Movie buffs know the names behind the music in their favorite films. Hollywood composers usually rise in fame when they get the chance to write music for blockbuster hits, often becoming as recognizable of a name as a movie’s director or lead actor. For example, think about composer Danny Elfman’s long-lasting partnership with director Tim Burton or John Williams’s extensive collaborations with filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Composers are often remembered for their most famous scores, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a vast portfolio of great musical works. This list shines attention on well-known composers who wrote film music that can be often overlooked and underrated. If you don’t know their names, you definitely will know the movies they’re most well-known for working on. These accomplished crafters of sound can deliver quality music for films that do not end up being box office successes, or they can frequently overshadow their own work with another more high-profile Hollywood gig. This list highlights ten underrated film scores by famous composers.
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1 James Horner—The Pagemaster (1994)
James Horner sadly died in 2015, but he left behind a legacy of immensely successful and popular film scores. He is most famous for his music for two of the highest-grossing movies of all time: Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). In fact, Titanic had the best-selling orchestral film soundtrack of all time, leading to Horner becoming Hollywood music royalty. Additionally, his popularity branches from his scores for the hit movies Aliens, Apollo 13, and Braveheart, all of which earned the composer prestigious award wins and nominations.
Unfortunately, not every film that Horner wrote music for was successful. The 1994 fantasy movie The Pagemaster, which is about a boy who journeys through the pages of literary classics, was a box office disappointment despite its star-studded cast and colorful blend of live-action and animation. Horner’s score is one of the movie’s biggest strengths. The fantasy aspect of the story allows the composer to shift tones and emotions throughout each scene. He molds his large orchestra to tackle all of the classic cinema genres: grand adventure, thrilling action, unsettling horror, whimsical fantasy, and heroic fanfare. It’s a musical treat for audiences with playful imaginations.
1 Shirley Walker—Final Destination (2000)
Batman fans should know the name Shirley Walker (who unfortunately passed away in 2006). She is best known and beloved for her music for the 1990s award-winning television show Batman: The Animated Series. She also scored several other superhero projects such as the 1993 movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the 1990s-2000s shows Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, and Batman Beyond. Walker was a trailblazer for female composers in Hollywood; she earned prestigious awards and held the record for scoring more major-studio movies than any other American woman.
Although Walker is most famous for her work in superhero worlds, she also wrote music for numerous other genre films, including the 2000 supernatural movie Final Destination. Walker’s score elevates the stereotypical teen horror genre with intelligent writing. The composer’s command of the orchestra is on full display with her abilities to establish melodic themes that develop throughout the story (an approach she continued in the following two sequels before her death). The music is perfectly controlled and patient as it establishes slow-building tension and eeriness. It’s some of the best orchestral writing heard in contemporary scary movies.
1 Marc Shaiman—Simon Birch (1998)
March Shaiman is a prolific Hollywood composer who has been creating music for film, television, and theatre since he was 16 years old. He wrote music for dozens of hit movies, especially ones during the 1990s and early 2000s. His most well-known works include the popular films When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, The Addams Family, Sister Act, Sleepless in Seattle, The First Wives Club, and The Wedding Planner.
Shaiman is known for his ability to write sweeping orchestra music with emotional warmth, a strength that is evident in the 1998 drama Simon Birch about a boy born with dwarfism. The movie was a box office bomb and earned criticism for its overly sappy tone. Despite the movie’s flaws, Shaiman’s score is its brightest highlight. The music ebbs and flows between an intimate solo piano and a sweeping orchestra. The well-crafted melodies and lush harmonies create a score that is full of emotional drama and power. The music is quite simply beautiful in every sense of the word.
1 Danny Elfman – Darkman (1990)
Danny Elfman is one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood today. He has scored over 100 films, as well as signature themes for television and video games. He is best known for his long-lasting collaboration with director Tim Burton, a partnership solidified during the 1980s and 1990s with a slew of popular films like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sleepy Hollow. Elfman is known for his ability to write music that blurs the lines of quirky, eerie, and fantasy.
Although Elfman’s iconic Batman theme is undoubtedly his most famous composition, he wrote similar-sounding music for another dark superhero around the same time as his Batman movies: the lesser-known 1990 film Darkman. Darkman tells the story of a scientist who becomes disfigured after a brutal attack, develops super-human abilities, and seeks vengeance against his attackers (leading the character to become more of an antihero than a traditional superhero). Elfman’s score explores the same darker sounds the composer uses in his famous Batman music: low droning tones, pulsating drums, energetic strings, swelling brass, and dramatic dynamic levels. Darkman’s score may not be as catchy and memorable as Batman’s music, but both highlight Elfman’s flair for darker epic themes.
1 Alan Silvestri – Contact (1997)
Yes, another 1990s score on the list. Film music reached new levels of grandiose orchestras blasting out memorable melodies during the 1980s and 1990s. Composers like Alan Silvestri became known for strong melodic themes that are instantly recognizable. Silvestri is best known for scoring the Back to the Future trilogy, most of the Avengers movies, and the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump.
Surprisingly, one of Silvestri’s most intimate scores is for the 1997 science fiction film Contact. The movie is based on a novel by legendary scientist astronomer Carl Sagan and tells the story of a scientist who discovers evidence of intelligent life outside of planet Earth. The film is a large-scale movie that travels audiences around the globe and deep into space. Yet, despite the film’s emphasis on high-tech science fiction adventure, Silvestri’s music is incredibly human. At the center of the score is a lullaby-like piano theme that smoothly rises and falls over top gentle strings. At times, that melody swells to a more majestic version of itself played by the full orchestra before ultimately returning to its softer home. The music grounds the story in the emotional investment of the human characters and not in the potential otherworldliness of aliens (as so many science fiction scores often do). At the center of a bigger-than-life outer space odyssey is a simplistic gentle melody that beautifully reminds the audience they are all human.
