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Back in October, in the midst of Carter Burwell’s trifecta of new scores, I started discussing with a few of my friends if he was a top-tier composer. A couple weeks later, on the heels of Justice League’s release, someone on a message board posed the question of whether Danny Elfman was a “merely great” composer or a “F***ING LEGEND.” (The consensuses: Burwell was not top-tier, Elfman was a legend.)

These discussions reminded me strongly of debates I’d read/hear over whether NFL quarterbacks like Tony Romo or Joe Flacco were ever ELITE quarterbacks. But debating which composers were ELITE and which weren’t is easy and boring. The better question was: which quarterbacks are the analogs for these composers? And not just in terms of their talent; which quarterback matches a composer in his talent, his success, how he’s perceived by fans, and what kind of narratives surround him?

Some loose guidelines I used:

  • Super Bowls and MVP awards are equated to Oscar winners and sometimes career-defining masterpieces, seasons and yards roughly to longevity and total output
  • Active composers=Active quarterbacks, though if the composer has been around for a while, he may be paired with a retired QB.
  • This is very much based on current perceptions of both QBs and composers; some of these could be completely different in a year.
  • You’ll figure out the rest as you go


The Hall of Famers

John Williams = Joe Montana
Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but sometimes they speak loudly. Both John Williams and Joe Montana are legends in their fields, with instant memories you can associate with them. Williams has 5 Oscars, Montana 4 Super Bowl titles. Sure, Williams was lucky to work with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and Montana was lucky to have Bill Walsh and Jerry Rice, but they won big, towered above their rivals, and are both arguably the greatest of all time.

John Barry = Brett Favre
Brett Favre was a gunslinger; you couldn’t tell sometimes if he was about to pull off something brilliant or if he was about to do something absurdly frustrating, but more often than not he’d deliver, and with a career as long as his, the emotional highs far outweighed the lows. The same applied to Barry; throughout his decades-spanning career, there was a chance he’d come up with an uninspired effort, but more often than not he’d pull through.

Jerry Goldsmith = Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning was prolific and consistent, and had a football brain like no other; put him under center and your team always had a fighting chance. (Ignore that last season with the Broncos.) Jerry Goldsmith was the same; even with dreadful material to work with, he could elevate the dreck. And few could match his talent with synths! Goldsmith/Manning also works in the context of Barry/Favre, two legends and contemporaries who never quite had the rivalry you dreamed of.

James Horner = Troy Aikman
Simply put, the mid-90s belonged to these two. Horner dominated the period with a staggering run of films from Legends of the Fall through BraveheartApollo 13Titanic, and The Mask of Zorro, winning 2 Oscars for Titanic. Meanwhile, Aikman led the Cowboys to 3 Super Bowls wins in 4 seasons, picking up the Super Bowl MVP award in 1993. While their careers were sadly on the shorter side, their wild success in a shorter period puts them amongst the greats.

Alex North = Dan Marino
Ennio Morricone = John Elway
Here are two legendary composers and two legendary quarterbacks, all four of whom are ultimately judged in part by their Oscars/championships. As brilliant as North’s music could be, from the jazzy A Streetcar Named Desire to the avant-garde Dragonslayer, he never won a competitive Academy Award, despite 15 nominations. Meanwhile, Dan Marino, one of the most successful quarterbacks of the 80s, never won a Super Bowl and is widely considered the greatest to never win it all.

Ennio Morricone and John Elway risked that same fate, though they both found the missing piece (Quentin Tarantino/Terrell Davis) late in their careers to help them reach the final success, Morricone winning an Oscar for The Hateful Eight at the age of 87 and Elway winning Super Bowls in his final 2 seasons. (As a Chiefs fan, it pains me to say nice things about Elway, but he deserves it.)


The Veterans

Hans Zimmer = Tom Brady
The moment I started fleshing this concept out, one fact hit me immediately: Hans Zimmer is Tom Brady. Some love him, some hate him, but no one can deny his achievements. Worldwide recognition, sustained success, making more money each year than I’d know what to do with…I’m sorry, was I talking about Zimmer or Brady? Both represent the pinnacle of success and the epitome of the word “polarizing.” 

