The 25 Best Film Scores of the 1990s

The 25 Best Film Scores of the 1990s ...

As well as well-known filmmakers rose (John Williams) or challenged themselves in new directions (Philip Glass), bold outsiders introduce new genres to the narrow debate about what movie music should be (Tom Tykwer, The RZA), and singular iconoclasts revolutionize how that music is recorded (remember the time when Neil Young just improvised the entire score for Dead Man in his studio?).

Rachel Portman and Deborah Wiseman continue to advance in a field that they have long been absent from, while some of the most essential musicians of the 21st century (Carter Burwell) began to strike their stride and point toward an even brighter future. Hell, even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot had Alan Silvestri going absolutely crazy over the soundtrack.

Here are our picks for the 25 best film scores from the 90s.

Adam Solomons, Susannah Gruder, and Emma Stefansky contributed to this article.

Philip Glass may be one of the most well-known, boundary-pushing composers of the past half century, and yet the concert hall isnt his sole location: he's been known throughout his career to moonlight as a plumber in order to maintain his integrity. Glass developed a score of grandeur and empathy for Bernard Roses' 1992 film about the legacy of trauma at a neglected Chicago housing project, where a turn-of-the-last-century Black artist was murdered by a white lynch mo

Candyman's Candyman score with its renowned Akhnaten and Satyagraha and Koyaanisqatsi is a standout piece in horror movies, from Dracula's Toccata and Fugue to Kubrick's The Shining, which centers a white character (Virginia Madsen) who discovers that she isn't a player-piece in a Black story, the film tacking against the current with Glass's score

Luis Bacalov was the subject of great attention for his spaghetti westerns (Django, The Price of Power, His Name Was King), and Pier Paolo Pasolinis The Gospel According to St. Matthew, respectively. Bacalov's Il Postino score was the beginning of a slowdown for him both in terms of output and tone of his scores. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet who was exiled to an Italian fishing island was a state-sponsored slowdown under the threat of imprisonment.

Radford's main theme, about the bond between Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and titular postman Mario (Massimo Troisi, is as warm-hearted or sickly sweet as Radford's film. This is a testament to the scores' appropriateness, and in no small part a contributing factor to the award season's success.

Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde is a wonderful actor who appears to be divinely predestined. Despite his uncanny resemblance, the comedian turned British national treasure always displayed a warmth and wit similar to those of the Victorian poet and playwright he portrays here (not to mention that it was still rare for a gay man to be played openly gay).

Despite the extraordinarily gentle beauty of Debbie Wiseman's score, Brian Gilbert's film would not be as on-target as it is without him, which seems to understand Oscar Wilde just as well as the films' leading man. Wilde once said that the only people he was interested in were those who knew what beauty is and those who knew what sorrow is. And that is the spirit in which Wisemans' score enhances each moment its heard, highlighting unshakeable melancholy.

Wiseman wraps his doomed romance with Lord Alfred Bosie Douglas (Jude Law) in lilting oboe sequences and melodic piano solos, while the scenes that hint towards his warm but ultimately utterly dissatisfying love are played with soaring strings beneath a mellifluous undercurrent of loss and betrayal.

This orchestral work has a sense of tradition, and beyond a sudden gear-change, it's absent any big surprise. Wiseman honors (rather than reinvents) old notions of beauty, while maintaining the Gilberts steady direction, adding a warmth and energy to it. One cant help but suspect that Wilde himself, who once declared that time cannot harm the only thing.

The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, which starts about halfway through Giuseppe Tornatores Legend of 1900, is already one of the most uncomprehensible and frankly ridiculous films of its decade, and is utterly dependent on Morricones respectability to be defended from others. In much the same way John Barrys arrangements for The Cotton Club had the power to win over those films (misguided) opponents, the 26 original pieces that Morricone contributed to Legend of 1900 make the film credible.

Tim Roth is a virtuoso pianist who never steps foot off the cab that shuttles between Europe and New York, and the piano duel he fights against the inventor of jazz (Clarence Williams III as Jelly Roll Morton) finds Morricone at his most vulnerable: for another Tornatore film, 2016's The Correspondence, they likely saw something that most didn't see, beyond aesthetics.

Zhang Yim's enticing chamber drama is often silent except for the ambient sounds of the Chen palace echoing through the compounds' hallways and open-air corridors. Once Songlian (Gong Li) accepts her role as the master of the houses' fourth concubine, the score becomes the accent points along a new way of life for Songlian (Gong Li) in our list of the greatest films from the 1990s.

Zhao does what the greatest composers do for stories set in a previous decade: capture the essence of a time and place without being trapped by it. Even as they independently feel like they're raging against each other, it's all part of the Zhang classic's 30-year history.

