What happened to movie music?

Everyone knows the theme to Jaws, but its modern equal is tough to find. Ben Walsh mourns the loss of memorable movie music
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One of the loveliest surprises about Richard Ayoade's bittersweet romance Submarine (out now on DVD) is its exquisite original soundtrack, by Arctic Monkey Alex Turner. The score, which is reminiscent of Cat Stevens's work on Hal Ashby's subversive Harold and Maude, is an increasingly rare occurrence, as there so very few decent movie soundtracks produced anymore. There's a dearth of great film composers to compare to the likes of John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Vangelis and Danny Elfman. In the main, most of the scores and songs for most film genres – be they action, romantic, thriller, indie, comedy or horror – seem so completely unmemorable. Recent Oscar ceremonies have highlighted the lack of a killer soundtrack. In fact, probably the most distinctive one was back in 1997, with Celine Dion warbling "My Heart Will Go On" on Titanic.

While the standard of Oscar winners for Best Film is getting markedly better – No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker, Crash, The King's Speech – the actual soundtracks are hard to recall. Perhaps, of course, that's the point. An overbearing or prominent soundtrack may detract from the film's images, plotline, acting and so on. But the winners of the best soundtrack in the past 10 years have been distinctly underwhelming – the likes of Frida, Finding Neverland, Babel, Atonement and last year's The Social Network. All pretty unexceptional. The only exception being Pixar's sumptuous Up in 2009. And animation (particularly the animations by Pixar) is the one area which excels with its soundtracks. Michael Giacchino's work on Up was memorably stirring, enhancing this gorgeous film's weep-factor. Similarly, Randy Newman's work – including the songs "You've Got a Friend in Me" and "We Belong Together" – on the Toy Story trilogy is outstanding.

However, gone, it seems, are the days when you leave a cinema humming the score. John Williams, in particular, was a master of the unforgettable soundtrack, composing the background music to Jaws ("Der-dum der-dum dum dum dum dum"), Star Wars ("Der der der, der der-der, der der-derrrr"), and Raiders of the Lost Ark ("do do-do do doo do do, do do-do do doo do do") during a giddy two decades – 1970s and 1980s – for film soundtracks.

John Barry was also a wonderful scorer of action movies, perfecting the James Bond sound – a heady blend of jazz, brass and lush melodies – on 1964's Goldfinger, 1967's You Only Live Twice and 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. Ennio Morricone was, of course, a whiz at the spaghetti Western, scoring and enhancing (immeasurably) A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, employing whistles, jaw harps, trumpets and gunshots to create an aural sensation. Before Morricone there was Bernard Herrmann, the composer who was a key component of Hitchcock's masterpieces, scoring Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo, and before Herrmann there was the great Max Steiner, who scored King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

Apart from Turner's compositions for Submarine and Daft Punk's decent work on the baffling Tron: Legacy, pop and rock acts just don't seem interested in creating exceptional scores anymore. Air were outstanding on The Virgin Suicides (but Sofia Coppola's film was made in 1999) and Badly Drawn Boy excelled with "Something to Talk About" and "Silent Sigh" on About a Boy, but this was nine years ago. And then there's Quentin Tarantino, whose use of music on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown was undeniably ingenious. (How much different would the ear-lopping scene have been if some solemn or even manic strings had been used instead of the humorous "Stuck in the Middle with You"?). However, Tarantino, by rifling through his record collection and selecting his favourite songs, may have sounded a death knell for original material on movies. Why bother creating new songs when there's so much pop music out there you can use? And film scores feel sloppy as a result. The same tired tracks – ELO's "Mr Blue Sky", Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star", or anything by Coldplay used again and again. It makes you hanker for Harold Faltermeyer's synth work on Beverly Hills Cop and it definitely makes you pine for the rousing soundtracks on 1980s teen gems such as Pretty in Pink (featuring OMD's "If You Leave"), Risky Business (featuring Tangerine Dream) and The Breakfast Club (featuring Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget about Me)").

Perhaps Elvis Costello's original song, "Sparkling Day", written especially for Lone Scherfig's adaptation of David Nicholls's One Day will spark a revival. But, then, as long as crunch-bang-wallop bombast predominates in action fodder such as Transformers and Captain America, there seems little hope of a full-blown film soundtrack renaissance. Maybe we just need better films...

'Submarine' is out now on DVD; 'One Day' is released nationwide on 24 August