Here is the list, in chronological order:
King Kong (1933) – Composer: Max Steiner
Historians disagree over who wrote the first fully symphonic film score, but most credit Max Steiner for either the 1932 Polynesian romance Bird of Paradise or the legendary King Kong. Certainly the latter film established Steiner as one of Hollywood’s top composers and demonstrated how much an original score could enhance a film’s emotional hold on its audience. When penny-pinching executives at RKO insisted Steiner score the film with stock music, the film’s co-director, Merian C. Cooper, reached into his own pocket to provide $50,000 for the score.
Alexander Nevsky (1938) – Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Composer Sergei Prokofiev started working on his Alexander Nevsky score while the picture was still in the editing stage. Prokofiev and Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein built the montages together, with the director even adjusting his editing to fit the score, particularly for the famous half-hour battle on the ice that would inspire such later films as Spartacus and The Empire Strikes Back. Prokofiev and Eisenstein’s collaboration would inspire such later director/composer teams as Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann and Steven Spielberg/John Williams. Eisenstein had hoped to record the score for this legendary epic with high-fidelity techniques he had observed in Hollywood. But when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin rushed the film into release prematurely to help foster anti-German sentiments, the recording was substandard. A year after the film’s premiere, Prokofiev turned his score into the 40-minute Alexander Nevsky Cantata.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Eerie and haunting, the score Bernard Herrmann created for The Day the Earth Stood Still set the style for future science fiction films, from It Came From Outer Space (1953) to Blade Runner (1982). Although Miklos Rozsa in Spellbound (1945) introduced Hollywood to the electronic instrument known as the Theremin, Herrmann was the first to use it to create an all-electronic score. He did so by combining two Theremins with electronic organs, vibraphones and amplified strings, among other instruments. The jarring sounds perfectly captured the anxieties underlying this tale of a UFO landing in the middle of Washington, D.C. Herrmann also recorded on multiple tracks, long before stereophonic sound was widely used in Hollywood. He even played some cues backwards to create an unearthly masterpiece.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Music Adaptor: Charles Wolcott
MGM brought Hollywood into the rock ‘n’ roll era with Blackboard Jungle. In search of the kind of music teens like the film’s potential delinquents were listening to, director Richard Brooks borrowed a few records from star Glenn Ford’s son Peter. When Brooks heard Bill Haley and his Comets perform “Rock Around the Clock,” he found the perfect theme song, which also became the first rock song ever used in a Hollywood feature. Thanks to Blackboard Jungle, the song hit #1 on the Billboard charts, eventually selling 25 million copies and becoming what Dick Clark called “The National Anthem of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) – Composer: Elmer Bernstein
When producer-director Otto Preminger set out to buck the Hollywood system, he went all the way. Not only did Preminger challenge the censors by tackling the then-forbidden topic of drug addiction, he also defied the blacklist by hiring the politically suspect Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein suggested that jazz was the perfect musical style to reflect leading man Frank Sinatra’s battle with addiction. From the trumpet riff over the titles to a jittery motif as Sinatra falls back into drug abuse, The Man with the Golden Arm was the first Hollywood film with an all-jazz score, setting the style for future films set in the urban jungle of crime, drugs and despair. Bernstein himself would return to the jazz score for The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1962), before staking a claim on Americana with To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), widely considered one of the best film scores of all time.
Psycho (1960) – Composer: Bernard Herrmann
It seems only natural that one of the most iconic sequences in film history – the shower scene from Psycho – should be accompanied by one of the screen’s most iconic musical cues. Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins have taken on a life of their own in the years since they heralded Marion Crane’s death. Like John Williams’ Jaws theme, they have become an instant signifier of menace, quoted in everything from Psycho’s many imitations to episodes of The Simpsons. Originally, director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to use a jazz score and show the shower scene in silence. Herrmann showed him a better way to generate suspense, impressing the master so much that Hitchcock doubled the composer’s salary. Later, Hitchcock said, “Thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – Musical Director: George Martin; Songs: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
With its mix of pop rock and kaleidoscopic visuals, the first Beatles movie set the tone for the swinging London films of the 1960s, inspiring everything from romantic comedies to social dramas to spy films. Synergy had been an important factor in musical careers since Bing Crosby used his movies, radio show and records to sell each other in the ‘30s. In the ‘50s, Hollywood developed starring vehicles for rockers like Elvis Presley and Fabian. But it was the Beatles who found the perfect wedding of visual and musical styles, thanks in no small part to Richard Lester’s rapid cutting, hand-held camera effects and Alan Owen’s pseudo-documentary script. Scenes cut to the rhythms of songs like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “This Boy” paved the way for the MTV generation.
