupt son, Commodus, played gloriously by Joaquin Phoenix. Even before scoring this film, Zimmer had an impressive CV – Days Of Thunder (1990), Thelma & Louise (1991) and The Rock (1996), to name but a few – but this was the one that took it to another level and made the operatic, orchestral soundtrack score cool again. It all begins quietly enough with Progeny and The Wheat, a combination of humming, plucking and almost hurting strings before going full on Holst (specifically Mars , The Bringer Of War from The Planets) during The Battle. A 10-minute piece that resembles crashing waves of sound and powerhouse orchestrations littered with quiet drops, build ups and ferocious explosions before calming itself for Earth; an aftermath of simple guitar playing and accompanying strings. And so it goes throughout the entire score with complete moments of peace and beauty, Strength And Honor, rousing marches of hope and victory, Slaves To Rome and violent stabs of pain and destruction, Barbarian Horde. And let’s not forget the amazing vocal work from Lisa Gerrard who adds emotion and pure heart right the way through, highlights being the stunning Elysium and incredible Now We Are Free.

4: Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – Philip GlassKoyaanisqatsi is a film without any dialogue or actors and is pure visual cinema. It is a statement on the very sporadic and crazy life we lead as a species and the effect it has on our surroundings. Stylish, unique and breath taking, Godfrey Reggio’s masterpiece is perfectly matched with Glass’ emotional score. Deep organ and slow chanting voices on Koyaanisqatsi develop into a keyboard motif as the title track builds with layers before settling and drifting on strings that seem to be passing through the clouds on Organic. Elsewhere, gorgeous divine vocals sway up and down on Vessels, plodding dreadful chords slug away in SloMo People and an almost end of the world doom plays along in Prophecies. Glass’ use of orchestra, voices and (what sound like) living breathing keyboards gives Koyaanisqatsi an energy actors and a script would normally give to a film and for that alone, this score should be applauded. The fact that it is also an amazingly constructed piece of music full of feelings and power is pure genius. And just to note, that standout scene in Watchmen (2009) as we witness Dr Manhattans time hopping death and resurrection, yep…music in that scene is from Koyaanisqatsi.

3: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Jack NitzscheMilos Forman‘s adaptation of Ken Kesey‘s novel is a real shock to the system as we follow criminal R.P. McMurphy fake insanity to escape prison labour. This causes him to be admitted to a mental institution which is run by an emotionless tyrant, Nurse Ratched. Winner of the big five Oscars (Film, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress and Screenplay) and surely Jack Nicholson‘s finest performance, Cuckoo’s Nest is a real powerhouse of a film with an almost fragile score. Kicking off, the Opening Theme has struggling strings, the whisper of an Indian whistle, strumming guitar and the first use of the musical saw; it hints at the tragedy within. Medication Valse is a gorgeous waltz a certain Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) has surely borrowed in part for Floyd’s album The Final CutBus Ride To Paradise is a joyful guitar-plucking little ditty interspersed with airy whistles and orchestra; a perfect score for a trip out. Cruising and Trolling are both all holiday vibe and Jamaican instruments albeit becoming a little twisted and strange towards the end. Charmaine has us back waltzing…a slow dance this time as we feel our way around the early part of the 20th century, looping around, and to, the same string heavy tune; the point our sanity is beginning to buckle. And so, just as the film spirals towards breaking, so does the score. Last Dance and Act Of Love have a “last stand” feel and approach, a tangible sadness and loss before one final big happy Christmas smile appears with Jingle Bells. The final track, Closing Theme, landscapes the last few minutes of the film with perfect heartbreak, power and freedom. A reprise of the Opening Theme but with a musical scream from the lungs and a fist in the air. 

2: Akira (1988) – Yamashiro Shoji (pseudonym)/Geinoh Yamashirogumi. Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic story about a biker gang who encounter a psionic man leading to one of their own developing similar powers is quite possibly the greatest animated “Manga” film ever created.  A furious fusion of cyberpunk, science fiction, body horror and the principles of friendship and love, this 1988 epic is not only timeless in sight and sound but(still) relevant in story and message. Composed/conducted by Yamashiro Shoji and performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira’s soundtrack is an amazing mesh of traditional Japanese instruments fed through a dystopian future jukebox as chanting voices and percussion are paired with cyber synthesizers and guitars. Crackling (literally) into life with Kaneda; all deep drums and bike sound effects with layer upon layer of percussion before choral voices sing in unison and then end abruptly. Battle Against Clown is all wheezy vocals, plinky plonky keyboards and a floral of drums, Winds Of Neo-Tokyo begins quietly with synthesizer playing a waltz like tune before building up to a doom laden chord structure and Tetsuo is a bell led ominous cyberpunk organ fuelled beast (phew) of a song interspersed with quiet musical box moments and loud bursts of dark heavenly wails. A child’s dream turns nightmarish on Doll’s Polyphony as the music literally stomps all over our ears whilst we get some good old crunching, wailing guitars in Exodus From The Underground Fortress. Ending with the epic track, Requiem, this 14 minute masterpiece is bookended by thundering drums and delivers a musical story of the entire film. Harmonised vocals sing about Akira and Tetsuo through memories, sadness and loss. Eerie and uplifting, soft and explosive, beautiful and deadly with a stunning organ mid section which is both grandiose and encompassing, Akira’s final track will leave you haunted and blessed.

1: Blade Runner (1982) – Vangelis. Is there anything else that needs to be said about Blade Runner (except a big “no” to the sequel)?  Sir Ridley Scott‘s timeless film has Harrison Ford tracking down and eliminating a group of escaped replicants as they search for their maker. Pretty much panned by critics and performing poorly at the box office, Blade Runner has become a cult classic which still oozes inspiration and influence 33 years after its release. Every element works perfectly; cast, direction, pace, visuals, story and of course…the soundtrack. Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (known to us as Vangelis) is no stranger to soundtracks, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Music Score for Chariots Of Fire (1981) and also penning soundtracks for Alexander (2004) and 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992). For me though, Blade Runner is his masterstroke. Primarily made up of synthesizers, keyboards and strange futuristic sounds, the music is so ingrained into the film it becomes impossible to separate them. The main titles build up with a painful tension as distant sounds breath and flourish; an eye opening rumbling of synth and release. Rachel’s Song is a delicate mournful piece, Mary Hopkin‘s gorgeous choral voice floating to the music complimented beautifully by keyboards, whilst Love Theme gives the saxophone a starring role; strained and sexy. Blade Runner Blues is exactly that, Dr Tyrell’s Death is a dark, deep and menacing ascension with male voices lifting the synths and drums into the stars, Mechanical Dolls is a quiet oddly disturbing pied piper tune, and End Titles is like a rushing burst of energy and electronica. And then we have Tears In Rain (with that spine tingling final speech by Rutger Hauer). Death, release and even rebirth comes through as Vangelis gives Roy Batty a sorrowful yet triumphant send off; emotion and life all done with synthesizers and keyboards!  And this is why Blade Runner is my number one choice…its actual alive, giving the film a heart and more importantly, a soul.

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