To me, a great score should be as memorable as any other aspect of a film. But lately, I feel like most of soundtracks I’ve heard have been really forgettable, mainly because a lot of them sound so similar (this is especially true for superhero movies and other blockbusters).
And yet, over the past ten years, there’s also been a lot of great, distinct film scores. What’s more interesting to me, though, is that a few of these scores were recorded by prominent rock musicians. I think there’s something to that, because I can’t really think of that many film scores by rock musicians that have been bad (at least not in recent memory), but I can think of plenty of scores by seasoned film composers that have been really awful. Often these musicians are working with highly-respected directors, who surely saw something in their music to take the risk of hiring them instead of someone more obvious.
I actually believe that when rock/pop artists step into film composition, it’s proof of their genius. Great film scores are created when their creators are insightful enough to find inspiration in a project that’s not their own. In other words, composers have to accept that what they’re working on is not about them, but rather in service to and inspired by a movie. The fact that directors have, lately, been seeking rock musicians as the best possible choices to achieve this is really telling.
So, to help illustrate what I mean, here are three examples of fantastic film scores by well-known rock musicians.
Note: this is not a piece about film analysis (you’re kind of on the wrong site for that), but because great film scores work in tandem with the films themselves, I’m inevitably going to have to talk about specific scenes from these movies.
Arcade Fire – Her
Her is one of my favorite movies of the past few years. I’m a big fan of director Spike Jonze’s work, so that was no surprise to me. However, what was a surprise to me was how beautiful Arcade Fire’s score was.
Mostly centered around ambient textures and gorgeous piano melodies, Arcade Fire’s soundtrack to Her is as soft and vulnerable as the film’s sensitive heart. I think that a lot of the deep, emotional connection that many filmgoers and critics alike found in Her would have been totally lost without the score. When Theodore Thwombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, recounts painful memories of his ex-wife to Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the heartbreak he feels is not only reflected but also expanded upon by the music. Given that the film is a futuristic love story that tackles difficult themes about intimacy and relationships, it makes sense that Win Butler and co. would have wanted the score to be minimalistic to the point of sounding totally stripped-bare.
I also love how the music is incorporated into the script in various scenes. Seeing as how the character Samantha is an artificially intelligent operating system, capable of reading whole books in a fraction of a second, it also makes sense that she would be able to write complex musical compositions whenever she feels like it. Sometimes she’ll tell Theodore, “I’m composing a piece of music that makes me think of [insert whatever the two of them are doing here],” and then when Theodore asks to hear it, Arcade Fire’s score kicks in. It’s incredibly clever, and it’s one of the reasons why the music is so inseparable from the film. In fact, it’s so inseparable that the score has yet to be released digitally or physically. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to find it online, but it just goes to show how deeply the two mediums became intertwined that you can only officially listen to the music in the context of how it’s presented in the film.
Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, isn’t just one of the greatest guitarists of our generation. He’s also a brilliant film composer. I could go on and on about his scores for The Master, Inherent Vice, and other great films, however, his work with director Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood is easily his most effective and memorable. Anderson, a longtime Radiohead fan, chose Greenwood for the film after hearing his equally-haunting orchestral composition, “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” The score itself sounds like it belongs in a horror movie, rather than a historical drama about a sociopathic oilman.
All throughout the film, the character Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is portrayed as a devil-like figure who only cares about his own success. Greenwood’s score reflects this with off-time percussion and dissonant string arrangements. It’s unsettling, and often vaguely scary. I love how in the scene with the fire on the oil rig, the music intensifies as the destruction increases. You’d assume this is because Plainview is panicking about the destruction of his rig, and the hearing loss of his son. But nope, he doesn’t care about any of that. In fact, he’s ecstatic about the fire, because it means there’s “a whole ocean of oil” under their feet (and also because, you know, he’s nuts). Greenwood’s score in this scene isn’t so much about the horror Plainview feels as he watches the fire, but rather the horror we feel as audience members when we come in contact with a character as deeply insane as Daniel Plainview. And that’s why it’s so terrifying.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network
The most interesting part about The Social Network is how contradictory it is. After all, it’s the true story of a socially awkward nerd who becomes one of the wealthiest men in the world after he creates the most successful social networking platform ever. As it turns out, the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg, is a soulless story of anxiety and betrayal. Who knew?