Goldfinger (1964) – Composer: John Barry
With the third James Bond film, Goldfinger, composer John Barry helped carry the screen’s most popular and long-lived series beyond box office success. He created a musical soundtrack and hit song (the first of many for the Bond films) that dominated the charts for months. As in two earlier films, Barry used Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, which he had first arranged for Dr. No (1962). This anticipated such other iconic character themes as those in The Pink Panther and Rocky. Barry also mirrored the action perfectly, going heavy on the brass to reflect the film’s metal-obsessed villain. Barry capped it all with the title song, the first of three in the series sung by Shirley Bassey. Her chart-topping performance set the standard for future Bond films.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – Composer: Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone scored Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), but it was their third film together that brought Morricone international fame. His spare arrangements, like the film’s two-note opening theme based on a hyena’s cry, as well as his use of such unconventional instrumentations as the ocarina, gunfire and wordless vocals, created a distinctive, frequently imitated style. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was also the first film on which Leone and Morricone developed the main themes before shooting started. Leone would play the music while shooting, helping the actors to find performing rhythms in sync with their character’s musical motifs and even developing camera movements in time to the score.
The Graduate (1967) – Composer: Dave Grusin; Songs: Paul Simon
Mike Nichols invented a new way to score a movie when he decided to use previously recorded songs from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel for this 1967 tragicomedy about aimless youth. Although Nichols hired Simon to write three new songs for the film, most of the score consists of earlier hits like “The Sounds of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair.” The only new song, “Mrs. Robinson,” was originally written as a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt and wasn’t even finished when the duo recorded it for the soundtrack. The music helped The Graduate strike an emotional chord with Simon & Garfunkel’s many young fans. The music provided, in historian Sam Kashner’s words, star Dustin Hoffman’s inner monologue. Nichols’ use of the songs to underscore mostly silent scenes anticipated the development of music videos and inspired many filmmakers, most notably John Hughes (Sixteen Candles) and Cameron Crowe (Say Anything).
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Musical Consultant: Patrick Moore; Music Editor: Frank J. Urioste
Rockets revolve in space to the tune of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” waltz; light streams reflect on an astronaut’s helmet as he plummets through space to the otherworldly music of Gyorgy Ligeti; the sun, moon and Earth align perfectly to the thundering brass of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. These are some of the most famous weddings of visuals and music in film history, and they happened by accident. Stanley Kubrick had commissioned a score for his 2001: A Space Odyssey from Alex North, with whom he worked on 1960’s Spartacus. But during filming, the director used classical recordings to set the mood, then incorporated them for a scratch track when MGM’s executives requested a sample reel. The results were so spectacular that Kubrick decided to use a new type of film score composed entirely of commercial recordings of classical music. With 2001’s success, the classical score became a cinema staple, something Kubrick himself would return to for A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975).
Shaft (1971) – Composers: Isaac Hayes and J.J. Johnson
From the first bars of the title theme – featuring rapid rhythm on the hi-hat cymbal and the trademark “wah-wah” guitar of funk music – the audience for Shaft knew it was in for something different. Not only did the film re-set film noir conventions in the inner city, but Isaac Hayes’ score created the sound that would dominate the blaxploitation genre. Some historians have even cited his title theme, with two and half minutes of instrumentals preceding Hayes’ vocals, as an influence on the development of disco. Beyond producing a hit album – the first double album of original film music from an R&B star – Shaft and its chart-topping theme made Hayes the first black Oscar® winner in one of the music categories (and in any category other than acting). This opened the door for future winners like Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie while creating an iconic theme that’s probably better known than the film that inspired it.
American Graffiti (1973) – Music Coordinator: Karin Green
With scenes written to feature rock classics from the likes of Billy Haley and His Comets, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, and The Platters, George Lucas’ coming-of-age comedy introduced nostalgia to the screen as never before. The film used its golden oldies soundtrack to re-create the early ‘60s, contributing to what Roger Ebert called “a brilliant work of historical fiction.” Lucas modeled his script on his memories and his own vintage record collection. When the cost of music clearances for the 43 songs he wanted left no money for a traditional score, American Graffiti became the first film to boast a music coordinator rather than a composer. Its success launched a wave of nostalgia that would inspire the TV series Happy Days and films like Grease and Animal House.
Saturday Night Fever (1977) – Composers: Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb and David Shire
When John Travolta strode down the New York streets at the opening of Saturday Night Fever, the music and visuals captured a generation’s drive to “feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’ and we’re stayin’ alive.” The juxtaposition of the Bee Gees’ lyrical, rhythmic songs with the working-class angst of Tony Manero and his friends make the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever one of the most powerful in film history. Thanks to a combination of perfect timing and astute marketing (this was one of the first films to use cross-platform marketing, so the soundtrack album and movie sold each other), the music achieved iconic status. For years after the film’s release, popular songs like “How Deep Is Your Love” and “If I Can’t Have You” dominated the airwaves and record charts, and the hit soundtrack was the world’s best-selling record album.
Star Wars (1977) – Composer: John Williams
Before John Williams signed on for Star Wars, director George Lucas was planning to use classical music in the fashion of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg convinced him to go with Williams, the composer gave him a rich blend of familiar musical styles, with a title theme inspired by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s intro to King’s Row (1942) and leitmotifs inspired by Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst and even Benny Goodman (the model for the Cantina Band). The result went on to be voted the greatest score of all time by members of the American Film Institute. Thanks to Star Wars, movie-going was once again a feast for the ears, paving the way for more lush, romantic scores from the likes of James Horner (Titanic), Ennio Morricone (The Mission) and Williams himself (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List).