The 25 Most Underrated Film Scores of the 1990s

The sensational, overlooked film scores from the years 1990 to 1999 that really are well worth digging out...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

The movies went through tumultuous and exciting changes in the nineties. Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Generation X gave rise to slacker marvels like Clerks, and blockbusters like The Matrix put the awe back into special effects.

However, the ’90s was also a sensational decade for film music, gifting us classics including the likes of Jurassic Park, Titanic, Total Recall, Braveheart, and countless others. But the sheer quality of these soundtrack treasures shouldn’t overshadow those undervalued hidden gems that demonstrate the extraordinary range and versatility of our finest film composers, ones that may have passed you by. So here’s our selection of those incredible works: ranging from the earworming to the unsettling, the melodic to the chaotic, these are the scores that simply demand your attention.

25. Don Juan De Marco (1995)

Michael Kamen was largely defined by his action scores for the likes of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, but his emotional work for drama was always superior. This intoxicatingly romantic, Latino-flavoured gem remains one of his greatest hidden pleasures, a feast of catchy melodies and passion that captures the essence of Johnny Depp’s mysterious title character.

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And of course, like the Kamen-scored Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, it also gave rise to a Bryan Adams hit, Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? A delight that’s well worth seeking out.

24. The Sixth Sense (1999)

The impact of M. Night Shyamalan’s film is boosted immeasurably by the impact of his long-term collaborator James Newton Howard. The composer’s score is largely discreet and understated, mixing quiet tenderness with sudden hair-raising moments of shock, but it all comes together in that final ending.

Almost certainly one of the best scored moments in film history, Newton Howard’s music traverses terror, confusion, wonderment and, finally, tear-jerking catharsis to encapsulate the brilliance of Shyamalan’s vision.

23. Cliffhanger (1993)

Forget The Last Of The Mohicans. Trevor Jones’ greatest action score is for this Stallone mountain extravaganza, one parading a similarly expansive but far more memorable theme backed up by some truly thrilling action music.

Jones has always been superb at crafting orchestrally robust soundtracks and this is one of his greatest, a work alive with a sense of beauty and also danger, beautifully performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

22. Fargo (1996)

Capturing the melancholy heart of the Coens’ blackly comic masterpiece is the sombre score by Carter Burwell, one that seems to anticipate the movie’s inevitable sense of tragedy well before the end. With a main theme adapted from Norwegian folk hymn The Lost Sheep, the mournful tone of the music captures a sense of humanity at its worst and also its resilient best, anchored around the essential decency of Frances McDormand’s character Marge Gunderson.

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21. Gattaca (1997)

One of the most intellectual of all film composers, Michael Nyman’s music can often feel somewhat cold and forbidding. However, his somewhat glacial approach is perfect for Andrew Niccol’s acclaimed sci-fi drama, a musical distillation of a dystopian society through which a sense of humanity steadily seeps. When the music reaches its melodic highlights, the emotional catharsis feels genuinely earned.

20. Matilda (1996)

Comedy is a tough genre to write music for. Overscore the action and it becomes annoying; underscore it and the material risks becoming anonymous. Kudos then to genre veteran David Newman whose work on the Danny De Vito-directed, Roald Dahl adaptation is a quirky delight. Capturing the darkly comic menace of the author’s vision whilst also rooting the music very firmly in our central character’s endearing decency and humanity, Newman’s score is a real charmer.

19. Frankie Starlight (1995)

Having spent most of the ’80s scoring comedies, (some classics, others forgettable), the noted Elmer Bernstein made a welcome return in the 1990s to the kind of intimate drama at which he excelled. One of his most sensitive and gentle is for this forgotten Irish oddity about an author with dwarfism looking back on his life. Mixing Bernstein’s signature, ethereal Ondes Martenot (similar to a Theremin) with Birdman Of Alcatraz style strings and piano, it confirms the late Bernstein as one of the 20th century’s finest musical dramatists.

18. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Thomas Newman rose to prominence in the 1990s, gaining acclaim and recognition for his characteristically quirky and edgy work on the likes of American Beauty. However, he’s always had a more straightforward and sensitive side to his musical personality, as this heartfelt treasure demonstrates. Anchored around Newman’s exquisite writing for woodwind and strings with a definite blues element to reflect the movie’s Deep South setting, it’s one of the composer’s best.

17. Beyond Rangoon (1995)

Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight bombast hogs the limelight but it pales in comparison to his more considered and thoughtful offerings such as this. Proving this oft-overblown composer is capable of real subtlety and sincere beauty when he puts his mind to it, this score is steeped in the sounds of the Far East: mysterious, captivating and elusive, it’s infinitely more accomplished than anything Zimmer has composed in recent years.

16. Mimic (1997)

Marco Beltrami exploded onto the Hollywood film score scene with his trendsetting Scream soundtrack, but it was Mimic that saw his musical voice mature and develop. Capturing the gloomy atmosphere of Guillermo Del Toro’s subterranean killer cockroach movie in all its glory, Beltrami’s score brilliantly mixes brooding Gothic danger with unexpectedly lovely and melodic interludes, in the process fashioning one of the most accomplished chiller scores of the decade.

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15. The Russia House (1990)

The late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith had an outstanding decade in the nineties, particularly in the sci-fi and adventure genres for which he was so renowned. Nevertheless, The Russia House is the equivalent of a bracing dunk in an ice bath, an effortlessly stylish and low key score for an intimate jazz trio that is both achingly cool and utterly beautiful. Returning to the beloved textures of Chinatown and other Goldsmith classics, it’s a shamefully overlooked score.

14. Seven (1995)

The impact of David Fincher’s masterful serial killer thriller would be considerably lessened without the brooding portent and clammy chill of Howard Shore’s superbly menacing score. Textural and tonal rather than thematic, with carefully augmented electronics embellishing oppressively dark writing for brass and strings, the music is as uncompromising as the movie itself for the way it stares into the moral abyss.

13. Backdraft (1991)

Nowadays, Hans Zimmer’s music is so electronically embellished and bulked up that it’s easy to forget what a genuinely great composer he is beneath the sound design. And his ballsy, thrilling soundtrack for Ron Howard’s firefighting action movie is wonderfully macho, using (for the time) cutting edge electronics mixed with rousing brass melodies, choir, timpani and even the odd avant-garde moment. It’s almost certainly Zimmer’s finest action score and yet, inexplicably, possibly his most overlooked.

12. The Scarlet Letter (1995)

Esteemed James Bond maestro John Barry perhaps didn’t enjoy the most distinguished decade in the ’90s with several rejected scores including, famously, The Horse Whisperer. Nevertheless, that lushly romantic touch was still very much in evidence on several projects including his rapturously mounted soundtrack for this laughable Nathaniel Hawthorne adaptation starring Demi Moore. Barry replaced both Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone on the score, delivering possibly his final masterpiece for a film that didn’t really deserve it..

11. The Iron Giant (1999)

As already mentioned, Michael Kamen was a much more versatile composer than his numerous action scores indicated. And in the form of The Iron Giant he composed not only one of his finest works but also one of the finest animated scores ever, an emotionally mature and engrossing work composed of resonant ideas that beautifully bolsters the narrative of the movie in question. Never mickey-mousing the action but always adding deeper layers of feeling, The Iron Giant needs to be re-examined and re-assessed for its sophistication and artistry.

10. Black Beauty (1994)

If Michael Kamen is unfairly pigeon-holed as the action guy, it’s also tempting to think of Danny Elfman solely in terms of Tim Burton collaborations. But his heartrendingly tender Black Beauty score demonstrates a more mature and considered side to Elfman’s musical skills, a pastoral masterwork resplendent in a quintessential sense of Englishness. Restrained, touching and thoughtful, it’s proof that there’s a lot more to Elfman than merely quirkiness and ‘la la la’ choirs.

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9. Haunted (1995)

This low-budget James Herbert ghost story adaptation has mostly been forgotten today (bar Kate Beckinsale’s casting) but the gloriously spirited score from Debbie Wiseman deserves a second lease of life. Surprisingly romantic and fulsome given the subject matter, Haunted features some of the loveliest orchestral writing of the decade, a tapestry of heartfelt emotion and occasional creeping dread that’s as comfortable eliciting tears as it is chills. It is, appropriately enough, haunting.

