At times, the eagle eyed film enthusiast could be forgiven for thinking that there were about four composers scoring high profile films. Hans Zimmer scored five films last year, and four films this year. Alexandre Desplat managed six in 2013, and five in 2014, while Christophe Beck topped both with seven last year, and six in 2014. Once you’re in demand, you’re really in demand, and the top tier of movies is very much dominated by established figures to the extent that up-and-comers must feel that it’s impossible to break through.
But break through they continue to do, and there’s a steady stream of exciting musical talent composing terrific work, mostly through the indie world, ensuring that new movies sound as fresh as they look. To pick up our ongoing On The Rise series of ascending stars, which started last week with cinematographers, we’ve picked out a dozen young composers who’ve tickled our eardrums in the last year or so. In 2013, one of our picks, Steven Price, went on to win the Academy Award for “Gravity,” so we’re certainly expecting big things from this year’s graduates in the next twelve months or so. You can take a look, and a listen, at our choices below.
Watching the hotly-tipped dance-punk/hip-hop/thrash band Test Icicles, a group only marginally better than their name, back in 2005, a number of things went through our head. None of them were “less than a decade from now, one of the guys in this band will be scoring a film by a member of the Coppola family.” And yet when Devonte Hynes wrote the excellent soundtrack to Gia Coppola‘s “Palo Alto” last year, that’s exactly what happened. When the band split in 2006, Hynes, who was born in Texas but raised in East London, commented, “We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally didn’t.” And his dizzylingly diverse subsequent career has backed that up: his first post-Test Icicles project, under the name Lightspeed Champion, was a lovely country-rock record featuring a number of Bright Eyes collaborators. Another followed in 2010, before two more as another incarnation, Blood Orange, which went in a slightly more electronic-tinged direction (last year’s Cupid Deluxe is his best work to date). But he was enormously busy beyond that as a songwriter for hire, racking up credits for Florence And The Machine, The Chemical Brothers, some unused Britney Spears tracks, and perhaps most notably, for his friend Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé: their collaboration “Losing You” is one of the best pop songs in recent memory. Until last year, his major contribution to the soundtrack world had been duetting with Kristen Wiig on the end-credits song for “MacGruber,” but Gia Coppola was a fan of Hynes’ earlier records, and sought him out when making her first feature, a dreamy adaptation of James Franco‘s short story collection. Hynes’ woozy, hugely atmospheric work, reminiscent of Air‘s work on auntie Sofia’s debut “The Virgin Suicides” while beating out its own chilly, industrial path, is one of the best elements of the film, and we can only hope there’s more to come from him in the movie world.
Last time Jonathan Glazer made a film—2004’s fascinating, beguiling “Birth“—it came complete with maybe the finest score of the decade, via Alexandre Desplat‘s unforgettable work. So hopes were high when Glazer returned nine years later with “Under The Skin,” but rather than reteaming with the ever-busy Desplat, or finding another A-list composer to work with, he instead gave the job to a then-25-year-old first-time film composer named Mica Levi. But there was no reason to doubt the results, as Levi knocked it out of the park. Classically trained at London’s Guildhall (one of her pieces was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008), Levi actually came to fame first as a DJ, through a mixtape known as Filthy Friends, then as the frontwoman of indie-pop band Micachu And The Shapes, whose 2009 record Jewellery was one of the most acclaimed of that year. The band’s 2011 follow-up Chopped & Screwed, which rearranged the first album as a live collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, was brought to Glazer’s attention by his music supervisor, and Levi came on board the film in April 2012, spending nearly a year working on her compositions. Written and recorded principally on viola, rather than the home-made instruments of the Micachu & The Shapes records, and influenced by Iannis Xenaxis, John Cage, and, in her words, “strip-club music and euphoric dance” it’s astonishing stuff: otherworldly and strangely alluring, like the film itself. It’s hardly hummable, with Levi telling The Guardian, “If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” The composer messed with the pitch and tone of what she wrote, “perverting material,” as she calls it, to create a finished product that’s just as responsible for the film’s nervy, agitated, unshakable tone as Glazer and DP Daniel Landin‘s haunted imagery. As yet, there’s no news of Levi taking on another film project, but she just performed the score live alongside the film in London, and we hope there’ll be plenty more to come along these lines.
