5. Somewhere in Time (1980)
To the Rescue: John Barry
Critics trashed this modest time travel romance starring Jayne Seymour and a post-Superman Christopher Reeve. It didn’t make much of a splash at the box office either. Somehow, though, the movie never went away. It proved a popular attraction on pay cable and has accumulated a devoted cult of admirers. Were the critics simply wrong about the picture when it came out? Debatable.
What’s certain is that they didn’t fully appreciate the strong appeal of its simple romantic story, or the emotional pull of John Barry’s gorgeous music. No one could evoke romantic melancholy with greater élan than Barry when he put his mind to it and Somewhere in Time’s love theme may be his best. An Oscar win for Out of Africa would come just a few years later, but the genesis of that score can clearly be heard in Barry’s work here.
4. Airport (1970)
To the Rescue: Alfred Newman
This supersized Ross Hunter production kicked off the 70s disaster film craze, but even in 1970 everything about this movie seemed rooted in Hollywood’s distant past. The production gloss, the perfectly coiffed stars and their broad acting, and of course Alfred Newman’s music. This was Newman’s final assignment before his death, and it caps a historic run that dates back to Chaplin’s City Lights.
Hollywood’s most honored composer (9 Oscars, no one else has come close), Newman fittingly went out like a lion. Eschewing all subtly (not to mention any then-current trends in film scoring), Newman gives the picture the over-the-top melodramatic urgency the piece demanded. Seen today, Airport is often laughably old-fashioned, but ironically, Newman’s “old school” brand of excitement sweeps away your cynicism. That killer main title all but tells you to buckle up and enjoy the flight.
3. The Russia House (1990)
To the Rescue: Jerry Goldsmith
I’m not a dumb person. In fact, I’d venture to say I’m fairly bright. Having said that, I must confess that I have never seen a John Le Carre adaptation that I could follow. Without fail, I’m lost within minutes, unable to keep track of what’s going on, who’s betraying who, or what the devil everyone’s on about. Who’s got the papers?! We’ve got to break the code! Whatever!
Fred Schepisi’s 1990 film version of The Russia House was no exception. Great to look at with a cast to die for, this Cold War romantic thriller inspired more than the usual effort to keep up on my part, largely because I was utterly enchanted by Goldsmith’s score.
Instead of taking the obvious path by going the full Russian (pseudo Prokofiev with a lot of robust male choruses), Goldsmith takes inspiration from Sean Connery’s jazz loving British book editor and his blossoming affection for Russian defector Michelle Pfeiffer).
Branford Marsalis’s sensuous, sinewy sax lines float through the action, riding one of Goldsmith’s most poignant melodies. The approach ably serves the suspense aspects of the plot while also providing the audience a direct emotional connection to the two leads as they play out their romance amidst a lot of confusing cloak and dagger.
Even when the plotting is at its most impenetrable, Goldsmith score keeps us in touch with the human element. Thanks to him, all the shadowy intrigue matters.
It all ends happily, by the way. Just don’t ask me to explain how.
2. 1941 (1979)
To the Rescue: John Williams
It’s easy to talk about Jaws or E.T. when the subject is Williams’s immeasurable contribution to the success of Steven Spielberg. Think of the leap of faith that Close Encounters of the Third Kind represents. The picture was conceived and structured in such way that Williams simply had to come up with something brilliant. Say Williams hadn’t delivered for that dazzling finale, what then?
Spielberg’s massive a World War II comedy is another matter. Critics and audiences at the time rejected the relentless noise and scattershot storylines than never quite merged. Yeah, it’s kind of a mess, but it’s also brimming with great ideas, brilliant performances from an inspired oddball assemblage of stars (Slim Pickens is a god) and some of the most brilliantly executed set pieces of Spielberg’s career.
Throughout, Williams more than earns his MVP status with a rousing score that comes off like some mad cocktail of John Philip Souza, Benny Goodman, and Carl Stalling. The high point: The big band dance number and barroom brawl. An amazing scene set ablaze by Williams channeling the spirit of Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.”
1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
To the Rescue: Wojciech Kilar
I did mention Keanu earlier, didn’t I? Probably never more ineptly cast as he is here playing hapless Jonathan Harker, just arrived in Transylvania from London to conduct some urgent business at Castle Dracula. Francis Coppola’s sprawling, visually sumptuous take of Stoker’s oft-told tale is almost perversely un-scary, overpopulated with minor characters form the book, and saddled with a drippy “love through ages” motivation for the vampire that is a tiresome waste of screen time.
Thank goodness Coppola had to good sense to hire Polish composer Wojciech Kilar to score the film. It’s a stunning work from start to finish, perhaps the definitive musical statement on Stoker’s character. One of the film’s finest moments comes when Keanu’s Harker is set upon by Gary Oldman’s vampire brides. The scene is brilliantly visualized by Coppola; ravishingly scored by Kilar. How good is Kilar’s music? So good that for a while there, Keanu seems perfectly cast.
Author Bio: A lifelong film lover, Christopher Atwell is a freelance speech writer and communications consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. He has written scripts for celebrity galas and award shows and ghosted articles for executives that have appeared in USA Today, Cosmopolitan and other national publications.