Alexandre Desplat = Drew Brees
Despite having won only won Super Bowl (so far; the Saints look like strong contenders this season) and never winning MVP, Drew Brees is undoubtedly one of the most prolific passers in the NFL right now, and amongst the all-time greats. Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards in a single season 5 times in his career. Every other quarterback in history has done the same a combined four times. In technique and pure passing skill, Brees might be unrivaled. As for Desplat, he’s only won one Oscar (again, so far; The Shape of Water seems like a probable nominee), but he’s been relentless in his output, as consistent in quality as he is varied in style. And like Brees, Desplat’s technical mastery surpasses his contemporaries; few others can orchestrate as creatively as him, and no one can match Desplat’s woodwind writing.

Howard Shore = Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner has one of the best and most improbable stories in football history. After going undrafted, playing arena football for 3 seasons, and even playing in Europe for a bit, Warner finally made it to the NFL as a backup for the St. Louis Rams in 1998. When the starting QB got injured in the ’99 preseason, Warner stepped up…and led the Rams and their record-setting offense (nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf”) to a Super Bowl win that same season. Implausible as it may have seemed in the 90s, Warner’s now a Hall of Famer.

In the late 90s, it seemed like Howard Shore would never break through either. Save for his collaborations with David Cronenberg, Shore had just a handful of notable Hollywood films to his credit amidst many dark horror and thriller films. When he was announced as the composer for The Lord of the Rings, many were pessimistic that he could deliver on such a staggering project. But just like Warner, Shore rose to the occasion and delivered an historic performance, with the best film score trilogy ever written. You could even compare Warner’s resurgence with the Cardinals 9 seasons later with Shore’s return to Middle-Earth with the Hobbit trilogy. 

Carter Burwell = Trent Dilfer/Joe Flacco
Considering how this began with the question of whether Burwell was an ELITE composer, the Flacco comparison was inevitable. Burwell is by no means a bad composer, and he has his fans, but I struggle to think of any scores of his that are enduring classics. But his filmography is still impressive; between his collaborations with Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes, the Coen Brothers, and others, he has a long line of great films he’s been a part of. So it boils down to this: You can make a great, Oscar-winning film with Carter Burwell composing your music, but he’s not going to magically turn your movie into an Oscar winner. The Ravens have won two Super Bowls on the backs of strong defenses, one with Flacco at QB and one with Trent Dilfer at QB. Neither of them won the Super Bowl for their team, but the Ravens still won Super Bowls with them under center. Flacco is a slightly better quarterback, but the two are almost interchangeable and I can’t quite decide which one matches Burwell better.

Danny Elfman = Ben Roethlisberger
*Disclaimer* I despise Ben Roethlisberger as a person, and none of his off the field behavior played a factor in this comparison.

Roethlisberger went 14-0 as a starter in his rookie season with the Steelers. The next year, he won the first of two Super Bowls with them. Danny Elfman had a similarly impressive early career with instant classics like Pee-Wee’s Big AdventureBatmanEdward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Despite the early successes Roethlisberger had with Pittsburgh, he has somehow become a better quarterback in the last few seasons than he was during those championship runs. And although Elfman has not penned a career-defining score in the last several years, he’s arguably even better now than he was 30 years ago.

James Newton Howard = Eli Manning
Now bear with me before you sprint to the comment section! On the surface, Eli gets a lot of flack for his inconsistency, for his interceptions, for not being the incredible quarterback that big brother Peyton was. And yet, Eli Manning had the second-longest streak of consecutive starts for a quarterback ever (only behind Favre), is a 2-time Super Bowl MVP, and has several memorable clutch performances in his career. And yes, the Giants are awful this year, but he really can’t be blamed for the garbage around him.

And that’s essentially who James Newton Howard is too. He’s been durable and productive, he’s written some truly excellent music (The Last Airbender), and he’s stayed a professional and performed well even when he’s surrounded by awfulness (The Last Airbender). Even so, Howard has a reputation for inconsistency. So often I’ve heard people describe various scores from him as either “The Good JNH” or “The Evil Twin JNH.” Same goes for Eli Manning. Is Eli Manning a future Hall of Fame quarterback? I don’t think so, but he’s better than his reputation for inconsistency suggests. Is James Newton Howard an all-time Great Composer? I don’t think I could go that far, but I could talk myself into it.

One last parallel: In 2005, Howard Shore was fired from Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake and replaced with JNH. In 2004, Kurt Warner, our Shore equivalent, was the starter for the Giants. Midway through the season, he was benched for – you guessed it – Eli Manning.