8. Mouse Hunt (1997)

Alan Silvestri has, like Matilda composer David Newman, proven himself brilliantly adept at scoring comedy in a manner that walks the fine line between the overly insistent and the charming. And Mouse Hunt is one terrific entry in the genre, revolving around a delightfully playful bassoon theme that perfectly captures the perky, mischievous spirit of the eponymous rodent. Meanwhile, around it Silvestri builds a host of offbeat jazzy and action material that is perfectly in-keeping with the madcap yet endearing nature of the movie.

7. The Spitfire Grill (1996)

The loss of the late, great James Horner in 2015 becomes all the more apparent upon examination of this sadly neglected score, one of his most quietly engrossing and attractive soundtracks that doesn’t feel the need to ladle on the melodramatics in order to have an impact. Brimming with a rustic sense of Americana, Horner places special emphasis on piano, strings and fiddle to craft a resonant soundscape that’s wholesome but with a lingering, sincere impact. Horner’s famed ’90s scores included the more overt likes of Legends Of The Fall and Braveheart but this relatively discreet gem doesn’t deserve to fall by the wayside.

6. Titus (1999)

Confrontational, challenging and quite brilliant, Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus is a bracing collision of musical genres, entirely appropriate for the nature of Julie Taymor’s movie that mixes classical Shakespearean grandeur with modern trappings.

Mixing Goldenthal’s unerringly dramatic voice with acid jazz, pop and fearsome atonal dissonance, the soundtrack risks becoming a bitty experience; it’s therefore entirely to Goldenthal’s credit that everything comes together to form a distinct entity, one of the greatest scores of the entire decade.

5. Nostromo (1996)

Few film composers touch the soul as effectively as Ennio Morricone. And no other of his ’90s scores is as soulful as this soaring offering, a heart-piercing work of outstanding beauty that, in the form of the Silver Of The Mine theme (complete with breathtaking soprano input from Edda Dell’Orso), gifts us with yet another of those peerless Morricone pieces that makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up. This being a score for a Joseph Conrad adaptation, there are of course darker moments but it’s those lushly haunting melodies that will really stick in the mind.

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4. A River Runs Through It (1992)

Robert Redford’s charming ode to Montana fly-fishing was initially to be scored by Elmer Bernstein. But in the end, the director went with Mark Isham, perhaps because Isham’s use of thematic material is somewhat more understated than Bernstein’s more overt approach. However that’s not a criticism: ultimately, Isham’s careful application of mood and tone is perfect for the movie, building subtle thematic ideas carefully before letting it all wash over the listener in the climactic, stunning In The Half Light Of The Canyon. Recipient of an Oscar nomination yet deserving of more praise, it’s a quiet powerhouse of a score.

3. The Straight Story (1999)

Angelo Badalamenti’s collaboration with surreal filmmaker David Lynch started off the 1990s with the seminal Twin Peaks and concluded the decade with this hauntingly nostalgic offering. Almost certainly the most accessible and appealing of all their works, it’s as quintessentially American as apple pie with gentle fiddles speaking of the movie’s small-town Midwest landscapes. Yet the score also features some of the most wrenchingly emotional material of Badalamenti’s career, acoustic guitar and careful synths capturing a profound sense of human heartache. Amidst a career dotted with dark scores, this is one that reaches for the light.

2. Restoration (1995)

Traversing the line between sumptuous 17th century pastiche and composer James Newton Howard’s own distinctly lyrical voice, Restoration is a joy of a score. Newton Howard takes his lead from the esteemed English composer Henry Purcell (whose own music was adapted by Wendy Carlos for A Clockwork Orange), crafting a thunderously rousing main theme that speaks of British pomp and royalty.

Yet the score is centrally rooted in the tender string/woodwind/choral combinations that the composer would further hone in his acclaimed scores for M Night Shyamalan, a masterwork that feels at once grandiose yet intimate.

1. The Ghost And The Darkness (1996)

Jerry Goldsmith’s formidable status as a chameleonic composer of mercurial skill was amply demonstrated by this sweepingly adventurous masterpiece. It’s a showcase of everything that makes Goldsmith possibly the finest film composer who ever lived: gorgeous melody, thrillingly dark action music and genre-defying ethnic experimentation that manages to mix African, Irish and English sensibilities in one coherent package.

The ’90s were an outstanding decade for action scores but none were as accomplished, enjoyable or memorable as this one. That the score frequently slips off listeners’ best-of lists is a damn shame; it’s the very definition of an underrated soundtrack that demands fresh appraisal.

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