At the moment, Kathryn Bostic feels like a well-kept secret, familiar only to serious jazz heads or those immersed in the American theater scene, but if she carries on in the film world the way she has been, she’s likely to break out in a very big way before too long. New York-born Bostic took up the piano at three and has carved out an impressive career as a vocalist and pianist in adulthood, working with the likes of David Byrne, Nas and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and releasing a self-produced CD of her own songs, From Me To You. She got her start composing in the theater world, turning heads after working with August Wilson on the legendary writer’s penultimate play, “Gem Of The Ocean,” which premiered only two years before the author’s passing. She’s worked consistently in theater since, including two plays by “The Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira, and writing some acclaimed music for the Broadway production of Rajiv Joseph‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo,” which starred the late Robin Williams. On screen, she started working in documentary in the early ’00s, but it was her relationship with director Ava DuVernay that brought her to more attention in the film world. They worked together on DuVernay’s debut feature “I Will Follow,” and reteamed for her ESPN doc “Venus Vs,” in addition to the filmmaker’s breakout “Middle Of Nowhere,” the latter of which is a subtle, understated score that along with the careful direction and excellent performances, go a long way to keeping the film far away from melodrama. Most recently, she scored documentary “The New Black,” and more notably, Justin Simeon‘s Sundance smash “Dear White People,” lending a diverse mix of classical, hip-hop and jazz that perfectly encapsulates the film’s subject matter. There’s no word yet as to whether she’s working again with DuVernay on her Oscar-touted “Selma,” but if she is (and we certainly hope so), expect her to be much better known by this time next year.
Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Multi-instrumentalists and classically trained musicians Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans first gained attention in 2004 with Tarantula A.D., their hypnotic and proggy indie-rock band featuring Devendra Banhart associate and drummer Gregory Rogove. They band eventually changed their nom de plume to Priestbird and only began their film scoring career as a duo in 2010 with the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight effort “Two Gates of Sleep” starring Brady Corbet. But after scoring Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in 2011, the duo’s career quickly took off in succession and they have become go-to composers for in-the-know indie filmmakers. Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer” followed, Sebastian Silva‘s “Magic Magic,” Lance Edmunds’ still unreleased superb “Bluebird” and perhaps their biggest “get,” Dennis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” starring Jake Gyllenhaal. If you see a moody pattern emerging on the type of films they’ve worked on, you’d be on the money; the pair, influenced by folks like Krzysztof Penderecki, Terry Bozzio and even later-day dark and doomy Scott Walker, traffic largely in droney and disquieting soundscapes, specializing in that sweet spot where discordant sounds subtly burn in the back of the frame rather than overpowering the narrative. This year they scored the Sundance sci-fi-ish mystery relationship film “The One I Love” and showed their diversity with the more classical “5 To 7.” And they’ve booked a ton of work into the near future, with more than a dozen features and shorts they have scored that have yet to be released. Highlights include “A Good Marriage” starring Kristen Connolly, Joan Allen and Stephen Lang; Rodrigo García‘s “Last Days In the Desert” starring Ewan McGregor, Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan and Sebastián Silva’s next film “Nasty Baby” starring Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, and Mark Margolis. Suffice to say, you may not have heard of them, but you will be hearing from them soon whether you know it or not.
