10 Extraordinary Partnerships Between Composers and Directors

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I find the relationship between music and film not only fascinating, but absolutely essential to my understanding and enjoyment of the medium. Good music does not guarantee a good film, of course, but the best movies tend to be the ones that make the most meaningful use of music, and the greatest scores are almost always written for truly incredible works of art.

Thus, one of the most important and interesting relationships in the world of film is the one shared by a director and composer. Many of history’s greatest directors tend to collaborate with one composer over the arc of their careers, and visa versa. Music is such a large component of cinematic identity that many filmmakers we consider ‘auteurs’ would not be as immediately identifiable if they did not work with the same composer time and time again. This is not always the case, as many top-notch directors either de-prioritize score or do not rely on original music at all, but for many filmmakers, analyzing the creative partnership they share with a regular composer is key to interpreting their work.

These are the filmmakers and composers we celebrate today, counting down 10 highly significant and impressive director/composer relationships. They are ranked roughly, but only by my own personal preference, and include a mix of modern and historical filmmakers. The criteria was fairly loose – a notable director and composer who worked together multiple times – though I have tended to shy away from collaborations still in flux – such as Christopher Nolan and Hanz Zimmer, for instance – focusing instead on relationships already cemented in film history.

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Honorable Mention: Akira Ifukube and Ishiro Honda

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I am not hugely knowledgeable about Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube’s entire bodies of work – they collaborated on 20 total films together – but I do know that Honda is the man who gave us this:

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And that Ifukube is the genius who wrote this fantastic musical theme for the character:

And I think that collaboration alone deserves at least an honorable mention spot on this list. For all the things that make Godzilla great, his main musical theme may be my very favorite thing about the character, and if you go back and watch the original 1954 Godzilla, or many of the sequels Ifukube scored, you will quickly discover that the brilliance of the music extends far past the central theme. Again, I do not know quite enough about either of these men to put them on the main list, but their partnership certainly deserves an honorable mention.

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10. Carter Burwell and The Coen Brothers

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Unlike many of the other entries on this list, music is not among the first things one thinks of when discussing The Coen Brothers. The writing, performance, and cinematography in all their films are probably more significant – Roger Deakins is arguably their most important collaborator overall – but I would be remiss if I neglected what great work Carter Burwell has done with the directing duo over the years. He has scored nearly every one of the Coen’s movies, and while few of those scores stand among the very best the medium has to offer, all of them are a crucial, impressive component of each film’s production.

There is an admirable subtlety to Burwell’s music, a total lack of ego that allows his work to blend seamlessly into the fabric of the film. This is true with most of his scores, no matter the director, but he is at his best with the Coens, where his music often works to ground the zanier or more heightened aspects of their films. This is not always the case, of course; True Grit is an excellent example of Burwell writing directly to the genre, and succeeding in spades, while his music for A Serious Man is a direct extension of the film’s somber, contemplative elements. Whatever the case, Burwell always fulfills whatever need the Coen Brothers have for him. He is incredibly versatile, and it is hard to picture the Coen’s filmography without him.

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9. Alan Silvestri and Robert Zemeckis

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Though far from the greatest or most noteworthy director and composer on this list, Zemeckis and Silvestri have done more than enough great work together to qualify here. Silvestri is a composer I run hot and cold on, but he is at his absolute best when working alongside Zemeckis, and I cannot imagine classics like Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Forrest Gump with a different composer. Even at Zemeckis’ weakest – such as his long stint in the world of motion-capture animation throughout the 2000s – Silvestri always turns in great work for the director, and more often than not, Zemeckis gives him plenty of strong cinematic material to work with. Last year’s Flight, Zemeckis’ first live-action feature since Cast Away, was a pleasant reminder of what both men can achieve at their best, and I look forward to seeing many more collaborations between the two of them in the future.

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8. Danny Elfman and Tim Burton

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No director or composer on this list is quite as hit or miss as Burton and Elfman – the former has his fair share of awful films and the latter is prone to phoning it in – but when the stars align, these are two of the most interesting artists in the business. Especially together, given how crucial Elfman’s music is to the creative success of Tim Burton’s best films. As with the greatest composer/director collaborations, Elfman and Burton simply understand each other, on a practically psychic level, and when both are at their best, it is a wonder to behold.

