The 25 most underrated film scores of the 1980s
The Last Starfighter, Angel Heart, Tron, The 'Burbs and more - the film scores of the 80s that deserve more love.
This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
Blockbusters and populist cinema became the norm in the 1980s: in the wake of Jawsand Star Wars, spectacle ramped up and multiplex cinemas made their presence felt. Following the anti-establishment attitude of the 1970s, this era of MTV and excess was something of a culture shock – but idiosyncratic and memorable voices were still very much in play, nowhere more so than in the decade’s rich offering of film scores. Often referred to as the “bronze age” of film music, the eighties offered an extraordinarily diverse array of music across a host of genres – here are the overlooked masterpieces that deserve a second glance.
25. Heaven’s Gate (David Mansfield, 1980)
The troubled production history of Heaven’s Gate, not to mention the movie’s critical reputation, is mired in so much controversy and ill-will that it’s easy to forget about the lovely, lyrical score sitting in the midst of all the chaos. Michael Cimino’s pompously indulgent epic elicited a charming Americana score from frequent Bob Dylan collaborator and violinist Mansfield, centering around beautifully rustic fiddle and mandolin to capture the movie’s vast landscapes. If only Cimino himself had expressed the same dramatic intuition.
24. The Last Starfighter (Craig Safan, 1984)
Play the theme from this cult sci-fi family adventure to someone on the street and you’re probably guaranteed to get Star Wars as the answer. Getting the person to identify the correct composer would likely be even harder. In an era stuffed with John Williams pastiche music, Safan’s gloriously grandiose score is one of the best, overflowing with so many memorable melodies that it’s curious his scoring career ultimately didn’t soar along with the movie’s characters. Even so, we should be grateful he gave this gem to the world.
23. Peggy Sue Got Married (John Barry, 1986)
The legendary Barry hit his stride in the eighties with a string of deservedly acclaimed scores including Body Heat, Somewhere In Time, the Oscar-winning classic Out Of Africa, A View To A Kill, and The Living Daylights.
However, there are still some treats that have slipped through the net including this beautifully nostalgic and wistful effort, one anchored around those familiar Barry metronomic strings that immediately bring tears to the eyes. Romantic in the way that only Barry was capable of, it elevates the impact of the Francis Ford Coppola/Kathleen Turner movie immeasurably.
22. Ran (Toru Takemitsu, 1985)
Akira Kurosawa’s final masterpiece is remembered for its astonishingly colourful battle sequences, but the eerie impact of Takemitsu’s score is not to be underestimated. Adding a chilling sense of tragedy and foreboding to Kurosawa’s grand canvas it’s incredibly intuitive scoring, blending war-like Taiko drums with despairing woodwind and flute arrangements to enhance the sense of human desolation at the heart of the story. Kurosawa asked the composer to lean on Gustav Mahler’s influence for the music and the influence is immediately apparent: a symphony of heartache and despair.
21. Flesh And Blood (Basil Poledouris, 1985)
Poledouris’ 1982 magnum opus Conan The Barbarian still stands as possibly the finest fantasy score ever put to paper, but it also helped launch a richly melodic career packed full of highlights. Much of Poledouris’ terrific work sadly seems to fall by the wayside as far as the mainstream public is concerned; one of his very best is this rollicking score for the gory swords n’ sorcery epic, a spectacular extension of the musical language used in Conan that confirms Poledouris as one of the film music’s great masters. Poledouris would later deliver classics like Robocop and Starship Troopers.
20. The Milagro Beanfield War (Dave Grusin, 1988)
Quite possibly one of the most undervalued Oscar winners in movie history, this offbeat soundtrack won veteran Grusin his sole Academy Award yet you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone bar committed film music buffs who are aware of it. In fact, an official soundtrack album has never been released. Gentle and lyrical, largely based around strings, guitar and accordion, it’s very different from the majority of Grusin’s jazz-inflected works, a perfect distillation of director Robert Redford’s story of one man’s struggle to protect his beanfield against corporate giants.
19. Angel Heart (Trevor Jones, 1987)
Although best known for his 1980s symphonic powerhouses like Excaliburand The Dark Crystal, Jones is a more versatile composer than many give him credit for. His ingenious combination of bluesy saxophone and sepulchral Gothic atmosphere for this chilling Mickey Rourke horror is one of his finest achievements: a brilliant musical amalgamation of both the movie’s 1950s setting and its Satanic overtones. Without Jones’ input, director Alan Parker’s controversial movie would be considerably less sinister.
18. Heavy Metal (Elmer Bernstein, 1981)
A peculiar comic book anthology movie rammed with nudity and violence, Heavy Metal (based on the magazine of the same name) deserves to be remembered for one thing and one thing alone: its soaringly gorgeous Elmer Bernstein score. Bernstein crafts distinct identities for each of the movie’s stories but it’s the central Taarna theme that reaches Ennio Morricone levels of haunting majesty, a chance for this usually intimate composer to let rip on a much broader canvas than usual.
