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Music in Movies: Tearjerkers

Updated on June 10, 2014

Ludvig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 7 in A op. 92

"Beethoven wasn't born deaf."

Mr Holland's Opus follows the career of composer and reluctant high school music teacher Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) as he tries to juggle work and family, all while writing his magnum opus.

Popular music from the 60s to the 90s is put to wonderful use, and the movie is intercut with newsreel of defining moments in the era in which it's set, such as the Vietnam war, the death of John Lennon, and Woodstock.

In a heartbreakingly cruel twist, Holland's son Cole is found to be deaf, and Holland realises he will never be able to share his love of music with his son. He shares with his class a story of how, when Beethoven was composing his 7th Symphony, he sawed off the legs of his piano, lay down on the floor in front of it, and hammered the keys to hear the music through the vibrations in the floor.

The movie then cuts to filmreel clips of the sixties, before we see Glenn and his wife Iris struggling to cope with Cole's inability to communicate.

Harold Faltermeyer: Memories

"God, he loved flying with you Maverick."

Top Gun was one of the biggest movies of the 80s and made Tom Cruise a household name with his role of Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. Maverick's cocky bravado may not be to everybody's tastes, but his close friendship with his RIO Goose almost certainly is.

When their F-14 goes into a flat spin and Goose ejects straight into the jettisoned canopy, Maverick's grief is played out on screen along with the haunting melody of Harold Faltermeyer's Memories.

With Goose's death we see through Maverick's overconfident exterior and see that he's been masking his pain at the loss of his father for far too long, leading to his feelings of guilt over Goose's death.

Itzhak Perlman: Theme From Schindler's List

"Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."

In Stephen Spielberg's WWII drama Schindler's List, we see a Nazi businessman's transformation from money-hungry merchant to saviour of an entire Jewish community.

Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler begins as just another factory owner, but with the help of his accountant, Itzhak Stern, he begins to care for his Jewish workers, doing everything he can to stop them being killed by the Nazis.

Carefully woven through the movie is the title theme by Itzhak Perlman, a soulful melody that perfectly captures the harrowing tone of the film. It's this music, and the iconic images of the small girl in the red coat, that make Schindler's List one of the most beautiful and poignant movies in cinematic history.

Patrick Doyle: Death of Cedric

"Take my body back to my father."

The Harry Potter saga begins with death, and ends with a lot more. But it's the death of Cedric Diggory that is probably the hardest of all to watch, because it's the first time we see Harry see someone die, and to make it worse it's at the hand of the very same man who killed his parents.

Yes, Harry is competing against Cedric in the Tri-Wizard tournament, but there is no ill feeling between the two boys, even when it turns out that Cedric is dating the girl Harry has a crush on. So when the Tri-Wizard Cup turns out to be a portkey that transports them to a graveyard, Harry's first instinct is to try and get Cedric and himself to safety, but Voldemort orders Wormtail to 'kill the spare' and Cedric is kille, quite literally as quick as a flash.

But it's when Harry takes Cedric's body back to the school that the emotions start to pour. Harry cradles Cedric's body, not wanting to let anyone else near him, and Cedric's father rushes to his boy's side. The camera pans around the crowd of students who are all crushed at the loss of this boy who was universally admired in the school and all the while, Patrick Doyle's wistful orchastral piece plays in the background.

The piece is less than two minutes long, but is one of the most evocative musical moments in the entire saga.

Michael Kamen: Concentration Camp

"Outstanding Erik. So we unlock your gift with anger. Anger and pain."

X-Men begins with young Erik Lehnsherr being separated from his family upon entering a concentration camp in Nazi occupied Poland.

Terrified and desperate for his mother, he reaches out to her, only to be dragged back by Nazi officers, and a set of gates buckle towards him, as if being attracted magnetically. He is hit in the head with the butt of a rifle and falls unconscious.

In X-Men: First Class we see Erik being ordered by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) to demontrate his ability by moving a coin across the desk, and when he is unable, his mother is brought in as an incentive. When he still cannot move the coin on the desk, his mother is shot dead, and Erik's power destroys every metal item in the room.

In both scenes, Michael Kamen's Concentration Camp theme features prominently, and while it may not have the same mournful quality as other pieces featured here, the music blends seamlessly with the action on screen to make the viewer genuinely feel for the scared young boy, even though we know all too well that he'll grow up into a villain.

Hans Zimmer: ...To Die For

"The king is dead, and if it wasn't for you he'd still be alive."

For many movie-goers, their first experience of tragedy and loss is from watching a Disney film, but none are so truely heartbreaking as the death of Mufasa in The Lion King.

Young Simba is born into a royal family, and can't wait to be king - in fact he sings a song about it! The problem is, neither can his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) can't wait to be king either. So Scar constructs a scenario in which he can wipe out both Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) in a tragic stampede of wildebeest.

Unfortunately for Scar, Mufasa saves young Simba, and is all but out of the gorge himself, he just needs Scar's help to climb the last few feet. But Scar has other plans, and after sticking his claws through Mufas's front paws and wickedly hissing 'long live the king', lets his brother fall to his death. And if that's not enough, he goes and blames it on Simba!

Hans Zimmer's beautiful orchestral piece '...To Die For' magnificently captures the emotional cyclone in the scene, as we follow the action on screen, building to an intense head as Simba sees his father struggling to get free, and ultimately fall into the waves of stampeding wildebeest below, and then a painful melodic finale when Simba realises his father is never going to wake up, and Scar cruelly insists he run away to avoid the ire of the pride.

There will be others

I hope you've enjoyed this collection of my favourite tearjerker moments. I know they are just the tip of the iceberg - there are probably moments in Titanic too, but I've never seen it, so I wouldn't know.

If you have any other favourites I'd love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments!

© 2014 Rebecca Hillary


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    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      Music can really set the tone for a movie and play a major role in making it memorable. You have cited some wonderful examples in this piece.


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