1 Howard Shore—The Cell (2000)
Howard Shore is a multi-Oscar-winning composer who has been working in the entertainment business since the 1970s. He famously scored the entire film franchise based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy. He also scored numerous successful movies in various genres, including The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Panic Room.
Shore’s ability to span genres and moods is evident in the particularly polarizing science fiction horror film The Cell. The movie tells the story of a psychologist who enters the horrific mind of a serial killer through experimental technology. The film’s heavy emphasis on gruesome imagery and unsettling surrealism made the project both praised and condemned by critics. Shore’s music does not shy away from the movie’s dark edge; it embraces it. He incorporates many unique instruments and intricate moving musical parts to shift between seductive exoticism and terrifying tension. Shore’s surprising score elevates typical horror music to new levels of sophistication. The music is beautifully dark and intense, and it is deserving of a brighter spotlight.
1 Hans Zimmer—A League of Their Own (1992)
Hans Zimmer is one of the most famous composers on the planet. He has scored more than 200 projects that have collectively grossed more than 28 billion dollars at the box office. He has written music for some of the biggest blockbusters in recent decades, including The Lion King, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, and multiple installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Despite Hans Zimmer’s reputation for epic action music in big-budget movies, one of his most warm and emotional scores is for the 1992 drama A League of Their Own. The film is about an all-female professional baseball league during World War II. A League of Their Own was a success, but it is not typically what comes to mind when one thinks of Zimmer. The music is a traditional Hollywood-style orchestra, which is important to point out when considering Zimmer often experiments with innovative hybrids of orchestra and technology. The score is beautifully melodic and heartwarming. Zimmer masterfully captures the essence of 1940s American radio, the excitement of sporting events, and the dramatic emotions of heartache and survival. The music is celebratory at its heart and remains some of Zimmer’s most endearing melodies.
1 Elliot Goldenthal – Sphere (1998)
Elliot Goldenthal is an Oscar-winning composer who writes music for film, orchestra, opera, ballet, and theatre. His best-known works include popular movies such as Demolition Man, Interview with the Vampire, Batman Forever, A Time to Kill, Frida, and Public Enemies. He is also famous for his personal and professional relationship with Julie Taymor (a prolific film and theatre director).
Goldenthal has scored multiple films that were released with high expectations but ultimately seen as disappointments (Batman & Robin is a prime example). His score for the 1998 science fiction thriller Sphere deserves more attention. The movie, which is about a team sent into the ocean to explore a crashed alien spaceship, should have been a massive hit with its famous cast and novel origins by the same writer of Jurassic Park (one of the most successful blockbusters of all time). Unfortunately, the movie flopped with critics and audiences, meaning Goldenthal’s score went largely unnoticed. The composer uses a creative balance of traditional orchestra (frequently led by a stately trumpet fanfare) and more experimental tones. The result is an excellent juxtaposition of cinematic melodies and eerie otherworldly sounds, seemingly representing both our planet and the mysterious unknown of outer space. Goldenthal’s effective score is intriguing and deserves praise apart from the failures of the movie.
1 Hildur Guðnadóttir—Mary Magdalene (2018)
Hildur Guðnadóttir has earned an abundance of well-deserved attention in recent years. She is viewed as an essential trailblazer for several achievements, including being the first Icelander to win an Oscar, the first solo female composer to win a Golden Globe, and the first woman in over two decades to win the Oscar for Best Original Score. She is best known for her music on the 2019 live-action film Joker and the 2019 television miniseries Chernobyl.
Before Guðnadóttir earned international fame with her 2019 successes, she wrote music for the lesser-known 2018 biblical film Mary Magdalene. The movie tells the story of the titular character and her journey of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. Guðnadóttir, alongside her frequent collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson, composed a powerful score for the movie. The music consistently hovers in ambiguous tension in the most beautiful ways. The lingering strings, haunting vocals, and breathy woodwinds create a somber mood that feels simultaneously still and moving. The score never ceases to present itself as a prophetic sound for something tragic and profound. Guðnadóttir’s sensibilities for crafting mature music that possesses both darkness and light are at peak levels in this complex score.
1 John Williams—Artificial Intelligence (2001)
No list of famous film composers can exclude John Williams. His decades-long career of writing iconic scores led to him becoming the most successful film composer in history. Some of his most beloved and legendary music are the scores to Jaws, the Star Wars films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, the Indiana Jones films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and the Harry Potter films. If someone hums a famous music theme from a movie, there’s a good chance John Williams wrote it.
For all of the prominent scores that Williams is known for, there are just as many lesser-known works that deserve highlight, and the 2001 science fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a great example. The movie, directed by legendary director Steven Spielberg (a long-time collaborator with Williams), tells the story of a robotic boy who is the prototype of an artificial intelligence being programmed to love. The movie earned box office success and Oscar nominations, but its music is not typically one of the prolific scores associated with Williams. However, it is nonetheless just as beautiful as anything he’s composed. Williams writes a score that contains some of the most gorgeous musical segments of his career. For a composer who is famous for several explosive fanfare themes, his music for A.I. Artificial Intelligence is equally powerful in its restraint. Much of the movie’s pivotal scenes involve intimate moments of the young boy robot experiencing the complex emotions associated with love. Thus, William’s central music theme is a bittersweet melody played gracefully on a piano supported by an expressive orchestra and sometimes an angelic female voice. The theme is tremendously moving, romantic, heartbreaking, and ultimately peaceful. William’s score is exquisite and is a testament to the composer’s mastery of music.