The greatest film soundtracks create magic.
They can move you to tears or laughter, cue up anticipation, ratchet tension, or announce heroic comebacks. Far from supporting acts, they can become so inextricably linked with their films that to hear a couple of notes is enough to conjure the whole big-screen experience.
That’s why we’ve curated 10 of the finest and most influential movie soundtracks ever. Did we include your favourite? Have we made an unforgivable omission?
Let us know!
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
John Williams isn’t just a great film composer, he’s arguably the greatest of all time. From the Star Wars saga and Jurassic Park to Harry Potter, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Jaws and Schindler’s List, his output is second to none, netting him five Academy Awards and 52 nominations.
While the Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope score has been selected by the American Film Institute as the greatest of all time, for us The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack is superior.
Naturally, it includes the goosebumps-triggering ‘Main Theme’ with its brass-powered pomp - but it also reaches for greater depths. ‘Yoda’s Theme’ is as mystical and mischievous as the little green Jedi Master himself, while ‘Han Solo and the Princess’ is a swoon-worthy pleasure, and ‘The Asteroid Field’ swoops and soars between peril and triumph perfectly.
Back to the Future (1985)
Just as John Williams is Steven Spielberg’s go-to composer, so is Alan Silvestri to director Robert Zemeckis. From the Back to the Future trilogy to Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), and The Polar Express (2004), their partnership has been an immensely fruitful one.
Silvestri has also composed rousing scores for four tentpole films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including all but one of the Avengers movies.
Back to the Future is one of only an illustrious handful of films whose title alone immediately triggers playback of its main theme in the heads of casual and hardcore film lovers alike. Instantly heroic, but with a twinkle of mystery, Silvestri’s ‘Back to the Future’ evokes fist-pumping full-orchestra Hollywood adventure at its finest. Watch the film again and you’ll notice how the theme kicks off any and every time something exciting happens, creating an energising Pavlovian response that makes you feel great whenever you hear it.
Hans Zimmer is a restlessly creative and prolific composer whose blending of epic orchestra with electronic effects and sounds has resulted in one of the finest back catalogues in the history of cinema.
The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Thin Red Line, Rain Man, Gladiator and the Dark Knight trilogy – Zimmer soundtracked them all and, incredibly, this grab bag of greats represents a fraction of the big-screen scores he’s composed.
Interstellar is a truly EPIC score with an incredible dynamic range that often finds mournful melodies building to bass-rattling crescendos so immense that you fear for your (or the cinema’s) speakers. Exhilarating and seemingly forged from the same monumental forces that shape the infinite universe, Zimmer’s Interstellar is unforgettable.
Purple Rain (1984)
Depending on your age you may not even know that Purple Rain is a soundtrack album, and therein lies its curious brilliance.
Because, while Purple Rain – at 25 million copies plus – is regularly voted as one of the greatest albums of all time, it was written for and performed throughout one of the most forgettable films of all time. The quasi-autobiographical story of a supremely talented and flamboyant Minneapolis musician’s rise to fame was conceived by Prince as the next step along his own stratospheric career path.
It did the trick, easily making back its measly $7million budget and then some, giving Prince an Oscar for Best Original Song Score, and propelling him into living legend status. It’s just not, y’know, great as a cinematic experience.
But, who cares? From ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ with its opening ‘sermon’, to the eight minutes and 41 seconds of ‘Purple Rain’, possibly the ultimate lighters-in-the-air encore song, Purple Rain is Prince in his absolute pomp – wildly creative, ridiculously funky and crazily charismatic.
Can you hear the frenzied shriek of violins or is it just us? Merely mentioning the Bernard Herrmann score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is enough to conjure that brilliantly conceived (and still shocking) shower scene.
If you’ve ever wondered how much heavy lifting a superlative film score can do, we urge you to seek out a clip of the scene without Herrmann's stabbing string. It’s effective but a pale imitation of the complete experience.
The composer once said of Hitchcock, “He only finishes a picture 60%, I have to finish it for him.” That may not be true, but, from the forbidding thrum and serpentine violins of ‘Prelude’ to the furtive surges of ‘Peephole’ Herrmann’s contribution to the mother of all slasher movies is impossible to overstate.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
No self-respecting list of essential movie soundtracks could fail to include at least one Ennio Morricone score.
As prolific as he was innovative and talented, Morricone composed over 400 scores for TV and film during his lifetime, including all-time classics such as Cinema Paradiso (1988), The Mission (1986), and The Untouchables (1987).
