The '80s are associated with swooning synths, but in cinemas, composers were riding high on symphonic sound championed by John Williams. For that reason, the decade's soundtracks included some of the greatest orchestral writing of the late 20th century. Of course, there were some synths in there as well — including in some of the places you'd least expect to find them.
Catch up with our looks at Oscar-winning scores of the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s — and for highlights from every decade, listen to Lynne Warfel's three-hour special on the Movies and the Music.
1981: Michael Gore, Fame
The best-score award — long split into different categories by various criteria — was re-consolidated into a single Oscar this year, though it would split again later in the decade. The first winning score of the '80s was Michael Gore's work for the artsy-kid drama Fame, with the title track also winning for Best Original Song. Academy members made clear that it was the music they loved about Fame, which lost the three other categories it was nominated in. These two would be the only Oscars for Gore, the younger brother of pop star Lesley Gore.
1982: Vangelis, Chariots of Fire
A movie about British Olympic athletes in the 1920s who overcome discrimination and form an unlikely friendship? Sounds like Oscar bait, and it was, winning Best Picture and Best Screenplay. (The onscreen couple Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn won both lead acting prizes for On Golden Pond.) The score, though, became an unlikely pop-culture breakthrough: Greek composer Vangelis wrote a masterful theme, buoyed on soaring synths, and the soundtrack became one of only two primarily instrumental film soundtracks ever to become a number-one album without an original song. (The other was Exodus, which held number one for an incredible 14 weeks in 1961.)
1983: John Williams, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (original score); Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, Victor/Victoria (song score or adapted score)
A movie about about a little boy and a cute alien was going to have trouble competing with a historical epic about Gandhi, even if it was arguably Steven Spielberg's greatest masterpiece. The score was also one of John Williams's greatest, and the Best Original Score Oscar very justifiably went to the shimmering music for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. This year also saw the spawning of an unwieldy Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score category, with the first such Oscar going to Henry Mancini — by this point a well-respected old head — and Leslie Bricusse for the Julie Andrews crossdressing comedy Victor/Victoria.
1984: Bill Conti, The Right Stuff (original score); Michael Legrand, Alan Bergman, and Marilyn Bergman, Yentl (original song score or adaptation score)
Terms of Endearment rolled over the major categories this year, but Bill Conti prevailed over its composer Michael Gore (Fame) with his frankly cartoonish Right Stuff score. Yentl, a dark Barbra Streisand musical, won for its song score — but its two nominees for Best Original Song both lost out to "Flashdance...What a Feeling," because, leg warmers.
1985: Maurice Jarre, A Passage to India (score); Prince, Purple Rain (song score)
Prince gets an Oscar! Oddly, though, not a single song from Purple Rain was nominated in the Best Original Song category, which went to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (from The Woman in Red). (The competition was stiff there even without Prince: both "Ghostbusters" and "Footloose" were in the mix.) Maurice Jarre took the Best Original Score Oscar for his final David Lean collaboration, A Passage to India — a soundtrack that's now unfortunately out of print and difficult to find.
1986: John Barry, Out of Africa
John Barry's sweeping score for Out of Africa is easily the most acclaimed film score of the '80s not written by John Williams. It represents a peak of the decade's neo-Romanticism, with an indelible Big Theme. While the film incorporated source music including actual African music alongside Mozart's clarinet concerto — prominently heard on a phonograph — Barry's score is consistent with a decade where Americans and Europeans turned sympathetic eyes to Africa but tended towards musically representing the continent through Western sensibilities.
1987: Herbie Hancock, Round Midnight
Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for his score to Round Midnight, a drama set in the Paris jazz scene of the 1950s. That score is less well-remembered, though, than Ennio Morricone's haunting score for The Mission — an otherwise disappointing Roland Joffé flick. Georges Delerue wasn't nominated for scoring Best Picture winner Platoon, which turned out to be apt, since the music that became indelibly associated with that movie wasn't Delerue's, but Barber's Adagio for Strings.
1988: David Byrne, Cong Su, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Last Emperor
Bernardo Bertolucci's sumptuous and poignant Last Emperor became yet another of those historical dramas that the Academy loved to shower with Oscars, but its score was a departure from the norm. Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote most of the music, with several additional pieces by David Byrne and one by Chinese composer Cong Su.
1989: Dave Grusin, The Milagro Beanfield War
The Academy continued its tradition of honoring jazz musicians by giving Dave Grusin an Oscar for Robert Redford's Milagro Beanfield War. One of the losing nominees — excuse me, one of the nominees the Oscar did not go to — was the score for Best Picture winner Rain Man, the first nomination for a young composer named Hans Zimmer.
1990: Alan Menken, The Little Mermaid
Alan Menken beat both previous-year winner Dave Grusin (The Fabulous Baker Boys) and not one but two John Williams scores (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Best Director winner Born on the Fourth of July) to take the best-score Oscar for The Little Mermaid, the first movie in what would become a huge comeback for Disney feature animation. Menken also won Best Original Song, for "Under the Sea."