'The Mission' tops Variety composers' poll of the all-time greatest film scores

Posted by · 6:56 pm · November 14th, 2012

Variety published a music-focused Eye on the Oscars special today, and it’s packed with interesting nuggets, from spotlights on individual composers in the awards race this year — including “The Master”‘s Jonny Greenwood, “Anna Karenina”‘s Dario Marianelli and everything’s Alexandre Desplat — to a piece on the recent reversal of rules in the Best Original Song category, hailed by many branch voters as a victory for common sense.

The headlining feature of the special, however — if only because the movie world is powerless to resist a Top 10 list — is a poll of 40 working composers on the greatest film scores of all time. Participants range from Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino (“Up”) to Coen Brothers favorite Carter Burwell to Cliff Martinez (“Drive”), with the list compiled by asking each one to name his/her three favorite scores. It’s too small a survey to qualify as anything more than a bit of fun, but the results are surprising and inevitable in equal measure.

You needn’t be clairvoyant to guess that John Williams was the most-mentioned composer in the poll, but would you necessarily have guessed that the top-ranking individual score was Ennio Morricone’s alternately choral and ethnic-influenced effort for “The Mission?” I wouldn’t have, even if the soundtrack is more widely remembered today than the little-discussed (and, truthfully, drearily dated) 1986 Palme d’Or winner and Best Picture Oscar nominee.  

Meanwhile, while repeat appearances in the top 10 for Morricone and Williams (along with Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith) will hardly raise eyebrows, the more contemporary inclusion of Thomas Newman for “The Shawshank Redemption” in the upper reaches of the list is rather less expected — further evidence of modern cinema’s gradual canonization of the modest 1994 prison drama. Pretty as it is, it would never occur to me to list Newman’s score — not even his finest hour, for my money — among the all-time greats; TV composer Tyler Bates, on the other hand, deems it potentially “the most influential music in film since ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Jaws’.” Professional peers often hear these things differently.

The top 11 (thanks to ties) vote-getters in the poll are:

1. “The Mission” (Ennio Morricone, 1986)
2. “E.T.” (John Williams, 1982)
3. “Psycho” (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)
4. “The Shawshank Redemption” (Thomas Newman, 1994)
5. “Star Wars” (John Williams, 1977)
=6. “Lawrence of Arabia” (Maurice Jarre, 1962)
=6. “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Ennio Morricone, 1968)
8. “Chinatown” (Jerry Goldsmith, 1974)
=9. “The Empire Strikes Back” (John Williams, 1980)
=9. “Planet of the Apes” (Jerry Goldsmith, 1968)
=9. “Vertigo” (Bernard Herrmann, 1958)

Is it worth noting that only three of these scores — “E.T,” “Star Wars” and “Lawrence of Arabia” — won Oscars? Another three — Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and both legendary Herrmann/Hitchcock scores — weren’t nominated at all. Of the rest, “Planet of the Apes” lost to “The Lion in Winter”; “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Fame”; “Chinatown” to “The Godfather Part II”; “The Shawshank Redemption” to “The Lion King” (the right call, I say),

“The Mission,” meanwhile, may have scooped the cinematography Oscar, but Morricone’s elaborate orchestrations lost out to Herbie Hancock’s coolly arranged jazz on Bertrand Tavernier’s “‘Round Midnight” — a surprising win and a controversial one, given that much of the music in the film was pre-existing.

That was a pretty inspired choice on the Academy’s part, though it arguably cost Morricone his strongest ever shot at the win; the disgruntled Italian legend later described the outcome as “a theft.” Now 84, Morricone has struck out on all five of his nominations, though he was given an Honorary Oscar five years ago. (By contrast, he’s also been nominated five times at the BAFTAs — and won each time.) 

You can check out more details of Variety’s poll here. What do you make of it? And what essential scores would be in your top three?

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