When it comes to a movie, the soundtrack can either make or break it. Plenty of film scores have gone on to become famous in their own right, after all, who can’t listen to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ without instantly thinking of The Excorcist? And what about all those composers, such as Danny Elfman, or John Williams, who have gone on to be known for their film music?
But what about those times when the musician in charge of the film’s music wasn’t your run of the mill composer, but rather a well-established musician? No, we’re not talking about the time when members of U2 were asked to make the theme to Mission: Impossible, we’re talking about the times when famous musicians have created soundtracks for films that not only serve as wonderful backings for the events in the movie, but also manage to moonlight as wonderful art pieces in their own right.
‘Her’ – Arcade Fire
Her is the story of a man who develops feelings for, and then falls in love with, a female operating system on his computer. If you think that concept is pretty far-fetched, you might be just as shocked to learn that Joaquin Phoenix was given the leading role for this film, and that he actually did a pretty decent job.
Of course, with a topic this outlandish and quirky, you need something to anchor the film and make sure at least the music side of things is normal, right? Well that’s exactly what director Spike Jonze attempted to do. By recruiting Will Butler of Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet (who has also performed and toured with the group), the end result was a beautifully ambient and dreamy collection of music that delightfully underscored the kooky plotline. In addition to the music performed by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs also contributed a song to the finished product, a track titled ‘Moon Song’ which also saw some pretty decent success.
‘Somersault’ – Decoder Ring
If you were to remember anything about Australian popular culture from 2004 (other than Missy Higgins dominating the charts), it would have to be how successful the film Somersault was. The movie itself was about a 16 year old girl and her relationship with the son of a local farmer, and was so successful that it not gained recognition at the Cannes Film Festival, but also won so many awards at the 2004 AFI awards that those in charge might as well have called the awards ‘The Saultys’ from then on.
However, the backbone of the film was arguably the phenomenal soundtrack, performed by the Sydney group Decoder Ring. Both the group and the soundtrack were instrumental in launching the career of lead singer Lenka Kripac, but before that happened, ‘Somersault‘ took the Aussie music world by storm. The delicate vocals from Lenka, in stark contrast to the electronic and ambient influences within the music, gained such great recognition that even the soundtrack won big at the 2004 AFI awards.
‘There Will Be Blood’ – Johnny Greenwood
In 2007, the phrase “I drink your milkshake” somehow managed to enter the general lexicon. While some were confused, others knew this as a quote from the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood. The film was a a stark tale about Daniel Plainview and his quest for wealth during the American oil boom of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Prior to the film’s filming, Anderson had heard some of the music that Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood has composed for the documentary Bodysong. Enamoured with his work, he asked Greenwood to compose the soundtrack, and it’s a good thing he did, because the resulting compositions were as grand and brilliant as you’d expect. The soundtrack received some pretty hefty praise, including a nomination for a Grammy, but was sadly not nominated for an Academy Award since it happened to sample some pre-existing music, which, according to the Academy, is a big no-no.
‘The Proposition’ – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
The Aussie band Dick Nasty once released a song titled ‘I’m More Australian Than A Book Full Of Bush Poetry By Russell Crowe’. However, we must disagree and say that the only thing more Australian than that would have to be a movie written by Nick Cave, starring Guy Pearce and David Gulpillil, and with music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, leader of the Dirty Three, and one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds for over 20 years. While the film itself dealt with the harsh reality of the events following the rape and murder of the Hopkins family by a gang of bushrangers, the film’s soundtrack was far more uplifting, yet still just as ominous.
While Nick Cave and the Dirty Three had previously collaborated, this was arguably the biggest project that Cave and Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis had worked on. The brilliant violin work of Ellis managed to accompany Cave’s ambient soundscapes in such a way that audiences might just as well have gone to see the movie just to hear the music on the soundtrack.
‘The Social Network’ – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Let’s be fair, if you’re going to make a movie about rich white kids making their own billion dollar company and the trials, tribulations, and backstabbing that occurred during that company’s inception, Trent Reznor probably doesn’t sound like the kind of guy to do the soundtrack. Well, at least on paper, anyway. But as it turned out, Trent Reznor and musical partner Atticus Ross basically created one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.
Reznor’s soundtrack to David Fincher’s 2010 film didn’t exactly feature any of the drug-addiction referencing, or nightmarish imagery that your run of the mill ’90s Nine Inch Nails song would feature. Instead, it included dark and brooding soundscapes that sound like they might as well have been leftovers from Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts project in the previous years. It’s emotional, atmospheric, and one of the greatest pieces of work that Reznor has ever put his name to.
‘The Virgin Suicides’ – Air
This one might be cheating a little bit, because depending on how you look at it, The Virgin Suicides has two soundtracks. One, the more comercial, compilation-type record, featured a number of acts from the ’70s, while the film’s original score, was composed by French act Air. Director Sofia Coppola was inclined to get Air to compose the soundtrack after hearing their previous record Moon Safari. The resulting compositions were less lounge-styled jazzy trip-hop cuts, and more of something that sounds like more of a waking daydream.
The final score for The Virgin Suicides saw Air venture into some pretty nifty downtempo, ambient, and psychedelic territories, using the soundtrack as an outlet to explore some of the sounds that they wanted to use with previous records, but didn’t really get the chance to. The film’s soundtrack was highly influential, and even spawned a single, the classic ‘Playground Love’.
‘Friday Night Lights’ – Explosions In The Sky
Friday Night Lights is one of the most overlooked films of the early 21st century. While you might remember the hugely successful TV show that it spawned, Friday Night Lights (the movie) was quite a bit different to the TV show, and featured a far better soundtrack.
The producers of the film decided to ask Texan post-rock group Explosions In The Sky to soundtrack the film. Having already made a name for themselves as one of the most epic, emotional groups in the post-rock genre, Explosions In The Sky were the perfect choice for a film such as this. After laying down some phenomenal tracks for the film, including ‘Your Hand In Mine’, ‘From West Texas’, and ‘A Slow Dance’, the group’s music sounded like their whole existence was for the sole purpose of soundtracking this film. While the film would soon be overlooked in favour of the TV show that it spawned, Explosions In The Sky went on to become one of the most well-known and most beloved groups in the post-rock genre.