Well, maybe that was easy to see coming when you consider the fact that it was written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher… and scored by Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor along with his frequent collaborator, Atticus Ross.
If you’re familiar with Trent Reznor’s work, especially his lengthy collection of ambient recordings, titled Ghosts I-IV, it should be no surprise that this score worked out as well as it did. As usual with David Fincher films, the tone of The Social Network has a threatening, underlying sense of dread to it. And who better to enhance that tone than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? Based on their takeaways from the script, the pair wanted the music to sound both organic and imperfect at the exact same time. One of the ways they accomplished this was by contrasting Reznor’s familiarly minimalistic piano playing with dissonant note clusters made by strange devices like the “Swarmatron.”
The beauty of their score comes through best in the most popular piece from the soundtrack, which is also the film’s thematic leitmotif: “Hand Covers Bruise.” It plays at the beginning of the film, when Zuckerberg’s girlfriend, Erica, played by Rooney Mara, breaks up with him after he acts like a total jerk, but also reprises at the end of the film when his best friend, Eduardo, played by Andrew Garfield, explodes at him in the middle of his office space. The song is as beautiful as it is vaguely sinister, mainly because the sensitive-sounding piano melody is eventually consumed by a monstrous cloud of ambient noise. In this sense, the song perfectly reflects what happens in these scenes, and what happens in the film as a whole. After all, Zuckerberg’s successes, in the movie at least, only come from his willingness to put aside his emotions and throw people under the bus for his own gain. In the breakup scene, we see this in Eisenberg’s acting when Mara walks out on him. Notice how his face and posture shift uncontrollably, appearing to be truly heartbroken, but he gets a grip on his emotions and forces himself to leave. Then, in the next scene, he writes a hateful blog post about Erica and creates a website that allows Harvard students to rate girls. Much like in Reznor and Ross’s score, that sensitivity transforms into sinister developments.
This interplay between the score and the script is also noticeable in the scene depicting Eduardo Savage’s breakdown. Actually, this is one of the best examples I can find of a film script influencing a score, and that same score subsequently coming back around to influence the tone of the scene. I know that sounds convoluted, but here’s what I mean:
A large part of the script centers around the interplay between three characters: Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Savage, and Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Parker is a devilish influence on Zuckerberg, and Savage is his longtime friend (or rather, his only friend). It’s no mistake that, in this scene especially, they’re both positioned in the frame like the stereotypical angel and devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulders. But also, more than anything else, Savage is the film’s innocent heart. He’s kind, a little naive, and protective of his friend. So, naturally, the tragedy we feel so moved by as audience members comes from the decay of their friendship. This is reflected so beautifully in the score. In this scene, the emotional core of “Hand Covers Bruise” (aka, that lovely piano melody) represents the friendship between Zuckerberg and Savage, while the eventual consumption of that organic centerpiece by the more sinister elements of the music represents Sean Parker’s destructive influence on, not only their friendship, but themselves as human beings. Whatever purity they had at the beginning of the film has been, at this point, destroyed by their own betrayals and cynical ambitions. Notice how, after Sean mocks Eduardo as he’s leaving, leading Eduardo to motion to Sean like he’s about to punch him, Reznor and Ross give us one deep, synthetic note when the camera cuts back to Eduardo. Here, it’s as if the composers are saying, “this is what he is now.”
Obviously, it’s a brilliant score, and one of my favorites. It’s no wonder why this score went on to win Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross an Oscar, as well as result in frequent collaborations between the pair and David Fincher.