Movies are nothing without music. Can you imagine Star Wars or Purple Rain without their original soundtracks? In many cases, movie soundtracks from iconic films have proven to be more memorable than the movies themselves. Film scores are as integral to a film as the cinematography, special effects, and editing; composers such as Sir John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, and Bernard Herrmann redefined cinema with hundreds of musical scores that have become unforgettable pieces of pop culture.
With more than 500 original soundtracks in our collection, it’s almost impossible to narrow down the list to only ten films. There are also specific soundtracks with a mix of original music and popular music that cuts across multiple genres that deserve a place on the list. Consider this a good place to start.
Movie fans remember Tom Cruise being chased in his father’s Porsche 928 through the Chicago suburbs by Guido the Killer Pimp, but we remember the film for its atmospheric synth-pop created by Tangerine Dream. Not the easiest soundtrack to find on vinyl, I had to source a German pressing of the soundtrack from a Paris record store. Between Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy,” and Prince’s “D.M.S.R.” – the soundtrack was a mixture of 1980s pop, electronica, and blues.
Two tracks from Bruce Springsteen (“Hungry Heart”) and Talking Heads (“Swamp”) appear in the film but were left off the soundtrack that was made available in 1984. Jeff Beck and Phil Collins both contributed two tracks to the soundtrack; including Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” which became a staple in films and television episodes over the next 5 years. The CD version of the soundtrack is 3 minutes longer than the vinyl version containing the full-length version of the Tangerine Dream tracks including the studio version of “Love on a Real Train” which is very hard to find.
Vangelis created an almost perfect soundtrack to the 1982 science fiction classic starring Harrison Ford as Blade Runner Rick Deckard. The film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep became a cult classic after failing initially at the box office. Vangelis’ synth-pop heavy score created the perfect backdrop to a dystopian future that was heavy on dark lighting, neon signs, and replicants searching frantically for their maker before reaching their pre-set incept date. The official soundtrack was not released until 1994 and omitted a number of key tracks that were part of the film. Bootlegs of the original soundtrack have surfaced over the years; including a few with far superior sound quality. Vangelis struck a chord with his soundtrack to this influential film, and it is considered to be one of the finest sci-fi scores ever created for a motion picture.
The Blues Brothers
One of the most popular cult films of all-time, John Landis’ musical comedy featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd was a film that barely got made. Studio executives were less than impressed with the original cut of the film that was over 150 minutes in length, and with Belushi’s inability to control his drug addiction which became so bad during the production that co-stars Aykroyd, and Carrie Fisher (who was already struggling with her own fame from Star Warsand her battle with bipolar disease and substance abuse) had to conduct an intervention to keep Belushi from killing himself. The studios were relieved at the early positive reviews but stunned when the film became a runaway success earning over $115 million.
The film blew past its original production budget with its destructive car chases, star-studded musical numbers, and multiple location changes. The film also premiered at the same time as The Empire Strikes Back and hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the SNL stars, Carrie Fisher, and cameo roles from John Candy, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown.
The soundtrack features a mix of blues, soul, and gospel tracks performed by Franklin, Charles, Calloway, and Brown. John Lee Hooker appears in the film, but his classic “Boom Boom” track did not make it onto the soundtrack.
The film’s most impressive songs are performed by Belushi and Aykroyd with the Blues Brothers Band, which included Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn. Belushi manages to keep his head just long enough to sell each one of the tracks and was never better on screen.
Sean Connery finally won an Academy Award, and Robert De Niro put on significant weight to portray Al Capone in this 1987 drama that was both a critical and box office success. The Grammy Award-nominated score was composed by Ennio Morricone and also featured a number of period pieces from Duke Ellington. Morricone was at the peak of his craft with this riveting soundtrack that featured both explosive chases, gun battles, and emotional death scenes featuring Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, and Connery. Morricone, who had considerable experience scoring violent films, weaved a collection of complex tracks together that captured the pace, emotion, and tension of the film to perfection.
Anatomy of a Murder
Duke Ellington scored this 1959 Otto Preminger courtroom drama, and what makes his brilliant soundtrack even more significant was that it was the first Hollywood film to use an African-American composer. It was also one of the first Hollywood film scores handed over to a jazz musician and Ellington delivered in a very significant way. James Stewart and Ben Gazzara star in this complex drama around the trial of a U.S. serviceman who has been charged with a revenge murder. Ellington’s soundtrack came one year after Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Scaffold and he managed to create something quite unique that won 3 Grammy Awards. The film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Ben-Hur (which broke the record that year for most wins), but Ellington’s score earned universal praise.
Gladiator & Inception
Selecting a single Hans Zimmer soundtrack is a very difficult task. Not only has he scored over 150 films, but he’s been nominated for 11 Academy Awards; he finally won for The Lion King which benefitted from almost $900 million at the box office, and Grammy Awards in multiple categories. Zimmer has to be considered the modern equivalent of Morricone just based on the sheer number of projects that he’s worked on; his work with Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception created home theater test material for the next decade. Gladiator and Inception provided the opportunity to create innovative and large-scale scores to match the films and he doesn’t disappoint. Inception is the more interesting of the two scores with a heavy reliance on synthesizer-based tracks that convey a huge sense of scale and power; something Zimmer has proven to be a master of with his orchestration. The bass on the soundtrack can shake the foundation of your home so keep the remote handy.