It’s that time of year again, when blockbusters start to lull, the fall festival season hasn’t quite begun, and when the movies on release tend to be slimmer pickings. That’s when we like to look to the future and the talents who’ll be shaping it, with our On The Rise season of actors, actresses, writers, directors, cinematographers and composers to watch.
After having looked at actors and actresses in the last couple of weeks, we’ve moving below-the-line and are taking a look at composers. From the beginning, The Playlist has always had a special interest in the areas where film and music cross over, so it was natural that our On The Rise series would eventually incorporate composers, especially given the crucial impact that music has on the movies —from silents to “2001” to “Star Wars” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” so many of our most memorable movie memories are tied into scores.
We’ve only been running the composer installment of On The Rise since 2013, but in those two years we highlighted the likes of Steven Price (“Gravity”), Mica Levi (“Under The Skin”), Kathryn Bostic (“Dear White People”), Disasterpeace (“It Follows”) and Johan Johansson (“The Theory Of Everything”), who’ve all gone on to big things since.
Below, you’ll find fifteen names that we’ve been listening to over the last twelve months or so, each of whom either have or are sure to have much more to come. We should say, that this is a whiter and more male list than we’d like —we’re committed to diversity in these pieces, but even by the standards of the rest of the film business, female or minority composers aren’t getting the same chances even at the indie level. If you know of any composers we should be considering for future pieces, let us know in the comments.
We were going to put Ebert here last year —after all, he’d won a Golden Globe the previous January— but we weren’t sure if he was sticking with film composition, or if he was dabbling, like other indie-rockers. But this past year proved that Ebert wasn’t fly-by-night at all. He first came to fame as the singer of indie-popband Ima Robot, and more so under the country/folk-ish alter ego Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, but he made his film debut with a startlingly good score for J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” which given the film’s near-dialogue-free nature becomes almost as important a character in the movie as Robert Redford’s hero. Ebert then scored Disney’s Oscar-winning short “Feast,” before teaming up with Chandor again for an equally good but much moodier score for “A Most Violent Year.” So far, Ebert hasn’t yet announced further projects, but it seems safe to assume that he’ll be back with Chandor on “The Liar’s Ball” or “Triple Frontier,” and his Disney movie suggests he’s looking for other collaborators too.
Daniel Thomas Freeman & Matthew Watson
Not that many people on this side of the pond saw “Catch Me Daddy,” the Cannes-approved debut feature by Daniel Wolfe, a deeply uncomfortable, terrifying-yet-beautiful look at honor killings in Yorkshire, England. But those that did are undoubtedly still haunted by the film’s score, a dischordant, eerie nightmare that seeps into your skin and lingers there for weeks. The music comes from Matthew Watson (a pseudonym for Matthew Wolfe, the director’s brother who also co-wrote the movie), and Daniel Thomas Freeman, formerly a member of South London drone-folk band Rameses III, and along with Robbie Ryan’s images, it does much to create the film’s haunting mood. Neither appear to have any further bookings for composition yet, but with the Wolfe Brothers developing a Graham Greene-ish spy tale set in China, we hope that Freeman and ‘Watson’ will be reunited there, if not elsewhere.
As documentaries become more and more widely seen, it’s become clearer and clearer that a composer can play just as crucial a role in the effectiveness of a non-fiction film as in more high profile genres. One who’s come out of the non-fiction world and who looks set for bigger things is Nathan Halpern. Starting off in the rock world (he still makes dark, noir-ish solo records), Halpern got his first break for an ESPN “30 For 30” film, “Renee” back in 2011, and the following year did strong work via the terrific “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.” But it was his dreamy, minimalist, yet totally memorable work on “Rich Hill,” one of our favorite docs of last year, that really stamped his name on our memory banks: it’s one of the best non-fiction scores we’ve heard in years. Since then, Halpern’s moved into fiction as well: he reteamed with “Rich Hill” co-director Andrew Droz Palermo on the Kiernan Shipka-starring “One And Two,” and has “Sticky Notes,” starring Gina Rodriguez and Rose Leslie, up next.
Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips
In a year that will see the release of the “Jem & The Holograms” movie, it seems appropriate that one of the best scores as such has come from the voice of the original Jem, Britta Phillips. With husband Dean Wareham (of Galaxie 500, and who was in the band Luna with Phillips —they’ve also released records under the name Dean & Britta), they’d scored Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid & The Whale” a decade ago, and have a few other credits around, like the Luke Wilson indie “Tenure” and the Parker Posey vehicle “Price Check.” But their reteam with Baumbach (not counting cameos they both had in “Frances Ha”) on the gloriously synth-tastic score for “Mistress America” is something else. Sitting beautifully alongside choice cuts from Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Paul McCartney, it comes across as a lost soundtrack to a great 1980s comedy, while never becoming entirely retro either. It’s possible that Dean & Britta have another longer soundtrack break coming, but we hope their great work here ends up leaving them thoroughly in demand.
Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL)
Since releasing his first album under the Junkie XL moniker in 1997, Dutch musician Tom Holkenborg been increasingly popular (including a worldwide hit for his remix of Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation”), but has also gradually been moving into composition, at first doing ‘additional music’ for Harry Gregson-Williams and others on films like “Domino,” before teaming up with Hans Zimmer, with whom he helped on “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” among others. He’s been increasingly in demand as a solo composer, with “300: Rise Of An Empire,” “Divergent” and “Run All Night” among his credits, but it’s his instantly iconic “Mad Max: Fury Road” work, a cross between a Metallica concert and a Richard Wagner opera, that’s putting him at the top. And he’s going to be inescapable soon: music industry drama “Kill Your Friends,” the “Point Break” remake, Johnny Depp gangster pick “Black Mass” and co-credit with Zimmer on “Batman V. Superman” will all hit in the next six months or so.
You’d be forgiven from walking away from Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning smash “Whiplash” thinking that most of the music featured was a selection of old jazz standards. There are a few —the title track and the crucial “Caravan”— but an overwhelming majority of the music in the movie, up to and including a song described by Miles Teller’s character as a classic Jackie Hill tune from 1932 (there is no such classic jazz artist named Jackie Hill) was written by Justin Hurwitz. The composer was Chazelle’s roommate at Harvard, where he was studying music, and the pair first collaborated on the director’s first feature, low-budget musical “Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench.” He won plaudits there, but it was his stunning work on “Whiplash” that put him firmly on the map. He’s returning to the musical genre and to Chazelle again next, writing the songs and score for the director’s upcoming “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and somehow finds the time for his own writing career too —he’s written a “Simpsons” episode and has several credits on “The League.”
If we’d been running this feature a decade ago, we’d surely have included Nathan Johnson. His inventive, jazzy and thrilling score for his cousin Rian Johnson’s “Brick” was one of the best to come out of the indie world in a long time. In the time since, Nathan’s continued to work with Rian, doing excellent work on “Brothers Bloom” and “Looper” as well (along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon”), but it’s in the last year or so that he’s started to break out beyond work within his family. The last twelve months or so have seen his propulsive, crackling work on “Kill The Messenger,” and his more classically-oriented work on Jake Paltrow’s post-apocalyptic tale “Young Ones” was just as good. As far as we’re aware, Johnson doesn’t have any scores coming up —though he’s creatively busy, moving into direction for an acclaimed video for Son Lux starring Tatiana Maslany. But with his collaborators making “Star Wars” and “Sandman,” the prospect of a Johnson blockbuster score is very real and tantalizing.
