So I was talking with an old buddy of mine late last year—we’ll call him Teego to protect the innocent and because it sounds goofy—and somehow or another the subject of film composer John Williams came up. I mentioned what great, iconic soundtracks old Johnny had created, from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and offered praise to the gods of music for bringing us such awesome audiophonic stuff. But old Teego sorta just rumpled his nose in a very Teego-like way and said, “Aw, man, fuck that guy.” To which I responded with appropriate incredulity, then asked him to explain himself. I thought I was going to be schooled. I mean, you don’t just say that about John Williams without a good reason, right? For example, a number of my more film literate pals actually think old Johnny is going to hell because he plagiarized all his scores from classical composers—which may or may not be true, depending on how deep your particular rabbit hole happens to be—and they’ll go to great lengths in causal conversation to prove how amazingly, god-headedly right they are. And they always sound just so damn audiophonically awesome when they do it, too, don’t they?
But Teego’s justification for such blasphemy was pretty simple, actually. It was the exact following words: “Oh John Williams cool and everything, but I just wish he’d given someone else a chance—I mean that guy did ALL the movies.”
To which I rumpled my nose. In a very disgusted kind of way. Quite a lot.
When someone of reasonable intelligence, with whom you’ve been friends for thirty or forty years, actually sticks a foot that large in his/her mouth, so obviously and painfully asking to be schooled in all the reasons why he/she is so painfully, shit-headedly wrong, there are only a few tactile responses. But you gotta be audiophonically awesome about it, right? And you gotta appeal to that person’s particular sensibilities. After all, he/she’s your friend, right? And not everybody is an obsessively film literate jackass like we are, after all. Teego and I both love—and come from—rock and roll. In fact, we used to play together in an actual rock and roll band. (This was in the 1980s, by the way, which means we are both cooler than you and older than dirt.) So I thought a second… and then I said:
“Saying John Williams composed all the great scores is like saying The Rolling Stones sure are terrific—but they should let someone else rock once in a while.”
Teego laughed. And then I carefully explained how much of a fucking idiot he was. This conversation went on a while, obviously. I cited all the great composers. I tried to make him “get it.” We had lots of laughs.
But then later, I started thinking . . .
If Johnny Williams was The Rolling Stones of film music… who was The Beatles? And who was Led Zeppelin? And who was The Who? And… AND…
And, well, this is the kind of thought process that sometimes occupies my mind when I should be busy writing movies and comic books. So here I am, regurgitating it in a needless blather, instead of working. Welcome to my nightmare. It’s a fun little ditty I like to call:
THE ROCK STARS OF FILM MUSIC:
A PARTY GAME YOU CAN PLAY!!!
So. Johnny Williams was the Stones, right? He’s got the iconic hits you know by heart and can’t stand to suffer through when they come on the radio—because, eww, how many times we gotta hear THAT OLD SHIT? You also have this sneaking suspicion that maybe he’s not the best rocker out there—but he sure did earn his stripes, didn’t he? And those hits just keep on coming. Because he got real old and never stopped rocking. And, well… yeah, the rocking kinda suffered for it. (HARRY POTTER anyone?) But he’s still one of the great rock gods, and you gotta love him. It’s in the guidebook for being a film literate jackass. I mean, STAR WARS is pretty much the “Satisfaction” of movie music. And JAWS? Well that’s probably “Paint it Black.” Does that translate the Indiana Jones march into “You can’t Always Get What You Want?” Is SUPERMAN “Gimmie Shelter?”
Arrrrgggh… please make me stop thinking about this.
So who’s The Beatles? And if we’re gonna really go all the way with this analogy, what about the first wave of rock and roll? Who was our Elvis? Who was our Chuck Berry? Buddy Holly? Well, the beautiful thing about looking at film music this way is that it actually does have a history which exists in a similar logarithmic curve to the birth and evolution and the current state-of-the-art in rock and pop. The early days of rock and roll were a bit square, I mean. It all evolved from Chuck and Elvis when the Brits invaded. So, in film music, our Chuck Berry would probably have been Erich Wolfgang Korngold, perhaps the first and most popular big-ass “tentpole” composer, who won Oscars for all that music he made for Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. But also… eww, right? SO old fashioned! Why we gotta listen to all dat classic rock stuff? We’ve heard it a million times and it’s just fuckin’ silly, all compared to Metallica an’ shit! Right?
Sigh. These kids today. No respect for history.