Bernstein’s later Ghostbustersscore owes a great debt to this one but whereas that was attached to a smash hit movie, this one has sadly fallen off the radar.
17. Blow Out (Pino Donaggio, 1980)
Think of the great director-composer partnerships and the likes of Steven Spielberg/John Williams will no doubt spring to mind. One of the most fruitful is that between Donaggio and director Brian De Palma, the lurid successor to Alfred Hitchcock’s throne who frequently elicits memorable scores from his composers. Donaggio’s work on this John Travolta suspense thriller is no exception: anchored around a beautifully melancholy main theme and also scary when it needs to be, it carries lushly melodic echoes of their collaborations on Carrieand Dressed To Kill.
16. Testament (James Horner, 1983)
The late James Horner had a run of acclaimed scores in the 1980s, Star Trek II, Aliens, Glory, and Field Of Dreams among them. However, he also scored some overlooked treasures including this powerful nuclear drama, one that garnered an Oscar nomination for lead actress Jane Alexander.
However, it would be hard to deny that much of the movie’s impact resides with Horner’s score, composed for a spare ensemble of trumpet, lilting woodwinds, strings and haunting choir that is all the more impactful for its tact and restraint.
15. Dead Ringers (Howard Shore, 1988)
Shore’s partnership with body horror auteur David Cronenberg is one of the most intriguing and provocative in film music history. However, Dead Ringers reveals a more overtly beautiful side to their collaboration, Shore digging out the human tragedy in this eerie story of identical twins brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons.
It’s clad in that mournful tone familiar from numerous other Shore scores but is far more accessible than most, a score that largely leaves the weirdness behind to expose the emotion underneath.
14. Tron (Wendy Carlos, 1982)
One of the great pioneering figures of electronic film music, Carlos deserves to be regarded alongside the greats. She was best known for her genre-defying collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, but equally pioneering was her score on this cult 1982 oddity, one that takes place largely inside a video game.
The movie is best remembered today for its high concept rather than its dated effects, but it would have little impact without Carlos’ music, not so much a score as a creation of a whole new language (in-keeping with most of her works).
13. White Dog (Ennio Morricone, 1982)
Morricone’s formidable ability to burrow to the emotional core of a movie has resulted in numerous masterpieces. But with a reported 500 scores to his name, there are a lot of unknown treasures in there, including this score for the enormously controversial Sam Fuller movie about a dog that has been conditioned to attack black people.
Leaving the racial politics aside, Morricone crafts a moving, elegiac score that captures the tragedy of the situation, massed strings occasionally alternating with rumbling piano to reflect the movie’s more horrific elements.
12. The Company Of Wolves (George Fenton, 1984)
Although Fenton is widely renowned for his lush scores, including his BBC epics Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, this overlooked horror soundtrack showcases the composer at his most innovative. Fusing orchestra and electronics a full year before Jerry Goldsmith’s Legend, it’s a score steeped in fairy tale legend yet also possessed of a fiercely modernistic air.
Several of the musical set-pieces reveal Fenton’s storytelling panache, including the below track that steadily evolves from a pleasant jig into something much more threatening.
11. The ‘Burbs (Jerry Goldsmith, 1989)
One of Jerry Goldsmith’s most undervalued assets was his wickedly dark sense of humor. This made him the ideal collaborator with mischievous director Joe Dante, and their union didn’t come more wacky or off-the-wall than this enjoyably crackers score for the slyly anarchic story of horror in suburbia. Mixing Goldsmith’s orchestral prowess with a multitude of amusing electronic effects including wailing cats and shattering glass, it’s one of the oddest yet most endearingly creative comedy scores ever written, easily up there with Elmer Bernstein’s more celebrated Airplane!
10. The Witches Of Eastwick (John Williams, 1987)
Far removed from Williams’ thrillingly action-packed 80s classics, this devilishly malevolent comedy score won him an Oscar nomination but deserves far more attention than it gets. Centered around a delightful main theme that captures both the whimsy and menace of Jack Nicholson’s Satan, the score demonstrates Williams’ peerless knack of finding a unique voice for every movie, no matter what the genre. Lighthearted and dark by turns, it’s easily up there with the composer’s finest.
9. Invaders From Mars (Christopher Young, 1986)
The background of this trendsetting Young effort is a troubled one. Young originally looked to fuse the orchestra with cutting-edge, avant-garde electronics (approaching abstract ‘musique concrete’ in places), only for large portions of it to be thrown out and replaced with sections from additional composer David Storrs. This is a shame as Young’s work is among the most revolutionary of the decade, the equal to Jerry Goldsmith’s developments in the genre; it took a 2008 Intrada CD release for listeners to finally realise what they had been missing.
8. Agnes Of God (Georges Delerue, 1985)
Following his days as the sound of the French New Wave, the wonderful Delerue came to Hollywood and spent much of his time working on movies that frankly didn’t deserve his talents. One that certainly deserves to be reclaimed from the pile is this stunningly haunting, Oscar nominated score, blending Delerue’s signature lush strings with hauntingly ecclesiastical choirs that is easily the equal of Ennio Morricone. As a composer, Delerue was always one of film music’s great melodists and they don’t come more accomplished than this.
7. Never Cry Wolf (Mark Isham, 1983)
As a composer, Isham has several facets to his personality including a gift for jazz (he started as a jazz musician) and lyrical melody. However, he’s also a composer who pioneered electronic film music; whilst his most celebrated venture in this area is likely 2004’s Oscar-winning Crash, that score’s origins reside way back in Isham’s eerily expansive, template-setting score for this Disney wilderness drama, a perfect example of how going against the grain and forgoing the orchestra can work dramatic wonders for a movie. It would later influence his chilling work on 1986’s The Hitcher.
6. Midnight Run (Danny Elfman, 1988)
Quite simply, this is the Robert De Niro film score with which to purge the horrifying memories of Dirty Grandpa. It’s also one of Danny Elfman’s most shamefully overlooked works, an atypical blend of soft rock and blues that’s an absolute blast to listen to, the perfect accompaniment to one of the best buddy comedies ever made. Catchy and melancholy by turns it’s also irresistibly good fun, a firm rejoinder to the accusation that all Elfman can compose are quirky fairy tales; have the accusers listen to this and they’ll soon change their minds.
5. The Dead Zone (Michael Kamen, 1983)
Kamen doesn’t deserve to be pigeonholed for his Lethal Weaponand Die Hard scores, terrific though they are. This Stephen King adaptation marked Kamen’s sole collaboration with David Cronenberg (momentarily utilising a composer other than Howard Shore), and in the process he crafted a score of gravitas and portent, expertly painting the anguished dilemma of Christopher Walken’s psychic central character. It’s another reminder of Kamen’s sorely underrated abilities in the field of human drama.
4. Explorers (Jerry Goldsmith, 1985)
As a movie Explorers has unfortunately faded from many viewers’ memories, and of course when that happens the accompanying score tends to go with it. But the exuberantly optimistic tone of Goldsmith’s work here deserves to stand with his more acclaimed scores of that era, a pitch-perfect distillation of childhood adventure that is nothing less than pure happiness in musical form.
This being Goldsmith, the orchestration is robust, the themes memorable and the electronics, although sometimes cheesy, are more often than not tactfully deployed to add greater texture to the music. Goldsmith’s collaborations with Joe Dante were rarely better than this.
3. Dragonslayer (Alex North, 1981)
Quite possibly the most divisive score on this list, North’s formidably dark and aggressive fantasy opus nevertheless deserves greater recognition for its remarkably complex constructs. A world away from the soaring sword and sorcery sound of his contemporaries, A Streetcar Named Desire visionary North brought that famously pioneering touch to the genre and in the process fashioned something that is less a film score, more an avant-garde symphony.
Whether this is appropriate for the conventions of the movie in question is up for debate; as a piece of soundtrack storytelling on its own terms, it’s undeniably impressive.
2. Big (Howard Shore, 1988)
If Michael Kamen deserves to be remembered for more than his action scores, then Howard Shore is far more than just David Cronenberg’s composer of choice. A complete turnaround from the darker, brooding works for which Shore is best known, Big is a magical, tearjerking delight, profoundly nostalgic in the way it captures both the innocence of childhood and the steady, inevitable sadness of childhood lost. It may be one of Shore’s lighter works but Bigdemonstrates the same amount of compositional skill as The Fly and Dead Ringers.
1. Young Sherlock Holmes (Bruce Broughton, 1985)
If any genre defined the eighties soundtrack, it’s the realm of fantasy and adventure. Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Horner, Alan Silvestri and others led the field during these 10 years – but what about Bruce Broughton? After all, he delivered the most underrated adventure score of the decade, one that can stand proud alongside each of the aforementioned masters.
Composed in the wake of his Oscar nominated Western score Silverado, Young Sherlock Holmes is a powerhouse that does everything a memorable film score should do: the themes are memorable, the action riveting, the dark material chilling and the romance lilting. A rich tapestry of some of the finest film music ever composed, it’s a masterpiece that merges Victorian English atmosphere with thunderous Spielbergian bombast, the equal of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and other celebrated entries from the same period.