Like Nathan Johnson, Jed Kurzel keeps it in the family: his brother is Justin Kurzel, director of chilling Australian serial killer drama “The Snowtown Murders.” With Anthony Johnsen, Kurzel is in popular Aussie blues-rock band The Mess Hall, and made his feature scoring debut on ‘Snowtown,’ a deeply ominous, discombobulating piece of work that gave the film much of its considerable atmosphere. He was mostly quiet for a while after that film-wise, with only the little-seen “Dead Europe” following, but he’s exploded again in the last year, with a brilliantly creepy score for “The Babadook” (the film’s star Essie Davis is married to Justin), Ewan McGregor crime flick “Son Of A Gun” and best of all, an inventively folky score to “Slow West.” Kurzel also reteamed with his brother for the tremendous score for “Macbeth,” and will likely do the same for next year’s blockbuster “Assassin’s Creed.”
One of the busiest names in the indie composing world right now, McIntosh comes out of the indie-rock world: a cellist and bass player until recently based in Athens, Georgia, she’s worked with everyone from Animal Collective and Apples In Stereo to Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne. McIntosh’s first film work was as the composer for Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” producing a score as chilling and unsettling as the film itself. Ever since, she’s been extremely busy, with seven scores on the festival circuit in 2014 (including SXSW hits “Faults” and “Honeymoon”), and a further five this year. These include another acclaimed SXSW picture, the Jay Duplass-starring “Manson Family Vacation,” and best of all, a reteam with Zobel for the all-star “Z For Zachariah,” a lush, folky work that’s her most ambitious work to date. With the fllm hitting theaters this week, it’s bound to land her music even more admirers.
John Carpenter-ish synth scores have been all the rage in the low-budget genre world for the last few years, from “Attack The Block” to “It Follows,” but few have nailed it in the way that Steve Moore has. Best known as one half of Pittsburgh space-rock duo Zombi (a name that comes from the Italian title of “Dawn Of The Dead,” in case you were doubting Moore’s horror/giallo credentials), Moore started writing scores for indie horror pics like “Gutterballs” and “Star Vehicle” in the late ’00s, sometimes under the name Gianni Rossi. But his big break came in the last year or so, thanks to the terrific work on Adam Wingard’s ’80s-action-throwback “The Guest,” and on festival-hit Belgian genre movie “Cub.” Both scores evoke a very particular kind of retro genre movie while bringing something new to the picture, and we hope that plenty more resourceful horror directors bring Moore on board, even as he’s been busy with a new Zombi record this year.
He’s been around for a little while, but as of 2015, Dustin O’Halloran is having something of a moment. A pianist and composer (also a member of the band Devic), O’Halloran broke into the movies by contributing three of his solo piano pieces to the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” His first full scores came a few years later with teen drama “The Beautiful Ordinary” and Gretchen Mol-starring coming-of-age pic “An American Affair.” But he really started to get some heat after working on Drake Doremus’ Sundance hit “Like Crazy,” and since then, his simple, unfussy, swooningly pretty piano melodies have become increasingly in demand. O’Halloran scored Dakota Fanning weepie “Now Is Good,” reteamed with Doremus on “Breathe In” (which might be even better than his “Like Crazy” score), and lent the gorgeous music to Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” our favorite TV show of the last year. Next, he’ll work again with Doremus, co-scoring Kristen Stewart-starring sci-fi pic “Equals” with electronica star Apparat.
Savvy lovers of film music in the Southern Hemisphere have likely known Antony Partos for a while: he’s been working in Australian film and TV since the 1990s, winning awards for locally acclaimed fare like “Unfinished Sky,” “The Home Song Stories” and the original homegrown version of “The Slap.” Partos first got international attention for scoring David Miçhod’s brilliant crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” with a mournful, almost atonal score that is first rate, like so much about the film. He’s been busy ever since but turned our heads further with a reteam with Miçhod for “The Rover," where his score effortlessly melds with cuts from bands like Tortoise, and ‘additional music’ creator Sam Petty. His first major score for a U.S. film followed last year with Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. Coming up, he’s mostly got some documentaries, but his first American movie is sure to open the door to more, plus Miçhod’s directing “War Machine” for Netflix and Brad Pitt, and a reteam seems likely.
