10 Great Directors and the Composers They Couldn’t Live Without


The Criterion Collection’s must-have box set of the month is The Essential Jacques Demy , but that title may not be entirely accurate — it’s also, in many ways, the Essential Michel Legrand, since all but one of the set’s six films (the weakest one, natch) were made by the French filmmaker in partnership with musical legend Legrand. And Demy and Legrand’s frequent collaborations are far from unusual; throughout Hollywood’s history, distinctive filmmakers have paired with composers who were well matched to their style, and been loathe to work without them. Here are a few of cinema’s most memorable director/composer partnerships:

Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand

Total films: 10 Most memorable collaborations: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; The Young Girls of Rochefort; Lola

One of the joys of the Criterion Demy box is watching the Demy/Legrand partnership evolve, from incidental music and a song or two in Lola to the operetta-style Umbrellas to a full-on, intricately choreographed Hollywood-style Cinemascope musical extravaganza in Young Girls. Throughout their fruitful collaborations, you can see the filmmaker and the composer bringing out the best in each other (the challenging and heart-wrenching music that accompanies Umbrella’s bittersweet conclusion), and doing their best to cover each other’s flaws (Legrand strains to make something emotional out of the phony happy ending of Bay of Angels). They achieved a rare unity: Legrand’s music is the sound of Demy’s images, and vice versa.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Total films: 8 Most memorable collaborations: Psycho; North by Northwest; Vertigo

If you’d like some idea of how vital Herrmann was to Hitchcock’s work, here’s a little experiment: try imagining the iconic “shower scene” in Psycho without Herrmann’s shrieking violins, perhaps the most oft-imitated musical cue in Hollywood history. But Hermann’s magic was his versatility; his scores could veer from adventurous (North by Northwest) to romantic (Vertigo) to comic (The Trouble with Harry) to naturalistic (The Wrong Man) without skipping a beat; he could even make music with no music at all, as when he served as “sound consultant” on the score-free The Birds. And he didn’t just work his magic for Hitch; Herrmann also contributed the scores for Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone

Total films: 8 Most memorable collaborations: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly; A Fistful of Dollars; Once Upon a Time in America

As with Hitchcock and Herrmann, Morricone provided the music cue that would come to be most identified with Italian master Leone: the main theme of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, a symphony of whistling and coyote howls that became the go-to musical encapsulation of bad-assery. The duo paired up for Leone’s breakthrough film A Fistful of Dollars and collaborated on all of his remaining credited directorial efforts (and two more that he helmed uncredited), culminating with Morricone’s gorgeous, romantic score for Leone’s vast, challenging final film, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America.

Federico Fellini and Nino Rota

Total films: 16 Most memorable collaborations: 8 ½; La Dolce Vita; Nights of Cabiria

Federico Fellini is one of the handful of directors (Robert Altman is another) whose style was so distinctive that his name became an adjective, and a major element of the “Fellini-esque” worldview was the soundscape provided by Nino Rota — emotional, triumphant, bittersweet, heart-tugging, circus-inspired, life-affirming.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

Total films: 27 Most memorable collaborations: Jaws; Raiders of the Lost Ark; E.T.

With two exceptions (1982’s compilation film Twilight Zone: The Movie and the 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple), John Williams has scored every single Spielberg movie since 1974’s The Sugarland Express, and if we’re being honest, it might be time for the filmmaker to seek out some fresh blood: Williams’ scores for War Horse and Lincoln were borderline inept (though Oscar-nominated, of course, because Williams is a perennial nominee). But in his heyday, his old-fashioned sensibilities were a perfect match for Spielberg’s crowd-pleasers, particularly his rousing Indiana Jones theme (which can still get your blood pressure going) and the simple yet elegant Jaws theme, which is still one of the most iconic music cues in cinema history.

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman

Total films: 16 Most memorable collaborations: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure; Beetlejuice; Batman

As with Spielberg and Williams, Burton has only worked without Elfman twice since their initial collaboration (1994’s Ed Wood and the 2007 Sweeney Todd adaptation), and it’s easy to see why: Elfman’s distinctive, whiz-bang, funhouse sound beautifully captures the Burton style, even when (particularly over the past couple of decades) that style has increasingly revealed itself to be an empty vessel.

Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard

Total films: 14 Most memorable collaborations: Malcolm X; 25th Hour; Inside Man

Lee’s first four films were scored by his father Bill, a legendary jazz musician, but working with family proved about as difficult as you’d imagine. So Lee tapped virtuoso trumpeter Blanchard, who’d been prominently featured in his father’s music for Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues, and the pair would collaborate on most of his films from Jungle Fever to Miracle at St. Anna’s. The most impressive remains Blanchard’s rousing, unforgettable Malcolm X music, which matched that film’s epic scope and overwhelming emotion (and even better, he rearranged it into an A-plus jazz record, The Malcolm X Jazz Suite). Lee has more recently paired, oddly enough, with ‘80s pop leftover Bruce Hornsby, and his films have suffered as a result; he’d be wise to re-team with Blanchard, and quickly.

The Coen Brothers and Carter Burwell

Total films: 15 Most memorable collaborations: Fargo; No Country for Old Men; True Grit

Carter Burwell’s music for the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo was so memorable, it was one of the few elements from the film that the makers of the recent TV series had to out-and-out copy. Burwell provided music for the Coens’ very first movie, Blood Simple, and has continued to do so on nearly every film they’ve made since, from serious crime pictures to screwball comedies, proving himself just as flexibly adept as his most frequent employers.

Steven Soderbergh and Cliff Martinez/David Holmes

Total films: 10 (Martinez)/ 5 (Holmes) Most memorable collaborations: Traffic; Contagion; The Limey (Martinez)/ Out of Sight, Haywire, Ocean’s Eleven (Holmes)

The prolific and multi-talented Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants, so he knew which composer to go to for which film. Martinez, with whom he’d first worked on his debut film sex, lies, and videotape, was his go-to guy for moody, experimental, often ambient scores; he provided the shimmering soundscapes of Traffic and the outer-space romanticism of Solaris. And when he was making a fun genre flick, Holmes was his guy; he worked up the Rockford Files-inspired crime flick music for Out of Sight and the toe-tapping heist accompaniment for Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy. If you listen to enough of each composer’s work, you can’t imagine either one doing the other’s films — which, ultimately, renders Soderbergh’s versatility all the more impressive.

Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell

Total films: 6 Most memorable collaborations: Pi; Requiem for a Dream; The Fountain

Mansell supplied the terse, tough, hip-hop-fused score for Aronofsky’s super-low-budget breakthrough Pi, and the pair have been inseparable since, with Mansell scoring all of Aronofsky’s films to date. This includes the terrifying (and much-imitated and recycled), classical-meets-techno, Kronos Quartet-wailing music for Requiem for a Dream, the gorgeous surrealistic soundscapes of The Fountain, the quieter, naturalistic (and no less effective) music of The Wrestler, and the suitably epic score for Aronofsky’s bananas Biblical epic, Noah.