The movie ends. The credits roll. The house lights come up. This is the part where most people leave the theater or hit the stop button on the remote. But for film score aficionados, the movie isn’t over. Assuming the studio hasn’t opted to drop in a pop song for cross-marketing purposes first, this is the best part. Even if we have to wait a few more minutes, those songs only last so long, and then the real musical feast begins. This is where the film’s composer gets to assemble the best themes of the movie into one longer concert piece.
Being of a certain age, and being drawn to certain heroic and overly romanticized styles, my favorites will mostly come from the era between the mid-70s and the mid-90s, with a leaning towards the sci-fi / fantasy genres and a dash of most anything adjacent to that. It’s absurdly limited, I know, especially given my interest in film scores of all eras. With this in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favorite end title compositions. I tend to hate lists as they are completely subjective and cause massive disruption to the cyber-continuum. But I suppose it’s difficult to get away from either idea in this case. Also, I can’t possibly arrange these in any particular order because they’ll shift hierarchical positions any given day. Even so, these tracks tend to remain in my top spots for this category of End Titles, and this is anything but a comprehensive list. Apologies in advance for this monster of a post, but I tried (and failed spectacularly) to limit this to ten pieces. I hope you don’t mind.
By nature of the beast, individual themes and specific cues will likely be left out, and many, many favorites will go unnamed as a result. For example, you unfortunately won’t hear many of John Barry’s excellent themes from the James Bond films for purposes of this post, nor will you find Howard Shore’s masterpieces from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, any given theme of which deserves the highest praise. I fully intend to do more blog posts about those and other classic themes at some point that I was forced to leave off, which is why I made the choice I did here. Otherwise, this post would be a proper novel-sized book. That’s just too much for one sitting. As it is, this is still likely too much for one sitting, but I hope you’ll enjoy it all the same.
As a warm-up, I want to toss in one that would largely go unnoticed. Direct-to-video animated films almost never get the love and recognition they deserve.
Wonder Woman — “Wonder Woman End Titles” by Christopher Drake”
The reason I bring this up is because in addition to being a favorite of mine, I’ve heard mixed feelings about this one in the past, including within my own circle of friends. I begrudge no one’s opinions, but controversy breeds discussion, so I toss it out there. Some, like myself, believe this to be a theme most worthy for something of a more theatrical caliber. Others think it “merely acceptable” fare for something of the direct-to-video persuasion. I argue that under the best of circumstances, there would be little difference in the quality of such compositions, but I think there’s some stigma there to be overcome no matter how hard we try. No matter which camp you fall into, I think you’ll agree it to be a theme befitting an Amazon warrior’s solo feature film debut. Its estimation of greatness has been somewhat diminished by medium, distribution method, and familiarity, none of which I think really matters. You be the judge. Compare it some of the selections I offer up later, and let me know what you think.
Personally, I think it’s a nice touch that Drake echoed an idea used by many superhero themes over the years, where you can almost hear the music call her by name in the primary four-note motif. It lends to the classic / retro nature of it for me.
Let’s pull the ripcord and explore the bigger theatrical pieces, shall we?
The Mummy — “The Sand Volcano” by Jerry Goldsmith
For me, Jerry Goldsmith is one of the greatest talents Hollywood ever had. He was the director’s composer for a lot of years. If John Williams can be said to have ushered in the neoclassical era of film scores after jazz dominated the industry for so many years, he did so on the foundations of Goldsmith, both of whom in turn built upon the legacy of the likes of Korngold and Steiner. He has this style of heroic adventure music that appeals to me instantly. But for me, what makes his pieces most memorable for me are his romantic interludes with a silky-smooth trumpet solo. The Mummy‘s end titles sequence features exactly these points, making it a quintessential example of the Goldsmith signature.
The action motif at the beginning of this piece covers the closing minutes of the film, slowing to a decrescendo at the 0:52 mark as our heroes take a breather before riding heroically into the sunset at 1:55. Credits roll at 3:15 with a lush rendition of the film’s love theme. The trumpet solo begins at 4:24, and while it’s brief, but it still grabs me every time.