Burton’s films are known for impressive, imaginative production design, but Elfman’s music is often even more important than the visuals in creating a clear, immersive sense of time, place, and atmosphere. This is probably best exemplified in Edward Scissorhands, but it shines through in all of the director’s most significant work, especially, to my mind at least, the Batman films. When I think of Burton’s Gotham, my mind jumps to Elfman’s music first, and that is high praise given what an aesthetically rich landscape those films have to offer.  

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7. Howard Shore and David Cronenberg


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Howard Shore is best known for his legendary work scoring Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings – arguably the greatest film score ever composed – but before his adventures in Middle Earth, Shore’s film career primarily involved collaborations with David Cronenberg. To this day, their creative partnership remains one of the tightest in the industry, with Shore having written the score to all but one of Cronenberg’s films from 1979 onwards.

It is an easy collaboration to take for granted, in fact, but a highly important one when examining the relationship between composer and director. Cronenberg is one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today, having made all different kinds of horror, dark psychological dramas, period pieces, and more; through it all, Shore has adapted perfectly, his music playing an indispensable role in realizing Cronenberg’s evolving tonal ambitions. Shore’s Cronenberg scores are almost entirely unrecognizable from his sweeping, symphonic work on Lord of the Rings, but the same musical expertise and precision that defined those scores is always on display in Cronenberg’s films, even though the music is smaller, subtler, and affects the viewers in less obvious ways. Cronenberg would not be the director we know and love without Shore’s contributions, and I believe the same probably holds true the other way around; these films gave Shore the opportunity to become a great composer, and the world of film is infinitely richer for his genius.

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6. Phillip Glass and Godfrey Reggio

 

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If you have never seen the hauntingly beautiful avant-garde documentary Koyaanisqatsi or its sequels, Powaaqatsi and Nagoyqatsi, you simply must, especially now that Criterion has restored and re-released them all in an outstanding home video box set. They are works of staggering aesthetic power, and some of the clearest, most defining examples of what a great director and a great composer can achieve when their voices work as one. The films are exclusively comprised of music and imagery, and for the purposes of this list, that makes Glass and Reggio’s collaboration indispensible. Reggio was the observer, photographing gorgeous, evocative, and sometimes terrifying modern landscapes of both the natural and unnatural variety, while Glass’ music gave the raw material emotional and thematic context. Watching these films, it is difficult to determine whether they are works of cinematic art set to music or works of musical genius set to visual accompaniment; both explanations are equally valid, for even among the names on this list, it would be difficult to find many composers and directors so directly in tune with one another’s artistic ambitions.

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5. Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock

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Bernard Hermann only scored a small percentage of Alfred Hitchcock’s total directorial output (the filmmaker was as prolific as he was brilliant), but when that percentage includes Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, the collaboration must surely be considered legendary. Psycho in particular is as good an example of director and composer working in harmony as exists, with Hitchcock himself famously remarking that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,” and the score from the infamous ‘shower scene’ having entered the modern cinematic vernacular worldwide. A disagreement on the musical direction for 1966’s Torn Curtain ended Hermann and Hitchcock’s professional relationship, but in the eight films they collaborated on, the two forged some of history’s most memorable and influential unions of music and cinema. 

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4. Nino Rota and Federico Fellini

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One of the most prolific and talented composers of the 20th century, Nino Rota is best known to American audiences for his beautiful, haunting, utterly iconic work scoring The Godfather. Yet among all his many accomplishments, he may be most notable in the annals of film history as Italian director Federico Fellini’s trusted creative partner. Until his death in 1979, Rota scored nearly everything Fellini directed, collaborating on 15 feature films – including such revered masterpieces as 8½, La Strada, and Amarcord – and several shorts. One cannot examine Fellini’s work without discussing Rota’s stirring contributions, for it is quite common for Rota’s scores to blur the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, the music touching every inch of the film and serving as an essential component of the story, characters, and thematic exploration. The composer’s work so integral to the director’s craft, in fact, that even after Rota passed away, Fellini continued to use pieces of Rota’s music in his films. When Fellini died, one of Rota’s pieces was played at the funeral, capping one of the most artistically significant partnerships in cinematic history.

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3. Henry Mancini and Blake Edwards

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If these men only ever collaborated on The Pink Panther film series, that would be more than enough to land them a spot on this list. Mancini’s incredible jazz scores to Edward’s classic comedies are among the most infectiously fun, stylish, and imaginative compositions ever written for film, and it is simply breathtaking to watch through the original run of Peter Sellers films and hear how Mancini effortlessly adapts to the gradually shifting tone.

