16 Musicians-Turned-Film Composers And Their Breakout Scores

16 Musicians-Turned-Film Composers And Their Breakout Scores
16 Musicians-Turned-Film Composers And Their Breakout Scores

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.

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).”

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.

Jocelyn Pook – “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
Befuddled attempts to categorize Jocelyn Pook and her musical output have always trailed the composer, pianist, and viola player’s extensive career. Back when such general genre slots were essential for charts and release purposes, “crossover” was the closest many of her albums received. Following her education at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Pook launched into her career with roles in a number of dance pop and rock groups: three years in the Jimmy Somerville-fronted band The Communards (best known for their cover of Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”), and later the Electra Strings, a group that collaborated with the likes of PJ Harvey, Peter Gabriel and Nick Cave.

Pook made the jump to film composing with contributions to Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” in 1986, and that continued a string of projects that cemented her solo sound even further. In 1999, her talents finally caught up with the discerning ear of Stanley Kubrick while he was prepping “Eyes Wide Shut,” his final film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. For the off-kilter, sensual, and at-times hellish journey of a man’s temptations toward adultery, Kubrick found a composer to match that vibe when his choreographer, Yolanda Snaith, used Pook’s song “Backwards Priest” to rehearse the film’s central orgy scene. Kubrick quickly called up Pook to see if she had any other tracks like it, and she ended up providing some original music, as well a reworked version of “Masked Ball” – an Orthodox liturgy played backwards with lyrics chanted in Romanian.

Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman – “Ravenous” (1999)
Though director Antonia Bird’s career ended much too early with her death late last year, her fourth film, “Ravenous” boasts one of the most underrated and oddly perfect musical collaborations on record: Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and composer Michael Nyman. It’s also a partnership we’re unlikely to see again anytime soon – though Albarn and Nyman got along fine while creating the score, apparently it was a largely solitary effort for both men, Nyman describing their process as almost a 50-50 split. “A lot of work needed to be done on Damon’s ideas – which were very good, instinctive, fresh, and quite stimulating – before they could become a soundtrack, whereas I, the old hand, just sat down and did what I needed to do,” he said in an Industry Central interview. “Instinctive” is perhaps the best word for “Ravenous,” which has slowly gathered a strong following since its buried release in 1999. Fiercely funny, genuinely creepy, and featuring hands-down the best performance by David Arquette, the period piece should be sought out immediately if you haven’t done so already. Its score is also a fitting predecessor to Albarn’s Gorillaz work, finding rhythms in the strangest of places and locking onto minimalist grooves that shouldn’t work but somehow do. One of the best tracks to showcase that dynamic is “Boyd’s Journey,” which features in the film’s opening stretches, and employs a driving banjo in various states of tuning with, naturally, a squeeze box.

Air – “The Virgin Suicides” (1999)
After their 1998 debut album, French electro-pop band Air surprised fans of Moon Safari by allowing more of a hazy 70’s influence to creep into their next project – Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, “The Virgin Suicides.” The period informed everything about the project, from the source material to Coppola’s personal and technical preparation for her first film: she enlisted Brian Reitzell for help in selecting music cues that reminded them of growing up in the mid-‘70s – The Hollies, Carole King, Al Green, etc. – and also to connect with Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, whom Retzell had drummed with during the Moon Safari tour. Coppola heavily listened to Air’s debut EP Premiers Symptômes while she was penning “The Virgin Suicides” script, and so it was with a specific awareness of the group’s sound that she asked them to score the film, which finds a narrator – “We” – recounting the awe-filled attempts by a group of boys to understand the doomed girls led by Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) in their upper-class Michigan suburb. “I wanted to deal with this idea of memory, because the story doesn’t take place in the ’70s, per se, but it’s being reflected on years later,” Coppola told The A.V. Club. “Also, Air are the masters of a specific kind of melancholy, a good kind of melancholy.” The album featuring Air’s music from the film is a rare cohesive item, just as suitable for background music as it is for an involved listening. Tracks like “Playground Love” and “Cemetery Party” certainly evoke Pink Floyd or David Bowie in their melodies and approach, but then that’s exactly what Coppola wanted with Air’s score – a vague association that leaves you feeling equally mystified and satisfied.

Clint Mansell – “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
If you’d taken a look at Pop Will Eat Itself’s 1989 album This Is the Day…This Is the Hour…This Is This!, you would’ve never guessed that a decade later the group’s frontman would be creating some of the most affecting scores in cinema. Fusing rock, pop, and rap into a genre self-described as “grebo,” the band, fronted by Clint Mansell, was a brash, bombastic outfit with Dada-esque lyrics like, Goodbye city, hello moon / hands up, vote Dr. Doom popping up on songs. But their tracks nonetheless got them signed to Trent Reznor’s label Nothing Records, and around the same time Mansell met a young Darren Aronofsky, who was then preparing his directorial debut, “Pi.” Aronofsky asked him to jump on-board, and the next few years saw Mansell delving more and more into instrumental post-rock bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor! for inspiration. