Whether it’s the romantic swell of strings in Max Steiner’s score for Gone with the Wind or the thumping, electronic beats of Daft Punk’s soundtrack to TRON: Legacy, the art of the film score is a constantly evolving filmmaking necessity. No longer the realm of classic musicians working with overflowing orchestras; film scores are now composed and conducted by pop musicians, DJs and even a director’s own record collection. With British electronic outfit The Chemical Brothers receiving some of the best praise of their career for their music to Joe Wright’s Hanna, I take a look at some of my favourite film scores and soundtracks.
Film Scores by Pop Artists
Blade Runner by Vangelis
In his home country of Greece in the 1960s and ‘70s Vangelis was a member of several pop groups including The Forminx and Aphrodite’s Child who produced many hit singles. He won the Academy Award for his score to Chariot’s of Fire (you know the one), but his famed synthesiser skills were never more prominent, fascinating and atmospheric as in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1985.
The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
I don’t think anybody would have expected the same Trent Reznor that wrote “Closer” in 1994 for his band Nine Inch Nails would ever go on to become an Oscar-winning film composer, and yet here we are. Working alongside producer Atticus Ross, the two created a dark, corrupt and pulse-pounding soundtrack that culminated in their now famed cover of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.
There Will be Blood by Jonny Greenwood
The guitarist for Radiohead produced something altogether insane with his score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. At different times sounding like an old-fashioned western musical and terrifying horror film, Greenwood’s string-heavy score was at atmospheric triumph.
To Live and Die in LA by Wang Chung
Long before it became the hip thing to do, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) hired electro-dance band Wang Chung – yes, of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” fame – to score his 1985 action thriller. The results are a surprisingly electric and diverse, with obvious echoes to Jan Hammer’s music to Miami Vice. Original song “To Live and Die in LA” is a criminally overlooked pop hit.
TRON: Legacy by Daft Punk
The release of Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy score wasn’t treated as a traditional film score, but simply as a new album by the French dancehall legends. Taking their cues from Wendy Carlos’ original TRON score from 1982 and expanding it into a near two-hour spectacle, Daft Punk’s score was one of the most evocative, memorable and fantastic musical achievements in a long time.
Film Scores by Traditional Composers
Birth by Alexandre Desplat
It’s hard to truly put into words how magical, transcendent and astonishing this film score really is. From the flutes, chimes and timpanis of the prologue to the lush, haunting strings of the finale, Desplat’s Birth score is the finest example of the medium in several decades.
Days of Heaven by Ennio Morricone
After years of working on spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone – one of the most beloved film score composers of all time – produced this beautiful soundtrack for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. I have routinely cited this as the finest musical score of all time and I think it still holds up to that title. Who knew panpipes could sound so good?
Gone with the Wind by Max Steiner
It was this or Fabio Frizzi’s work on Zombi 2, but I just couldn’t go past this 1939 classic. It’s everything that people recognise about cinema and listening to it feels a bit sad since they – quite literally – don’t make them like this anymore. Recently seeing this film on the big screen only made me appreciate Steiner’s score more. This is as perfect Hollywood as it gets.
The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet
This French animated film hasn’t even been released yet – look out for my review next week – but when I saw The Illusionist at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival I knew instantly that the score, written by the film’s director, was a classic in the making. That the movie is more or less without dialogue, the music is key and when I felt my heart being tugged by the rising wail of bagpipes, I knew I’d been sucked in. Simply gorgeous.
Taxi Driver by Bernard Herrmann
Unfortunately dying shortly before Taxi Driver’s release in 1976, legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (the man behind those famous violins of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) never got to witness the power his music had here. Filled with electric jazz pieces made of crooning saxophones and ominous percussion that sound suspiciously like war march music, Herrmann’s music provides the pulsating beat of the streets of New York.
Young kids today… they have Step Up and You Got Served, but the best dance film can be found in 1984. Stan Lathan’s Beat Street examines the hip-hop culture in New York City, based around breakdancing, graffiti and scratchin’ tunes by Grandmaster Melle Mel, Doug E Fresh, Treacherous 3, Africa Bombaataa and more. Its soundtrack is hip-hop at its finest and you’re missing out if you’ve never heard it.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating here when I say that an entire generation of people wanted to work at the Empire Records record shop. This soundtrack of memorable alt-rock bands like Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Better Than Ezra is a timewarp of epic proportions. Nothing cures the blues better than this (follow it up with Reality Bites for a true mid-90s alt rock experience!)
Quentin Tarantino is the poster child for jukebox soundtracks, using his record collection to provide the music to his films. While Pulp Fiction’s is the more famous and popular, it’s his collection of soul/R&B tunes from Jackie Brown that makes me swoon the hardest. Randy Crawford, Bobby Womack, The Delfonics and Minnie Ripperton are just a few of the featured classics.
Sofia Coppola is a direct descendant of the Tarantino School for Soundtracks. Never has her knack for mixing blissful pop gems with gorgeous imagery been more adept than in her visionary take on the life of Marie Antoinette. Mixing 1980s hits by Bow Wow Wow, Gang of Four, The Cure and New Order with modern day wistful pop tunes by Air and classical Vivaldi. It’s eclectic, but mesmerising.
The 1980s were when this kind of “song score” really erupted when studios realised they could make a lot of extra revenue from the soundtracks. Martha Coolidge’s iconic 1983 teen flick Valley Girl had such a great, popular soundtrack that they released a sequel! Overflowing with poppy, nu wave bands that, like, make for perfect accompaniment to, like, shopping at the mall and stuff, like.