Kitaros' new Age music for Manhunter, which has not been heard since, is quite old school. Like most Stones other epics, it is more Hollywood than Kitaro is willing to admit. Indeed, Kitaro took pride in not knowing what the Hollywood sound was, and was enthralled by Stones' rather reductive instruction to compose something with a hint of Asianism.

The Kitaros score ages better than the film for which it was commissioned due to flashes of brilliance in its darker side. Kitaro's inventiveness in incorporating sound effects into music is also an effective counterpoint to the already-cliched sounds that accompanied Vietnam films by the early 1990s, which Stone was likely to be averse to when he hired the unorthodox composer-keyboardist.

Satoshi Kons Perfect Blue is a DePalma-style story of brutal obsession that soon turns into a shambles-like psychic catastrophe, while introducing them to the early days of a media age where self-identity was already a public bloodsport. By the time people realized it, composer Masahiro Ikumi was familiar with what each of them should be like.

Ikumi's Perfect Blue music maintains the beat in Kons' wildly harrowing story about a former J-pop star named Mima, which is suffocated by deadly layers of synth unease, and brings Mima's self-image down to a personal level, as she begins to become betrayed by her own mind and, by extension, the movie around her. It's the perfect soundtrack for devastation, and yet still beautiful enough to keep you searching for

Rachel Portman's Academy Award-winning music for The Cider House Rules is reminiscent of rural New England in the mid-1940s, and also for those occasions when your teacher would wheel a television bigger than it was big into the classroom. At least one of those is intended, as a quintessentially 90s score. Portman's major-key music is one of the decade's most skillful accompaniments in a highly specific category of its most wistful and politically suspect films (Alan Silves

The Weinstein Company's credit is surprising, since its near-odious gender politics make it a piece of Oscar bait that isnt deserve it. Its little surprise then that her sincere, sometimes painterly style made her one of Hollywood's most sought-after musicians; her work on The Cider House Rules is a golden example of how that decade of film music evolved and evolved.

Stanley Kubrick's last film is well-known for its needle drops, which include rocker Chris Isaaks Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing (the director requested that Nicole Kidman bring CDs to perform the films nude scenes), and a Shostakovich waltz the piece is now widely known as The Theme from Eyes Wide Shut, which is the ultimate soundtrack for quickly crystallizing anxiety.

The most striking original music in any Kubrick film is Wendy Carlos' electronic score for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick drew inspiration by playing Jocelyn Pooks Backwards Priests, a vocal work that featured a chanted Romanian Orthodox service played in reverse. The film's narrative is so powerful because it allows you to experience so much without knowing what you're feeling.

Those with low midichlorian counts may not like George Lucas' hard left turn in his 1999 epic, but few would dare to disagree with the John Williams score, which clearly demonstrates that the filmmaker had truly accomplished a Jedi-like feat, while reimagining the sound palette of a distant galaxy.

The Phantom Menace has a dark mens chorus that Williams reproduces almost instantly in Episode I. The superb lightsaber battle that accompanyes Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Jar Jar Jars' underwater journey to the Gungan city. And the sacred melody for Liam Neesons fallen Jedi that was infamously labeled as the track Qui-Gons Noble End on the soundtrack released before the film hit cinemas (ah, 1999, not only America at its apex, but

The Emperor's theme? He sped up the tempo, replaced the baritones with a children's choir, and made it the silly party music for the celebratory conclusion. It's the same damn theme. In less than 20 years, you'll have plunged into fascism and forever wars maybe The Phantom Menace wasn't as silly as it appeared.

The Shawshank Redemption might have been a pleasant, unsettling musical accompaniment and sent to its forever home on basic cable in peace. However, Thomas Newman recognized a degree of greatness in Frank Darabonts Stephen King adaptation of the story of a wrongfully accused man (Tim Robbins) who is sentenced to life in prison, but refuses to die there, and he pulled out all the stops to ensure that the film lived up to its potential.

It's the gliding piano riffs that sound like rain on pavement, and the harmonica that acts as Andy's partner in crime (Morgan Freeman). It's also the deeper tones that Newman scrapes away beneath the surface, evident in a Stoic Theme that you can hear in your bones, and in the repeated theme of So Was Red, a relatively simple composition of strings, oboes, and cellos that amounts to one of the most beautiful works ever composed

James Horner had already crammed an entire career into the first half of the 1990s, a decade that included heroic period action films, animated VHS classics, political thrillers, and the occasional subdued biopic. It's certainly the finest example of how Horner could bring a balance of strength and tenderness to the big Hollywood swings that demanded both.

Horner never gave up the opportunity to provide a new-to-him instrument to a project and gave way to a massive orchestral sweep, establishing a emotional standard for the film that has endured beyond the 95-96 awards season. This is perhaps the finest example of him taking all of that splendor and grounding it in a fundamental feeling.

