Identifying the greatest film scores and soundtracks is surprisingly easy. Ennio Morricone will be on your list. Bernard Herrmann will appear a few times. Superfly and The Graduate will probably show up, as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you count musicals. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I can’t believe I almost forgot that one; that may still be on the charts. Aguirre, depending on the crowd. There may be some debate over arrangement, but I think we can all agree that there’s something of a canon in place.
While I don’t think anything I mentioned is bad (they’re famous for a reason, you know), I still get bothered that a lot of the film music that’s affected me the most is rarely recognized. With all due respect to the great works of music in cinema, for this list, I’ll be ignoring them.
I’m supposed to number them, but they’re in no real order here.
1. Repo Man (Various, score by The Plugz)
Okay, well, this soundtrack is, as far as I know, not really overlooked. All my friends talk and think about it with some frequency, but that may just be the company I keep. Really, I’m including it here because, while it is often mentioned as a great soundtrack, it doesn’t seem to be in that “canon” I mentioned.
I also heard that there’s an unofficial “punk week” going on at Keyframe, so really, this kills a few birds. Don’t be selfish.
Now-classic turns from Fear, Black Flag and Circle Jerks (rightly) get a lot of affection, but the best track on this is “Reel Ten,” the part of The Plugz’ score that plays over the last scene (“What about our relationship?”). My only complaint is that The Plugz’ cover of “Ride of the Valkyries” (with some terrific guitar by Tito Larriva) isn’t included on the soundtrack album. Luckily, their Spanish cover of “Secret Agent Man” is.
For those of you who just can’t get enough Larriva, catch True Stories by David Byrne. He acts in it and sings a cover of Talking Heads’ “Radio Head.” Why yes, that is where the band got their name from.
Of all the soundtracks on this list, this is the only one I have in my car.
2. Wings of Desire (Various, score by Jürgen Knieper)
I’m always stunned by how little people talk about this one. Knieper’s work here is perfect; the strings are mournful, the harp is light, the choir is ethereal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a score so beautiful go so unnoticed.
Rounding out the soundtrack are strong entries from acts like Tuxedomoon, Minimal Compact and Laurie Anderson—as well as three songs by two bands composed of ex-Birthday Party members—all punctuated by poetic monologues from the film written by Peter Handke. This record is astonishing.
See also: Until the End of the World (Various, score by Graeme Revell), also by Wim Wenders, is pretty good, even if it has U2 on it. Nick Cave’s scores with Warren Ellis on The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James also deserve recognition.
3. Carnival of Souls (Gene Moore)
Herk Harvey‘s picture is beyond unsettling, and much of that feeling of dread comes from Moore’s all-organ score. Something about that organ gives it a full range that still feels hollow, and makes it sound as icy and detached as the look in Candace Hilligoss’ eyes.
See also: Eraserhead (David Lynch/Alan R. Splet)
4. Johnny Quest (Hoyt Curtin)
I didn’t say it had to be a soundtrack to a film to make this list (understand that I am cheating). But seriously, go find this thing. The theme song alone is worth the price of admission (which is free, it’s a TV show). You don’t even have to see the animation to know what part of the song plays when a mummy is stalking a guy. This score can make anything sound dangerous.
See also: The Wild One (Leith Stevens). More great brassy rumble music.
5. NFL Films (Sam Spence)
Any of them, pick one (I’m quickly losing control of this list, oh god). I love these “documentaries” (more like football-ganda, if such a thing can be imagined), perhaps more than a see-nay-mah buff ought to. The slo-mo shot of the ball pirouetting above a sea of hands, the brassy, damn-the-torpedoes hero-music by Sam Spence, John Facenda’s grim voice announcing that the losing team was put to death after the game, and maybe a shot of Tom Landry in silhouette (see above). These things have a definite formula, but I’m into it. Listen to a song like “The Pony Soldiers” and you might break an arm.
See also: Hans Zimmer. The one he did for that movie where the one buff guy punches that other buff guy? Yeah, that one.
6. Underground (Goran Bregović)
I’m retaking control of this list. I’m righting the ship. Nothing but actual films with actual overlooked soundtracks from here on.
It’s a shame more people aren’t familiar with either this film or its music, but I feel that a lot of that’s from Underground‘s generally unavailability. The picture details the history of Yugoslavia—first as an ideal, then a reality, then a memory. Underground is raucous and heartbreaking, and the soundtrack is no different. Bregovic’s score alternates between drunken revelry and wistful sorrow. Cesária Évora helps with the last part.
See also: Everything Is Illuminated (Paul Cantelon).
7. Yojimbo (Masaru Satō)
I distinctly remember seeing this movie for the first time when I was maybe 12 or 13. I holed myself up in the living room with a Yojimbo tape I got from Blockbuster. I popped in the tape, the credits started and that main title theme came on and I completely stopped moving until it was done. One wrong move and Toshiro Mifune would’ve killed me.
See also: The Last Emperor (Ryuichi Sakamoto/David Byrne/Cong Su), for a similar pairing of traditional Asian instruments and European strings.
Looking at this list, I’m noticing that a lot of these are kinda violent and foreboding (what did I just learn about myself?). Relax, I’ll stop that here.
8. Elevator to the Gallows (Miles Davis)
I was torn between this and Les Stances a Sophie by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I went with Elevator because I like it more (although the latter is probably better described as “overlooked”). Not too subdued to be a good jazz record and not too bombastic to be a good score, this is exactly the kind of atmosphere needed for good noir. It sounds like it was recorded in the same dark cave as Kind of Blue and all of Joy Division’s records. Malle is amazing, Davis is haunting, Moreau is gorgeous…I need a cigarette.
See also: Alfie (Sonny Rollins) swings where Elevator broods, but everything’s a party with Michael Caine around.
9. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin)
I once heard someone describe Charlie Chaplin’s scores as simplistic and sentimental. This person has a heart of coal. Much in the same way that Chaplin’s onscreen antics are so lowbrow as to be totally disarming, his deceptively simple scores reach down deep and connect with some small, shielded part of you, a little speck of you so full of love that it tricks you into enjoying yourself. Chaplin, who famously resisted the transition to sound for years (he thought the Tramp would be ruined if you heard him talk), relied on his physicality and his music to communicate with his audience.
My personal favorite is The Gold Rush, whose score was composed in 1942 for a re-release. But really, they’re all great. Nat King Cole does a good version of “Smile” from Modern Times.
See also: I know I just said they’re all great, but City Lights (Chaplin).
10. Daisies (Jiří Šlitr/Jiří Šust)
This is the exact score that this film requires and deserves. The music is all over the place in style, mood and instrumentation, which you’d think would make for an incoherent whole, and you’d be right. How else do you score a picture as lunatic as Daisies?
See also: I have no idea.
So Overlooked They Were Overlooked on the ‘Overlooked’ List
Athens, GA: Inside Out, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Various)—Not really overlooked as much as I decided against including concert films. Hardly their fault.
The Singing Detective (Various)—The one with Michael Gambon, full of great wartime tunes.
Withnail and I (Various, score by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth)—The rare soundtrack to include an actual Beatles song (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), one of the perks of having George Harrison as a producer.
Wonderwall (George Harrison)—Speaking of which, he made a great score for this picture. I like it a lot, but I’ve never seen the actual movie. For all I know it’s totally off.
Moss Side Story (Barry Adamson)—Again, I’ve never seen the actual movie, but that’s because they never made one. It’s just too good not to mention.
Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris)—I ultimately decided that this one was too obvious, but I wonder if I shouldn’t have.