Alan Silvestri: 30 Greatest Soundtracks

With a double-whammy of Silvestri incoming in the form of Ready Player One and Infinity War, we select his most celebrated scores...

When it comes to film composers defining the sound of childhood (particularly those of us born in the 1980s), Alan Silvestri is top of the list. One of Hollywood’s finest practitioners of theme and melody, his skills at tapping into our inner sense of nostalgia are currently very much in-demand. Enlisted not only for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, he’s also returning to the Marvel fold in this April’s Avengers: Infinity War (to be followed by 2019’s currently untitled sequel).

Now is therefore the perfect time to recap the greatest scores of this esteemed composer – and also the time to marvel at the sheer diversity of the genres Silvestri has covered.

30. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Imagine the stark, staccato strings of Bernard Herrmann on nitrous oxide, and you can imagine the wickedly funny tone of Silvestri’s work here. The composer’s friend and regular collaborator Robert Zemeckis delivers an underrated satire on ageing and beauty with terrific performances from Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. And Silvestri’s keening, undulating orchestrations beautifully accentuate every punchline, reminding us of how great they are in terms of spotting the music in their films.

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29. What Lies Beneath (2000)

A different kind of Herrmann pastiche is in force during this eerie ghost story. Zemeckis elicits strong performances from Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as the married couple beset by the supernatural, and Silvestri’s chilling score ramps up the terror. Moving from eerie harp undulations to full-bore ear-splitting assaults from the brass section, it’s one of the composer’s scariest works and amplifies the dread-fuelled atmosphere of the movie no end.

28. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)

Say what you will about Seth MacFarlane, his appreciation for, and knowledge of, the Golden Age film score is both endearing and impressive. In 2014, he executive produced this sprawling, 14-episode look at our universe, and made the sage decision to employ to Silvestri for the music. It’s kind of a compendium of everything that’s great about Silvestri’s scores: warm, engaging and bold in scope when it needs to be. It resulted in two Emmy wins for the composer, for Best Main Title theme and Outstanding Music Composition for a Series.

27. Cat’s Eye (1985)

It can be fascinating tracing the stylistics of a film composer’s career. Although Silvestri is very much renowned for his robust sense of orchestral force, his breakout work in the 1980s dwelt very much in the synthesised realms. Although much of this work, including this score for the Drew Barrymore thriller, hasn’t aged particularly well, it demonstrates how Silvestri, like contemporary Jerry Goldsmith, was pushing musical boundaries at the time.

26. The Delta Force (1986)

Pure ’80s cheese in musical form, this affectionately remembered Silvestri action score is daft but a whole lot of fun. The composer has the good grace to leaven his electronic ensemble with a distinct tongue in cheek sensibility, and is as responsible for cementing the film in the minds of viewers as stars Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. For those accustomed to the Silvestri of Back To The Future, the tone of The Delta Force may come as a shock, but it demonstrates the composer’s versatility in adapting to different styles.

25. Overboard (1987)

Comedy is perhaps the trickiest genre to score. Over-emphasize the music, and you irritate the viewer. Underplay it, and you miss the opportunity to mine additional humour. Silvestri, however, has established himself as a natural in the field, for the most part avoiding mickey mousing and instead establishing an overriding comic tone that amuses while also proving dramatically engaging. The funky, drum-laden atmosphere of this much-loved Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn classic (soon to be remade) is a case in point.

24. The Quick And The Dead (1995)

One reason Silvestri is so revered is his chameleonic ability to adapt to different genres. Already on this list, we’ve jumped from pastiche thriller to eighties electronic, and, in Sam Raimi’s underrated western throwback starring Sharon Stone, we get a whipcracking distillation of Ennio Morricone’s style. What’s really impressive is amidst the guitar licks, mariachi trumpets and whistles, Silvestri’s familiar action style continues to resonate, particularly in his signature horn arrangements.

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23. Volcano (1997)

Which was the better 1997 eruption movie: this, or Dante’s Peak? The argument continues to rage, but there’s no denying Silvestri’s score is the better of the two. In truth, a lot of it resembles rumbling offshoots from his vastly superior Judge Dredd, but it’s singlehandedly elevated by the utterly magnificent March Of The Lava, rhythmic strings, anvil and punchy horns becoming the unofficial anthem of volcanos worldwide. It’s a stirring reminder of how good Silvestri is when he’s on fire (pun intended).

22. Romancing The Stone (1984)

The first ever collaboration between Silvestri and Robert Zemeckis comes with a wonderful story, about how the two men first met in the recording booth wearing the same white Calvin Klein sweater. It was the start of one of the most enduring composer-director partnerships in Hollywood, even if the cheesy (yet infectious) nature of Romancing The Stone hasn’t aged all that well. Still, that didn’t prevent Thomas Newman geeking out about it during the Hollywood Reporter‘s annual composers’ roundtable. (Skip to 35 minutes into this video.)

21. Clan Of The Cave Bear (1985)

Silvestri’s dramatic intuition was on fine display in this Daryl Hannah cave person drama. Although the synths sound a bit old hat now, back in the mid-eighties, they lent an intriguing subtext to this story of Stone Age revolution, alluding to the story’s themes of progression. It’s another quintessential score from Silvestri’s electronic period, and it contains many of the rhythmic signatures later to flourish in the likes of Predator.

20. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Never underestimate a composer who can conjure an entirely unique soundscape for a movie. This overlooked family gem (much of which appeared to ‘inspire’ James Cameron’s Avatar) features some of Silvestri’s finest electronic work. Considerably more sophisticated than many of his scores in the preceding decade, it utilises sound effects (including the drip drip of falling rain), chorale and all-encompassing electronics to convey the humid, remarkable world of the film’s titular environment.

19. Soapdish (1991)

We already mentioned Silvestri’s ability to craft a unique musical signature for his comedy scores. One of his finest is the rollicking, mambo-inspired soundtrack for Michael Hoffman’s Soapdish, an all-star film exploring the behind the scenes exploits of a soap opera production. One might not think that Caribbean influences would work on such a movie, but to Silvestri’s credit, it lends the story added sass. (Patrick Stewart’s Picard also danced to it in Star Trek: Insurrection.)

18. Van Helsing (2004)

One of Silvestri’s most bombastic and overwhelming scores, Van Helsing proves he can open the taps like few others. Stephen Sommers’ overcooked monster mash allows the composer little breathing space to explore nuance, so instead Silvestri erupts with all the brute orchestral and choral forces he can muster. It’s overbearing at times but is nevertheless a stirring reminder of Silvestri’s capacity for rhythmically intelligent set-pieces.

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17. The Parent Trap (1998)

It takes great skill to be sweet without being saccharine, musically speaking. But then Silvestri has always had a gift with wholesome melody. This Lindsay Lohan-starring remake is one of the rare movies that can stand up to the original, and lot of it is down to Silvestri’s score, which unleashes all the harmonic warmth we expect, with particular emphasis on strings, woodwinds and piano. Plus, there’s a dash of funky jazz to remind us of the composer’s pre-film scoring roots.

16. Father Of The Bride (1991)

Prior to his collaboration with Nancy Meyers on The Parent Trap, Silvestri worked his musical magic on another remake. This time, Steve Martin steps into Spencer Tracy’s shoes for a sugary, though affable, take on a 1950s classic. The score offers few surprises but what it does have is a big beating heart, transitioning from the traditional Here Comes The Bride to sweeping, string-led statements and finger-snapping jazz passages for Martin’s character. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is hugely likeable.

15. A Christmas Carol (2009)

The Christmas movie score is as well-trodden as the proverbial Charles Dickens adaptation. But that’s not to denigrate Silvestri’s 13th collaboration with Robert Zemeckis. Indeed, his work on this Jim Carrey-led, motion capture extravaganza bursts with the seasonal warmth and Gothic darkness inherent in Dickens’ story. Interweaving statements of traditional carols around self-penned tune God Bless Us Everyone (performed during the end credits by Andrea Bocelli), it’s one of Silvestri’s loveliest scores.

14. Avengers (2012)

Expectations are sky-high for Avengers: Infinity War, and not just because it makes a 10-year culmination of everything in the MCU thus far. In 2012, Silvestri composed what has gone on to become the signature Avengers theme, clad in his characteristic string and horn arrangements that speaks of their might in protecting the Earth. Amidst what has been a spotty MCU soundtrack history, it’s terrific to note Silvestri’s theme has now become its musical spine, threaded through Age Of Ultron and elsewhere. We wait to see how the piece will be deployed in the battle against Thanos.

13. The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Chris van Allsburg’s novel was a pioneering early example of CGI motion capture, although the ensuing result relies heavily on Silvestri’s score for its impact. The composer duly responded with a soundtrack that unleashes all the requisite elements: choir, sleigh bells, symphony orchestra and dollops of seasonal verve. It’s heartwarming stuff and the Josh Groban-performed song Believe (whose theme informs the basis of the score) was Oscar-nominated.

12. Cast Away (2000)

A truly great composer will always recognise that judicious use of music can equal greater impact. Jerry Goldsmith realised this with his 25 minute long Chinatown score, and Silvestri’s heartwrenching Cast Away is even more sparse. The first two thirds of this Tom Hanks survival drama are unscored, meaning the delicate oboe/string washes of the main theme are all the more devastating when Hanks’ character must leave his island home. It’s one of the composer’s most emotionally sensitive collaborations with Robert Zemeckis, and won him a Grammy.

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11. The Mummy Returns (2001)

Jerry Goldsmith so disliked scoring Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy that he refused to do the sequel. Step forward Silvestri who delivered one of his most gargantuan and enjoyable epics. There’s little time for subtlety in this rich blend of Egyptian instrumentation, massive choir and orchestra-shredding battle sequences, but Silvestri has always been one of Hollywood’s most tuneful action composers. He never lets The Mummy Returns slip into noise, but maintains an excellent balance between heart and Korngold-esque bombast.

