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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Picture Up, Roll Sound: Salute to John Williams’ 49 Noms, Movie Music’s 49 Best List & More

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Last night LA Philharmonic opened the season with a Tribute to John Williams, featuring virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman and his greatest movie music moments from Indiana Jones to Star Wars, so this is a perfect time to examine the world of cinema’s renowned music composers. 

While none can match the record-stealing 49 Oscar nominations of Williams, some credit should go to the amazing cast of characters (say 49, why not?) who have brought us, and raised generations on, the “second face” of film, the soundtrack.

A few historic references here will come from an unlikely source, an Italian mathematician/ploymath named Piero Scaruffi, who has studied all genres of music and soundtracks extensively.

Scaruffi’s insights include the fact that “Charlie Chaplin composed his own music for City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and Limelight (1952). That was the exception, and few film-makers would imitate him. He wasn't clear at all whose job was to score the soundtracks.”

Okay, so how did movie music come about?

Fittingly, Walt Disney, whose eponymous concert hall in downtown LA hosted Williams' tribute, had a hand in shaping movie sound. In 1929, Disney’s “Skeleton Dance” uses some of the first “symphonic sound” which will go on to accompany his “Silly Symphonies” series from 1929 - 1939, then Carl Stalling will pick up the string theory to compose themes for major cartoon characters we know and love.

Prior to the 1920’s, classical music scores lended credibility to the new “flickers,” and by Al Jolson in first-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927), popular music began to pave its own path in cinema history. Arguably Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1939) was the zenith of movie music’s arrival, though, it matched the scenes, it drove the plot, and thrills audiences still.

As with The Wizard of Oz (1939), a pastiche of songs and strings, the score made its presence felt. European composers were the first greats, not just Max Steiner from Austria, but his compatriot Erich-Wolfgang Korngold.

According to Piero Scaruffi, “Erich-Wolfgang Korngold coined a lush, overwhelming, operatic style with Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood (1935) and especially The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940), as well as Charles Gerhardt's Anthony Adverse (1936) and Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942).”

Another Austrian, Hans Salter who played the organ, developed the eerie genre of horror movie music in Hollywood with Frankenstein (1939), The Mummy’s Hand (1940) to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). This early heavy concentration of European talent had to do with the World Wars, escaping to the United States.

Notable American greats include New Yorker Roy Webb, who gave life to the playful sounds of, and set the vocabulary for, comedy music with Howard Hawk’s “Bringing Up Baby,” for example. Mid-Century, enter the Counter-Culture, when the whole world changed, and the music of movies with it. The1940’s and 1950’s ushered in a maturation of “disturbing music” such as the Franz Waxman-scored Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Rear Window (1954).

It was a style that reached the heights in Streetcar Named Desire, along with Method acting’s apogee in Marlon Brando.

Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson with The Trip (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and even Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) just blew the classical standards right off the page.

Now movie music had to do more than anesthetize with brilliant symphonic passages, it had to hit a nerve, reflect the turmoil of its time, and rock out.

Yet there are still some remarkable signatures throughout cinema history that even cultural trends can not eclipse.

Here are some interesting highlights: King Kong (1933) and Casablanca (1942) were scored by the same person, the legendary Max Steiner; as were Citizen Kane (1942) and Taxi Driver (1978), Bernard Herrmann. Dimitri Tiomkin gave us It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and High Noon (1952).

Nino Rota covered two generations of Coppola’s with The Godfather (1972) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), but also Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), in fact he scored all of Fellini’s films. Georges Delerue went from Platoon (1986) to Twins (1988).

Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly nailed the Western genre.

Composers like Henry Mancini, The Pink Panther (1964) made light of social upheaval. Talents like Maurice Jarre adapted to the times, from David Lean’s gorgeous Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and to the Zucker Bros. lightweight hit Ghost (1990).

Jerry Goldsmith spanned Chinatown (1974) to Alien (1979), a leap from gritty realism on earth to a groundbreaking showdown in outer space. Probably the most sonically recognizable of all artist-to-composers, known professionally by one name, Vangelis, created Chariots of Fire’s 1981 soundtrack with the same synthesized sleight of hand that produced Blade Runner (1982).

James Horner worked his magic in Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) for James Cameron, with the soundtrack for Titanic becoming one of the biggest sellers by itself, especially with the Celine Dion hit “My Heart Will Go On.”

Alan Menken, who almost made it to the EGOT list - meaning those who win all four majors, EMMY, Grammy, Oscar, Tony Award - is known for animation with The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). (Trivia: Whoopi Goldberg is an EGOT winner.)

