Almost any movie watcher understands that a film’s music is an important part of its structure and of the viewers’ experience. Any true cinema buff, musician, audio engineer, or obsessive music listener AND moviegoer realizes that a score is an INTEGRAL part of the film, on a deeper level than casual audiences. And it can be argued, funny enough, that a movie’s score is the most underrated part of the film. The actors, directors, action scenes, cool visual effects, and other aspects usually take the spotlight and glory when it comes to what draws audiences and what they latch onto in a film’s marketing, or what they remember about a film after they’ve seen it.
The writers, shamefully, don’t get as much love unless, again, you’re an avid movie watcher who knows who the great writers are and factors that into your decision to watch a movie. But the movie score… yea… that also doesn’t get as much love unless it’s so memorable that it climbs to the charts after audiences have seen the film. Many iconic themes do find themselves interwoven with the public consciousness, but they’re usually few and far between.
The ’90s were a great era for movie music. From John Williams bringing a grandiose awe to the barrier-breaking Jurassic Park, to then making the Holocaust even more haunting than thought possible with his score for Schindler’s List… to the multiple award-winning and globe-dominating score of Titanic, with its timeless and beloved signature melody composed by the late, immortal James Horner, to the majestic and inspiring music of The Prince of Egypt, The Lion King, Braveheart, and countless others. Even the Terminator returned with a revamped and even more iconic version of its signature theme. But alas, for all the wondrous scores made during this decade, there were plenty that didn’t get the love or recognition they deserved, for one reason or another.
10 Batman Returns (1992)
The first Batman film in ’89 blew the doors of movie music wide open with its score and legendary theme, composed by the equally legendary Danny Elfman. It instantly became iconic and synonymous with the character, and is still beloved today. But for some reason, the score to its sequel, Batman Returns, which also brought back Danny Elfman, didn’t get the same amount of attention. It’s a pity because Mr. Elfman brought many wonderful things to the table this time. His theme for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is absolutely perfect! With its subtle and slinky strings “meowing” throughout, and its chilling combination of violins and gothic harp; her theme was sleek, sexy, haunting, seductive, dark, and beautiful all at the same time.
And for The Penguin, Danny went utterly majestic, with sad pianos, sweeping strings, choir chants, and pretty much an entire circus of instruments that simultaneously matched the villain’s bizarre circus freak personality and grandeur while also being utterly heartbreaking. On top of these two wonderful themes, the entire score was beautiful and soaring and actually superior to the original’s score in many ways, but unfortunately, didn’t cement itself as firmly into music score “stardom” as its predecessor had.
9 Batman Forever (1995)
Batman Forever was a controversial pivot in the ’90s Batman franchise, with a whole new cast (save for the late Michael Gough), crew, and a very noticeable change in tone. One of the biggest changes was that Danny didn’t return to score the franchise, and in his stead, Elliot Goldenthal chose to fill in those incredibly high shoes. The film itself tore audiences down the middle, losing fans and gaining new ones. But maybe because the new chapter was so divisive and alienating, that was a huge factor in why many didn’t want to give its score a fair shot either. And that was rather unfair because Elliot actually did a phenomenal job!
Yes, it doesn’t compare to Elfman’s work, but it was a great fit for the new franchise direction and the new Batman. Where Elfman kept it dark, gloomy, and gothic, Mr. Goldenthal went the other way and leaned into the mainstream action blockbuster vibe with sweeping brass and bombastic, cinematic flair. It was a fresh change. Really, who can forget that end shot of Batman and Robin running towards the camera with Elliot’s majestic and heroic theme closing it out?
8 Strange Days (1995)
This is quite honestly, one of the most underrated films ever made, in pretty much every way including its score. No, really, it’s downright criminal how underrated this film is and to what depth it tanked at the box office! The score to this film was composed by the also underrated Graeme Revell. And it’s a slightly subtle but wonderful score. It captures all the elements of the film sublimely, with dark and brooding instrumentals accompanying the dystopian setting, paranoid synths and electronics for the cyberpunk vibes, and incredibly intense music for the disturbing and infamous “POV” scenes… Graeme’s music pretty much has everything you could want in the soundtrack of a hi-tech dystopian thriller, and with uniquely nostalgic ’90s vibes to boot.
And last but certainly not least, his gorgeous and haunting composition for the film’s theme song, “Fall in the Light”, with vocals from Lori Carson, is absolutely unforgettable and the best part of the film’s music, along with its killer ’90s soundtrack by various artists.