Making it as a composer often involves slogging away for years on commercials and TV before you get your big break, and that’s certainly been true for Daniel Pemberton. Though still in his 30s, he’s been working in British TV since the early 2000s, composing over 150 themes for projects as varied as “The Edwardian Country House” and “Perfect Breasts.” Pemberton’s move into movies came with “Factory Farmed,” Gareth Edwards’ career-making short film in 2008, before making his feature debut with Rebecca Hall chiller “The Awakening.” Since then, he’s done good work on “In Fear,” “Cuban Fury” and Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” but this month’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” really marks his arrival —his joyous, Lalo Schifrin-evoking score (which includes everything from vintage synths to jazz flute) is the highlight of the movie. And there’s bigger still to come —he’s scoring Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” next. Could he be an Oscar nominee by this time next year?
Guillermo Del Toro is certainly a reliable judge of talent (if you ignore his casting Charlie Hunnam in various projects), so when he picks out someone who’s been nurtured across movies he’s been producing, it’s probably worth paying attention. Fernando Velázquez has credits stretching back to 2007, when he scored the Julianne Moore/Eddie Redmayne incest drama “Savage Grace,” and the Del Toro-produced “The Orphanage,” more memorably. Since then, he’s stayed mostly within the horror genre, with Del Toro productions like “Julia’s Eyes” and “Mama,” plus “Orphanage” director Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible” and Dwayne Johnson would-be blockbuster “Hercules.” But the next few years promise to be huge: this fall, he’s working directly with his fairy godfather on “Crimson Peak,” and in 2016 he’ll reteam with Bayona on the Liam Neeson-starring “A Monster Calls,” while he already has animation “Anubis,” from the makers of “Ice Age,” lined up for 2018.
Like Dean & Britta, coming from the indie rock world, Josephine Wiggs is best known as a member of Perfect Disaster, Dusty Trails and more than anything as the bassist in The Breeders, Kim Deal’s seminal girl-punk band —she played the iconic bass riff in their classic song “Cannonball.” Wiggs has been back in the spotlight recently, when the band reformed for a 20-year anniversary tour, but the British rocker had been steadily moving into composing —with Dusty Trails, she wrote music for Brad Anderson’s “Happy Accidents” in 2000, and she also worked on a couple of art-film shorts and architecture documentary “Built On Narrow Land.” But her feature solo scoring debut came with “Appropriate Behavior,” Desiree Akhavan’s funny, disarming look at being a bisexual Iranian in NYC. Wiggs’ score isn’t showy, but it’s fresh and effective, perfectly suiting the movie. There’s no news on if she has more scoring work on the way yet, but let’s hope she does.
(No embed available, but here’s Cannonball!)
Honorable Mentions: Beyond the above, there were plenty more we considered. Among them are Ola Flottum who did terrific work on “Force Majeure,” “Birdman”’s percussion maestro Antonio Sanchez (we might have included him, but it’s again unclear if he’s planning more film work), “Dope”’s Germaine Franco, “Community” veteran Ludwig Goransson, who’s doing “Creed,” the band Son Lux, who went from “Eleanor Rigby” to “Paper Towns,” Josephine Decker’s duo Molly Herron & Jack Young, “The Raid”’s Joseph Trapanese, who most recently did “Straight Outta Compton,” John Paesano, who scored all of “Daredevil” as well as "The Maze Runner," and Martin Phipps, who’s impressed with “Peaky Blinders” and “The Keeping Room.”
There’s also “Frank” composer Stephen Rennick, who impressed with “Room,” Michael Brook, who does a lovely job with “Brooklyn,” “The Witch” composer Mark Korven, The The‘s Matt Johnson, whose electronic score for Brit cop thriller "Hyena" is one of the year’s best, Julian Wass, who did “The Overnight” and “6 Years,” EDM types Nicolas Jaar, who scored Palme D’Or winner “Dheepan,” and Gesaffelstein, who did Diane Kruger starrer “Disorder,” “Diary Of A Teenage Girl” composer Nate Heller and “Mommy”’s Noia. Anyone else? Let us know in the comments.