These are some of my personal favorite scores of all time, but they are far from the only collaborations between Mancini and Edwards. Mancini was Edward’s primary composer throughout his career, and scored such classics as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses (both of which he won Academy Awards for), and Darling Lili. Edwards was one of the most aesthetically talented filmmakers in American cinematic history, and Mancini’s contributions were always a major, essential part of that equation. Though this is not one of the best-known director/composer collaborations today, it certainly deserves to be, as their work exemplifies what strong chemistry between filmmaker and musician can achieve.

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2. John Williams and Steven Spielberg

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The most significant and iconic union between director and composer in American cinematic history, one cannot examine the work of Steven Spielberg without giving great attention to John Williams’ contributions, and I would argue the same is true the other way around. Williams and Spielberg have emboldened one another their whole careers, constantly challenging the other to step up their game and deliver the best material possible. Many of the most memorable moments in Spielberg’s films would be nothing without Williams’ music – think E.T.’s escape, or the Close Encounters finale, or any given action sequence in any Indiana Jones film – and Williams, in turn, would not have the inspiration or opportunity to write such staggeringly beautiful music – like Schindler’s List – were it not for Spielberg’s talents as an immersive, thoughtful storyteller.

And while both men have been accused of being repetitive in their work, I find such criticisms largely groundless. Spielberg and Williams have ‘played it safe’ on occasion – 2011’s War Horse comes immediately to mind – but they have also been stylistically inventive and playful in ways most blockbuster film talents rarely are. Take a film like Catch Me If You Can, where Spielberg explored a period and film genre he had never visited before, and thus gave Williams license to write a very different – and extremely effective – jazz score. When the two work together, one can always sense the ways in which they need each other, all the aesthetic and narrative elements that can only be achieved by working in tandem.

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1. Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki

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My inspiration for putting together this list, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki is far and away my very favorite filmmaker, and Joe Hisaishi is, without a doubt, my favorite film composer. It has to be that way, given my belief in the significance of film music; the best director must work with the best composer, and visa versa. Together, they embolden one another to previously unimagined heights.

This is what Miyazaki and Hisaishi have achieved, time and time again, through a career spanning nine feature films (and an upcoming tenth), all of them masterpieces. Miyazaki’s visual artistry is so profound, so far above and beyond what any other filmmaker working in any format, be it live-action or animation, can even dream of accomplishing, that the music always, from the very beginning, had to be equally magnificent. A balance of beauty had to be struck between the aural and visual elements, and if not, Miyazaki’s work would have lacked the powerful and precise equilibrium that makes his films so wonderful.

And from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind onwards, Miyazaki and Hisaishi have found that equilibrium time and time again, with Miyazaki’s stories and animation inspiring Hisaishi to consistently greater heights and Hisaishi’s music giving Miyazaki license to go bigger, bolder, and more intensely emotional with his storytelling. I love all of Miyazaki’s films, and adore each of Hisaishi’s scores, though the pinnacle of their collaboration is undoubtedly 1997’s Princess Mononoke, which features one of the two of three best scores ever written for film.

But watch any of Miyazaki’s films, or listen to any of Hisaishi’s scores in isolation (difficult, since most of them have not been released as albums in the United States), and you will be blown away by the artistic fruits of this incredible partnership. Many years from now, when Miyazaki’s work is firmly entrenched in the annals of film history, I believe this collaboration between director and composer will be studied and revered as one of the best and most substantial, and deservingly so. Music and film have rarely combined to forge experiences this transcendent.

What are your favorite director/composer partnerships? Are you familiar with the collaborations on this list? Which team-ups would you have included? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

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  • pavel

    Great list, Miyazaki and Hisaishi are truly amazing. Princess Mononoke is their best work. I think in a few years this list should include Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer; David Fincher and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross… (I hope they work together in the future many times more)

  • http://twitter.com/will_chadwick Will Chadwick

    Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch for me.

  • Kenneth Serenyi

    A fantastic article on a subject near and dear to my heart. John Williams was a talented jazz musician before he entered into his TV and movie score composing career. Some of his first scores definitely had a jazz-vibe to them. ‘Catch Me If You Can’ must have been a great opportunity for John Williams to revisit his roots. Williams also had a short but effective collaboration with Oliver Stone, wherein Williams composed some of his most haunting and heartfelt ‘Americana’ music. The themes for ‘Born on the 4th of July’ and ‘JFK’ are two of my all time favorites of his.