Romeo and Juliet — “A Time For Us (Theme from Romeo and Juliet)” by Henry Mancini
Remember I just mentioned above about that era when jazz dominated the film score? Well, there was a name among the names that I want to showcase from that time just because I can. And even though this particular track isn’t jazz, it’s one of the truly great romantic themes of all time. Seems only fitting for the one of the truly great romantic stories of all time. The song was a product of its time, most assuredly Mancini’s style, and yet it comes across as both strangely appropriate and as timeless as the film itself. And just as an aside, this is how you film Shakespeare, people. Don’t modernize it. Let it thrive in the time and place the story is set. *ahem* Moving on…
The Pink Panther — “Theme from The Pink Panther” by Henry Mancini
This time I’m just going full-on jazz here. If you’ve seen the original movie that first used this theme, you know that the Pink Panther is actually a diamond with a unique flaw shaped like a leaping panther. But if you’re like me, you didn’t discover the movie until later. That means the Pink Panther is one of the coolest cartoon characters ever created, made even cooler by extended and obligatory usage of the movie’s incredible theme song. For our purposes here, the movie’s actual theme is a bit longer than the repeated cartoon version, so it gives it time to properly build to infinite coolness. Give this a think: the same guy that wrote the theme for Romeo and Juliet wrote this. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
Dr. No — “The James Bond Theme” by Monty Norman, orchestrated by John Barry
I said I wasn’t going to cover the 007 themes here, didn’t I? I said I wouldn’t cover “many of them.” But we all know the original Bond theme was both opening and end credit material, like so many of the themes used in that era, and as a Bond fan I simply can’t let one of the most recognized tracks on the planet slip by unmentioned. This one track created an entire subgenre of film scores, a category called “spy music.” If that alone doesn’t qualify it for my list, what would? Oh, that’s right… it only has to be one of my favorites to make this list. Gee, that was a tough call…
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly — “Theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” by Ennio Morricone
After decades of churning out westerns here in the States, Italian cinema gave us a whole new way to see the genre. The so-called “spaghetti western” revitalized the genre with all the grit and bravado you could ask. In terms of soundscape, Maestro Morricone has some of the most interesting uses of instrumentation and vocals I’ve ever beheld. That he kept doing this kind of thing time and again over the course of his career astounds me. His “Man With No Name” trilogy of scores form the backbone of everything I know about this composer. I’m proud to say that I was raised on the soundtrack for this one because my mom had it on an 8-track. Yeah. So you see, it holds a special place in my heart… because seriously, what else could make an 8-track awesome? Certainly not disco. *shudder*
The Magnificent Seven — “Theme from The Magnificent Seven” by Elmer Bernstein
True story. When I first joined my high school’s marching band, this theme was the first piece of music we had to memorize. Little did I know it would blaze a trail for me to discover all manner of movie scores from before my time. It also has the side effect of getting stuck in my head at random because it’s been hardwired.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula — “Dracula / End Credits” by Wojciech Kilar
As much as I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I freely acknowledge that there’s a power in this score that makes me love the film more than I probably should. It’s like the high tide that raises all boats, which seems an insufficient way to describe how this score brings this story together.
The end credits begin abruptly with the same ominous thread that opened the film, launching immediately into the theme for “The Vampire Hunters” at 0:38. The short glissando at 1:36 leads into the enchanted theme for “Mina.” At 3:29, we’re given the haunting strains that we’ve come to associate with Dracula himself, then at 4:30 the love theme for Dracula and Mina takes center stage. The opening motif again sounds at 5:27 to haunt us as the screen goes black.
The Godfather — “The Godfather Finale” by Nino Rota
When you talk about classic films, there are few (if any) that would be considered more classic than The Godfather. And as with any classic, part of what defines it as such is the equally iconic score. The lonely mandolin speaks of the old world and nostalgia. For me, this piece defines the music for mafia films the way this film defines the genre. More than that, it’s just quintessentially Italian. This music just sounds like Italy to me. What more need be said?