After a decade of apprenticeship and a partnership with one of the top composers in the business, Rob Simonsen is striking out on his own, and on the basis of what he’s delivered so far, he’s likely to be very, very busy indeed. The 36-year-old Simonsen, who studied in Oregon, moved into film composing with micro-budget fantasy picture “Westender” in 2003. This brought him to the attention of composer Mychael Danna, and he began working as his assistant from 2004’s “Being Julia” onwards. Within two years, he was starting to pen additional music for Danna’s score, a relationship that continued on films including “Surf’s Up,” “The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus,” “Moneyball” and “Life of Pi.” But occasionally, their collaboration was even closer: together, they wrote the scores for 2008’s “Management,” 2009’s ‘(500) Days Of Summer” and Joss Whedon’s series “Dollhouse” before Simonsen landed his first high-profile solo gig on the Ryan Gosling/Kirsten Dunst starrer “All Good Things.” Since then, Simonsen’s increasingly become a go-to guy in the indie world, penning scores for “Girl Most Likely,” ‘The Spectacular Now,” “The Way Way Back” and most recently, Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here.” His music is typically quiet, borderline minimalist, often leaning mostly on piano and guitar, but it’s been enormously effective: his lightly sunny, unexpectedly melancholy “Way Way Back” was a highlight of the film, while the subtly playful “The Spectacular Now” was a mature and lovely accompaniment to James Ponsoldt’s sweetly sincere teen flick. But the project that really put him on our radar is Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” Danna originally intended to reteam with the director on the project after “Capote” and “Moneyball,” but beyond contributing one piece, he handed the project off to Simonsen, who did an impeccable job: the sparse, doom-filled score is very different to his other work, and is a huge part of what makes the film so atmospheric.
The movie business is about relationships, but that doesn’t necessarily mean networking and schmoozing — it can just mean sticking close to your friends from college. And Andrew Hewitt is a good example, scoring all of Cambridge University pal Richard Ayoade‘s films, and with his score for “The Double,” he’s proved himself one of the most exciting and ambitious young composers around. Hewitt was a former Westminster Abbey choirboy who went on to study at the legendary Guildhall, before going on to sing in choir ensembles around the world (you can hear his voice, among many, in the “Lord of the Rings” films and the “Star Wars” prequels). When Ayoade’s comedy show “Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead,” co-written with Matthew Holness, was commissioned as a TV series (“Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“), Ayoade approached Hewitt to write the music, and the result was a gloriously authentic, deliberately crappy 80s synth-tastic accompaniment to one of the highpoints of British comedy of the century so far. Hewitt returned for spin-off “Man To Man With Dean Lerner,” and picked up a few other TV gigs too including “Hindenburg: Titanic of the Skies,” docs “The Girl Who Cries Blood” and “My Child Is A Monkey,” and more, before coming on to work on Ayoade’s first feature, 2010’s “Submarine.” Hewitt’s work there was overshadowed slightly by the songs contributed by Arctic Monkey Alex Turner (though is equally as strong), but there was no chance of that happening with “The Double” —as soon as we saw the film back at TIFF last year, we knew he’d be making our composers list. The score is a breathlessly complex, endlessly inventive work (tracks for the inner office environment are scored with the sounds of faxes, modems and other office equipment), at once traditionally classical, with Bernard Hermann-ish strings, and yet retro sci-fi tinged. It’s the kind of score that works brilliantly away from the film (Hewitt actually wrote much of it before production, and Ayoade would play some of the tracks on set), but works even better in it. Next up, he’s scoring the William Monahan-directed thriller “Mojave” with Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund and Mark Wahlberg, and “Bill” a Shakespeare-themed big-screen spin-off of hit comedy series “Horrible Histories.”
