Next week marks the release of the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion. Besides the fact that it boasts one of the biggest movie stars in the world as its lead, one of the major hooks for the movie involves, of all things, the soundtrack. Composed by M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, the score is an epic, soaring piece that is a must-have for any fans of Gonzalez’s work with M83. It also serves as an ideal talking point for a trend that has gained prominence in recent years.
Whereas film scores were once exclusive to classically trained individuals like Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, John Barry and John Williams, the past 30 years has seen a major buck in that trend.
Today, it’s not uncommon for filmmakers to bring in rock, soul, electronic or even hip-hop artists to create the sound of their film. This year alone, we’ve seen scores composed by the aforementioned Gonzalez, Skrillex (Spring Breakers) and Faith No More’s Mike Patton (The Place Beyond the Pines), with more sure to come.
The following list will pick out some of the exceptional film work demonstrated by some our favorite musicians. Some ground rules—the contribution in question must be a musical score rather than a collection of songs culled from an artist’s recent album (thus disqualifying Leonard Cohen for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Cat Stevens for Harold and Maude as well as Jimmy Cliff for The Harder They Come) and, for the sake of fairness, films where the central musician is also the star are void (so no Purple Rain, 8 Mile or Once).
28. Mark Knopfler—The Princess Bride
When not demonstrating his skills with an axe as lead guitarist/singer of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler appears to enjoy a secret life as a film composer, writing music for films like Local Hero, Cal and Wag the Dog. His most notable contribution, however, is his score for the 1987 fantasy-comedy The Princess Bride.
27. Yo La Tengo—Adventureland
In setting his film in the ‘80s, director Greg Mottola takes every opportunity to include music from some of that era’s greatest acts. The Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Judas Priest, Crowded House, The Replacements, The Violent Femmes — they’re all here. Connecting these various acts, however, is a subtle yet lovely original score courtesy of veteran indie rock group Yo La Tengo.
26. Michael Penn—Boogie Nights
As a singer/songwriter, Penn gained critical attention with the release of the single “No Myth” from his 1989 debut album, March. And while Michael might stand as the eldest member in the famous Penn clan (a family that includes brothers Sean and the late Chris), his music career has provided a path away from the intense spotlight that plagues his brethren. Beginning in 1996 when he co-composed the score for P.T. Anderson’s debut film Hard Eight with Jon Brion (who also will appear on this list), Penn has racked up several notable credentials as a film composer, the best of which is his fantastic score for Boogie Nights. Though the film may be jam-packed with every ‘70s and ‘80s pop song that Anderson could afford, Penn’s off-beat score helps to set the tone for the crazy roller coaster of a story that is about to unfold.
25. Basement Jaxx—Attack the Block
While it might be a throwback to beloved monster movies of the ‘80s (The Thing, Gremlins, etc.), Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is anything but a retro act; rather, it retains the fun sensibilities of those classic films while re-packaging them with the rapid pacing and sleek aesthetic of a more contemporary action film. In this way, props must be given to Basement Jaxx whose pounding score gives the chases and action set pieces a distinctly modern feel and a little extra oomph.
24. Karen O—Where the Wild Things Are
When watching Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O perform, one gets the sense that there’s something childlike about her. Ignoring the adult subject matter of some of the band’s songs as well as some of her stage antics, Karen O’s sense of boundless energy and relentless enthusiasm lends her a charming, youthful persona. Hence, Spike Jonze made an excellent choice in choosing Karen O to provide music for his adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Together with her band The Kids, Karen O presents a score that both invites celebration as well as reflection.
23. Queen—Flash Gordon
Flash Gordon may not be the best movie in the world (actually, unless you’re a huge fan of ‘80s camp, it can be a rough one to get through). What it does have, however, is a fun, upbeat and, yes, perfectly cheesy score courtesy of various members of Queen.
22. Nigel Godrich—Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a major treat for music lovers, with surprising musical contributions from the likes of Beck, Broken Social Scene and Metric. A major part of that appeal comes from longtime Radiohead producer (and current Atoms for Peace member) Nigel Godrich, who takes on scoring duties. Demonstrating a understanding of the movie’s hyper, pop-cultured-saturated nature, Godrich presents a equally hyper score, mixing in soundbites from video games for added effect.
21. DeVotchKa—Little Miss Sunshine
A multi-instrumental group from Denver, DeVotchKa spent several years as backing band for various burlesque shows. Whether this had any bearing on their future ability to compose a track as evocative as “The Winner Is” is not clear, but it’s an interesting fact nonetheless. Working in conjunction with composer Mychael Danna, DeVotchKa’s score deftly soundtracks the tonal minefield that is the comedy/drama, providing the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine with one hell of an opening sequence.
20. Richard Thompson—Grizzly Man
Few musicians can make an electric guitar sing quite like Richard Thompson. And make it sing he does with his score to the 2005 Werner Herzog-directed documentary Grizzly Man. Although the story of Timothy Treadwell — a lost soul who unfortunately found comfort in the dangerous activity of bear watching—remains a tragic, disheartening event, Thompson’s epic, guitar-heavy score endows Treadwell’s tale with a level of respect and dignity.
19. Air—The Virgin Suicides
In her first full-length feature film, Sofia Coppola choose French electro-pop band Air to compose the score for her meditative adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel. Not only do the beautiful compositions perfectly augment the mood and tone of the film, but they also stand on their own as some of Air’s best work to date.
18. The Chemical Brothers—Hanna
Joe Wright’s Hanna is as much a distorted fairly tale as it is an action/adventure film, alternating from quiet scenes filled with intense, immediate exchanges to explosions of brutal violence. Here, The Chemical Brothers’ ethereal score helps convey the disorientation and duality of the film’s titular character, a girl who has spent all her life in a desolate cabin in the middle of a rural, wintery landscape only to be let loose on the wild, chaotic world.
17. Jon Brion—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Beginning his career as a member of the well-regarded but little-known band The Bats, Jon Brion promptly launched a production career that would see him working with the likes of Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright and Kanye West. Then, just as when Tim Burton met Danny Elfman, Brion found a partner in up-an-coming indie film auteur P.T. Anderson. Brion’s work on Anderson’s films provided a huge boost to his clout, leading to numerous other scoring jobs. His most emotionally resonant work to date, however, is arguably his score for the Michel Gondry-Charlie Kaufman project Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Brion’s unorthodox stylings are perfectly in line with Gondry and Kaufman’s inherently offbeat sensibilities. Moreso, despite Brion’s experimental touches, his music conveys the level of sadness that the film requires.
16. Ry Cooder—Paris, Texas
One of the undisputed masters of slide guitar, Ry Cooder would collaborate with German auteur Wim Wenders on the 1999 documentary The Buena Vista Social Club, which produced a blockbuster soundtrack. Yet, also of note is the two’s first project together— Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. Following Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man on a roadtrip with his estranged son, the film features frequent shots of the wide open Texas landscape. Here, Cooder’s echoing guitar picking perfectly augments the visuals while reflecting Travis’ inherent lonliness and isolation.
15. Badly Drawn Boy—About a Boy
In addition to contributing fantastic original songs such as “Something to Talk About,” “A Minor Incident” and “Donna & Blitzen,” Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough delivers a score that perfectly balances the film’s chipper, colorful tone with its melancholic undertones.