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Twelve Great Brass Playing Moments in the Movies

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

Here is my entirely subjective list of twelve of the greatest moments for brass in the history of film. Each brass moment is briefly described, and the films rated from one to five stars (one is lousy, five is excellent). I don't know how useful this little exercise was, but I enjoyed doing it!

The American President

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

An entertaining (albeit corny) romantic-comedy that features great acting and amusing banter between the President and the people around him.

Length: 115 minutes.
Produced and directed by Rod Reiner.
With Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Anna Deavere Smith, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Mahoney.

For some reason, I actually enjoyed this piece of romantic fluff, perhaps because it is such an interesting look at some of the tough decisions an American president has to make. This president's daughter plays trombone, and she treats us to three brass playing moments. In the first and best scene she plays an Eb flat scale for Dad, then launches into Hail to the Chief as he leaves the room ("Hail to the chief. He's the chief and he needs hailing!").

Apocalypse Now

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

Unflattering picture of American involvement in Vietnam and the horrors of war.

Length: 153 minutes
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
With Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, and a young Harrison Ford!

I know this is supposed to be one of the most important movies of all time, but it's just too surreal for me – hence the two stars. It did have two great brass moments though. The first is when the helicopters take off and the bugle sounds a calvary charge. The second is when they attack a village while belting out Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from one of the choppers. Favorite line: "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning!"

Brassed Off

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

The Grimley Brass Band has a chance to win the national finals, if the band survives the closure of the town's mining pit.

Length: 107 minutes
Written and directed by Mark Herman.
With Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Tompkinson, Jim Carter.

This isn't the greatest movie I've seen – the plot is too formulaic for that – but it is a heartwarming look at beautiful music lovingly played, that just happens to make an important political statement along the way. A must-see for any brass player.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

An awe-inspiring film with an optimistic view of alien encounters.

Length: 135 minutes
Directed and written by Steven Spielberg. Music by John Williams.
With Bob Balaban, Melinda Dillon, Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Cary Guffey.

Putting aside the obvious absurdities, such as what kind of propulsion system could allow a space ship larger than a mountain to hover above the ground without incinerating the people below, or the human race communicating with some benign alien species via tuba/oboe duet, it's still a pretty good flick. The music is predictably excellent throughout. The great brass moment is, of course, the tuba solo.

Dancer in the Dark

(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

Definitely not a "feel-good" type of movie, but still deserves to be seen, if you can stomach the ending.

Length: 160 minutes
Directed by Lars Von Trier. Music by Icelandic pop star Bjork.
With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey.

This is, without a doubt, the most tragic film I have ever seen. Not to say that it is poorly done. On the contrary, it's a very good movie with innovative music and dance sequences, but the fate that befalls the main character is just horrible. The first thing you hear after the lights go down, believe it or not, is a three minute composition for brass choir – when the music ends the movie begins.

Grand Canyon

(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

A group of people, who would never ordinarily meet, cross paths in this intriguing study of life in an American city.

Length: 134 minutes
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan.
With Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, Steve Martin.

One of my favorite movies of all time. The main characters get together in the final scene for a trip to the Grand Canyon. They gaze out over the rim in rapt contemplation for a minute or so, then, for some inexplicable reason, a brass fanfare lights up. And what a fanfare! I'm sure the composer had Janacek's Sinfonietta in mind when he wrote it.


(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

A Brobdingnagian, man-eating shark terrorizes the inhabitants of a small town.

Length: 125 minutes
Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Music by John Williams.
With Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton.

What can you say about a movie that begins with a euphonium solo? John Williams is one of my favorite composers, with rousing brass parts in almost all of his music. Jaws is one of his best scores.

The Jerk

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

One of America's edgiest comics in a humorous movie that unfortunately doesn't date very well, hence the poor rating.

Length: 94 minutes
Directed by Carl Reiner.
With Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters.

Steve Martin is a master of physical comedy, and this movie is a showcase for his talents (I love the scene where he "gets rhythm"). Too bad about the episode of the sniper at the gas station, not to mention the execution of the butler's wife by firing squad: very disturbing to watch in these troubled days of actual snipers picking off U.S. citizens in shopping mall parking lots. The great brass moment: Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing a love duet on a romantic beach, accompanied by ukulele, when suddenly she pulls out a cornet and blows a chorus. I'm sure she didn't really play it, but the fingering and vibrato are almost perfect! Bonus brass moment: there's a great Tommy Dorsey-style trombone solo in the next scene, which you'll hear if you aren't laughing too loud. Favorite line: "I didn't want to get spit on me!"

The Party

(Brass Playing Part of the Plot)

A movie with little or no plot is still an extremely funny, and mostly improvised, vehicle for the impressive comedic talents of Peter Sellers.

Length: 99 minutes
Directed by Blake Edwards. Music by Henry Mancini.
With Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet.

The great brass moment occurs in the very first scene of this movie, as Peter Sellers (playing an Indian actor playing a trumpet player playing bugle calls during a pitched battle) is shot many times but refuses to die. He subsequently demolishes the movie set, then gets accidently invited to the producer's snobbish Hollywood party. There isn't much of a story line to this flick – most of it is simply a series of gags that occur at the party.

The Sea Hawk

(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

Errol Flynn in a rousing swashbuckler, with fabulous writing for brass by composer Erich Korngold.

Length: 128 minutes
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Music by Erich Korngold.
With Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Brenda Marshall, Alan Hale, Una O'Connor, Claude Rains, Flora Robson.

Dashing buccaneer Errol Flynn leads a band of English Privateers against the Spanish. Hailed as the "Father of Modern Film Music," Erich Korngold's scores for such movies as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk threw down the gauntlet for future Hollywood composers (such as John Williams) to pick up. I like The Sea Hawk the best – the battle scenes are superb!

2001: A Space Odyssey

(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

An epic Sci-fi masterpiece borrows some great brass music from Richard Strauss.

Length: 139 minutes
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Writing credits: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke.
With Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL.

How can I leave out the famous "Dawn of Man" scene? The movie begins with the opening fanfare from Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Star Wars, Episode Two - Attack of the Clones

(Brass Playing Part of the Soundtrack)

Best Star Wars movie ever!

Length: 142 minutes
Directed by George Lucas. Music by John Williams.
With Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen.

John Williams does it again! Great brass playing moments abound in all the Star Wars movies, but I'm going to pick just one of my favorites. After the movie ends, sit for a while and listen to the closing title music. In the last moments of the score Annekin and Padme's love theme gives way to a beautiful, soaring, previously unheard theme for the horn, a poignant moment that almost immediately plunges into the depths of despair. The last thing you hear is Darth Vader's menacing theme played by the basses, foreshadowing what is presumably going to happen to this troubled young man in Episode Three. Is this great film composing or what?

About Brad

Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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