So if Wolfgang was our first big rock star, it follows that Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, Max Stiener and Franz Waxman would be the other great first-wave “square rockers” of the period, from Chubby Checker and Fats Domino to Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. Coming out of the fifties and into the 1960s, our Buddy Holly would probably be Henry Mancini—though Henry lasted a lot longer. But the hits remain. “Moon River” was Henry’s “Peggy Sue.” Lalo Schifrin—the immortal MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E on a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE—well, he had to be The Bee Gees. Why the Bee Gees? Take a look at Lalo’s career. He did every fucking thing, and he’s still doing it. The Bee Gees did every fucking thing. And they’re still doing it. And at least thirty of those tunes will make you giggle like a loon and turn off your stereo in absolute shame. You’ll do that in front of your friends. But then you’ll listen to it again later when nobody is looking. And you’ll fucking like it.
But enough guilty pleasures. Let’s get down to the real meat.
No question about it, that’s Bernard Hermann.
Hermann was the hip new kid, but he also hailed from that ancient school of film music thinking, who brought the old and the new together, scoring Hitchcock, Harryhaussen, and DePalma, taking risks, exploring and exploding uncharted territory. He could be “square” (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) and he could really rock (PSYCHO), but there can be no doubt… in his day, he was the king. And when he went, he went like a real rocker, with the most cutting edge work of his career just minutes behind him in the recording studio—dead in the hotel room, just after cutting TAXI DRIVER for Marty Scorsese. You can get more heavy metal that THAT, man.
But who was The Beatles?
Well, I only hadda think a few seconds about that one. I figured we needed a guy who represents at least as much iconography in the biz, but who also experimented weirdly, as early as the late sixties and early 1970s.
And that’s Jerry Goldsmith.
If PLANET OF THE APES was Jerry’s “Revolver,” ALIEN was his “Sergeant Pepper” and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was his “Abby Road.” And he kept on rocking until he died, just like John Lennon did. And Jerry’s twilight years were filled with tragically mediocre awesomeness like DEEP RISING and LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. But he also gave us those terrific TWILIGHT ZONE scores (wonderfully and shamelessly re-cycled in some of my favorite films, such as ALLIGATOR and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS), LOGAN’S RUN, THE SECRET OF NIMH, TOTAL RECALL, GREMLINS, FIRST BLOOD…. and, well, all the other shit. At his best, Jerry Goldsmith may have been the original true innovator in film music, a magician who experimented not only with melody but with the means to produce those melodies… but yeah, how many time we gotta hear the theme from STAR TREK already? He’s so old you’re sick of him, but he’s young enough to be Paul McCartney? Well, that automatically makes him one of the all-time greats.
Which makes John Barry The Who.
A super rocker who came in and owned the place with one great blow—which was a series of blows, actually—that defined his legacy and made him an all time immortal. To this day, Barry’s work on the James Bond films is respected, imitated (even today—INCEPTION anyone?) and at least as outright awesome and legendary as anything these other guys ever did. Plus he’s dead. I like my rock stars dead. THE BLACK HOLE, KING KONG (1978), and SOMEWHERE IN TIME are my faves, but those awesome, iconic Bond scores—like “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia” and “Who’s Next?”—are among the all time original rock and roll classics. Um. Yeah, and Barry also slummed in some really trashy gutters. Three words, people. HOWARD. THE. DUCK. Who says you can’t have it both ways?
Ennio Morricone is our Led Zeppelin. Here was a guy who came in and redefined the rules of the classic western film score, bringing in wild distorted electric guitars and insane arrangements, then moving onto a string of unique and even experimental soundtracks, each more batshit than the last—and just try working with the guy! His storied feuds and fistfights with directors the world over equal all the destroyed hotel rooms, smashed guitars, bespoiled groupies and general insanity of several Led Zeppelins. And if the director’s name happened to be John Carpenter, that guitar remained broken for decades. Yeah, it’ll take a long ass time before all that cool music you wrote for THE THING ever ends up in an actual movie, Ennio. (HATEFUL EIGHT anyone?) But you rocked all the way there, man!