Unbelievably, The Big Lebowski (1998) and Twilight (2008), were both scored by the same mind, that of Carter Burwell.

Hans Zimmer was able to stretch from cult buddy road movie Thelma & Louise (1992) to the epic Dark Knight (2008). Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the Lord of the Rings franchise fell under the spell of Howard Shore, while Thomas Newman (no relation to composer Alfred Newman) launched his career with Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and recently did SKYFALL (2012).

Current top music composers don’t all come from music, but the ones who do usually make a mark. Like Danny Elfman (Oingo-Boingo), who scored Nightmare Before Christmas, Good Will Hunting, and most recently Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Zimmer, recently of Noah (2014), is touted as among the best box office draws, was also involved with a “New Wave” band, called The Buggles. Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO fame scored The Royal Tenenbaums. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, remarkably, scored The Social Network (2010).

Nick Cave of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds scored Lawless (2012), and Peter Gabriel did the searing score to Birdy (1984) as well as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). And you have unique forays, like RZA who did Ghost Dog (1999).

There are the contemporary genre devotees, who adapt a clear penchant for a certain type of music. Phillip Glass reengineered movie music in the digital era with Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Powaqaatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2003), a sonic three-parter.

Michael Giacchino did something funny with music for animation in UP and The Incredibles. Mark Isham put jazz on the movie map in his own way with The Moderns (1988) through A River Runs Through It (1992), among other scores he has done with a Miles Davis feel.

The late-great director Robert Wise, whose film The Haunting (1963) still holds up for fright factor, once said “it was all done with sound.” His musicals included Sound of Music, West Side Story, and Wise then went into space with the first Star Trek, again, banking on sound at home and in orbit.

The Hughes Bros. in the 1990’s went one step further to say that the most important element of today’s movies is sound design, which they credited Sam Peckinpah for demonstrating with his seminal films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

James Horner, like Michael Nyman, and Carter Burwell - and John Williams with Steven Spielberg - tends to stick with one marquee director most of the time. Horner is James Cameron’s go-to for music; Michael Nyman made his name via Peter Greenaway’s hits like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), but came back with a distinctive sound for Jane Campion’s The Piano.

Carter Burwell is a stand-out favorite of the Coen Bros. Not only because he did their first hit Blood Simple, their cult anthem The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men, but because he is so sonically astute. Imagine scoring Twilight and The Fifth Estate, too.

These are just a few modern-era examples.

But, past and present, somehow John Williams is the name people remember most. Not because of the 49 nominations, most recently for The Book Thief (2013), nor for the five actual wins, but because he sounds like… John Williams.

Below is a list of Movie Music’s Top 49 Notables, plus the complete list of The 49 Nominations of John Williams. Plus a surprise bonus list for grins (Notable Top 10 Music Movies).


The 49 Oscar(r) Nominations of John Williams, Complete List

  • THE BOOK THIEF (2013) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • LINCOLN (2012) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • WAR HORSE (2011) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2005) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • MUNICH (2005) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (2001) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE PATRIOT (2000) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • ANGELA'S ASHES (1999) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • AMISTAD (1997) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • SLEEPERS (1996) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • NIXON (1995) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • SABRINA (1995) Nominee, Music (Original Musical or Comedy Score)
  • SABRINA (1995) Nominee, Music (Original Song)
  • SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) Winner, Music (Original Score)
  • HOOK (1991) Nominee, Music (Original Song)
  • JFK (1991) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • HOME ALONE (1990) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • HOME ALONE (1990) Nominee, Music (Original Song)
  • BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST (1988) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE RIVER (1984) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) Winner, Music (Original Score)
  • YES, GIORGIO (1982) Nominee, Music (Original Song)
  • RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • SUPERMAN (1978) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) Nominee, Music (Original Score)
  • STAR WARS (1977) Winner, Music (Original Score)
  • JAWS (1975) Winner, Music (Original Score)
  • THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973) Nominee, Music (Song)
  • TOM SAWYER (1973) Nominee, Music (Scoring: Original Song Score and Adaptation -or- Scoring: Adaptation)
  • IMAGES (1972) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) Nominee, Music (Original Dramatic Score)
  • FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) Winner, Music (Scoring: Adaptation and Original Song Score)
  • GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969) Nominee, Music (Score of a Musical PictureB original or adaptation)
  • THE REIVERS (1969) Nominee, Music (Original Score--for a motion picture [not a musical])
  • VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) Nominee, Music (Scoring of Music--adaptation or treatment)