More than one A-list composer has already made their way up from scoring video games to music: J.J Abrams and Pixar favorite Michael Giachinno, arguably the most in-demand scorer right now, broke through thanks to the “Medal Of Honor” game series, which landed him gigs on “Alias” and “Lost.” Rich Vreeland, whose score for David Robert Mitchell‘s much buzzed-about Cannes horror “It Follows” is one of the standouts of 2014 so far, came up a similar but slightly different route. Vreeland was a nu-metal fan growing up (presumably the name of his alter-ego, Disasterpeace, is a reference to the Slipknot song) before studying at the Berklee College Of Music. The Boston native and huge video game fan then got an internship to the Singapore-MIT Game Lab, which started him down the path to scoring games. He worked on indie puzzle games “Waker” and “Woosh,” and on the franchise game “Bomberman Live; Battlefest,” but he’s best known for his seminal score to the 2012 underdog platform game “Fez,” one of the most lauded video games in recent years. 80s chiptune influenced, but cunningly distorted and melded with warmer synth noises, Chopin and guitar, it’s something of a classic of the medium, to the extent that one of its cuts was recorded by the London Philarmonic for a compilation album (listen below), and Vreeland has performed the score live in its entirety. “The Myth Of The American Sleepover” director Mitchell was a fan of the game, and asked Vreeland (who’s continued to work in games and commercials) to work on the soundtrack to his second feature, the ingenious teen horror “It Follows.” The result is an intrinsic part of the film. Taking up the current trend of Carpenter-inspired synth scores and running with it, the score (recorded in only three weeks) has as much Cage as Carpenter therein, and is capable of being overpoweringly abrasive as well as slinkily ominous. The film wouldn’t work nearly as well without it (“more arthouse than grindhouse,” as our review said), and once more people catch up to “It Follows,” which will be screening at TIFF, Mitchell should be a very hot ticket.
Thanks to the likes of Bjork and Sigur Ros, Iceland has had a disproportionately large effect on the sound of cinema, considering what an under-populated nation it is. The latest musician from the country to make a huge impression is composer Johan Johannsson, whose work on “Prisoners” last year was one of the most underrated scores of 2013. The 44-year-old Reykjavik native has long been a major figure in the modern classical movement, since breaking out with his first album Englaborn in 2002, he’s released several records through legendary label 4AD, including the remarkable IBM 1401, A Users Manual, made up of sounds from the emissions of an old mainframe computer. Johansson had started off composing for theater, and so a move to film, mostly in Iceland to begin with, was a natural transition, and he gained additional exposure when Paul McGuigan used a number of his tracks for his 2004 Josh Hartnett/Diane Kruger film “Wicker Park.” Work with experimental video artists Gregory Colbert and Bill Morrison followed, along with scores for 2009 Ashton Kutcher/Michelle Pfieffer drama “Personal Effects,” and So Yong Kim‘s 2012 Paul Dano starrer “For Ellen.” Last year, he wrote a terrific score to the otherwise unnotable David Morse thriller “McCanick,” but it was “Prisoners,” a first collaboration with Denis Villeneuve (who clearly has damn fine taste in composers — see above), that put him on the map. Delicate, sinister, and as bleak as the film itself, full of church organs and unsettling chimes, it feels like Johansson bottled a way to send a shiver up your spine, and then smashed the bottle everywhere. Capable of inspiring dread without resorting to horror movie score cliche, it’s a pretty extraordinary piece of work. Johansson is next scoring Danish filmmaker Anders Morgenthaler‘s “I Am Here,” and we’re very intrigued to see what he does with James Marsh‘s upcoming Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory Of Everything,” which will premiere at TIFF.
Jozef Van Wissem
Ever since his debut film, few directors have had such an effortless ability to match music to image as Jim Jarmusch, from Tom Waits and John Lurie in “Down By Law” through RZA‘s score to “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai,” to the Boris-tastic soundtrack to “The Limits Of Control.” But “Only Lovers Left Alive” isn’t just one of Jarmusch’s best films; It’s one of his most sonically pleasing, and much of that is down to the score by Jozef Van Wissem. The Dutch avant-garde composer and lute-player studied under the legendary musician Patrick O”Brien (who passed away last month) and has been a prolific solo artist, whose jobs include being commissioned to write a piece to accompany Hans Holbein‘s painting “The Ambassadors,” and scoring the video game “The Sims Medieval.” He and Jarmusch met in Brooklyn in 2006, became fast friends, and Jarmusch immediately earmarked him for a vampire-themed project he’d been mulling over for years. While the film was developing, the pair recorded two albums together, 2011’s Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity and 2012’s The Mystery Of Heaven (the latter of which features “Only Lovers Left Alive” star Tilda Swinton on guest vocals), before the movie got made, and premiered at Cannes 2013, where Van Wissem won the soundtrack award. The film’s infused with music: Jack White is discussed, and Tom Hiddleston‘s character is a musician who collects vintage guitars. Van Wissem’s medieval tracks might initially seem an incongruous fit with the drone-rock of Jarmusch’s band SQURL that appears frequently in the film, but the clash between past and present is a key theme of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and somehow the Dutch composer’s beguilingly out-of-time pieces work beautifully, going a huge way towards creating the film’s uniquely dream-like tone. Van Wissem seems to have got the taste for film composition since; he’s working on several other projects, including upcoming indie “Red Right Return.”
Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut “Lost River,” which premiered with a clang at Cannes this year, steals many things from many other directors: it’s an inferior cover version of “Blue Velvet” if Gosling’s pal Nicolas Winding Refn had made it. But Gosling’s most effective bit of borrowing comes in bringing on musician Johnny Jewel, the original choice to score Gosling and Refn’s first collaboration “Drive,” and whose music permeates that film despite much of his work being dumped. The Portland-based Johnny Jewel (named, awesomely, after a Television song) made his name in electro-rock duo Glass Candy, and soon had an equally successful side-project in the form of Chromatics. In 2006, Jewel formed his own idiosyncratic, independent label Italians Do It Better with Mike Simonetti. After featuring Glass Candy track “Digital Versicolor” in “Bronson,” Refn asked Jewel to write the music for his neon-drenched crime movie “Drive,” but allegedly against the wishes of the director, the film’s backers replaced him with Cliff Martinez for the finished movie, although tracks by Chromantics and another side-project, Desire, are included in the movie to great effect. Jewel ended up expanding on the unused work, releasing it under the name Symmetry, and also collaborated with Refn on music for his unmade version of “Logan’s Run,” so clearly there was no bad blood with him or with Gosling, given that the latter asked him to score “Lost River” (or, as it was originally called, “How To Catch A Monster“). Jewel’s score is undoubtedly the film’s biggest redeeming feature: a similar synth-pop DNA to “Drive” and Jewel’s other work is in there, but it’s more varied and unexpected, with rockabilly and industrial influences melded into something that sounds coherent, inventive and even catchy. Jewel also wrote the theme song to Chloe Sevigny TV show “Those We Kill,” and is scoring an upcoming indie called “Beautiful Now,” starring Abigail Spencer.
An assistant to Howard Shore from 2001-2004, helping out with projects like Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” American composer Jeff Grace first caught our ear in 2010 with the moody and scorching score for “Meek’s Cutoff” and it turns out we had heard him before, quietly helping to unnerve the audience on Ti West’s “House Of The Devil.” In fact, he had been scoring obscure indies for almost a decade prior, but Grace is really coming into his own of late and finding himself very much in demand for indie filmmakers seeking a atmospheric and unsettling sound. Works that followed included Tze Chun‘s “Cold Comes The Night” (starring Bryan Cranston, Alive Eve, and Logan Marshall-Green) and repeat business from loyal filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt (“Night Moves”), Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and especially Jim Mickle. Grace has scored three of Mickle’s films in a row; “Stake Land,” “We Are What We Are” and “Cold In July.” And it’s the latter film, a twisty crime thriller starring Don Johnson, Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard where Grace really shines, with what is one of the best scores of the year so far. An inventive thriller that’s almost like three genres in one, including stalker movie, mystery and revenge drama, Grace ambidextrously shows off his range with a propulsive synthesizer-y score that’s part Giorgio Moroder, part Tangerine Dream and part John Carpenter creep-tones with his trademark ambient drone work crossed with that of Dario Argento fave Pino Donaggi. It’s a striking work capping off an up and-coming career that needs to be celebrated and will soon take off. Don’t be surprised when you see this one on some of our year-end lists.