Tombstone — “Looking at Heaven / End Credits” by Bruce Broughton
Bruce Broughton has only done a couple of scores for westerns, and yet he is synonymous with the genre as we know it today. His score for Tombstone is the reason why.
Beginning with the love theme, Wyatt Earp comes to Josephine’s side, hat in hand after losing everything on his quest for vengeance. At the 1:23 mark, the happy couple dances into night as the film closes. The end credits roll, and the epic Tombstone overture begins at 2:40 as the Earps and Holliday remind the audience of all the coolness back there simply by walking up the street. At 4:57, we roll back into a soft rendition of the love theme, with a build at 5:40 back into the happily ever after music at 6:03, and slowing down again at 6:47. The overture calls out again at 7: 20, with the final minute or so of the piece restating the happy music and the overture motif one last time.
Back to the Future — “Back to the Future (End Credits)” by Alan Silvestri
If the 80s had a recurring motif, it’s the idea of the infinitely hummable theme song. Back to the Future was one of the most memorable of that era, which is no small feat considering the number of pop tunes peppered throughout. The main theme was sprinkled throughout the movie, but the end credits gave us a proper concert arrangement of it. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Captain America: The First Avenger — “Captain America March” by Alan Silvestri
Say what you will about the lackluster and largely forgettable nature of the music for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It could use a lot of work on that front. But to my ears, Alan Silvestri knocked one out of the park with his “Captain America March.” As with Back to the Future, it’s a relative short concert piece that plays over the end credits, but it packs a punch. It’s not only one of the best themes to come out of the modern era, it holds in my mind as one of the best superhero themes written thus far. It definitely speaks to the World War II era American fighting spirit, which makes it a perfect match for both character and film.
Batman Returns — “A Shadow of Doubt / End Credits” by Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s 1989 score for Batman marked his third collaboration with director Tim Burton. For better or worse, it marked his entry into the world of darker styled superheroes, and it kind of pigeon-holed him as the go-to guy for that sort of thing. When Burton signed on for Batman‘s inevitable sequel, Elfman was once again tapped. As I see it, this duo is the greatest film collaboration short of Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Their styles perfectly compliment one another. Batman Returns is musically, in many ways, the more mature successor to the ’89 film, and the end credits sequence is a superb showcase for Elfman’s character themes.
The track opens with the slinky strings calling back Catwoman’s motif as Bruce Wayne mourns her loss. But is she dead? The shadow he sees suggests she still has at least one life remaining. At 1:07, Batman’s motif is briefly called upon as the car drives into the night, the childlike music box theme of Catwoman closing out the film. The Batsignal is lit at 2:18, and Catwoman stands in front it as the credits roll and the Batman theme is brought to full power. Catwoman’s string motif is once again heard briefly at 3:14 before we’re given the descent into the Penguin’s theme at 3:25. We’re carried through the evolutions of this theme until the strings announce Catwoman yet again at 5:02, this time giving us a full quote of her theme before winding down into silence.
The Untouchables — “The Untouchables (End Title)” by Ennio Morricone
Another great mafia score from another great Italian composer, Ennio Morricone’s The Untouchables sounds surprisingly nothing like Nino Rota’s The Godfather and still fits the mold Rota established thanks to Morricone’s theme for Al Capone. That theme doesn’t feature in the end credits since Capone has been beaten by this point, shifting the focus back to Eliot Ness and his men. Ok, one man is all that’s left, but still. Like Ness himself, the end title theme is optimistic and idealistic in the classic Hollywood style, giving the character a “too good to be true and yet we completely buy it anyway” vibe. We buy it because Connery was there to ride roughshod. It all fit together nicely.
