The work of John Williams needs no introduction here. If you’re not familiar with his towering, mercifully still-in-progress legacy — and I promise I’m not trying to be snotty here, but — it’s not his fault. (I envy you, though: That “Holy-crap-those-are-all-by-the-same-guy?!” moment is a doozie.)
Alas, precious few film composers are even remotely as recognized as is Mr. Williams, which is a sizeable shame. Sure, we may know names like Silvestri, Goldsmith, Horner, but do we know why we know them? Their contributions are vast; their names, too often, are indistinguishable.
To that end: Following is a brief — and somewhat personal — starter’s kit (I’ll doubtless be flayed alive for some of the names I regrettably omit, but that’s how these things go): Nine movie-music makers of whom you should be aware, and why. May it foster many happy hours of YouTubing and rediscovery.
Composer: Michael Kamen
Frequented by: Richard Donner, John McTiernan
Why you should know him: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves*, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Die Hard, X-Men, The Iron Giant, Lethal Weapon, Brazil, Hudson Hawk, Don Juan de Marco*, The Three Musketeers, The Dead Zone, Highlander, Band of Brothers
Place in my heart because of: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Last Action Hero
Oscar Nominations: 2
Skeletons: Nothing But Trouble, Shanghai Surprise
About: The late Kamen studied oboe at Juilliard, played with Pink Floyd, and wrote what might very well be my favorite film score of all time — the rich, soaring, epically varied Robin Hood theme (which subbed for “Here Comes the Bride” at my wedding; the fact that my wife was as psyched as I about the switch supplied further proof that I’d found the exact right woman). Morgan Creek’s with me: The production house pilfered a sample of the tune for its pre-film logo.
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Frequented by: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Curtis Hanson
Why you should know him: The Omen** (score `won`, original song), The Twilight Zone (theme), Alien, Poltergeist*, Patton*, Chinatown*, First Blood, Papillon*, Planet of the Apes*, L.A. Confidential*, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Hoosiers*, Gremlins, Total Recall
In my heart: Gremlins, Total Recall, The Secret of Nimh, Explorers, The Twilight Zone, Supergirl
Oscar nominations: 17 (1 win)
Skeletons: Looney Tunes: Back in Action
About: Unbelievable. What a résumé. Goldsmith passed in 2004, but has given us a stunning body of work that cements his status as a prolific master and shapeshifter. And yet, the tune that sticks with me the most is his perfect-fit, chattery jamboree for the fiendishly fun Gremlins movies.
Composer: Danny Elfman
Frequented by: Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Gus Van Sant
Why you should know him: Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Simpsons, Good Will Hunting*, Men in Black*, Big Fish*, Army of Darkness, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man
In my heart: Most of the above, plus Dick Tracy, Scrooged, Tales From the Crypt, Summer School
Oscar nominations: 3
Skeletons in the closet: None, really. The Forbidden Zone doesn’t really count, I don’t think.
About: Fine, so this one’s a gimme. Besides Williams, Elfman might be the best-known composer working today. It doesn’t hurt that his “dark-circus” scores (as my wife terms them) are instantly recognizable (and seemingly everywhere), or that Tim Burton seems to be nearly as man-crush fond of him as he is of Johnny Depp.
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Frequented by: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma
Why you should know him: Psycho, Citizen Kane*, Vertigo, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, North By Northwest, The Birds, Marnie, Taxi Driver*, The Devil and Daniel Webster**
In my heart: Jason and the Argonauts
Oscar nominations: 4 (1 win)
Skeletons: Nothing. Dude’s first flick was Kane. Sheesh.
About: Welles + Hitch = showoff. Am I right? In addition to creating what must undoubtedly be the best-known horror theme in cinema history, the legendary Herrmann also scored every other Hitchcock film from 1955 to 1964 — and, astonishingly, netted not a single Oscar nomination for any of them. Freaking Citizen Kane got him one, though.
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Frequented by: Sergio Leone, Warren Beatty, Brian De Palma
Why you should know him: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Thing; Hamlet; Cinema Paradiso; Red Sonja; Bugsy*; Days of Heaven*; The Untouchables; Once Upon a Time in the West; Once Upon a Time in America; Malèna*
In my heart: Cinema Paradiso, The Mission*, The Thing
Skeletons: He’s probably got ’em, but they’re all in Italian. Unless Red Sonja counts.
Oscar nominations: 5
About: Morricone has authored close to 500 scores. I think I’ve authored 500 sandwiches in my life. And not a one was quite as beautiful as his Paradiso theme.
Composer: James Horner
Frequented by: Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, Edward Zwick, James Cameron, Vadim Perelman, Phil Alden Robinson
Why you should know him: Field of Dreams*, Glory*, Braveheart*, Aliens*, House of Sand and Fog*, Apollo 13*, A Beautiful Mind*, Apocalypto, Titanic** (score, original song), Sneakers
In my heart: Field of Dreams*, The Rocketeer, Braveheart*, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, An American Tail* (original song), The Land Before Time
Oscar nominations: 9 (2 wins)
Skeletons: Captain EO, Humanoids from the Deep, Sorceress
About: God bless James Horner, but between Field of Dreams (a personal favorite), The Land Before Time, and An American Tail, dude sure likes to make me weep like a willow. And not the tough kind of willow, either. Also: Glory’s like in every ’90s trailer ever.
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Frequented by: Cecil B. deMille, John Sturges, George Roy Hill, John Landis, Ivan Reitman
Why you should know him: The Ten Commandments, Thoroughly Modern Millie**, Airplane!, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven*, The Man with the Golden Arm*, To Kill a Mockingbird , True Grit*, The Age of Innocence*, Far From Heaven*
In my heart: Ghostbusters, Airplane!, The Great Escape
Oscar Nominations: 14 (1 win)
Skeletons: I haven’t seen Cat-Women of the Moon or Robot Monster, but I’m gonna assume they qualify.
About: And the legends just keep on comin’. With Far from Heaven, the late Bernstein became the only person to have been nominated for an Oscar in every decade since the 1950s.
Composer: Carter Burwell
Frequented by: Joel and Ethan Coen, Spike Jonze
Why you should know him: Three Kings, No Country for Old Men, Gods and Monsters, Fargo, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Adaptation., Being John Malkovich, Blood Simple
In my heart: Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, A Knight’s Tale
Skeletons: Psycho III, What Planet Are You From?
About: He’s the Coens’ go-to fella, and with Burn After Reading and Hail Caesar on the way, he’s not slowing down anytime soon. Plus: I dare you not to have the madcap genius of Raising Arizona’s theme stuck in your head for weeks.
Composer: Alan Silvestri
Frequented by: Robert Zemeckis
Why you should know him: Back to the Future, Forrest Gump*, Predator, The Polar Express* (original song), What Lies Beneath, Beowulf
In my heart: Back to the Future, Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Manimal (ah, Manimal), Flight of the Navigator
Oscar nominations: 2
Skeletons: Super Mario Bros., Mac and Me (though I have nothing but fond memories of the latter)
About: Spielberg’s got Williams, Zemeckis has Silvestri — and I’d throw Back to the Future up against any score, anytime. (Aside: YouTube “Back to the Future theme parody” and click the one by Goldentusk. Trust me.) •