It wasn’t necessarily clear on the evening of February 27, 2011, but Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross winning an Academy Award for the dissonant industrial score for The Social Network, beating the likes of Hans Zimmer and his protégé John Powell, was a watershed moment. Zimmer lost for Inception, the “Braaahmms!” that soon became ubiquitous in both movies and their marketing, but the impact of the win had less to do with the music than with the musicians. The Academy had vouched for rock stars before, but giving an Oscar to the mastermind of Nine Inch Nails isn’t the same as giving one to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne for helping Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su evoke traditional Chinese compositions in The Last Emperor. In an instant, the same award for which John Williams had been nominated 44 times belonged to the guy who wrote “Closer,” and suddenly anything seemed possible.
In the years since, it’s become increasingly apparent that Reznor and Ross’ win identified, validated, and perpetuated a much-needed renaissance in original film music. When The Social Network arrived, its soundtrack effectively certified a phenomenon that had been brewing for some time. The film was released three years after Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood threaded There Will Be Blood with menace—his terse string arrangements like a Steve Reich suite paced to a ticking time bomb instead of a metronome. The Oscar telecast took place mere weeks after Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine distilled a devastatingly effective score simply by stripping the vocals from a handful of Grizzly Bear songs.
Earlier this year, Deerhunter and Atlas Sound mastermind Bradford Cox provided the generationally dexterous accompaniment to Matt Wolf and Jon Savage’s documentary, Teenage. Even more recently, indie polymath Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Lightspeed Champion, a.k.a. Blood Orange) teamed up with Robert Schwartzman on the hazy, wistful score for Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto. Looking at and listening to the movies that have been made so far this decade, it’s clear that filmmakers are increasingly turning to indie-rock musicians (and popular iconoclasts who have openly agitated the major record labels) to help them rethink what the cinema can sound like.
The story goes that the Lumiere brothers brought a pianist to their first public screening in 1895 because they recognized the need for something to distract their audience from the cacophonous rattle of the projector. Like most stories about the cinema’s fraternal pioneers, it’s probably apocryphal, but it nevertheless underscores the extent to which filmmakers have always understood the transformative effect music can have on a movie. Watching Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant Under The Skin, it almost feels as if the movies have come full circle, as much of Mica Levi’s discordant score—a mellifluous mess of strings and bells that sounds like a swarm of killer bees trying to seduce the viewer—isn’t far removed from the kind of noise the Lumieres allegedly used music in an attempt to mask.
Audiences watching On The Waterfront in 1954 likely thought the same about Leonard Bernstein’s modernist accompaniment, as filmgoers of the following decade did with every new chapter in the formative collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Experimental blips began to pop up all over the world, as anti-establishment filmmakers like Japan’s Hiroshi Teshigahara began to weaponize the work of progressive composers like Toru Takemitsu; to native audiences more accustomed to the chambara swagger that Fumio Hayasaka wrote for Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, 1962’s Pitfall might as well have been The Rites Of Spring.
But what makes Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin such a lucid testament to the ongoing sea change in movie music is that it doesn’t feel like a score at all. While it’s certainly the most confrontational of the recent film scores that have been commissioned from indie musicians, it doesn’t sound like progress so much as the logical extension of a recent trend. Movies are challenging musicians to rethink how they write their music, and musicians are challenging movies to rethink how they use it. Now that projectors in most theaters hum with a quiet digital buzz rather than the stampeding clatter of celluloid, it sounds as if scores have finally begun to embrace a new purpose.
Levi, who first became known for the sweet, sputtering art-pop she created with her band Micachu And The Shapes, was empowered to create such an unusual score because the gig forced her to completely repurpose her talents and think about music in a different way. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Levi spoke to how the novelty of the challenge was crucial to the results: “Composing for a film was such new territory for me that I approached Under The Skin like it could suddenly be gone tomorrow.” Speaking to Blackbook, Levi confirmed that discomfort was precisely the feeling Jonathan Glazer was hoping to inspire when he hired her: “Otherwise, he would have got somebody who knew what they were doing to do something that was functional.”
In some cases, the novelty of the experience hasn’t just allowed for the music to be good, it’s also inspired the musicians to write it in the first place. When Pitchfork asked Win Butler why Arcade Fire agreed to score Richard Kelly’s The Box, the bandleader replied that it was a “good experiment.” He explained that “it has so much to do with the editing, and your job is just to help the director. It’s a very different experience.” The tracks they ultimately delivered feel like the Donnie Darko score that Bernard Herrmann never wrote: Twinkling and layered with waves of swooning horns, the arrangements are comfortably familiar, yet decidedly off, and when the film plunges into the unknown during the third act, it feels as though the music has been guiding us there from the beginning.
“Functional” was what the Lumiere brothers hoped for from their musical accompaniment, but that was three decades before the advent of synchronized sound. Since then, film scores have crystallized and remained reasonably static, especially compared to the vast formal advances in visual technique. In part, that’s because composers are commissioned to write so many of the damn things that the process inevitably becomes less about artistry than routine. And in part, it’s because so many filmmakers and film studios have become resigned to the thinking that there simply isn’t a better way. Close your eyes the next time you see a superhero movie, and you’ll hear learned helplessness in its purest form.
