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16 Musicians-Turned-Film Composers And Their Breakout Scores

by Charlie Schmidlin
June 9, 2014 4:56 PM
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Musicians Turned Composers

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.

Anatomy of a Murder

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 DavisKind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Charlie MingusMingus 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).”

The Princess Bride

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.

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  • Steve | July 9, 2014 9:18 PMReply

    Ry Cooder -

  • Miles | July 8, 2014 1:20 PMReply

    What about Alex Ebert from Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros. Golden Globe winner!

  • Coy | July 7, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    Mike Patton

  • miles | July 9, 2014 3:01 PM


  • cat | July 2, 2014 1:24 PMReply

    Alessandro Cortini's Burn

  • Blind Jasper | June 25, 2014 7:49 AMReply

    Neil Young? Robbie Robertson? No? Not hip enough? Like Duke Ellington.

  • Lucille | June 22, 2014 10:41 PMReply

    Devonte Hynes' scores for Palo Alto were irresistibly endearing

  • Fa | June 18, 2014 12:18 AMReply

    And Tindersticks? And Neil Young's Dead Man? I also think that Patton's score deserves recognition.
    I like very much the honorable mention to David Holmes, great job with Soderbergh.

  • todd | June 14, 2014 7:50 PMReply

    Mothersbaugh's Canon is a beautiful song.

  • kurt | June 13, 2014 12:11 PMReply

    Eh, of all of Jon Brion's scores, I would've gone with 'I Heart Huckabees' way before 'Punch Drunk Love.'

  • Sanker from India | June 11, 2014 2:26 AMReply

    Loved the article. And the amazing composers you covered. One minor quibble

    " directors like Christopher Nolan and tim burton"

    Tim burton may be commercially successful, but ALL his big budget movies suck. I'm sure you guys agree with me.

  • NeilFC | June 10, 2014 12:05 PMReply

    Interesting to see that it was Bruce Forsyth who directed 'Local Hero' and not Bill Forsyth.
    Is directing feature films what Brucey did between hosting the Generation Game, Play Your Cards Right and Strictly Come Dancing?

  • Tony Caruana | June 10, 2014 3:05 AMReply

    Excuse me, Charlie Schmidlin, Cary Grant in Anatomy of a Murder? Really?
    Don't people bother checking and editing their writing anymore.
    James Stewart played the part of the defence attorney, as is painfully obvious in the clip shown.

  • cirkusfolk | June 10, 2014 11:39 AM

    Ha. In one of his finest performances!

  • David Palmquist | June 9, 2014 9:04 PMReply

    With respect, to suggest Ellington was catapulted into the public arena by Anatomy of a Murder is silliness. His radio broadcasts from New York made him famous nationwide in the late 1920s, and by the time he began touring in the early 1930s, he and his orchestra were the equivalent of rock stars.

    Ellington was featured in, and wrote for, films long before 1959 - see Stratemann's Duke Ellington Day by Day and Film by Film. In addition to Black and Tan in 1929 and his Symphony in Black, released in 1935, he and his orchestra were featured in Check and Double Check (1930), Bundle of Blues (1933), Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (both in 1934, the latter at the insistence of its star Mae West), The Hit Parade (1937), several Soundies in late 1941, to a lesser extent in Cabin in the Sky (1943) and a minor presence in Reveille with Beverly, Salute to Duke Ellington (1950), etc.

  • Emperor Zerg Rush | June 9, 2014 8:14 PMReply

    Mothersbaugh is a versatile composer. Film, television, video games. The man has a real talent.

  • cirkusfolk | June 9, 2014 6:23 PMReply

    M83 Oblivion score, Arcade Fire Her score and Mike Patton Place Beyond Pines score should be honorably mentioned. Also, what else has Karen O scored?

  • cirkusfolk | June 9, 2014 6:30 PM

    Oh and Bob Dylan for Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.

  • MAL | June 9, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    Peter Gabriel's score for "The Last Temptation of Christ" is one of the most impressive , layered scores I've ever heard and am glad he got a least an Honorable Mention. He also scored Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence", which is another standout.

  • Kurt | June 10, 2014 9:49 AM

    I couldn't agree more with the Peter Gabriel Last Temptation soundtrack comment - "Of these hope" is my personal fave. Ever listen to the Birdy soundtrack?

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