Movie Music’s Top 49 Notables (in subjective order)

  1. John Williams - Superman, Jaws, Jurassic Park (full list above)
  2. Max Steiner - King Kong, Casablanca
  3. Ennio Morricone - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
 Bernard Herrmann - Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver (tie)
  4. Elmer Bernstein - The Magnificent Seven
  5. Jerry Goldsmith - Chinatown, Alien, LA Confidential
  6. Dimitri Tiomkin - It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon, The Guns of Navarone
  7. Maurice Jarre - Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ghost
  8. Nino Rota - The Leopard (rare/cult), La Strada, The Godfather, Lost in Translation
  9. Dmitri Shostakovich - Novyj Vavilon
  10. Henry Mancini - The Pink Panther
  11. David Raksin - Laura
  12. Miklos Rozsa - (Billy Wilder’s) Double Indemnity
  13. Joseph Kosma - Les Enfants du Paradis
  14. Danny Elfman - Nightmare Before Christmas, Good Will Hunting, Silver Linings Playbook
  15. Hans Zimmer - Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dark Knight
  16. Vangelis Papathanassiou - Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner
  17. Jerry Fielding - The Wild Bunch
  18. Franz Waxman - Rebecca (1940), Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  19. Thomas Newman - Scent of a Woman, Skyfall
  20. James Horner - Titanic, Avatar
  21. Howard Shore - Silence of the Lambs, Lord of the Rings
  22. Alfred Newman - The Song Of Bernadette
  23. James Newton-Howard - Pretty Woman, Hunger Games, Maleficent
  24. Mark Isham - The Moderns
  25. Gabriel Yared - The English Patient
  26. Michael Kamen - Brazil
  27. Alan Silvestri - Forrest Gump, The Avengers
  28. Michael Giacchino - The Incredibles, Up
  29. Philip Glass - Kundun, The Truman Show, The Illusionist
  30. Carter Burwell - The Big Lebowski, Twilight
  31. Randy Newman - Ragtime
  32. Alan Menken - Little Mermaid, Aladdin
  33. John Barry (writer of “Goldfinger”) - Diamonds Are Forever, Madagasgar
  34. Rachel Portman - Chocolat, The Duchess, The Vow
  35. Tōru Takemitsu (Japanese Cinema Expert) - Ran, Rising Sun
  36. Michel Legrand - Yentl, Never Say Never Again
  37. Francis Lai - Love Story
  38. Rolfe Kent - Sideways, Up in the Air
  39. Andre Previn - Elmer Gantry
  40. Lisa Gerrard - (co-credit w/Zimmer) Gladiator, Whale Rider
  41. Ilayaraja (from India) - His “500th film” was Anjali in 1990
  42. Joe Hisaishi - Spirited Away
  43. Georges Delerue - Platoon, Twins
  44. Johnny Mandel - I Want to Live (Susan Hayward, 1944)
  45. Krzysztof Komeda - Rosemary's Baby
  46. David Shire - The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three
  47. Giorgio Moroder - Cat People, Top Gun
  48. Alex North - Streetcar Named Desire
  49. Leigh Harline - Pinocchio (1939 version)


Musicians Who Score on Sound (alphabetical order)

  • Curtis Mayfield - Superfly
  • Daft Punk - Tron Legacy
  • Danny Elfman - Batman (1989), (see list above)
  • Isaac Hayes - Shaft
  • Mark Knopfler - Princess Bride
  • Mark Mothersbaugh - The Royal Tennenbaums
  • Nick Cave - Assassination of Jesse James, Lawless
  • Peter Gabriel - Birdy, Last Temptation of Christ
  • Queen - Flash Gordon
  • Ry Cooder - Paris, Texas
  • RZA - Ghost Dog
  • Trent Reznor - The Social Network


Bonus List

Notable Top 10 Music Movies


  1. Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same (1976)
  2. The Who - Quadrophenia (1979)
  3. Bob Dylan - Don’t Look Back (1967)
  4. The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter (1970), Cocksucker Blues (1972)
  5. The Beatles - Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  6. Leonard Cohen - Ladies & Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965)
  7. Levon Helm - The Last Waltz (1978)
  8. Fela Kuti - Music is the Weapon (1982)
  9. Metallica - Some Kind of Monster (2004)
  10. Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense (1984) (tie) Madonna - Truth or Dare (1991)


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About Quendrith Johnson

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