What’s the first thing you hear when a movie starts? Okay, that’s a little extreme. So what’s the second thing you hear when a movie starts? The main titles. It’s the composer’s big chance to wow and impress the audience and leave a stamp in their memory.
Some main titles do indeed take this opportunity to go straight for the throat. They’re big, memorable and unforgettable. John Williams made a name for himself with openings like these. Star Wars, Superman, Hook… the examples abound. In film, rare are the themes that don’t play over the opening and still make it to become cultural standards. Interestingly, Indiana Jones’ theme is one of them: it doesn’t play over the main titles, and yet everyone knows it. Williams again. The man just has a knack for being memorable.
But memorable doesn’t always mean big, of course. Something tender and delicate like Alan Silvestri’s Forrest Gump opening is just as unforgettable.
There was a time in the golden age of cinema when grandiose movies got a special musical treatment: the overture. A piece of music that played before the main titles. Nothing on screen, just music for its own sake. Spartacus got one, Lawrence of Arabia got one. Ben Hur got one. Sadly, the practice died out. We can only imagine what contemporary giants like Williams, Goldsmith and Morricone could’ve done with overtures to play with.
Of course, not all main titles are meant to be memorable. Thrillers and horror movies require a dark suspenseful atmosphere. Sadly, the composer here is usually robbed of the chance to slam us in the face with a memorable theme. But careful and patient listeners will often detect hints of a theme that will get developed later in the score. Let’s look at the opening and closing tracks of Jerry Goldsmith’s Leviathan score. The first track will likely not yield any thematic anchor in the listener’s mind. But check out the final track, then go back to the first one again. Picking up that theme now?
Some main titles are also completely unrepresentative of the rest of their score. They impress, they seduce, but then they never again show up in the rest of the movie. Little “tease themes.” Such it is for Ennio Morricone’s sublime theme of Moses, and Henry Mancini’s adventuresome Life Force theme. The rest of these lengthy scores is interesting, intelligent, but far less accessible and charming than their opening.
But perhaps the best way to make main titles memorable is to stick an original song there. Just about every Disney movie is a fine example. But one of the finest achievements in that field is the collaboration between Trevor Jones and David Bowie on Labyrinth.