Elite-Motif: All-Time Great Themes
September 1, 2011 2 Comments
Any good piece of film music is going to be able to evoke memories of the images it accompanied long after you’ve seen the film. ”Tara’s Theme” immediately conjures images of the words Gone with the Wind slowly sweeping across the screen. Those signature shrieking violins from the Psycho score put us right there on the business end of Norman Bates’ knife. A good score adds not only emotion to the immediacy of watching a film, but longevity to the impact of it, letting a film live on via a few whistled or hummed notes. But a handful of themes go beyond being mere reminders of a sequence of images. They’ve become so indelibly linked to a character that it seems as if the two were born at the same time, conjoined twins of sight and sound, neither feeling complete without the other.
Call them theme songs, signature tunes, leitmotif, what have you, these six pieces below breathe such life into the heroes they represent, it’s impossible to imagine them apart.
“Main Title March” from Superman by John Williams
It’s no accident that Superman Returns leaned so heavily on John Williams’ classic Superman march; Williams so permanently staked a claim to the musical image of that character, seeing Superman soar without that theme behind him seemed wrong somehow. It’s a rousing piece of music, one that conveys the character’s great strength as well as his soaring grace. Williams really lays on the brass here, but the real MVPs are the swirling strings and woodwinds that make the whole piece seem to take off into the clouds. The whole theme is just so brazenly heroic, only someone with “Super” in his name could possibly hope to live up to it.
“James Bond Theme” by Monty Norman
Like Bond himself, his propulsive theme loses a little bit of its luster the further removed it is from its decade of origin. There’s something so ineffably Sixties about this theme, all attempts to modernize it pale in comparison. The steady opening beat calls to mind a predator stalking its prey, the staccato guitar the thrill of the chase, the explosion of horns the exultation of the kill. And, like Bond, so effortlessly cool in doing so.
“The Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams
Williams scores again with a theme every bit as soaring as his theme for Superman. But the Raiders March evokes a scruffier kind of heroism, one born more of sheer rugged determination than physical strength and power. The initial presentation of the theme echoes a bugle calling a cavalry charge, a literal call to adventure. Then Williams keeps piling on the instruments in his trademark style until the full orchestra is behind the theme, as broad-shouldered and larger than life as the hero it represents.
“Anvil of Crom” from Conan the Barbarian by Basil Poledouris
Robert E. Howard’s legendary hero rode onto the big screen on the thundering hoof beats of the furious drums that immediately conjure the brutal world in which he lives. The horns that sound the main theme seem primitive, the notes more clutched than held. And then in midst of all this fury comes a lyrical, almost Morricone-esque interlude that hints that there’s more to this barbarian than just muscle and sinew. Which promptly return to bring the piece to its pounding conclusion, while leaving us almost able to taste the blood in the air.
“The Imperial March/Darth Vader’s Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams
What’s great about this piece is how it works as both a bombastic anthem and a dark, brooding personal theme. The rhythm that drives the piece has an almost mechanical sense of relentless precision to it, a perfect match for both the oppressive machinery of the Empire and the machine-like nature of Vader himself. And yet when Williams later slows it down for Vader’s death in Jedi, it becomes mournful, even introspective. Of all these pieces, it’s the one that I think has taken on the most life of its own, an enduring orchestral short-hand for everything from the evil empire of the Soviet Union to the defensive squad of countless college football teams.
“Fanare for Rocky” from Rocky by Bill Conti
Now I want to be clear: we’re not talking about “Gonna Fly Now” here. As indelibly linked as that is to the character of Rocky, I find I prefer the fanfare that opens the film. It has the benefit of feeling so much more timeless than the oh-so-very of the 70s theme song. You have this heraldic cascade of trumpets, and yet it segues to the image of a dingy, run-down church social hall where two guys are beating the daylights out of each other. The nobility has suddenly become grimy, yet somehow seems all the more noble for it. And when it returns just before the climactic heavyweight fight, Rocky has more than earned that nobility as well.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed in how film and film music have changed is the lack of big, exuberant opening title sequences. I remember in the 70s and 80s how the start of a film felt like an overture. Not only hadn’t the credits been shuffled off to the end of the film like you see most of the time nowadays, but a film took its time luring you in, usually with an emphatic rendition of a couple of the musical themes you’d be hearing for the next two hours or so. It was a primer to the film’s musical palette, so that when you heard those themes in context of the story, you already had a familiarity with them. Today, that’s a luxury few films seems willing to indulge in their race to get things started. I think we’re losing a little of the musical language of film. Despite valiant efforts by the likes of Michael Giacchino and John Powell, we may be in a time where the hummable theme song is a thing of the past.