Among contemporary composers, no one has straddled the line between quality and prolificacy better than Alexandre Desplat. In 2011, he wrote the scores for eight different films, his assignments requiring him to stretch from familiar franchise riffs (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2) to lush, swirlingly transcendental compositions (The Tree Of Life). In 2012, he wrote eight more, and also scored a short film Roman Polanski made for Prada, because he had some extra time on his hands.
Desplat’s career is the most lucid proof that film music ultimately depends on how people see it. He’s a sell-sword where someone like Jonny Greenwood is a specialist, and Greenwood’s experience scoring movies reveals how that can make all the difference. In the December 2012 issue of Uncut magazine, the multi-instrumentalist explained, “I only ever get to see the most pampered side of the job. Composers who [do] it all the time aren’t treated too well—on many films they’re ranked way below, say, make-up, in order of importance, and not given much freedom to try things out.”
Greenwood’s comments reflect the mixed feelings Anthony Gonzalez (a.k.a. M83) has shared about his experience co-writing the music for Universal’s mega-budget Oblivion. Hot off the unexpected success of his dream-pop single “Midnight City,” Gonzalez was plucked to work on the soundtrack with Joseph Trapanese, a gig he accepted because “You can’t say no to Tom Cruise.” Recounting his frustrations on the project, Gonzalez told Pitchfork, “With such a big movie, you can’t only please yourself. You have to please the director and the studios and tons of people who are involved… I quickly realized that all the ideas I had before working on it weren’t going to happen because it’s Hollywood and because it’s a $150 million budget. I’m not the boss. I’m just someone working for them. They needed something bigger, more orchestral; it was hard for me to be told that my music was too indie for the film. I was pissed most of the time, but this is how it works. It’s like, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And I took it.”
Oblivion isn’t good, but its soundtrack is truly disappointing. Aside from the track that plays over the closing credits, on which Gonzalez made great use of the booming voice of Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør, the music sounds as if it could have been written by anyone. On the other hand, here’s what Levi told Blackbook about her dynamic with Under The Skin director Jonathan Glazer: “He gave me loads of freedom and told me to write music away from the picture. He told me to write what I wanted and what felt right, and then by learning the film and studying it and getting thorough with it, it kind of worked out its tone… I just had to give it a go, I just had to go on my instincts.”
Like anyone so prolific, Desplat has naturally churned out a lot of junk (Argo, Rise Of The Guardians), but the best of his work still retains a singular sound because the directors who inspire it understand that music is part of a film, not a distraction from something else. (And the studios that fund those directors are okay with that.) They value his role, and afford the overextended veteran the same attention and latitude that filmmakers have provided Greenwood and the indie-rock musicians who’ve followed his example. There’s a good reason that both of the truly memorable scores Desplat has written in the last three years have been for Wes Anderson. Likewise, there’s a good reason Desplat’s masterpiece is still his score for Birth, which was the last movie Jonathan Glazer made before Under The Skin, and the only English-language film on which Desplat worked in 2004.
Freedom and novelty are the common threads that bind all the significant examples, and the most memorable of recent soundtracks have resulted from those two elements working in tandem. Coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was as likely to mention the indelible score for David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as any of the actual films in competition. Composed by Daniel Hart—violinist for the band Dark Rooms and a singer-songwriter in his own right—the original music is equal parts grand and gritty, intrinsically attuned to the movie’s folkloric sense of loss where most scores are content to merely amplify the emotion of the images on screen. That quality was made possible because of how Hart and Lowery took their cues from each other. Speaking to Anobium, Hart unpacked the score: “I would never have considered using banjo and mandolin had David not requested it. And the handclaps are, so far, a musical theme which I’ve only used in David’s films. So I think this music is specific to the world of the film. I would want it to be that way—I believe a film score should reflect, respond to, uncover, augment, or underscore what’s happening on screen.”
Perhaps the most telling part of that interview, however, comes at the very end, when Hart mentions plans to embark on another tour with his band. While it used to seem like pop musicians had to betray their roots to sustain second careers as film composers, musicians are now looking at movie gigs as a liberating exercise rather than a corruptive commitment or a second career. Danny Elfman was the lead singer of Oingo Boingo before he became one of Tim Burton’s appendages, but the band began to decay as soon as he went solo to score Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Clint Mansell didn’t partner with Darren Aronofsky and write some of the most iconic temp tracks of all time until after Pop Will Eat Itself broke up in 1996.
But things have changed. Metric’s contributions to the score for Cosmopolis immediately preceded the release of Synthetica, its most popular album to date. Since Yo La Tengo began scoring features with Junebug in 2005, the band has released three killer LPs. After The Social Network (and between subsequent scores for David Fincher movies), Trent Reznor even managed to bring another well-received Nine Inch Nails record into the world. The more frequently rock musicians write film scores, the easier it will be for them to step between the two worlds without losing their footing.
French electronica duo Air was a bit ahead of the trend when it agreed to score Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in 1999, but the group’s subsequent career has typified the fluidity that has made non-traditional composers so valuable to recent cinema. The soundtrack didn’t define or derail Air’s career. On the contrary, it helped dislocate the group’s music from the sultriness of its iconic debut album, Moon Safari, and paved the way for its best and most sonically diverse LP, 2004’s Talkie Walkie. Air has yet to record another soundtrack, but its seventh studio LP, released in 2012, was a tribute to silent cinema called A Trip To The Moon. Perhaps, after more than a hundred years of being in conversation, music and movies are finally listening to each other.