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Who’s the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round One

on June 13, 2014, 5:08pm
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Well, well, well, looks like we have a number of film buffs for readers. Last week, we asked you to submit three film composers worthy of being considered The Greatest. Your response, however, was total A-list. Despite the notable omissions of both Michael Kamen and James Horner, we were pretty floored at the collection of talent you chose to be involved in this month’s tournament bracket.

Now that the submission process is over, it’s time to start the rounds. This one will be particularly difficult. You have Ennio Morricone up against Bond freak John Barry, the great Hans Zimmer at odds with the widely celebrated Danny Elfman, and cult heroes like John Carpenter and Angelo Badalamenti duking it out towards the back line. No pressure, but it’s 12 tough match-ups to sort through and vote on, which should keep you prettay, prettay … prettay busy.

So, take the next week to pore over the talent up ahead. Naturally, we’ve made it easy for you with accompanying write-ups and song suggestions, all courtesy of our film-loving staff. And if you’re still at odds, take it easy in the comments below, where you can discuss amongst your fellow readers. After all, that’s the beauty of these tournaments; they’re all on you.

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Deadline for Round One voting is next Thursday, June 19th.

Ennio Morricone vs. John Barry

Ennio-MorriconeEnnio Morricone’s strength is in his diversity. Three specific scores back up this claim: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Untouchables, and The Mission. The score for GBU gallops at a reserved speed, just slow enough for Clint Eastwood’s Blondie to ride off into the sunset with some swagger. The main theme from The Untouchables and its opening credit score are as different as night and day; the former with sweeping strings and horns, the latter with its mysterious piano atop a rat-tat-tat drumbeat. Morricone’s so good even the great John Carpenter let him score one of his films (The Thing). But at the end of the day, Morricone’s greatest achievement is the go-jus “Gabriel’s Oboe” from the so-so film The Mission. The show’s about to begin… –Justin Gerber

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John BarryJohn Barry is responsible for composing the coolest score ever. If you’re not familiar with Barry, you’re likely opening up his Wikipedia entry, where you’ll discover he’s the man who wrote the legendary “James Bond Theme”. While this piece of music is iconic in its own right, it isn’t the coolest-of-the-cool score I was specifically referring to. To find the score in question, you have to check out the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, specifically its title instrumental track. Barry’s new take on 007 (now with Moog!) was even used decades later in the teaser trailer for The Incredibles. For a good cry, also check out his theme for Somewhere in Time, which was played during the Oscar’s latest “In Memoriam” –Justin Gerber

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James Newton Howard vs. Howard Shore

jamesnewtonhoward Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneNext to John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and James Horner, James Newton Howard has long been Hollywood’s go-to guy. Case in point: At 63, he’s scored over 100 films, ranging from Oscar-nominated work on The Prince of Tides, The Fugitive, and The Dark Knight to embarrassing contributions for Space Jam, Junior, and RV. Don’t scoff, though. Three blemishes on a resume that could double as a wrinkled inventory list for a Blockbuster Video and includes eight (!) Academy Award nominations is hardly worth ignoring. ::huff, huff:: So, what makes him so popular? His fast turnaround; in 2005, he somehow managed to score Peter Jackson’s three-hour King Kong remake in under a month. Oh yeah, he’s also the guy who wrote ER’s theme song and all the music for The Greatest Sports Comedy of All Time, Major League. What a wild thing. –Michael Roffman

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The Hobbit scoring sessions - Howard Shore / Abbey Road 9&10 SepTry and find a song that’s as heartwarming as “Concerning Hobbits”. It’s a brief, satisfying glimpse into Howard Shore’s knack for masterfully setting a scene. Since his first movie score for 1979’s The Brood, the Canadian composer has worked on a number of prominent and successful films such as The Silence of the Lambs and a number of Scorsese best hits, including The Departed. He’s even dipped his feet into television soundtracks, working with John Lurie to create the theme song for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. However, few will ever forget his awe-inspiring work behind The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy that brought him Academy Awards, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes. –Edward Dunbar

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Thomas Newman vs. Elmer Bernstein

Thomas+NewmanThe music of composer Thomas Newman—part of the large film-scoring clan that includes cousin Randy Newman—has soundtracked some of the most memorable moments in silver screen history. A protégé of theater composer Stephen Sondheim, Newman’s first big break in film came when John Williams (also on this list) asked him to orchestrate the final scene between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Not impressed? He’s also responsible for the music behind Andy Dufresne’s epic prison escape (The Shawshank Redemption), Lester Burnham’s would-have-been midlife crisis (American Beauty), and Michael Sullivan’s trail of bloody revenge (Road to Perdition). Nominated 12 times for an Academy Award, Newman still awaits his first Oscar win. What’s a guy gotta do? –Matt Melis

