The value of a well-crafted soundtrack to a film is undeniable. The incongruity of hearing Steelers Wheel’s upbeat “Stuck In The Middle With You” as Michael Madsen hacks off a police officer’s ear is a legendary cinematic moment. Though anyone that remembers Hans Zimmer’s saccharine, child’s mobile-ish vibraphone score to True Romance (another Tarantino joint) will attest to how much an ill-suited score can afflict the mood of a film.
Some of the best scores from celebrated composers Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone stand on their own as fabulously moving pieces of music. While the eclectic soundtracks for Trainspotting, The Breakfast Club, and Easy Rider have given future generations aural snapshots of pivotal moments in the evolution of youth culture. And while classical scoring and artful curation are the most common forms of movie soundtrack, there’s a long and storied history of traditional musicians and songwriters that have crossed the divide into celluloid.
Note: Technically Clint Mansell (Requiem For A Dream) or Mark Mothersbaugh (a bunch of Wes Anderson’s movies) could be on this list as they were members of Pop Will Eat Itself and Devo respectively, but for the sake of brevity we’re keeping this list to notable musicians that have dipped their toes in scoring film.
Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood/Inherent Vice/The Master
While Thom Yorke passed him time between increasingly sporadic Radiohead albums with bizarrely cast supergroups and digitally melancholic albums, the group’s soft-spoken, asymmetrically haired genius Jonny Greenwood has quickly positioned himself as P.T Anderson’s go-to score man.
His haunting, string-heavy soundtrack to Anderson’s 2007 epic ‘There Will Be Blood’ is considered one of the great original scores of recent times, while much of Inherent Vice’s eerie, tongue-in-cheek noir ambiance borrows considerably from Radiohead’s most ambitious work.
Bee Gees: Saturday Night Fever
I can’t completely divulge my love of disco to you in words alone. The mere sight of the word sends my hips into a limber, gyrating spasm and my hair into a buoyant afro bush. And pasty white, normcore America also fell in love with the hedonistic nightclub genre when Saturday Night Fever took the country by storm in 1978.
The Australian woodland-dwelling pop sensations the Bee Gees were behind the most memorable and iconic tracks on the best-selling soundtrack, such as “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep is Your Love” and “More Than a Woman”. Such was the cultural mania surrounding Saturday Night Fever that it both launched John Travolta’s career and destroyed disco’s underground cool.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: The Social Network
While electronic music scenes tend to be very poorly represented by Hollywood on screen (yeah, fuck you Efron), the more experimental ends of the genre itself has been really well utilized at times. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for David Fincher’s The Social Network matched up to the critical praise showered on the film itself, even grabbing an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Showcasing the impressive diversity of the Nine Inch Nails duo, their soundtrack skips playfully back and forth between stirring ambient keystrokes and Kraftwerk-y proto-techno. Perfect for a bit of late-night coding.
Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk): Irreversible
If you haven’t seen Irreversible, I don’t really recommend it. The combination of hyper-aggressive realism, gut-wrenching, belligerent violence, and nauseating, perpetually roaming cinematography make it one of the most memorable (and notorious) sensory onslaughts in cinematic history.
Much like the film itself, Thomas Bangalter’s low-frequency score doesn’t beg a second play. Designed to make you feel perpetually uncomfortable, and even induce feelings of sickness and anxiety, it is a notable score because it is intertwined so assuredly with the film’s concept and purpose.
It’s a far, far cry from ‘Get Lucky’…
Ry Cooder: Paris, Texas
Deviating dramatically from the dancefloor and synth-laden selections on this list, Ry Cooder’s sparse slide guitar score for the 1984 father-son-road trip classic Paris, Texas is an understated soundtrack that plays tremendously with director Wim Wenders’ interpretation of the American Southwest. In an ocean of hatcheted desert films with overblown tache-and-leather rock, Cooder’s score truly stands out..
The 69-year-old guitarist is arguably one of America’s most diverse and roots-curious, and received worldwide acclaim when he teamed up with Wenders’ again a decade later on their fabulous documentary The Buena Vista Social Club.
Isaac Hayes: Shaft
There are few scores or soundtracks that capture the devastatingly funky and sexually-intoxicating vibe of the Blaxploitation genre like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. Remembered chiefly for the much-loved title theme, the film is packed with rich, on-genre instrumentals that are the perfect soundtrack for seducing afro’d black women, and nunchucking white gangsters in Harlem pool halls.
Being one of the most successful Blaxploitation films of all-time, Shaft cast in stone the genre’s raunchy and racially divisive blueprint, and the deep funk and afro rhythms with the kitschy string and horn melodies became a hallmark of Blaxploitation cinema. I’m pretty sure Isaac Hayes’ score is plenty to thank for Tarantino’s huge appreciation for da funk.
Air: The Virgin Suicides
The second French electronic act on this list Air were some fuego shit when Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides was released in 2000. Their seminal downtempo record Moon Safari broke them internationally in 1998, and they followed it with this eclectic, tripped out journey through analog prog melancholy.
It’s a beautiful record by a band who, like their gentile trip hop peer Zero 7, have been unfortunately lost in time.
Price: Purple Rain
The Blues Brothers: The Blues Brothers
Vangelis: Blade Runner
Simon & Garfunkel: The Graduate
Daft Punk: Tron