From Dylan to Daft Punk: A History of Pop Music at the Movies


    If it seems like every other CoS post lately is about a film score, it’s only because Alex Young dictated that if Kanye West could only appear in half of the site’s posts, than the other half must feature news about film scores. Luckily, there is plenty of news to go around on the subject. Some of the news was even 20 years old, like the Eddie Van Halen’s score for The Wild Life. But Tron 2 leads a pack of recent or upcoming films to feature original scores from popular musical figures, ranging from the biggest band in the world to some of the most respected knob turners.

    This mingling of popular music and film has a long history, with artists of all sizes and calibers taking on the challenge. Take someone like Hans Zimmer, who in the seventies worked with The Buggles, only to leave pop music all together and flourish in film work. Or take people like Yann Tierson or Angelo Badalamenti, who have taken memorable film work in Amelie and the David Lynch filmography respectively and become pop icons because of it. But for many artists, film scoring is a mere flirtation with another world, and with it comes varying degrees of success and fulfillment. So, we thought a brief history was in order, covering pop music’s relationship with motion pictures. Enjoy!

    Bob Dylan

    In trying to find the origins of pop music and film scores becoming intertwined, I realized that everything depends on interpretation of the terms, but most of the material cites Bob Dylan‘s only movie score in his half-century long career as the first major popular artist being commissioned to work for motion pictures. The film is Pat Garett and Billy The Kid and I’m sure you can probably guess what the story is about. Think Young Guns but 1/20th as awesome. Dylan was featured in a supporting role, but the real coup was getting the folk legend to create original music for the western. Dylan composed a dusty, mostly instrumental score for the film, but the movie was not received well in 1973. Now it’s considered a masterpiece. The score is notable for being the home of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, one of Dylan’s most beloved and recreated tunes. But clearly, Dylan did not find love in working with Hollywood, as he has never wandered back in nearly 40 years.

    Isaac Hayes

    But starting this brief history with Dylan would merely be perpetuating the racism that apparently lingers over Hollywood histories. In 1971, a little film called Shaft was released, but it is as notable for what happened on screen as for what sounds were heard behind the action. The score, which included three lyrical songs, was made by Isaac Hayes who wished to have the title role. Though this didn’t happen, the double album was the first double album to ever be released by an R&B artist and won Hayes a number of awards, including an Oscar, only the third for an African-American in any category. Of course, the theme-song is still an instantly recognizable track and the two month project that Hayes undertook to create the score remained his biggest success throughout his life.

    Stewart Copeland

    While Dylan and Hayes were established songwriters when they made the leap to composing for film, Stewart Copeland‘s career was in a much different place. While earning a distinction as one of rock’s great drummers with The Police, Copeland was forced to reinvent himself after the band called it quits in 1984. Copeland had already received some notice for his score of Rumble Fish (“Rusty James doesn’t listen to white-man’s reggae”), and turned this interest into a successful second career. He has worked on a number of original scores, ranging from classics like Wall Street to bigger classics like Highlander 2. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck…



    Using film as a medium to further your music career was nothing new in the mid-80’s, with Elvis Presley and The Beatles having long ago traveled that road. Prince, who was already a well-known star at that point, took cross-marketing to new heights with Purple Rain, making it the defining moment of his career and one of the great albums of all time. The fact that it is an original score is almost a side note to the success the album gained, including two Grammy’s. Prince, though, has an Oscar as well to remind him of the silly film that accompanied his classic record.

    Danny Elfman

    With Danny Elfman, it is tough to say whether in 2010 he is better known as a film score composer or as the frontman from acclaimed and beloved 80’s band Oingo Boingo. And though Oingo Boingo may be how we first were introduced to Elfman, with classics like “Only A Lad” and “Dead Man’s Party”, he carries one of the most impressive resumes you’ll ever see. Scoring all but two of Tim Burton’s movies, he even has developed a unique aesthetic rooted in the macabre that creates atmosphere as much as Burton’s often-twisted visuals do. Yet Elfman has never won an Oscar or Golden Globe for his film contributions. Someone should work on mending that.

    Mark Knopfler

    Like Oingo Boingo, comprehending how huge Dire Straights was in the 80’s is lost on people who were not there, as the music has not aged as gracefully as, say, Prince’s. But through the year’s, acclaimed frontman and guitarist Mark Knopfler has seemed comfortable leaving the spotlight for low-key solo albums and occasional film scores. The Princess Bride is his best known work, which was released when Knopfler was still at his peak in popularity and was seen as a fantastic catch for Rob Reiner and his production team.


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