Movie Theme Giants

In this two-part series, The Savvy Screener looks at some of cinema’s most memorable musical themes — and their composers.

Since sound movies’ earliest days, musical themes have evoked time and place, identified characters, and powerfully underscored the filmmaker’s core messaging.

Today and tomorrow, we consider a few famous films with great music — and where you can stream them.

A Summer Place (1959) Max Steiner

Max Steiner was a pioneer of early film soundtracks. He composed the score for 1933’s King Kong, including Kong’s dramatic, vertiginous demise on the Empire State Building.

Ultimately, King Kong was about an ill-fated romance. After all, it was beauty that killed the beast.

Steiner, however, also contributed to a more conventional love story, A Summer Place (1959).

Steiner’s melody, which became a hit record, underscores the innocent interaction between teenagers Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, whose relationship soon turns to first love. We know it’s their music because Steiner’s simple, yet soaring string melody is scored over a familiar rock-and-roll triplet, supported by woodwinds and a subtle (for the time) pop rhythm section.

The theme became synonymous with its era and, thus, a quick scene-setter for subsequent period films such as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).

You can stream A Summer Place starting at $2.99 from Google Play and other providers.

Then, if you’d like an unconventional double feature, you can rent King Kong, also starting at $2.99, from Vudu and elsewhere.

Dr. No (1962) John Barry and Monty Norman

My name is Barry – John Barry.

Or is it Norman – Monty Norman?

Barry scored 11 Albert Broccoli-produced James Bond films, from Dr. No through The Living Daylights. Yet it was Norman, a lesser-known theater composer, who composed Bond’s signature intro.

Together, with pungent harmonies, punchy, syncopated rhythms and cutting-edge scoring, Norman and Barry helped create the ultra-suave agent who bests his opponents and always keeps it together, regardless of the danger involved.

Who doesn’t dig that final electric guitar chord: E Minor/Maj7/Maj9?

You can stream Dr. No with a Starz subscription. Starz is available without cable or satellite by subscribing either directly or as an add-on to Amazon Prime, DirecTV Now or Sling TV. Starz costs $8.99 a month, or $89.99 annually, following a seven-day free trial.

My Bodyguard (1980) Dave Grusin

Composer Dave Grusin made an inspired choice for this indie sleeper. He scaled his instrumentation to a modestly sized chamber orchestra, ingratiatingly supporting My Bodyguard‘s coming-of-age story and its wistful sense of nostalgia. A string quartet suggests a youthful and sunny hopefulness. The main theme appears in the opening title sequence, gracefully unfolding in three-quarter time as Clifford, a high school student, rides his bike through the city of Chicago.

You can rent My Bodyguard starting at $2.99 from FandangoNow and other providers.

Tomorrow The Savvy Screener will revisit two more classic films: Out of Africa and Glory. And feel free to tell us your favorite musical movie themes in the comments section below.

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About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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