Black Sabbath. Maurice Jarre. One classic album (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and a string of rapid-fire follow ups that helped define a new style and approach to film music. And we’re all damn sick of it because it’s classic rock. REAL classic rock. Not Depeche Mode. Goddamn kids. Grumble…
Pino Donaggio may have been our Pink Floyd. I say “may have been” because even though Pino gave us THE HOWLING, BLOW OUT and DON’T LOOK NOW… well, you know, Basil Poledouris, man. Gotta have my CONAN/ROBOCOP fix. And what about Craig Safan and Christopher Young? Classic eighties guys. HELLRAISER, one of the all time great horror scores. THE LAST STARFIGHTER? Chills every time. Pink Floyd may be represented by an entire brace of talented guys who gave us the hits we love to heap praise on… but what the fuck, Stephen? How do four guys in the eighties equal one band in the seventies? And Maurice Jarre as fucking Black Sabbath? YOU FUCKING IDIOT!
Argh. The voices. Make them stop.
And hey, man, I came up with this. I make the rules. And that may be the point. I have a feeling your list of great rock gods in film music may differ quite a bit from mine, and hey, how cool is that? Just remember who invented the fucking game when you’re playing it later at your best bro’s birthday party. And send me money. All the money.
But I digress.
Elmer Bernstein? I had a hard time wrestling with this guy’s analogy too. Maybe he’s Jefferson Airplane or Bachman Turner Overdrive? Does that Make Laurence Rosenthal our Boston or Yes? The point is, not everyone can fit on the short list. Bernstein did some great work with THE GREAT ESCAPE and even AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (all 15 minutes of his score for that)… and Rosenthal’s stunning, hyperactive let’s-all-feel-really-great score for CLASH OF THE TITANS (the old good one) is among my very favorites. But only a chosen few rockers are truly destined to become golden-god legends. And then the next generation arrives, just like Elvis did. And new voices join the old. And the symphony becomes more diverse, more insane. The rocking gets downright dangerous.
Which brings us to James Horner. He was Motley Crue, baby.
Jamie was the young future of rock and roll in film music, over-amped, double-excited, self-derivative and even outright plagiaristic of everything around him—witness the spectacularly shameless lift of Darth Vader’s Theme in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES—but Horner also had his own philosophy about “riffing on a tune” and his own rebellious way of doing things that made him special. He also, ironically, had a totally unique and recognizable voice that pulsed like the throbbing backbeat of Tommy Lee behind all the stolen riffs, recycled melodies and variations on a theme. His early scores for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, STAR TREK II and ALIENS were like the string of awesome neo-trash pop-rock albums released in rapid succession in the 1980s by the Motleys—and, also like the Motleys, Jamie carved his place in history. I’d like to go on record as saying that Horner IS my favorite film composer, exactly because of all those strengths and weaknesses. And Motley Crue is one of my favorite bands of all time. (Which is why he’s getting so much more ink here than the other guys—plus he’s dead, too, so respect, people.) The bottom line is this: At his best, Horner could send you out of a theater heartbroken, invigorated and humming his music. (See: FIELD OF DREAMS and DEEP IMPACT.) Only the most worthy heirs to the throne of rock can do that, man. No bullshit.
(SIDE NOTE: I kinda have a feeling that James himself would deeply resent this analogy, particularly with regards to the photo collage above, so that’s probably a plus. If you can seriously OFFEND your favorite dead rock stars, then you get six extra points in this game! HEY, I SAID I MAKE THE RULES!!!)
So where does Danny Elfman fit in to all this? The former leader singer/chief brain cell of an actual rock band? Oingo Boingo by name, of course. Well, I’d have to say that if we get down to splitting hairs here, Danny would be… well, Oingo Boingo. Loud, aggressive, somewhat inventive, late to the party and not quite legendary in his legendry, Elfman is, to this day, a reliable hire for your latest overhyped big budget superhero movie. But let’s face it, do you really go around humming his music all that much? Maybe his first tango with Pee Wee Hermann or the Dark Knight detective are a bit catchy… but try to find the actual melody in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN. Go on. I dare you. At his worst, Elfman is like one of those classic bands you hear on Pandora and kinda rock out a little to, but then you totally forget about them as soon as something by Ozzy comes on.
