By Vikram Lakhanpal
There are some scores that you just can’t get out of your head. Sometimes it’s because the score is really good or really catchy, other times because someone decides that it’s an effective score and wants other movies to sound the exact same, leaving you hearing it in places you’d never expect. Today, we rank the 10 most influential scores since 2000. Influence was calculated with fuzzy math based on mainstream recognition, critical success, and stylistic emulators following the film’s release.
Honorable Mention: The Lord of the Rings (Shore)
It received all sorts of awards, has seeped into cultural recognition, and is one of the greatest achievements in film music, but it’s so good that no one has tried to copy it. The only attempt to mimic Howard Shore’s style and methodology was Shore himself on The Hobbit trilogy, so it doesn't quite make this list.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (Silvestri, 2011)
We live in the age of the superhero movie, in part to Marvel’s too big to fail Cinematic Universe. While earlier entries in the MCU had scores ranging from decent (Patrick Doyle’s Thor) to mediocre (Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Man), Silvestri was the first to compose a score that was not only superior to the others from a technical standpoint, but also had what the previous entries were missing: a memorable, heroic theme for the hero. His success brought him on to the next entry in the franchise, The Avengers. From there, Silvestri created a new identity for the superhero team, brought back his Captain America theme, and began the long and bumpy road (4 more composers over the next 5 films) to musical continuity in the franchise, culminating in Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler’s thematic cornucopia for last May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
9. The Incredibles (Giacchino, 2004)
Animated films this century have mostly been defined by two brands: Pixar and Dreamworks. All of Pixar’s early films were scored by cousins Randy and Thomas Newman, but Pixar outsider Brad Bird brought Michael Giacchino, a young composer making his name in video game scoring and with the television series Alias, to infuse his retro superhero film with 60s era jazz reminiscent of John Barry’s 007 scores. This score launched Giacchino’s film career, with his science fiction and adventure scores causing many to tout him (inaccurately) as “The Next John Williams.” Giacchino would go onto score four more Pixar films, all infused with the same jazzy sensibilities on display in The Incredibles, winning an Academy Award for Up and becoming one of the rapidly rising stars of Hollywood film scoring.
8. Chicken Run (Powell/Gregson-Williams, 2000)
While Pixar has relied on Giacchino and the Newmans for the majority of their scores, Dreamworks Animation has relied on film music division head Hans Zimmer and his team at Remote Control Productions (previously Media Ventures Entertainment). Chicken Run marked the third collaboration between Zimmer protégés John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams, and the clever pastiche of Elmer Bernstein, Ron Goodwin, and even Danny Elfman, combined with a kazoo choir and the film’s critical success, established both as new major players in Hollywood film scoring. Both Powell and Gregson-Williams would soon spin themselves off into their own successful solo careers. While they both became known for a number of big action movies, they continued to collaborate for Dreamworks, most notably on Gregson-Williams’ Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon.
7. Batman Begins (Zimmer/Howard, 2005)
From 1989 through the early 2000s, the superhero movie genre had been dominated by Danny Elfman and (to a lesser extent) John Ottman. With Christopher Nolan’s “dark, brooding, gritty” reboot of the Batman franchise (air quotes because that phrase has become cliché), came an altogether different sound. Zimmer and James Newton Howard shied away from the big orchestra and brassy heroic fanfares, opting instead for minor key anthems and string ostinati blended with electronic effects to define the grim mood of the Dark Knight trilogy. Despite dividing film music critics, Batman Begins and its sequels rode the film’s waves of critical acclaim to mainstream recognition, and influencing the sound of various blockbusters, including Transformers, The Da Vinci Code, and Iron Man, among others.
6. Inception (Zimmer, 2010)
Yes, another Zimmer/Nolan collaboration, and for a single reason. Or two reasons. Maybe 4 or 5, depending on how much drama you wish to convey. I am talking about the Horn of DOOM, the low pitch blasts (sometimes repeated ad nauseum) to underscore an incredibly dramatic moment (heard at 1:35 in its original, ahem, inception: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imamcajBEJs). Its become used and overused so much in blockbusters since then that even casual movie fans have started to tire of it.
5. Moulin Rouge! (Armstrong, 2001)
While movie musicals of the 1990s had been dominated by animated films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Prince of Egypt, the 2000s saw a shift towards musicals oriented to adults with darker themes. A clear turning point is Baz Lurhmann’s psychedelic and insane Moulin Rouge! Of course, the success of a movie musical is largely dependent on the songs written for it, but Moulin Rouge! operates almost entirely on preexisting songs ranging from Mozart to Madonna. In order to make these oddly shaped puzzle pieces fit together, as well as in each actor’s vocal range, it was up to composer Craig Armstrong and his army of arrangers to adapt the different styles into a cohesive package. If you doubt that they succeeded, give another listen to “Zidler’s Rap” or “Elephant Love Melody;” you can’t help but be impressed with the fluid transitions from song to song.
3. (tie) Tron: Legacy (Daft Punk, 2010)/The Social Network (Reznor/Ross, 2010)
These two scores stormed 2010, the composers using both their outsider status to shock film score fans, as well as their name recognition to sell themselves to the mainstream. Daft Punk’s blend of synthetic and orchestral elements in Tron: Legacy impressed many, while Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote a score for The Social Network that divided film score critics, with some praising its creativity, and others deriding its lack of emotion. However, it gained wide praise among film critics, winning a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. The two scores in some ways marked the beginning of a new influx of pop artists trying their hand at film scoring, including Arcade Fire (Her) and M83 (Oblivion), to varying degrees of success.
2. The Bourne Identity (Powell, 2002)
This year we’ve had a number of spy films. Curiously, most of them have gone with a throwback sound for their music. Given that many of these films were either comedies or had deep musical roots in 60s jazz, it’s not too surprising. However, for the purely modern 2000s action/spy film, the most common musical route is to echo the percussion and synth loop driven tone of John Powell’s music for the Bourne franchise. While some may argue that The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum are superior scores, Identity was the first to introduce Powell’s rough, aggressive style to the techno-thriller flicks. Even James Bond, that stalwart of 60s spy jazz, has seen seepage from Bourne-style action music. Now I think it over, a few of the earlier scores on this list (Tron and Batman in particular) may derive some influence from Bourne’s choppy string ostinatos too, as well as lots and lots of spy action thrillers.
1. Gladiator (Zimmer, 2000)
In the end, it all comes back to Gladiator. I started this entire article with this score in mind. Ridley Scott’s 2000 Roman epic made buckets of money, won oodles of Oscars, and boasts one of the best-selling film scores of all time. This score really is a turning point for film music and for Zimmer. The “collaborations” with other musicians in Inception and Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Kung Fu Panda. The muscular waltzing action music of Pirates of the Caribbean. The electronically manipulated instruments of Man of Steel. It can all be traced back to this acclaimed epic. One of the first scores of the 2000s happened to become one of its most important.