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elmer bernstein Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneOh, the late Elmer Bernstein. During his 51 years of work, the New York composer wrote the theme songs and scores for over 200 films and TV shows, including an odd mix that went from The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and To Kill a Mockingbird to The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, and Airplane!. In between, he also delivered the timeless theme to National Geographic‘s television series. Having studied composition under Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe, Bernstein also worked as a concert pianist, penning many of his own suites and compositions. He passed away in 2004, but his music continues to make filmgoers laugh, cry, and cower in fear. Sometimes all three. –Michael Roffman

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Danny Elfman vs. Hans Zimmer

danny elfman Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneAs the vocalist for Oingo Boingo, a band known for their raucous Halloween concerts, it only makes sense that Danny Elfman would click with Tim Burton, the king of macabre comedies and dramas. Elfman provided the compositions for all of the classic films Burton either produced or directed: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (his first score, which he created without any formal training), Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands. (Fun fact: He also lent his voice for Jack Skellington’s singing parts.) Elfman’s and Burton’s styles seem effortlessly intertwined—the sounds of these films captured both gothic grandeur and a more whimsical sense of wonder. Although he has never won an Academy Award, Elfman has been nominated four times for doing the scores for Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Big Fish, and Milk. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also responsible for the theme to The Simpsons. Aye carumba. –Killian Young

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hans zimmer Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneIf it wasn’t for Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, we might not have had Hans Zimmer. The Tom Cruise- and Dustin Hoffman-led film brought the German composer an Academy Award nomination, essentially launching his career in America. Shortly after, he signed on to critical darlings like Driving Miss Daisy, Thelma & Louise, Regarding Henry, and A League of Their Own, before landing the job of a lifetime with Disney’s The Lion King, a film that put him back at the Oscars and this time on the stage to accept the award. Since then, he’s been a favorite of most A-list directors, from Ridley Scott to Christopher Nolan to Ron Howard, and has written some of the greatest scores of the last 30 years. The Thin Red Line? The Dark Knight Trilogy? Inception? Gladiator? All his. Even better, he’s one Tony shy from an EGOT. Hans. So hot right now. Hans. –Michael Roffman

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Nino Rota vs. Lalo Schifrin

Nino RotaIn adapting Mario Puzo’s novel about an Italian-American crime family, Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t have found a better candidate for the score than Nino Rota. As the unofficial personal composer for legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini, the Italian composer had combined traditional Italian music with American pop and jazz on gems like 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and La Strada. But (at least in America) none matches his scores from The Godfather films, from which the main theme went on to be one of the most iconic in film history. –Adam Kivel

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Lalo SchifrinYou’re probably far more aware of Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin’s music than you know. His most famous work is arguably “Mission: Impossible”; however, anyone watching film or television in the ’60s and ’70s would have heard his themes to would-be classics like Steve McQueen’s iconic Bullitt, Bruce Lee’s swan song, Enter the Dragon, or George Lucas’s student project, THX-1138, as well as television camp like Starsky & Hutch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the aforementioned Mission:Impossible. Though his heyday was decades ago, Schifrin can still be heard today, writing the main theme to the video game Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow as well as having his piece “Danube Incident”, written for an episode of Mission:Impossible, sampled by Portishead in its song “Sour Times”. –Len Comaratta

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Cliff Martinez vs. Clint Mansell

Cliff MartinezAfter years of working with Captain Beefheart, Lydia Lunch, and eventually the Red Hot Chili Peppers, drummer Cliff Martinez dropped the sticks for a career in film, which he’s been fairly successful at over the last three decades. It all began when a tape that combined his work with a Pee Wee’s Playhouse episode landed in the hands of a young and aspiring Steven Soderbergh, who immediately hired Martinez to score his 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape. Since then, Martinez has worked on each of Soderbergh’s films and has expanded his resume to include a number of low-key indie thrillers and hits. More recently, several writers within the music blogosphere (this one included) have warmed up to his sparse and moody scores for DriveOnly God Forgives, and Spring Breakers. Popsicle trivia: Because of his work with RHCP, Martinez is a card-carrying member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. –Michael Roffman