But it’s for his ‘Spaghetti Western’ collaborations with fellow Italian, director Sergio Leone, that Morricone is best known. Matching Leone’s horizon-grazing widescreen visuals, Morricone’s lushly orchestrated scores are monumentally epic. But they’re also fantastically inventive, too, as his score to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly amply demonstrates.
Combining a full orchestra with campfire harmonica, soaring vocals, animalistic cries and grunts, gunfire and whip cracks, this soundtrack didn’t just beautifully and evocatively score a Western – it created a musical language to describe America’s Wild West that’s been remixed and reinterpreted on the big screen by composers ever since.
If Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Academy Award-winning Joker soundtrack feels like it’s seeped into every bruised frame of Todd Phillip’s masterpiece, it’s no coincidence.
Whereas most scores are inspired by and composed to completed scenes, Phillips trusted Guðnadóttir with Joker’s script during pre-production, giving her free rein to compose music based on what she felt the story sounded like in her head.
As such, the phenomenally atmospheric and evocative, cello-led score grew and intertwined with the film’s production. Arthur’s mesmerising bathroom dance? Joaquin Phoenix was listening to Guðnadóttir’s music in an earpiece as they shot, taking direct inspiration and interpreting it in the moment. One more fascinating fact: there’s often a full 90-piece orchestra playing the same melody behind the cello. As Guðnadóttir relates, this represents Arthur’s psyche – simplistic at first glance but with a mass of complexity hidden beneath. Incredible.
Black Panther (2018)
Befitting the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler’s Wakanda blockbuster delivered not one but two extraordinary soundtracks.
The first was a full orchestral score by Coogler’s longtime collaborator, Ludwig Gorannson. The second was an album of contemporary tracks inspired by the film and produced by Kendrick Lamar.
Gorannson’s task was to create the sound of Wakanda, a fictional country steeped in the musical traditions of the continent of Africa but – having never been colonised by European nations – free of internalised western influences. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, Gorannson also had to ensure that the finished score would still have the anthemic orchestral heft of a Hollywood movie.
Meanwhile, having read a story outline, Kendrick Lamar and producer Sounwave worked to a tight deadline to curate, compose and record a superb 14-track album featuring collaborations with African and American artists, including Travis Scott, The Weeknd, SZA, 2 Chainz, Khalid, Zacari and SOB X RBE (to name just a handful). The eclectic and Grammy Award-winning results not only examine what it means to be African – Coogler’s wish from the start – but also complement the traditional African instruments and themes of Gorannson’s score.
The Shining (1980)
It’s hard to overstate just how important musician and composer Wendy Carlos’s contributions to The Shining soundtrack (in particular) and to music (in general) are.
An electronic music pioneer, Carlos was an early adopter of the groundbreaking Moog analogue synthesiser (she knew Robert Moog, assisting in its development), and brought electronic music to the masses with her 1968 album, Switched-On Bach. If you love any music featuring synthesisers, you owe Carlos a debt of thanks.
Carlos and producer/collaborator Rachel Elkind worked on two soundtracks with Stanley Kubrick: 1972’s A Clockwork Orange (which featured original Carlos/Elkind compositions plus Carlos’s distinctive electronic arrangements of famous classical works), and 1980 horror classic The Shining. Taking a leaf out of his own mercurial playbook, Kubrick commissioned a full score from Carlos before filling his final soundtrack with existing avant-garde orchestral pieces. However, the two tracks he did include (three if you count a Carlos cue used to score the film’s original teaser trailer) are so powerfully unsettling that they eclipse everything else.
Isaac Hayes’ double album scoring 1971 blaxploitation film, Shaft, is one of those rare soundtracks that’s so good that it transcends its inspiration, becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process.
It’s amazing to think that Hayes originally approached Shaft’s director Gordon Parks hoping to be cast in the title role himself. However, Richard Roundtree had beaten him to it.
Still, as Hayes’ inventive, funky and ludicrously smooth soundtrack shows, his immediate loss was music lovers’ gain. From the irresistible groove of ‘Café Regio’s’ to Hayes’ vocal swagger on the 19-minute-long ‘Do Your Thing’ and the utterly iconic ‘Theme From Shaft’, the Shaft soundtrack over-delivers again and again.
The double album’s commercial and awards success increased the film’s profile, inspiring a generation of soul musicians and paving the way for other black composers to get their work noticed and up on the big screen. That’s an impressive legacy right there.