While reviews from The Playlist on “Django Unchained” were collectively a bit cooler than most out there, all of us can agree the soundtrack is great and one of Quentin Tarantino’s best in a long time. The anachronistic tracks by Rick Ross, John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Brother Dege (and a James Brown/Tupac mash-up) stand out in particular, yet they also work pretty damn effectively in the film as well. Then there’s Tarantino appropriating existing songs from movies he loves and recontextualizing them for his own use. There is of course, the titular title theme "Django" by Luis Bacalov as written for Sergio Corbucci, tons of Ennio Morricone (obviously) and even one new track that Morricone wrote specifically for the movie, plus an amazingly utilized Jim Croce song, some awesome choice cuts by Jerry Goldsmith, Elisa Toffoli, Riziero Ortolani and more. You can often fault Tarantino in a lot of places, but musically his choices, even if ransacked from previous films most people have forgotten, are damn near unimpeachable.
It seems that Steven Soderbergh, as he nears the end of his career (at least, for now, we hope), has been doubling back to work with some of his favorite composers on his last cluster of projects. He reteamed with frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez for the moody score to "Contagion," hired Thomas Newman (who did "The Good German") for February's "Side Effects," and for "Behind the Candelabra," he got the last score ever from Marvin Hamlisch, who also tuned up "The Informant!" For this year's "Haywire," though, Soderbergh wanted his artspoloitation spy movie conceit brought to funky life by David Holmes, who the director had worked with on "Out of Sight" (one of the best scores of the last few decades) and the three 'Ocean's' movies. The "Haywire" score is about what you'd expect from the Irish DJ – lots of glittery electronics, pulsating rhythms and a heavy emphasis on outright funkiness. Oh, and it's also completely brilliant. Since Soderbergh didn't want the action sequences scored, Holmes' work exists in the periphery, adding shading and color to this thriller movie experiment and giving some addition throttle to sequences like the Dublin chase and the Barcelona pick-up. It's overwhelmingly cool, too, culminating in the great closing credits music, which made you swagger out of the theater, ready to snap some necks. Or at least try.
Goddamnit, Michael Andrews’ scores are so damn good, we need to stand up and shout it from the rafters so everyone can hear. This guy is one of the best non-traditional composers working today. Andrews forever landed on our radar with the wonderfully dreamy and ambrosial music for Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” a score so good we put it on our Best Film Scores Of The Decade feature of the aughts. The composer/musician has not sat on his laurels since then. He’s been drafted into the Judd Apatow universe (writing music for “Freaks & Geeks," "Walk Hard," "Funny People" and "Five-Year Engagement") and done outside related comedy work (“Bad Teacher”), but he's really been killing it when working with the Duplass Brothers. The score for "Cyrus" was one of the most underrated of that year, and it helped that picture with its sweet/demented/tender tone. Likewise, Andrews’ score for their underappreciated 2012 film “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, nails the tone of the film which is naive, hopeful, sweet, sad and funny. Yes, Andrews seems to be able to capture the nuance of each of those emotions with incredible dexterity. “Jeff Who Lives At Home” was labeled as uneven by some, but there’s no denying that its final sequence when Ed Helms saves his brother Jason Segel from drowning is outstanding and emotionally rich. Boosting it along the way is Andrews' lovely and winsome score which seems able to bottle up that moment when you’re crying and smiling, possibly regretting some of your past actions and giving your pain-in-the-ass brother the biggest hug in the world. No soundtrack was released unfortunately, aside from the Beck song “Looking For A Sign” used in the final credits (which is pretty damn good too).
There are a lot of things you can openly mock "John Carter" for (like being the science fiction flop that cost the Walt Disney Company more than $100 million), but one thing that is unimpeachable is Michael Giacchino's rousing score. Combining "Lawrence of Arabia"-style expansiveness with the kind of hard-hitting action stuff Giacchino is known for (like his terrific "Star Trek" score), complete with gladiatorial overtones and a through-line of twinkly emotionalism (just listen to the "A Change of Heart" track on the score album and try not to get choked up), it's one of Giacchino's greatest scores… and one of his least appreciated. We should all keep in mind that just because it's attached to a movie nobody liked, that doesn't mean that the music isn't any good. The "John Carter" theme, which is heard at the beginning of the movie after our hero steals Bryan Cranston's horse, and then again at the end of the movie, when he assumes his position as John Carter of Mars, is absolutely stirring and totally brilliant – the kind of thing that Giacchino does best (complete with a heavenly choir). It's almost enough to make you wish for a second movie, just so you can hear more of this music.
Many expressed some minor disappointment with John Hillcoat's latest, but those who didn't like the Prohibition-era gangster tale, and even those who didn't see the film at all, must have found some pleasures in its soundtrack, one of the few this year that stands alone as a cracking album, even divorced from the movie. Once again re-enlisting regular collaborator Nick Cave, who also wrote the film's script along with his Bad Seeds colleague Warren Ellis -- the pair wrote the excellent scores for "The Proposition" and "The Road" for the filmmaker -- a different approach is taken for "Lawless," with Cave and Ellis forming a bluegrass band called The Bootleggers, and performing both original Cave and Ellis tracks and anachronistic covers of songs by the likes of Link Wray, Captain Beefheart, Grandaddy, Townes Van Zandt and even The Velvet Underground. They weren't shy of enlisting some all-star collaborators either with Mark Lanegan, Emmylou Harris and The Duke Spirit's Leila Moss all making appearances, along with 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and a new song by Willie Nelson. While something of an acquired taste, arguably, the songs are pretty careful, giving a riotous, muscular feel to the soundtrack, blending the old and the new in a way that perfectly mirrors Hillcoat's film. It's basically what would happen if the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack got hammered on moonshine and started a bar fight 'cause someone looked at his girl.
While this Canadian composer has been working for decades, it’s in the last few years that his profile has been boosted. His work on “Moneyball” was one of our favorites from last year, a beautifully minimal, undulating score that managed to find and help evoke the emotional underpinning of the baseball drama. But remarkably, his work on “Life of Pi” is almost a total 180. Going from the green grass of the baseball diamond to the blue ocean of the open sea and the vibrant colors of India, his compositions for Ang Lee’s film couldn’t be more different. The standout pieces find Danna working with ease on Indian-inflected tunes, with tablas and sitars lending authenticity to the composer’s still decidedly modern approach. But again, Danna’s strength is in plumbing a deeper well of feeling, and his work on “Life of Pi” matches the soulfulness and yearning of the picture, while also delivering the bombast it needs to for the picture’s key setpieces. Somehow, Danna has gone this long without a single Academy Award nomination, but hopefully that will be rectified this year.