10. Flight Of The Navigator (1986)

This ’80s family classic is scorched into the minds of an entire generation, no doubt due to repeat bank holiday viewings. Silvestri created one of his most memorable electronic compositions for the movie: composed entirely on the Synclavier, it moves from era-appropriate pop instrumental to a yearning sense of longing. That Silvestri is able to capture the many facets of the friendship between spaceship-piloting David (Joey Kramer) and his alien BFF Max (Paul Reubens) is one of many reasons why this remains one of his most identifiable scores.

9. Contact (1997)

Criticised at the time of release for sounding too similar to Forrest Gump, Silvestri’s Contact score, much like the movie itself, has increased in stature over the years. As befits the lofty themes of the movie (adapted from Carl Sagan’s book), this is a more melancholy, pensive and expansive score, albeit very much in the Silvestri orchestral mould, vacillating between soft woodwinds for moments of intimacy, soaring strings for the more wondrous moments, and ostinato-driven moments of action during the dramatic sections.

8. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Robert Zemeckis’ technically audacious live-action/cartoon hybrid remains a miracle to this day, mashing up our favourite animated characters with a sly Bob Hoskins murder mystery. It’s a complex movie that demands a multi-faceted score, with Silvestri having to make numerous tonal changes and keep multiple themes in check. From the frenetic toon material to the sly Chinatown riffing in the themes for Eddie Valiant and Jessica Rabbit, plus the menacing one for Judge Doom, it’s a marvel of instrumental complexity, and a personal score for Silvestri as he gets to return to his jazz roots.

7. Forrest Gump (1994)

Silvestri’s first (and, to date, only) Oscar nomination for Best Score came for Robert Zemeckis’ smash-hit comedy-drama, one of the movie sensations of 1994. It’s a sprawling, picaresque tale as seen through the eyes of Tom Hanks’ naive central character, and Silvestri makes the sensible decison to ground the music in his emotional awakening, rather than attempt to score the multitude of incident, lending an emotional purity to what unfolds. The music invests the movie with a sense of humility and sweetness, from the acclaimed opening feather montage onwards.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Superhero scores were in a rough way in the early noughties, with the melodic impetus of John Williams’ Superman and Danny Elfman’s Batman seemingly not in vogue. Kudos then to director Joe Johnston who realised his nostalgically tinged origin story required a composer whose sound owed more to Hollywood’s Golden Age. By anchoring his Captain America score in, perish the thought, a recognisable and quite brilliantly rousing theme, Silvestri delivers one of the MCU’s classiest, most powerful and memorable scores, one that laid the origins of his later Avengers works.

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5. Mousehunt (1997)

Silvestri’s finest comedy score is a masterful example of how specific instrumentation can lend additional character to a movie. Gore Verbinski’s entertaining, darkly comic mouse tale finds its mischievous centre in the composer’s dazzlingly intricate bassoon solos, which scurry and scamper before erupting in grandiose orchestral mayhem, as stars Nathan Lane and Lee Evans come acropper. Plus, there’s plenty of Silvestri’s sly signature jazz to capture the slightly sordid, faded essence of the film’s environment.

4. Judge Dredd (1995)

Sly Stallone may have made the mistake of taking the Judge’s helmet off in this much-maligned dystopian actioner, but Silvestri never puts a foot wrong as far as the score is concerned. Replacing Jerry Goldsmith (who composed the trailer music), it’s a thunderous onslaught of the horniest horns and trumpiest trumpets, resonating with raw orchestral power that, in light of the film, makes one wonder where exactly Silvestri drew his inspiration from. The more recent Dredd was the better film, but this one had the better tunes.

3. The Abyss (1989)

Silvestri’s only collaboration with James Cameron drew out the best in him. The movie’s oppressive underwater environment, combined with its assortment of near-angelic aliens, allow the composer to paint in intriguing shades of light and shade, as carefully judged synth textures gradually give way to passages of awe-inspiring choral beauty, especially during the climax. By turns claustrophobic and ecstatic, it remains one of Silvestri’s best, which begs the question: in light of James Horner’s death, will Cameron reunite with Silvestri for the Avatar sequels?

2. Predator (1987)

The seeds of all future Silvestri action scores were sewn here. John McTiernan’s jungle-set action-thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is a terse blast in testosterone, and demanded a tightly focused score to go with it. It’s based around two themes, an eerie, four-note string piece for the Predator, and a rambunctious percussive rhythm for Arnie’s operatives. With its assortment of tom-toms perfectly complimenting Silvestri’s usual explosive orchestrations, Predator remains one of the finest action scores of the decade.

1. The Back To The Future trilogy (1985 – 1990)

What else was going to top the list? Back To The Future remains the composer’s crowning achievement, not just for the mind-bending intricacy of its orchestrations, but also for how the series hangs together musically, motifs and rhythmic ideas criss-crossing each of the three movies. The first score was recorded with the largest orchestra ever assembled at the time, and unleashed one of cinema’s most instantly iconic themes. Silvestri’s characteristic interactions between strings, winds and tuba strings a note that is both playful yet subtly intense, which darkens in the more electronically enhanced second, before riding off into the glorious arena of the western in the third. Put simply, these are three of the warmest, most technically accomplished and most enjoyable adventure scores ever put to celluloid.