A little earlier this month, we started a semi-regular series where we look at the greatest movie soundtracks of all time. First up were a selection of classic soundtracks recorded prior to 1960, and this week, we’re following up with a look at the 1960s. Here’s our picks for ten of the most influential and innovative scores and soundtracks from a decade where both cinema and music were exploring a multitude of new possibilities.
Much of the tension in Psycho is built by its music -– including, of course, the famous shower scene. Apparently Hitchcock wanted this scene to be completely silent. Once he heard the music that Bernard Herrmann composed for it, however, he changed his mind, and the result demonstrates how much dramatic tension music can contribute to a scene. In the finished cut, the silence is broken by a screeching cacophony of violins, which accompany the sudden brutality of cinema’s most famous murder.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Plenty of the classic soundtracks from the 1960s are defined by a single song, which functions as the film in question’s theme and often returns several times throughout the course of the narrative. One of the earliest examples of this trend was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which will forever be associated with Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.” It accompanies the opening credits and is also performed by Audrey Hepburn in this classic scene (and look at how preternaturally long her fingers are!).
Cape Fear (1962)
In a similar vein to Psycho, the original Cape Fear used a dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann to enhance the mood of what’s already a downright scary film. As ever with Herrmann, the music he produced fit perfectly with what was happening on screen, but had a power all its own -– as demonstrated by the main theme, which is a decidedly creepy piece of music even if you have no idea at all what the film’s all about.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The Beatles bestrode the early 1960s like mop-topped cultural giants, and after a string of hit singles, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable celluoid cash-in came along. A Hard Day’s Night was released at the height of Beatlemania, and despite the slightly hokey premise –- a mockumentary that follows the band from Liverpool to London for a TV show recording -– the result was largely charming and entertaining. The soundtrack album, meanwhile, was recorded in a day, showing that the band could pretty much write killer pop songs in their sleep.
There are several ‘60s Western soundtracks that we could have picked here -– The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West. But they all have to make way for a soundtrack that features one of the most memorable and instantly recognizable motifs of all time -– the two-note flute melody that opens the main theme of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Blue Veils and Golden Sands (1967)
OK, we’re breaking our own rules a little bit here -– this is strictly a TV soundtrack, not a movie. Specifically, it’s the incidental music for a BBC documentary film about the Tuareg tribesmen of the Sahara, made in the mid-1960s. But it’s such a remarkable piece of music that it demanded inclusion. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop were hugely influential in the then-embryonic field of electronic music, and Delia Derbyshire was arguably its most gifted employee. She was responsible for arranging the original Doctor Who theme –- one of the first entirely electronic pieces of music made for television -– and produced a heap of other innovative music, including this theme, which was made with single oscillators and a simple high-pass filter, and was so ahead of its time that it’s scarcely believable.
Le Pacha (1967)
Serge Gainsbourg is remembered for many things –- not least this -– but his work as a composer for film tends to be overlooked. He scored some 40 films over his long and idiosyncratic career, and did some of his finest work during the 1960s. His soundtrack for Anna, in which he also appeared (alongside Marianne Faithfull) was highly acclaimed, but some of his most outlandish and creative compositions came the same year with Le Pacha, a collaboration with Michel Colombier. It featured “Requiem pour un Con” (“Requiem for an Asshole”) and also “Psychastenie,” a belting slice of sitar-driven psychedelic funk. Truly, we will never see his like again.
The Graduate (1967)
Think of The Graduate and you think of Mrs. Robinson –- both the character and the song. Curiously, the complete “Mrs. Robinson” doesn’t actually appear on the soundtrack album -– it wasn’t actually recorded in its entirety until 1968, when it was released on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends, and it’s the duo’s song “The Sounds of Silence” that accompanies the film’s opening credits (they composed and performed the majority of the soundtrack). But even so, film and song remain one of the most iconic combinations in American cinema, and Mrs. Robinson one of its greatest characters. All together now: “Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
One of the most famous soundtracks ever, and with good reason. It’s trippy enough even before you factor in the gallons of LSD that were kicking around in 1968. Can you imagine seeing this while absolutely whacked on premium psychedelics? What? Oh, you don’t have to imagine?
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
And finally, another soundtrack defined by a classic song, in this case Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking.” Even today, Midnight Cowboy makes for occasionally harrowing viewing, and the contrast between its gritty subject matter and the whimsical romanticism of its theme makes both all the more poignant, especially as the film progresses. The differing perspectives of song and film also make for a compelling contrast –- the film follows Jon Voight’s journey from cowboy to hustler, from naïveté to street smarts, from country to city, while the song does the opposite, discussing the burnt-out narrator’s desire for escape to a new life on the coast. Midnight Cowboy remains the only X-rated film to win an Oscar, and both it and its iconic theme song are all-time classics.
Next time: the 1970s!