7 The Crow (1994)
The dark and gothic soundtrack to this cult classic understandably took the spotlight of the musical aspect of the film, producing some classic and popular hits. But because of that, not much attention was given to its great score by Graeme Revell. One would think he would try to match the soundtrack by going gothic and brooding for the score, but surprisingly, his music was more old-fashioned and spiritual in a sense, with tribal drums and slow-burn orchestrations in many places.
But he also brought the grungy rock spirit when need be, like the hypnotic guitar riffs in “Inferno”, as well as the dark, Goth sensibility such as the track “Devil’s Night”, all while keeping the score distinctly “’90s”.
6 Blade (1998)
A superb (and rather important) superhero/horror classic that set the bar quite high with its spectacular action, stylistic direction, gory violence, dark grit, and of course, Wesley Snipes’ iconic performance as the day walker/vampire hunter. But for all the things it made an unforgettable impression with, its score went largely unnoticed. It was composed by the underrated Mark Isham, and was quite interesting and unique for the genre.
Like the movie, his score was stylistic, atmospheric, and dark, blending differing styles from the moody and intense opening track “Intruder” to swerving completely left with a meditative, middle-eastern slow chant in the middle of “Daywalker”, to a ridiculously cool, heart-racing crescendo within “The Bleeding Stone”. The only downside is that it was on the short side, with only seven tracks.
5 The Matrix (1999)
Alright, one can, obviously, write an entire laundry list of ways The Matrix was as impactful as it was. It blew past every conceivable cinematic and storytelling standard and was hailed for almost every aspect it had. But for all the things it was praised for, not enough went to the hypnotic score, especially the iconic main title theme, composed by Don Davis. For starters, the main theme almost perfectly captured the entire film in a musical nutshell, encompassing the cyberpunk vibe, the philosophy, the mythology, the world, the horror, the suspense, the dystopian uneasiness, everything.
But besides that, the rest of the score followed in the same vein, swinging in pitch-perfect levels between old-school orchestra and tight electronics, while always interweaving the thread of that iconic cyberpunk sound throughout the entire musical canvas. The music was a perfect companion to the Wachowskis’ grand, ambitious, and dark vision.
4 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The original Terminator theme is one of the most iconic of all time. But the revamped version for the sequel is even more superior, giving it a modern edge, sweeping grandeur, and more emotional weight. Strangely, though, both the Terminator 2: Judgment Day theme and the entire score didn’t get as much stardom as the first go around, even though it brought back the original composer, Brad Fiedel. Again, his score for the sequel is superior in many ways, giving his original sounds an updated sensibility, adding more emotion, suspense, intensity, and a few heart-racing action cues.
3 End of Days (1999)
This is an underrated movie in and of itself, bombing upon release and mauled by critics and audiences alike. Unfairly so, as it’s actually a decent, entertaining, heart-racing thriller. It’s arguably one of Schwarzenegger’s better films. But one of its most underrated aspects is its score by John Debney. Especially the main theme, which starts off with a haunting, ominous, and sinister vocal chant. Many religious-themed horror films that deal with the apocalypse usually contain musical themes that always have either chants, choirs, or similar sounds, but this one is a bit different, darker, and more haunting in a way, as if the end of days (no pun) is truly imminent and right around the corner.
The entire score captures the film’s horrifying, apocalyptic nature quite wonderfully, and the best part is how serious it takes it. Rather than approaching it with a more entertaining, mainstream feeling “Hollywood” vibe, or a winking, self-aware attitude of any kind, the music dives into the horror, truly taking the serious subject to heart and not holding back on making it feel as dark, scary, and apocalyptic as possible. All films of this genre should commit to the music as hardcore as this score does.
2 Fight Club (1999)
One of the most controversial films ever made, it might be understandable that something like its score would be overlooked among all the hot debates and conversations the movie provoked in its wake, and the other aspects of the film that were criticized and/or praised. The music composed by The Dust Brothers was quite interesting and unique, blending together various electronics, drums, and samples to create a thrilling and unorthodox musical canvas.
The nature of Fight Club would make one wonder about what sort of music would best be fit to accompany it, and the musical duo broke new ground with an ambitious score that deserves more attention.
1 The Fifth Element (1997)
One of the most influential sci-fi classics of all time, the score by Eric Serra matched the uniquely wacky, ambitious, entertaining, and colorful nature of The Fifth Element. He weaved his score with the outside soundtrack that Luc Besson put into the film, and some classic pieces as well, combining all sorts of sounds and instruments like the Oboe, and reggae. He collaborated with vocalist Inva Mula for the classic “Diva Dance”.
And while the rich score did receive praise and even charted on the billboard chart, it still gets rather overlooked in discussions about the film.