If it seems like every other CoS post lately is about a film score, its only because Alex Young dictated that if Kanye West could only appear in half of the sites 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the late nineties, Peter Gabriel had already been a success within the band Genesis and as a solo artist. In fact, this was the height of his career, and his choice to score The Last Temptation Of Christ, the controversial film that features Jesus undergoing the same temptation that all men face, was risky and ultimately paid off. Passion, the title of the album that Gabriel released after furthering the score for months after the films premiere, won him a Grammy and began a popularization of world music, especially sounds from the far east that has served as a bridge for the global connections that internet would soon bring.
Yo La Tengo
One of the most quietly strong and consistent bands of the last quarter century, Yo La Tengo have flown under the radar on the movie scoring front much as they have on the pop music front. Sticking with low-budget indies, the trio worked on the acclaimed film Junebug (known for introducing the world to Amy Adams) and, more recently, the future-classic Adventureland… I seem to remember reading something about that soundtrack. Their film work has even been collected on the album They Shoot, We Score.
While we have focused on the high points and success stories in film scoring, not all rock stars have been so lucky. But who is really going to feel bad for Billy Corgan? As a pop star, he has made a personal mission out of making people forget everything he did right in the nineties. As a film score composer, he has an equally poor taste level, working on the music for two unforgettably bad films, Stigmata and Spun. But these are really just footnotes on a career filled with poor choices, but it’s comforting to know that he treats every aspect of his creative output with equal disregard his legacy.
Belle & Sebastian
Though you could argue that Belle & Sebastian should have known what they were getting into when they signed on to work with renegade filmmaker Todd Solondz, who was coming off the hard-to-watch but so-damn-good Happiness. But when the director only used a small portion of the music they submitted for Storytelling and rejected whole songs, the band and the studio were not too pleased. When the band released the score as an album, it was chopped up with bits of dialogue from the film, thus making it impossible to really appreciate away from the movie. It didn’t help that the songs were the weakest that the Scottish group has released in their otherwise outstanding career.
Nick Cave has been involved with films almost as long as he has been involved in music (first was featured performing in 1979’s Dogs in Space), but he didn’t get around to his first film score until 2005, and it was for a movie that he also wrote the script for. The Proposition is a sort of Australian western, something Cave and film score partner Warren Ellis seem perfect for, with other scores working on variations of the same genre, including last year’s The Road. His film music is instrumental and not indicative of his pop music style. But Cave shows that sometimes the score is supposed to blend in more than be another star of the film.
Jon Brion & Nigel Godrich
Though Jon Brion and Nigel Godrich may be known for their production work rather than as musicians, they separately have proven the worth in both areas, which is impressive on its own. But they both also have shown an ability to score films, as well, making them the weirdest kind of triple threat I can thing of. Brion has done some spectacular work on films like Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, while Godrich made his first film score this year with the much talked about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. They are kind of the everything-they-touch-turns-to-gold type.
If the name Jonny Greenwood is unfamiliar, well, I’m shocked. But, he is the lead guitarist of Radiohead and, as it turns out, also an experienced film score composer. His first major work was for the P.T. Anderson masterpiece There Will Be Blood, but he was disqualified from Oscar eligibility due to some weird-ass rules. Regardless, the score remains one of the finest ever made. Greenwood next collaborated on the score for the Murakami adaptation Norwegian Wood, which is currently making the festival rounds and earning rave reviews. In all things, Jonny Greenwood is amazing in ways that most people don’t even dream of. We should all be jealous.
Karen O certainly cast some doubts when taking on the score of the beloved children’s book turned film Where The Wild Things Are. But when it became known that Nick Zinner and Bradford Cox were among her collaborators, cautious optimism turned to down-right anticipation. Some may argue that the score surpassed the film in quality, others hold the film in the highest regard. Still, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer managed to capture the movie within the music she created, whether you think that is for better or for worse.
James Murphy used to work in a record store. He had everything before everybody. And the man who’s breakthrough involved a listing of every artist relevant to him should be a shoe-in for film scoring. But Murphy, who may be better known as the creative mind behind LCD Soundsystem and the head of DFA records, failed to make a memorable mark with his first attempt, this years low-flying yet fantastic dramedy Greenberg. Though he didn’t wow with the music, the man at least continued his reputation for having incredible taste.