RoboCop — “RoboCop End Credits” by Basil Poledouris
Part man. Part machine. All awesome in a way that no sequel or remake could hope to equal. Basil Poledouris is typically astounding with storytelling scores, but RoboCop offered up a persistent earworm. I dare you not to get this theme stuck in your head. The end credits opens immediately with a slightly longer cut of RoboCop’s theme than is heard anywhere else in the film. At the 1:22 mark, various cues from the film dealing with Murphy’s memories are explored, then cycling back to Robo’s theme around the 4:39 mark. The themes intertwine to the end from there. The result is quite satisfying to this fanboy’s ear.
Conan the Barbarian — “Conan the King / End Titles” by Basil Poledouris
Being totally honest here, while I love the Conan theme, which is reprised in the end titles beginning at the 0:34 mark… as impressive as it is, it’s not my favorite track in the score. Hints of my favorite track, “Riders of Doom,” can be found starting at 2:55. The thing is, no matter which track is your favorite, the fact is this score set a high standard for fantasy films, and it would be many years to come before the films themselves were worthy of such a score. This is my go-to score when I ready myself for a long day of D&D.
The Hunt for Red October — “The New World” by Basil Poledouris
“The New World” is actually a smashed abridgment of the film’s main theme and the second track, “Nuclear Scam,” the latter of which is probably my favorite track on the album. When this movie was brand new, I owned the score on cassette and was the proud recipient of my first driver’s license. I cruised the streets with this score at volume, which earned me some interesting looks from my fellow drivers. They were just jealous because I had better taste in music than they did. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
I’m reserving the final slots to showcase my two all-time favorite film score composers. I couldn’t narrow this down any further, so this is where the idea of a top 10 list really disintegrated. I went a bit nuts, as you can see. We’ll start with the late James Horner.
Braveheart — “End Credits” by James Horner
While Horner’s most popular and bestselling score is for Titanic, Braveheart got there first in terms of setting the haunting Celtic tone. In my humble opinion it’s just better all around. There’s something almost ghostlike about it, don’t you agree? The score is so good, in fact, it overpowers you enough to make you forget about all the historical inaccuracies… such as kilts 200 years before they were worn or a princess that should have been 9 years old when Wallace was captured. I kid. Flaws aside, this movie is epic, and the score is perfectly matched to it.
Following the execution of Wallace and the stand at Bannockburn, Horner gives us a quiet dignity as the credits roll, building to a statement of the main theme on the pipes at 1:42, followed by the strings and full orchestra. The love theme, “For the Love of a Princess,” starts at in the middle at 2:16, building to a crescendo. A vocalise of this theme at 3:10 adds to this haunting quality I mentioned, followed in turn by the lonely horn version of the same at 3:53. The main theme reinstates itself on the pipes at 4:44. More vocals are added at 5:21, with the return of the solo pipes at 6:15 to carry us to the end of the track.
Apollo 13 — “End Titles” by James Horner, vocals by Annie Lennox
Is there a romantic majesty to strapping a chair to an afterburner, firing it off into space, and riding it back down on a parachute? Put in those terms, not really, but somehow the space program has it prepackaged because the people in those chairs are bona fide heroes that do the impossible everyday before breakfast. Or so we’re told. Don’t tell us otherwise.
The triumph of the human spirit is spelled out in the end titles theme for Apollo 13. If you listen carefully, you can hear the styles in common with Braveheart, even though the themes and subject matter are worlds apart. There’s something about a vocalise that adds a touch of the heavenly, and Annie Lennox puts that on full display here. Rather than a compilation of motifs from the film, this track is more of an evolutionary extension of the whole with telltale signatures used here and there to add to the whole. When you hear that solo trumpet at 5:11, just close your eyes and let it hit you in the heart. That’s the sort of thing that Horner did best. Raw emotions were always worn on his sleeve while composing, and he made you feel them all.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — “Epilogue / End Titles” by James Horner
When Horner got called up for Star Trek, he was the young newcomer. Jerry Goldsmith was unavailable. It turned out that the change in composer fully complemented the change in tone as the crew of the Enterprise returned to their nautical Hornblower roots. That’s the magic of the Star Trek II score. It captures two ideas at once: the nautical stylings of sailing vessels and the open abyss of deep space. Or it could just be that both ideas play on the same idea of venturing into the vast unknown. Whatever the case, Horner captured lightning in a bottle and repeated that success with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It’s ironic that he would start here for the spirit of adventure and space exploration that he would later provide for Apollo 13. There’s no question that it works, and you can hear the evolution of his style from one piece to another.
The “Epilogue” gives us new hope and a sense of youth restored as the Enterprise orbits the newly-created Genesis Planet, coupled with a sense of nostalgia as we remember Spock. As stated before, there’s that sense of floating on water and sailing into the unknown that I’m unable to describe any other way. At 2:52 we’re given the opening statement of Alexander Courage’s classic Star Trek TV theme (with voiceover by the late, great Leonard Nimoy!) before launching into an arrangement of the film’s majestic main title at 3:27, which includes the fully-realized b-theme for Spock that starts in at 5:09. This b-theme would later be reused, appropriately enough, as the main theme for Star Trek III. It’s the closest thing to a love theme this film has, but it’s a truly beautiful theme. Both themes get reinstated before the track closes with a classic Trek signature.
The Rocketeer — “Rocketeer to the Rescue / End Title” by James Horner
Hollywood and all of its rival markets have produced many themes of flying over the decades as the film industry and manned flight grew up side-by-side. James Horner met an untimely death doing what he loved best: flying. That love is reflected in a great many of his film scores, and for my money none of them comes as close to the experience as the score for The Rocketeer. That’s one of two reasons I declare this piece to my favorite Horner track. I’ll give you the other in a bit. This piece is in the classic Hollywood style, where you have the main title theme at the beginning and ending of the piece, with the love theme placed in between. But that’s not enough to describe this one.
The main theme as it appears in the opening of the film is played as the track begins and the film ends. It’s a deceptively innocent theme that begins on piano before moving into the strings, taking off at the 1:57 mark into full flight. This is that unbridled joy to which I previously referred. Horner doesn’t hold back any of it. This is what flight sounds like, pure and simple. At 3:52, we slow down into the love theme, “Jenny,” which is quite possibly my favorite love theme for any film. That’s the second reason I adore this piece. That the two motifs are perfectly complementary to one another is a bonus, which you can see when the main theme picks back up at 5:15 with a darker edge as the Rocketeer goes to save Jenny. The darkness is only a temporary slide before we get back into flight 30 seconds later for the big finale.
As we circle into the final selections, I want to go out with a bang, with the trifecta that made me the film score fanboy I am today. Only one composer could steal the top slots away from James Horner in my book, and that’s John Williams. I could certainly fire off another dozen more from him that should be on this list, but I have to restrain myself somewhere. While the maestro is still going strong all these years later, I feel like his most instantly memorable pieces are from around 1974 to 1984. Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you’re a fan of Harry Potter or Jurassic Park. For me, it’s because this is the era where my ear is most attuned, and I’ve grown up with this music.
Superman: The Movie — “Prelude and Main Title March (Superman’s Theme)” by John Williams
Yes, I know that in using a main title instead of the end title, this is cheating a bit. My reasoning behind this is easy to explain. It’s essentially the exact same theme, but with different opening buildups and a slightly different arrangement. The end titles sequence begins with the film’s denouement, featuring a cue from “Can You Read My Mind?” and ultimately truncates “Superman’s Theme.” That abbreviation annoys me for all manner of reasons, up to and including the notion that I can hear the edit. It hurts every time I hear it. So instead I offer the full version of the same theme as it’s presented at the beginning of the film. This version begins with the “Prelude,” where in the film a young girl’s voice over gives us the elevator pitch for the idea of Metropolis and the Daily Planet that nearly everyone knows. At the 1:12 mark, the tympani signals the transition into the theme taking flight. with the first phrases of the unrelentingly heroic “Superman Theme” kicking in at 1:43. At 2:16 the second phrase of the theme led by the strings makes itself known. At 2:48 there’s another transition, which leads into the third phrase at 3:06, which I think of as the meat of the piece. If you listen carefully at 3:12, you can actually hear the orchestra suggest the word “Superman.” These phrases flow back and forth across each other to the end of the piece, building the larger composition into the unforgettable earworm that’s left audiences humming the tune since 1978.
Raiders of the Lost Ark — “The Warehouse / End Credits” by John Williams
Of all of the themes from John Williams, if I were forced at gunpoint to list out of my all-time favorite, I’d probably say it’s this one. That probably comes from the fact that I actually have the original release of this album on vinyl. This is where my appreciation for the richness of film scores began. On the back cover, there’s a note at the bottom from director Steven Spielberg that got hardcoded into my 7-year-old imagination.
Spielberg tells how, if not for John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra accompanying Indy, our hero…
“…would surely have perished in a forbidding temple in South America or in the oppressive silence of the great Sahara desert. Nevertheless, Jones did not perish but listened carefully to the RAIDERS score. Its sharp rhythms told him when to run. Its slicing strings told him when to duck. Its several integrated themes told adventurer Indiana Jones when to kiss the heroine or smash the enemy.”
I don’t know about you, but to my young mind, this created a whole new way of interpreting the movie and its music. You see, in 1981 when this was released, the concept of home video wasn’t exactly a widespread thing. Soon, but not quite yet. You went to the theater, then you relived your movie experience through picture storybooks and soundtrack albums, neither of which were complete. Your imagination filled in the gaps, often on the playground or in your friend’s backyard. So I learned this album backwards and forwards. I could hear the characters and their actions in what I would later discover to be leitmotifs. Everything I took with me from this experience came with me to other film scores, and eventually to all genres of music.
The track opens with a quote of “Marion’s Theme,” slipping into the theme for the Ark at 0:27, and blasting straight into “The Raider’s March” at 0:58. For some odd reason, there’s a slight hesitation in this video that’s not on the original recording, but that’s not a big deal for these purposes. There’s a transition at 2:50, and then “Marion’s Theme” is woven back into the tapestry at 3:04. In one of the quickest and most seamless transitions I know, “The Raider’s March” begins to build again at 4:42 before kicking in at 5:08, followed by the grand finale beginning at 5:26.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — “The Rebel Fleet / End Title” by John Williams
Depending on whom you ask, this is arguably the most famous, most iconic, and most overplayed sequence of film music from any feature film, ever. It’s been used time and again by Lucasfilm to market various Star Wars film trailers and video releases, video games, toy commercials… the list just goes on. And for good reason. If you list out the “greatest hits” of John Williams’ themes, his Star Wars themes are always in that list, and the pieces used to assemble Empire‘s end titles sequence are among his very best.
We open with a somber use of “The Force Theme,” as our heroes contemplate the wounds they’ve been dealt. At 0:59, a sweeping version of “Han Solo and the Princess” takes over to carry us to the end of the film, with the wonderfully obligatory “Rebel Fanfare” punching the end credits into being at 1:57. An upbeat version of “Yoda’s Theme” breaks in at 2:27. At 3:42, we transition into the Dark Side with perhaps the most popular theme of the Saga, “The Imperial March.” There’s a regal transition at 4:37 that abruptly shifts gears and brings us back to the “Han Solo and the Princess” theme at 4:47. At 5:52 begins the “Rebel Fanfare” grand finale of this sequence, which has been the bumper music for every promotional spot Lucasfilm has generated since, such is its level of awesome.
And that’s a wrap. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of film scores as much as I did putting it together. My thanks to the various YouTubers who provided the tracks. I’d also like thank my enthusiastic friends over at Booklikes for helping me to jog my sleep-deprived memory. It’s because of them that this turned out so long.