Keegan DeWitt is having a moment, or at least a collection of moments that have crystallized in 2014. Already lauded for his singer/songwriter career and his band Wild Cub —Paste Magazine named him one of the 10 Best New Solo Artists of 2010— DeWitt’s composing career has really been hitting its stride of late. Best known for his collaborations with former mumblecore director Aaron Katz, DeWitt got strong notices for “Quiet City” and “Dance Party USA” in 2006 and 2007. DeWitt got his flex his quirky mystery muscles in Katz’s “Cold Weather” and along the way his solo work saw him featured in shows like “How I Met Your Mother,” “Hart of Dixie” and “Revenge” (to boot his song “Say La La” was featured on a JC Penney ad shown during the 2013 Oscars telecast). He also wrote the music for the Oscar-winning documentary short “Inocente,” and built up further indie cred when working on the celebrated indie “This Is Martin Bonner.” But in 2014 he’s really had a chance to shine in a brighter manner by way of Sundance. DeWitt’s jazzy score for Alex Ross Perry’s misanthropic (and hilarious) “Listen Up Philip” perfectly nails the Woody Allen/Philip Roth-esque tone of the picture and stand-out highlight of what is already a terrific movie. And while it arguably may be an odd choice for the movie itself for some, DeWitt’s synthy, 80s-inflected score to Katz’s and Martha Stephens’ “Land Ho!” on its own is superb and something you need on your iPod (though some of it is courtesy of the band Monster Rally too). The two scores are polar opposites of each other and evince great diversity on the part of this versatile musician. Perhaps the kicker is Katz’s title track “Land Ho!” sung by Olof Benediktsdottir, rather randomly the film’s Icelandic property manager who happens to have a killer voice. Inspired by Fine Young Cannibals and bands of that era, the delightful pop track is an inspiring cap to a film about friendship and keeping hope in the wintery years of life. In a perfect world, a track like this would be nominated for a Best Original Song written for a movie. Maybe the Indie Spirit Awards will at least have the good sense for it to be performed and or played during its own ceremony.
Honorable Mentions: There’s plenty of other fine composers afoot who didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another. Perhaps atop the list is Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes frontman Alex Ebert, whose work on “All Is Lost” won him a Golden Globe, and the even more hotly contested title of the Playlist’s favorite score of 2013. But with the film having premiered at Cannes last year, it feels like older news, and it’s unclear whether Ebert intends on returning to composition, for “All Is Lost” director J.C. Chandor‘s “A Most Violent Year” or anything else.
Elsewhere, Nathan Johnson is breaking away from cousin Rian (for whom he did excellent work on “Looper“) with a tremendous score for Jake Paltrow‘s “Young Ones,” and has “Kill The Messenger” on the way too. Could he end up writing the first non-John Williams “Star Wars” score for “Episode VIII?” We’ve also recently been impressed by Stephen Rennicks‘ score to “Frank,” The Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs work for “Appropriate Behavior” (one of the few helping to fight an upsetting paucity of female composers), Sondre Lerche and Kato Adland for “The Sleepwalker,” Nathan Halpern for “Rich Hill,” Jed Kurzel, who did “The Snowtown Murders” and “The Babadook” (and will be reteaming with brother Justin for “Macbeth“), “Locke” composer Dickon Hinchliffe, “Calvary” baton waver Patrick Cassidy and new Terrence Malick favorite Hanan Townshend.
Also keeping it in the family are Brooke & Will Blair, brother of “Blue Ruin” star Macon Blair. We also dug Noia‘s work in “Mommy,” Jess Stroup stuff in “Camp X-Ray,” and Stephen Moore from Zombi in “The Guest.” While we nearly included Antony Partos, there’s not quite enough of his work in “The Rover,” but he’s got Ramin Bahrani‘s “99 Homes” coming up next, so don’t be surprised to see him on next year’s list. As for established artists moving into the scoring world, we’ve been impressed by Jenny Lewis (“Very Good Girls,” “Song One“), The Octopus Project (“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter“), Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (“Life After Beth“), Francois-Eudes Chanfrault (“Jamie Marks Is Dead“), Flying Lotus (“Imperial Dreams“) and Son Lux (“The Disappearance OF Eleanor Rigby“). Anyone else? Let us know in the comments section.
– Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez