Increasingly over the last two decades, musicians and bands have looked upon the film score and seen a rare opportunity to challenge themselves in a new medium, and also to gain a break from non-stop touring. The results have been an eclectic, unconventional bounty. Last month, Mica Levi of Micachu and the Shapes delivered an iconic three-note theme to Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin” that rattled the senses, while Devonte Hynes (Lightspeed Champion, Blood Orange) struck a dreamy pop tone of high-school nostalgia with his score to Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, “Palo Alto.”
The two scores indicate a crucial and exciting moment in time – the point where an artist’s work touches a nerve in filmgoing audiences, and suddenly that artist becomes a name to keep tabs on either musically or cinematically. In acknowledgment of that recent shift by Levi and Hynes, we decided to take a look at sixteen musicians — pop, rock, electronic, and classical — who crossed over to composing for films, and the one project that catapulted them into the public arena.
Duke Ellington – “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959)
It’s an odd case in the career of Duke Ellington, that out of the 1000-plus albums to which he contributed, fewer than a dozen bear his name as film composer. Lucky then that when he did decide to throw his hat in the ring—on a Hollywood stage, no less—it occurred during 1959, a magical year in jazz that saw Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Charlie Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um hit stores. A singular year for music, for sure, and Ellington’s score for Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” matched both the tone of his contemporaries and the unusual nature of the film itself. Based on the novel by Robert Traver, it garnered attention from audiences, critics, and the Hays Code for what it chose to depict onscreen, including Ben Gazarra’s mention of “soiled panties” on the courtroom stand and the extended focus on menial research by defence lawyer Paul Biegler (played by James Stewart in one of his finest performances). But Ellington’s score is notable for how it remarked upon on-screen action without becoming a slave to it. Employing two main themes –“Flirtibird” and “Polly” – Ellington produces variations on each in a variety of different compositions, stacked with contributions from his usual crew (Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, William "Cat" Anderson). He then weaves them throughout the action as a consistent commentary, only briefly used in a diegetic manner during a dancehall scene, where Ellington actually shows up as the piano player, Pie Eye. Watch that scene with Ellington and Grant below, and listen to “Flirtibird” from the released soundtrack.
Tangerine Dream – “Sorcerer” (1977)
The mind reels to imagine “The Exorcist” had William Friedkin used Tangerine Dream instead of Krzysztof Penderecki and Mike Oldfield for its score – a request that would’ve followed through if the director knew about the German band sooner. Luckily, we dodged a bout of prog-rock possession, and it wasn’t until his next film that Friedkin put his trust in them to score “Sorcerer,” a 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s nailbiting thriller “The Wages of Fear.” Poorly titled and timed next to George Lucas’ sci-fi space epic out the same year, “Sorcerer” has weathered a rocky road to appreciation, with releases in various butchered forms being persistently shot down by Friedkin, until finally a theatrical revival occurred this past year. Simple, technically brilliant, and tense as hell, the story of four men and their mission to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin across a mountain range is worth the trouble, and a good deal of its success—both sensory and financially—is down to Tangerine Dream’s score. The trio of Peter Baumann, Edgar Froese, and Christopher Franke spent the late-60s constantly experimenting with various forms of electronic instrumentation, especially with the Moog synthesizer, and their “Sorcerer” soundtrack is a continuation of that focus. Froese had long taken an interest in film, having acted in German underground projects as well as scoring experimental films. A close relation to Popol Vuh’s hallucinatory work with Werner Herzog, the band layers eerie arrangements on top of trance-like synths as the four men draw deeper into exhaustion and danger. Fans and audiences agreed upon the film’s release; the soundtrack landed on the UK albums chart and became the band’s third biggest seller there. Tangerine Dream would later go on to score “Risky Business,” “Legend,” and the score to “Grand Theft Auto V,” but take a listen to a slice from their first successful effort with Friedkin, the track “Betrayal (Sorcerer Theme).”
Mark Knopfler – “The Princess Bride” (1987)
Mark Knopfler is one of those storied musicians who’s been around for ages, a Zelig of rock music, one who helped his band The Dire Straits to the biggest album of their careers, Brothers in Arms, and then decided to step away in pursuit of composing films. But it wasn’t just a high-profile franchise or Bat-Dance he was after; instead, Bruce Forsyth’s “Local Hero” attracted his talents, which led to other smaller-scale projects including “Cal” and “Wag The Dog.” His work for Rob Reiner’s immortal classic “The Princess Bride” remains his most stunning achievement, a warm glow of synths, percussion, and plucked acoustic guitar. William Goldman’s impeccable screenplay may get the majority of attention from the film’s fans — and for good reason- — but it only takes a ten-second stretch of Knopfler’s single and end credits tune, “Storybook Love,” to recognize how simpatico his work was with Reiner’s vision. According to the “When Harry Met Sally” director, Knopfler agreed to do the score under one condition: that Reiner insert his baseball cap from “This Is Spinal Tap” into the film. The demand was ultimately fulfilled—take a look around the bedroom where Peter Falk reads to a small Fred Savage—but Knopfler was somewhat shocked at the result. “I was only kidding about the hat,” the composer later revealed in the soundtrack liner notes. Nevertheless, the OST continues to be a lasting reminder of Reiner’s film, and for a dose of fun ‘80s detail, check out the promo for the Oscar-nominated “Storybook Love,” which features an intensely focused Knopfler and an absolutely bursting Willy DeVille.