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Clint MansellClint Mansell is Darren Aronofsky’s go-to composer who created all of his scores, from 1998’s Pi to this year’s Noah. Of course, Mansell’s most recognizable piece is the brilliantly haunting “Lux Aeterna”, which brings the thoroughly depressing Requiem for a Dream to a powerful end. The strings begin slowly and ominously, but build to a tempestuous forte that has to be seen with the movie’s final scene to truly be appreciated. Aronofsky has forever tackled weighty themes with visual panache in his films, and Mansell has always matched the sounds, from portraying delicates teetering on the brink of insanity in the score for Black Swan (see: “Perfection”) to the grand scale and sound of Noah. –Killian Young

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John Williams vs. Jerry Goldsmith

John WilliamsI could just type in Superman, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars and call it a day, but I won’t. John Williams blows away most of his contemporaries because in his glory days, he focused not only on composing a great main theme/march for his assigned film, but the entire score of the film. Superman’s “Leaving Home” is the third best piece of music found in that film, and it’s better than anything you’ll hear in any Marvel or DC film today. The Empire Strikes Back’s “The Imperial March”, a.k.a. Darth Vader’s theme, is as iconic as the Star Wars theme itself. Oh, and Jaws, which has a piece of music that deters you from ever dipping your toes in the ocean. The best. –Justin Gerber

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MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhat would the world be like without Jerry Goldsmith’s music? Well, for starters, your home film collection would be a damn sight poorer for the loss. Goldsmith, an 18-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner, was a true all-rounder, lending unforgettable scores to classic films spanning several cinematic genres: war (Patton), sci-fi (Planet of the Apes, Alien, five Star Trek films), neo-noir (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), sports (Hoosiers, Rudy), horror (The Poltergeist, The Omen), action thriller (three Rambo flicks), and even children’s (Mulan, Gremlins). Known for his Star Trek work for both the big and little screen, I think it’s time to mobilize the Trekie vote in memory of Goldsmith. Live long and prosper and vote for Jerry! -–Matt Melis

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Bernard Herrmann vs. Henry Mancini

Bernard HerrmannMany credit Bernard Herrmann with inventing a new American style of film score through his work on the inimitable Citizen Kane, one that relied less on lush orchestration and more on evocative, moody passages that gave nuance to the scenes portrayed on the screen. This attention to tension played perfectly into the eight films in which Herrmann worked with Alfred Hitchcock, including the dizzying spirals of Vertigo and the thrilling chases of North by Northwest. Those shrieking string stabs at the climax of Psycho, though, exemplify Herrmann’s amazing ability to turn the score into a crucial element of the film, rather than incidental accompaniment. –Adam Kivel

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Henry ManciniI’m not one to break out the hardware, but, yeah, let’s break out the hardware. Hope you don’t have someplace to be anytime soon. An unprecedented 72 Grammy nominations, with 20 wins. Give up? Another 18 Academy Award nominations, with four Oscars sitting on his mantel to show for it. Yes, the late Henry Mancini owned awards season and for good reason. The Cleveland-born composer was responsible for scoring game-changing films such as Abbot and Costello Go to Mars, Touch of Evil, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther series. That last credit alone should put Mancini over the top. Think about it. How many themes do you know that are universally recognizable, score both films and cartoons, and can sell pink building insulation? Da-na-nana… –Matt Melis

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John Carpenter vs. Angelo Badalamenti

John CarpenterThere’s a strange underlying theme of masculinity to many of John Carpenter’s film scores. The brooding bassline of Assault on Precinct 13 comes to mind. So does the stalking piano of Halloween and especially the post-apocalyptic blues of Escape from New York. Then again, the guy’s responsible for bringing manly men like Jack Burton, MacReady, and Snake Plissken to the silver screen. Judging from his resume, it would appear that Carpenter, the former purveyor of reliable B-movie fluff, could write iconic scores in his sleep. In addition to the aforementioned, he penned remarkable work for The Fog, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Christine, and Big Trouble in Little China, all in under a decade. What’s more, he even “bested” the likes of Ennio Morricone when he crafted his own theme for his 1981 remake, The Thing. Although he’s been rather reclusive for the past two decades, his influence is paramount. Go ahead and ask Italians Do It Better labelhead Johnny Jewel. –Michael Roffman

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Angelo BadalamentiThe true allure of David Lynch’s iconic TV show Twin Peaks lies with its music: the rickety, ’80s John Hughes-organ of the opening song, Laura Palmer’s gorgeous, string-laden suite, Audrey Horne’s sultry jazz theme. All of these were written by Angelo Badalamenti, whose compositions for Twin Peaks are arguably as recognizable as any character or scene. Badalamenti is also a muse for Lynch and his work in general; in addition to Twin Peaks, he wrote the scores for Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, among others. In essence, Badalamenti is, perhaps, the key ingredient in making Lynch’s dark, subversive cinema head-trips come to visceral, emotional life. –Dean Essner