Alan Silvestri had to be Van Halen. It’s a bit of a stretch—but he has the iconic sound and the hummable hits, from ROMANCING THE STONE to BACK TO THE FUTURE to the relatively obscure and yet undeniable emotional power of THE ABYSS. And he’s old and still rocking, too, with all them damn superheroes. I know some guys who get spine shivers when they hear his theme for THE AVENGERS. Ain’t for me… but, man, that first BACK TO THE FUTURE album rules. And CAT’S EYE too. Oh, and FANDANGO. (The Kevin Costner movie, stupid, not the movie ticket place.) Damn, this band rocks so hard. Who cares if the lead singer is a jerk and the guitarist is insane…
Howard Shore would be The Smiths. A composer of such rock solid predictability in his moroseness that every score he ever wrote is perfect for goths, geeks and cutters—from the urgent, over-the-top tragic motifs of Cronenberg’s SCANNERS and THE FLY, to the bizarrely dark and wildly un-inventive bombasticity of his LORD OF THE RINGS work. Now don’t get me wrong—I love the score of THE FLY and think it’s one of the best horror movie soundtracks of all time—but, seriously, how the guy who wrote the let’s-all-kill-ourselves sonic bizarreness of CRASH and NAKED LUNCH ever ended slumming with the hobbits is pretty much beyond me. Maybe Danny Elfman was busy?
John Carpenter was/is the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers of film music.
Tangerine Dream was… well, Tangerine Dream. They were a band already before they became film guys. So, umm… maybe they don’t count here? Then again, maybe they do. Fuck it—let’s just say that RISKY BUSINESS was the “Thriller” of movie music in the 1980s. Iconic, time-stamped pop rock badassery. If all these other guys were the kings of rock—the Dream was definitely the King of POP.
Here’s a riddle for you. If PRINCE was the Jimmi Hendrix of the 21st Century… then who was the Jimmi Hendrix/Prince of film music? ANSWER ME! I REALLY WANT TO KNOW!!!!
Hm. Maybe Goblin?
Anyway, Hans Zimmer is much easier. He’s Metallica. That guy who came in swinging a long time ago with a big ass bang, the guy you used to really jam the fuck out to. But… well…. maybe he has seen better, more inventive days. (INCEPTION anyone?) You still listen to him because he’s one of the great post-modern rockers… but let’s face it, folks. Nothing beats “Master Of Puppets.” So does that make James Newton Howard our Arcade Fire? Does that make Carter Burwell our Black Keys? Maybe, maybe not. Again, not everyone can be gods. Many are called, few are chosen. (But man, how we all used to rock out on UNBREAKABLE and BLOOD SIMPLE!) Truth is, we may be done with a certain series of eras in both rock music and film music. It’s hard to say where we are now. I don’t usually hear much of a tune in anything these days. Or at the very least, I think you gotta listen really damn hard to find that tune. The last Jamiroquai album was kinda lame, I thought. Who would be our Jamiroquai in film music? Michael Giacchino maybe? Hmmmm. You tell me.
But I do know one thing for sure. Johnny Williams is still our Rolling Stones—and he’s still out there in the arenas, pumping out wholesale rock and roll. He’ll do it, like the Stones, until he dies. And the best part is, he’s surrounded every day by hundreds of amazing, working composers who’ve evolved into this odd new age, both in film and TV. There’s a lot of heart in film music today—real, raw emotion—and that may be the most impressive thing going on in the medium. I mean that in a good way. And though I miss real, complex melody in stuff like, say, the STRANGER THINGS theme, what is there are great musicians and talented craftsmen who are rolling real bones, taking actual chances, and bringing a new kind of rock and roll into the world of film music that is bracing, challenging and awesome. (Ugh. This actually got all serious for a second. Should I just say “fuck” again?)
So the next time one of your film illiterate best bros starts marginalizing a great composer just because he’s done one too many hits, or maybe when it seems like the great rockers have abandoned us to the four winds of millennial mediocrity… do yourself, and all your bros, both film illiterate or not, a big favor. Whip out this new party game I just invented. Ask yourself, who are the great rock and rollers of movie music? There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and a lot of ways you can play. You can be “classic rock” or bracket the last twenty years. You can get real serious and obscure (read: pompous as fuck) with your bands, or you can be shamelessly pop-oriented. You can even work Britney Spears in there, or even Lady Gaga if you want to. No one is judging anyone in this game. Mostly. (“Hey, who’s the JACK WHITE of movie music, you rock illiterate motherfucker?” screamed the skinny guy in back wearing the Disco Sucks T-shirt.) The point is… I’m sure you’ll learn something. Maybe about yourself, maybe about James Horner. I’m pretty sure I learned something just now while writing this. So I’m gonna go play some John Barry now—really damn LOUD.
It’s all rock and roll, Teego.