As he developed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch made two excellent initial decisions: recruiting future Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker for the title role, and sending Wu-TangsRZA into film scoring.RZA embraces the unknown to create one of the most influential soundtracks of the 1990s, as well as his own directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists.

The rapper studied Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky in preparation for this new challenge with contributions from Killah Priest, Public Enemy, and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan. Pigeons are greeted with a swell of trombones, and dogs are welcomed with a bellow of trumpets.

When violence rises, the score follows suit. Gun shots and Whitakers lyrical baritone play against Public Enemy beats, while Ghost Dogs rooftop meditations are met with the cooing of pigeons and Samurai Theme, which mixes a mechanical rhythm against a harmony of woodwinds. That theme recurs in a moment where RZA himself crosses Whitaker on the sidewalk while saying power, equality, always see everything.

Carter Burwell's score, like many of the others in the 90s canon, is tethered in time. A remnant from a past era that Kumiko and Bunzo might as well have dug up with that ransom money. His Scandinavian fiddle melody, borrowed in part from an old folk song, strains at the edges. Its the first hint that whatever strands Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) finds in that endless snow-covered North is going

Fargo's music lays at the intersection between Western and Noir, as the film around it pushes and pulls against what the law implies for anyone caught in the Lundegaard-centered web. Although it's overwhelming in spurts, especially when the Coens-induced tension reaches its boiling point.

The only thing that has aged worse than eventual Best Picture winner American Beauty is Kevin Spacey, the film's leading man and eventual Best Actor-winner. Yet some of the film's highlights appear to be going to last forever: Annette Benings high-profile real estate agent (selling a dream she no longer believes in), Thora Birch's disaffected teen, and, most of all, Thomas Newman's stunning score, which encouraged you to listen intently even when there was little to see.

Newman's jangly and percussive music is a soothing soundtrack for anyone sleepwalking through the American Dream, while you can almost see a pile of brown leaves strewn over each other on a gray fall evening. As the score stokes the terrified terror of the film, American Beauty deserves to win the Oscar.

On a molecular level, Playground Love is so inextricably linked toThe Virgin Suicides that it's easy to forget that Air, the French electronica duo that consists of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, wrote so much other music for Sofia Coppolas moody, tragic, and oh-so-insouciant debut feature. Nevertheless, the bands entire score is as rich as the famous single that it originates, each track capturing its own

Afternoon Sister's organ melody is interrupted by a strange desire, while Dead Bodies races with the end-of-the-world fantasy of an adolescent fantasy that slides headlong into horrible reality. While The Word Hurricane blows into an Amnesiac-like storm of overheated desire.

Coppola discovered the first of many collaborators who intuitively understood her fascination with texture as well as the powerful meaning that she's always been able to derive from it. It's because of its score that it takes you back to a time when the Lisbon sisters were still alive.

Tom Tykwer is one of the few filmmakers who composes music as powerfully as he does images (and perhaps even more so) for his 1999 thriller Run Lola Run, a blistering experiment in cinematic velocity that follows its title character (Franka Potente) as she traverses Berlin three times over in a desperate attempt to save her boyfriend by finding a bag full of Deutschmarks each of her failed attempts resulting in death and a video game-like respawn Tykwer had an

The soundtrack for Run Lola Run, which is so visceral and powerful it makes the film it was intended for feel like an instrument in itself.

The massive gray X on a black background made it seem as much like two stone tablets handed down from Mt. Ararat as tapes on the shelf at Blockbuster. It burned itself into my head years before I actually saw the film, in part because it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.

Terence Blanchard played an orchestral grandeur that might enlist the assistance of Elmer Bernstein and Miklos Rozsas in their late studio epics: theres a little bit of Florence Price here, and a little bit of Ellingtons Black, Brown, and Beige here, all of which were accompanied by a lone, pleading trumpet and a thudding, measured bass drum. Its funny. Malcolm X's life was cut short at 39, and the

Blanchard has made it a priority to honor Black artists of the past, including Hampton, Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Louis Jordan, and Big Joe Turner. From the original song Fire, in which Malcolm's childhood home in Michigan is destroyed by the Klan, a lone oboe explodes into an entire string section wailing in grief to Hamptons Lindy Hop-ready Flying Home.

Princess Mononoke is Hayao Miyazakis darkest film. It's a fairytale in which heroes dwell in fear, while villains are fierce protectors. Joe Hisaishi, the master composer who composed the scores for almost all Miyazakis films, has crafted an appropriately dark and expansive score to match.

The Tatara Woman Work Song's dramatic change from wild and terrifying is as subtle as the trail accompanying the demonic creatures that come running from the forest, shifting from horror to tragedy as the ultimate cause of their destruction becomes apparent. Layers of complexity echo the film's refusal to give any of its characters a quick escape.