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Wendy Carlos vs. Vangelis

Wendy CarlosA pioneer in every sense of the word, Wendy Carlos created vast pools of electronic uncertainly for viewers to immerse themselves in during the movie-going experience. In 1971, the then Walter Carlos (he had yet to transition to Wendy) created an aural extension of Alex DeLarge’s deepening madness for Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange. Ten years later, and after chilling work on fellow Kubrick title The Shining, her mastery of the analog synth (now combined with more digital and orchestral elements) was utilized to create a compliment to the futurism of “the grid”, aka Tron. A score so far ahead of its time, it would take the efforts of the Daft Punk to match the expectations of the music behind the 2010 sequel. –Derek Staples

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VangelisIf you’ve ever participated in a marathon, or watched one, you’ve heard Vangelis. Then again, if you’re a self-respected science-fiction freak, you’ve also obsessed over the guy’s score for Blade Runner, without a doubt the greatest film for the genre, rivaled only by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey. Admittedly, Vangelis, or Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, doesn’t exactly have the broadest resume in film, but everything he has accomplished has either nabbed awards (Chariots of Fire) or become all-time favorites (Blade Runner). To date, no composer has been able to capture the Greek wunderkind’s fantastical electronica, and his influence continues to soak up any soul that’s ever connected with a synthesizer, which by our count is a lot. Too many, in fact. –Michael Roffman

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Philip Glass vs. Jonny Greenwood

phillip glass Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneIt’s not easy to find fissure in the quintessential American composer Philip Glass, but in theory the classical minimalism he reflects through repetition can crack your brain like a hammer to a glass pain. His music requires undivided attention, causing profound cognitive transportation. For years, we’ve been writing fictional stories about time travel, concocting complex clusters of theories analogous to the feelings of wonder, excitement, and fantasy, but as the overture of time unfurls in Glass’s music, you’re able to travel, in real time, to an entirely new dimension of listening. From his operatic victory, Einstein on the Beach, to his 50+ film scores (e.g. The Thin Blue Line, The Truman Show, The Hours) to his many Academy Award nominations, it’s easy to call Philip Glass one of the most influential composers of all time. –Lior Phillips

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Jonny GreenwoodPaul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood set a high-water mark for 21st century cinema back in 2007, and much of that is due to Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant score. Turns out Greenwood – who, rather famously, keeps a day job as the guitarist/multi-instrumentalist for Radiohead – is a brilliant, forward-thinking composer whose influences lie in the un-Hollywood realm of Bartok, Stravinsky, and Penderecki. This is because Greenwood is more a fosterer of evocative sound than he is a creator of scene-complimenting classical music. His score for There Will Be Blood jockeys for our attention amidst the chaos onscreen, making it as much a vital character as Daniel Plainview is. Since that film, Greenwood went on to create the music for Anderson’s next new-era classic, The Master, and will also score this year’s highly anticipated Inherent Vice. –Dean Essner

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Jon Brion vs. Trent Reznor

jon brion Whos the Greatest Film Composer of All Time? Round OneAlthough Paul Thomas Anderson has enlisted Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood for his past three movies (including his upcoming adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner-tastic Inherent Vice), Jersey native Jon Brion was Anderson’s man first. Brion worked alongside Michael Penn for 1996’s Hard Eight score (Anderson’s debut), handled 1999’s Magnolia, and 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love alone, and soon, he’d be working under other filmmakers. Brion’s signature score might be 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry), for which he composed the piano-dripping theme and rich string pieces like “Peer Pressure”. Before the majority of his scoring work, he produced ’90s staples by the likes of Rufus Wainwright (Rufus Wainwright) and Fiona Apple (When the Pawn…). Now, at 50, his recent work includes the This Is 40 score and production on Best Coast’s The Only Place and Sky Ferreira’s Ghost EP. –Michael Madden

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Trent-ReznorHere’s the thing. Most of the composers in this tournament—musical geniuses one and all—spent years honing their respective crafts of matching music to moving images before they were recognized for their achievements. And then there’s Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, who went from soundtracking our disgruntled adolescences to scoring our favorite films practically overnight. Though Reznor had dabbled in a couple film projects over the years, his work alongside Atticus Ross on director David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took Hollywood by complete surprise. The duo have already racked up Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy wins together, and Fincher has been so impressed that he’s already signed Reznor and Ross to work on another film of his, Gone Girl. –Matt Melis

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