The Best Music in Film

Joe Dante

(Gremlins, Matinee, Small Soldiers)

S&S: What is your favourite film soundtrack music and why do you like it so much?
"I may not have consciously registered my own reaction to soundtrack music until 1964--before that I had been weaned on the bombastic Universal-International "sound" of the 50s, as these double bills were the most frequent at my local theatre, and of course I lined up to buy the seminal 1959 Coral Records' release "Themes from Horror Movies", featuring re-recordings of various U-I themes by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Skinner, etc. But it wasn't until chanced upon Ennio Morricone's score for Bullets Don't Argue (1963), an obscure Italian western released directly to US TV long before the Leone pictures arrived here, that I heard music that seemed to speak directly to me. Why I found so much emotional resonance in what came to be known as "spaghetti western music" I'll never know, but I wasn't the only one. So as to "favourites"--one is impossible to isolate, because there are so many. Offhand I'd list most of Herrmann, lots of Bernstein, especially To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), although I'm also fond of Robot Monster (1953), Morricone, Steiner, Waxman, John Barry (especially his underrated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Walter Schumann's Night of the Hunter (1955), and of course Jerry Goldsmith, who I have been lucky enough to collaborate with on all but three of my feature films. And let's not overlook the great Carl Stalling, much of whose music I've pirated over the years in one way or another."
S&S: In what ways does music best enhance a film?
"Sometimes even dramatic movies are "musicals", when the score dominates and carries the mood, and sometimes events play better with no musical accompaniment at all. As I recall Targets (1967) has nothing but incidental AM radio music and Ronald Stein's tracks for The Terror (1963) as source music, and works all the better for the lack of score. And there are films like Judex (1963) in which Maurice Jarre's music is used so sparingly that when it does appear the effect is almost magical. The effect an absence of music can have is illustrated by Philip Glass' recent attempt to add a score to Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), which sounded like someone had left a radio on in the next room, pretty much nullifying the movie's aura of creepy, otherworldly early-talkie dread. This may have simply been a case of the wrong music, though, as a drenching of familiar studio horror themes from the forties might have worked just fine."
S&S: What is the most effective sequence of music in your own films?
"I've always been grateful for how much has been added to my own films by gifted composers. Probably the most yeomanlike work has been contributed by Jerry Goldsmith, whose soaring music for Explorers (1985) did its best to disguise an unfinished movie, but Pino Donaggio's organic scores for Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1980) certainly classed up their low-budget origins as well. It's always hard to pluck out sequences from your work to illustrate articles like this one....I guess I'd have to nominate the "New York, New York" musical number at the end of Gremlins 2 (1990), but if that's cheating then I suppose it might be the assembly-line main title cue Jerry wrote for Small Soldiers (1998), another of my "why doesn't this picture have a consistent tone?" big-studio train wrecks."
Last Updated: 29 Sep 2008