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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & Ms. 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).
Proving once again that there’s virtually nothing he can’t master, Nick Cave, along with fellow Bad Seeds bandmember Warren Ellis, put their heads together to write the score for Andrew Dominik’s 2007 revisionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Together Cave and Ellis create a luminous, old-timey score that sounds like it was plucked straight out of a music hall in the late 1800s. It’s a score that’s as a beautiful as the film’s Roger Deakins-helmed cinematography. And that’s saying something.
Though now primarily known for its legendary title track, the Shaft soundtrack contains several very impressive (and very funky) instrumentals from the late, great Isaac Hayes. Not much else to say that hasn’t been said already except, “Can ya dig it?”
As producers, The Dust Brothers have created some of the most defining and celebrated sounds of the ‘90, from The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique to Beck’s Odelay to Hanson’s “MMMBop.” As the guiding musical hands behind David Fincher’s 1999 masterpiece, however, the group created a chaotic yet exhilarating score that reflected the mindset of that film’s disturbed protagonist.
Being that he’ll try anything, the only surprising thing about Neil Young composing a score for a film is that he hadn’t really done it before. Given that Jim Jarmusch’s acid western is all about de-romanticizing and undercutting the tropes and cliches inherent in the genre, it’s only appropriate that the score should come from someone whose career is defined by subverting expectations and taking the road less traveled. That the score is beautiful is merely icing on the cake.
As both the frontman of the prog-rock band Genesis and as a solo artist, Peter Gabriel has always displayed an affinity for world music; specifically, on the sounds bursting forth from Africa and the Middle East. In scoring Martin Scorsese’s highly controversial take on the life and struggles of Jesus of Nazareth, Gabriel is able to indulge in his interests, crafting a score that manages to meld wailing vocals with ‘80s snyths in a way that is shockingly haunting.
Co-founder of the highly influential ‘80s New Wave band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh has a list of soundtrack credits a mile long. In that regard, his inclusion somewhat feels like a cheat. Yet, having been in a successful pop band before this girth of credits, he still counts. Perhaps never has Mothersbaugh found a more artistic kinship, however, than with the stylings of director Wes Anderson. The two first worked together on Anderson’s debut feature Bottle Rock and the result was pure movie magic, with Mothersbaugh’s penchant for quirky, unorthodox compositions perfectly complementing Anderson’s equally quirky, unorthodox visual language. Though choosing a favorite Mothersbaugh-Anderson colloboration is much like choosing a favorite child, The Royal Tenenbaums has Mothersbaugh firing from all cylinders, creating a series of beautiful pieces that range between upbeat and morose.
Trent Reznor’s talent when it comes to creating atmosphere is almost unsurpassed in popular music. Having contributed bits of music to the likes of David Lynch, Oliver Stone and David Fincher, it only seemed like a matter of time before the Nine Inch Nails frontman would attempt a full-blown score. Though most Reznor fans no doubt theorized that his film score debut would be as bombastic and crazed as his work with Nine Inch Nails, Reznor’s music for The Social Network instead stands as a series of powerful, yet understated tracks that, while perfect in the film, could stand on its own as a great instrumental album. In a movie that mostly concerns people arguing in rooms or typing solo on a computer, Reznor’s score gives the film its beating pulse.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Clint Mansell served as the guitarist, composer and lead singer of the alt-rock band Pop Will Eat Itself. The band disbanded in 1996, but Mansell found his second wind when director Darren Arofnosky introduced him to the world of film scoring, hiring him to write the score for his debut film Pi. It was Aronofsky’s sophomore project Requiem for a Dream, however, that would prove to be Mansell’s breakthrough as a film composer. Since then, the film’s haunting, yet propulsive theme “Lux Aeterna,” has become a staple of trailers, ads and YouTube videos alike.
The first soundtrack produced by Wu Tang Clan’s RZA and one of the earliest instances of a hip-hop artist composing a film score, the soundtrack for Ghost Dog is something special. Director Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to Jean Pieere Melvile’s Le Samuroi, about the existential experience of a loner hitman, is brilliant in its own rights, but the RZA’s score expermeintaly underscores the film’s meditative tone in adddition to highlighing its urban environment.
If people got excited at the prospect of a sequel to the 1982 special-effects vehicle Tron, the idea that beloved French electronic duo Daft Punk would provide the score most likely made them convulse with excitement. And indeed, whatever your feeling are regarding the film (I thought it was okay), there is little doubt that the soundtrack kicks major ass.
There Will Be Blood marked a major transition for director P.T Anderson. Far from the quirky, ensemble-heavy work of Boogie Nights or Magnolia or the alt-slapstick of Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood was a sobering look at a sociopathic oilman’s journey into the heart of darkness (or capitalism, take your pick). It was only appropriate then that Anderson would swtich out regular collaborators for newer faces. This was the case with regular Anderson composer Jon Brion. Taking Brion’s place was Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. As experimental here as he is with his Oxford-based rock group, Greenwood’s score carries with it a foreboding, dark intensity that lends each scene a tangible sense of dread. The fact that Greenwood was disqualified from an Oscar nomination on a technicality is nothing short of criminal.
It seemed only a matter of time before Austin, Texas, instrumental rock group Explosions in the Sky would be called upon to lend their soaring compositions to a film score. In this case, it happened to be exactly the right one. The story begins with Friday Night Lights producer Brian Reitzell emailing the group wondering if they’d be interested in writing a score for a film based on Buzz Bissinger’s celebrated non-fiction book of the same name. Being familiar with the book, the band accepted and, despite having access to loads of advanced equipment, they choose to record the music as they did on their previous three albums. The result speaks for itself. The band’s brand of evocative, slow-burning post-rock provides a perfect soundtrack for the film’s portrayal of a town where a person’s ability to play football can literally make or break their future. The excitement, desperation and longing that accompanies this kind of world is all their in the band’s score. Explosions would not continue regular scoring duties for the eventual TV adaptation, but there is no doubt that their score left an undeniable impact on the how producers choose to shape that show’s music.
Along with Mark Mothersbarugh, Danny Elfman’s numerous contributions to the world of film scores is almost enough to make one forget his days as leader of the ska/rock group Oingo Boingo in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hired by director Tim Burton to write a score for his debut film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Elfman found himself in a partnership that would catapult his career into the stratosphere. While Elfman’s compositions remain almost too numerous to consider picking one, his contribution to the 1989 Batman movie perhaps stands as his shining moment as a film composer. Certainly, if there’s one thing the original Batman has over the Christopher Nolan reboot, it’s that nothing Hans Zimmer did could ever quite reach the iconic status that Elfman’s Batman theme quickly secured.
There are good movie scores and then there are the scores that completely seem to overwhelm the movie they were intended to soundtrack. Such is the case with Curtis Mayfield’s score to the 1972 blaxploitation film Superfly. While the film itself remains an enjoyable and entertaining relic of its time, Mayfield’s music represented a pioneering and exceptional piece of work in the soul/funk movement.