The multilayered score for Jurassic Park is often overlooked due to its open-eyed tenderness, which is almost overwhelming for a film that is primarily about people trying not to be eaten by an island of bloodthirsty dinosaurs. It fits very nicely with Steven Spielberg's take on the material, written as a math-heavy cautionary tale by Michael Crichton and retooled into the increasingly rare summer adventure film that is as beloved by children as its parents.

There are moments of peace sleeping in a tree and being sneezed on by a Brachiosaurus, and you cant help but want to stay on Isla Nublar just a little longer and go investigate whats watching you from beneath the tree.

Jim Jarmusch's Western explains why we live somewhere between choice and chance, although never in so many words. He chose to make the journey out West, accepting a job in a hateful town called Machine. Not only does he discover the job no longer available, but he finds himself on the run as an outlaw, and then in the company of a Native American (Gary Farmer), who befriends him and possibly seals his fate.

While Jarmusch makes several key decisions in his telling this story, Robby Mullers' monochrome photography helped make this Western seem less like a Western than any Western ever, while also being deeply rooted in indigenous culture, he let chance rule the score. Sometimes he plumps the strings, sometimes he plucks them, sometimes the amp distortion is turned all the way up, making it a timeless pleasure to listen to.

Young adds acoustic guitar, piano, and organ at key points, but his score remains starkly minimalist, with an analog pulse and drone that resembles the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross scores of the 2010s. It's music that gives you the freedom to think, look up at the sky, and drift out to sea.

When asked to compose the musical accompaniment for a Holocaust event, how do you portray it? It's perhaps the most frequently asked question in the annals of Holocaust cinema. Less common but, in its way, no less crucial is the question of how you score it. By the time Steven Spielberg inevitably tapped him to compose the music for Schindlers List, John Williams was faced with a challenge that no other he'd ever encountered before: scrambling up ancient Jewish prayers and melodies with the usual

The true power of Williams' indelible suite, which he composed for Spielbergs most delicate film, comes from its deferential sense of remembrance; in the plucky bass notes that summon millennia of inherited strength, in the keening violins that weep for the six million dead, and most importantly in the sacredwarble of Williams' iconic theme, in which he and Itzhak Perlman distill the sound of their memory becoming a blessing.

No film music from the 1990s exhibited itself more powerfully than Zbigniew Preisners' Three Colors: Blue, its sudden surge of strings erupting over the soundtrack with such godlike force that the image itself fades to black, as if waiting for a storm to pass. Again, no film music from the 1990s had a greater purpose to play.

Preisner had to bear the dissociative burden of a grievingwidow (Juliette Binoche) as she tries to erase any memory of her famous composer husband and the daughter they shared, but also challenged him to compose the unfinished masterpiece of her deceased husband, a song that was intended to represent nothing less than Europe's reunification.

Preisner's monumental score, which is a mix of airy and apocalyptic, expresses ethereal agony one moment and divine intervention the next, is recursive central motif returning to a simple melody that refuses to be ignored or forgotten no matter how great things go. It soon begins to feel like the music isnt just in her head, but also in her own head.

James Horners' now-iconic score for Titanic has a different motivation: rather than using human voices for the vocal components (of which there are a lot), he opted to use artificial sounds instead, bringing people into the concert halls without the need for a mechanical instrument. Oddly enough, it works, the synths creating a breathy, airy sound that is anchored by the pumping engine's bass notes.

Horner composed music for every element of the film, including Rose, Jack, the ship itself, and the doom-laden iceberg, for which he used the sound of a pounding anvil. Celine Dions is the only human voice in Roses' theme, singing a string of notes that is simultaneously hopeful and depressing, like seeing someone lost in a lifetime's memory.

Ryuichi Sakamoto's music for The Sheltering Sky, a Bernardo Bertolucci follow-up to The Last Emperor (which the great Japanese composer also scored), isn't surprising that Sakamoto has composed music inspired by Paul Bowles' famous postwar novel almost habitually from the moment he was hired by Bertolucci, nor that he has re-recorded and reimagined many of the works that appear here, as well as some of

Sakamoto appears to comprehend what Bowles meant by The Sheltering Sky, a lofty title if ever there was one, and not something Bertoluccis film ever made clear. Even if Sakamoto's morose mood music must share the stage with fantastic, regionally appropriate arrangements by Richard Horowitz (in The Last Emperor, Sakamoto's music similarly coexists with original work by David Byrne, and to similarly wonderful effect)

The Sheltering Sky is about directionlessness encased in sophistication, and Old World civilization as empty postwar decadence and existential despair. It's also one of Sakamoto's most well-known works, if his observations in documentary-memoir Coda are any indication.

This article was published as part of the IndieWires 90s Week event. For more information, visit our 90s Week page.