Michael Giacchino = Aaron Rodgers
Both are amongst the best in their fields and already hugely successful in their still-blossoming careers. Take Rodgers out of the Packers’ lineup and they’re a hot mess, take Giacchino out of Hollywood and Disney’s in trouble. They’re the crown princes, the clear heir to John Barry/Brett Favre. Are they a little overexposed? Perhaps, but between Giacchino’s puns and Rodgers’ State Farm commercials, they’re far too likable off the field and much too entertaining on the field to actually get upset about it.


The New Stars

Don Davis = Colin Kaepernick
Between 1999 and 2003, Don Davis scored The Matrix trilogy, a masterpiece blend of techno beats, avant-garde horror, and operatic majesty. This trio of scores established Davis as one of the freshest voices in Hollywood. Since then, he has inexplicably scored only 5 movies, his last one for an adaptation of a Japanese anime. Colin Kaepernick came off the bench in 2012 and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl, and his blend of passing and running skills established him as one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league. This season, Kaepernick was a free agent, and no team has signed him. The only difference between Davis and Kaepernick is that we know exactly why Kaepernick wasn’t signed. I’ve frequently thought of late “Why are you hiring Brandon Weeden/Junkie XL for this when Colin Kapernick/Don Davis is available? You can do so much better!” Perhaps Kaepernick can take a cue from Davis and play in the CFL.

John Powell = Andrew Luck
Here we have the generational talent, the guy whose rise to stardom felt imminent. Luck was a two-time Heisman runner-up while at Stanford, the first overall pick by the Colts in 2012. In the early 2000s Powell was one of the most exciting composers to emerge from Zimmer’s Media Ventures studio with early successes like Chicken RunShrek, and The Bourne Identity. And for a brief, spectacular moment, they were fulfilling their sky-high potential. Luck led the Colts to the playoffs three consecutive seasons, falling just one game short of the Super Bowl in 2014, and Powell continued to deliver excellent music, including the Oscar-nominated How to Train Your Dragon

And then…bad fortune befell them both. Luck has twice gone down with injury and has missed the entire 2017 season, and Powell took a hiatus to focus on family matters, following up 6 scores from 2011-2012 with just 5 scores in the 6 years since. That said, Luck is expected to return next season, Powell has a Star Wars and a third Dragon film on the horizon. Despite their setbacks, their futures look promising.

Abel Korzeniowski = Cam Newton
Dario Marianelli = Russell Wilson
Johann Johannsson = Deshaun Watson
Here, I try to draw parallels between rising European composers and young mobile quarterbacks, all of whom will hopefully entertain us for years to come. Much like how Wilson exploded onto the scene his rookie year and won a Super Bowl in his second season, Marianelli had a dramatic arrival in Hollywood with scores like The Brothers Grimm and Pride and Prejudice in 2005, winning an Oscar for Atonement just two years later. Abel and Cam are harder for some fans to love, but they’re flashy and appeal even to those who aren’t soundtrack/football enthusiasts. Watson immediately became one of the most entertaining players in the league to watch this season, but his rookie campaign was cut short by injury in October. Similarly, Johannsson’s still growing career in film scoring has been one of the most talked-about in recent years (though he’s considerably more controversial than Watson), but his 2017 was an unlucky one for him too, with his score for mother! being rejected and Benjamin Wallfisch replacing him on Blade Runner 2049.


Other Pairings that Didn’t Warrant an Entire Paragraph

Harry Gregson-Williams = Alex Smith (Had his ups and downs, but he’s excellent with the right pieces around him)
Patrick Doyle = Matt Ryan (So consistently excellent you almost get bored, until they do something that leaves your jaw on the floor)
Thomas Newman = Jim Kelly (14 Oscar noms, 4 consecutive Super Bowl appearances, no wins for either)
Brian Tyler = Matthew Stafford (Dismissed as an overrated pretty boy, but damn, he’s got some highlights)
John Ottman = Tony Romo (Good at composing/playing quarterback, but even better at film editing/color commentary)
John Debney = Jeff Garcia (Clutch replacement for when you lose your first choice)
David Arnold = Carson Palmer (Had an explosive early career, what happened to them?)
Marco Beltrami = Philip Rivers (Trust me, he’s better than you realize)
Alan Silvestri = Steve Young (A legend by most metrics, but can’t escape the looming shadow of Williams/Montana)


Next time I ought to tackle some Golden Age composers. Maybe spot them up with some quarterbacks before the Super Bowl era; now those guys knew how to score.

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