On both the big and small screen there have been killer soundtracks designed to whet the appetite for a murder. Some, such as the Godfather theme, have become a part of our psyche. Indeed, if it had not been for a recent holiday in Sicily it would have been in this list. Unfortunately, two weeks of hearing it in every shop and restaurant, and from every busker, has made me almost allergic to the evocative tune. Nonetheless, here are ten which show that music can be more than something to merely accompany the credits or fill in the background. Perhaps because of Quentin Tarantino, many films and TV series now as a matter of course feature pop music, but for the most part, these were written specifically for the film or TV programme, or if they weren’t, have achieved fame because of it.
First up, a tune which surely brings a smile when heard – The Pink Panther theme; written by the great Henry Mancini, and winner of the 1964 Oscar for best film score. The music somehow manages to combine mystery with an air of someone tiptoeing along a corridor, trying not to make a sound, but instead crashing over an aspidistra sitting in a pot on the landing – just the tune for Inspector Clouseau. Interestingly, it features Plas Johnson on saxophone, who also played on a song which has a very different kind of mood – Marvin Gaye’s Let’s get it on.
Plas is prolific, also appearing on the Peter Gunn theme from the eponymous American PI TV series which ran from 1958-1961 (and like the Pink Panther, was created by Peter Blake). It uses a repeated musical phrase (known as an ostinato) which can create a sense of intrigue. It also sounds pretty damn cool. Most people have forgotten the TV series, or indeed have never heard of it in the first place, but the tune lives on; whether because of the Art of Noise cover version or its inclusion on the 1980 Blues Brothers soundtrack. The original tune won numerous awards and featured a number of jazz notables, including Peter Candoli, a trumpeter who played with, amongst others, Woody Herman.
Talking of cool, and of a soundtrack which has become more famous than what it was originally written for, we have here the simply sublime Superfly by Curtis Mayfield for the 1972 blaxploitation movie of the same name.
Ditto, Shaft by Isaac Hayes, for the 1971 film, which was released by Stax as a double album, and became the label’s best ever seller.
The theme from Joy House, a 1964 film starring Alain Delon and Jane Fonda has the uber-cool Jimmy Smith doing his thing on his Hammond B3 organ, and can be found on Smith’s The Cat on the Verve label. The tune was composed by Lalo Schifrin who has been responsible for many great soundtracks, including Mission Impossible.
Schifrin also composed the soundtrack for the 1965 film, Bullitt, which starred Steve McQueen as San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt. It had been originally Spencer Tracey who was to play him and was to be set in Boston –a much slower film imagines, with fewer car chases. More walking.
The first Starsky & Hutch series also had a Schifrin composition, rather slower than the more familiar one (Gotcha) which replaced it. Gotcha being far brasher and more flash – rather like the two main characters. It features sax player Tom Scott -“Who?” you might say. But he is a musician who has been much in demand, including by Blondie on Rapture and Rod Stewart on Da ya think I’m sexy?
Cool has been mentioned quite a lot here – for good reason. However, if you want cool then French cinema + noir + Miles Davis = Ascenseur pour l’echafaud. The soundtrack to the 1957 Louis Malle film is quite simply magnificent. A jazz loving assistant to Malle suggested Miles for the man to create it. After watching a private screening of the film, Miles went in and recorded it in two days. Such speed shouldn’t surprise us when we consider the purple patch Miles was in: a few months before he had released Milestones; a few after, the epic Kind of Blue.
My penultimate tune is Angelo Badalementi’s Twin Peaks, from the 1990’s TV series by David Lynch, with FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the death of Laura Palmer. It was composed with Lynch sitting by Badalementi at the composer’s Fender Rhodes keyboard describing what he imagined. For me, it has mystery with a touch of camp. Much like the series.
We end on a topical note – the theme from The Bridge, one of the many examples of Nordic Noir which are sweeping all before them. Starring Sofia Helin as Saga Noren (and her green Porsche) it for me, is the best thing on TV at the moment. The theme is Hollow Talk by The Choir of Young Believers who are enormous in Denmark. They specialise in quasi-religious songs, and this one with its haunting melody fits nicely with the bleak nourish Scandinavia.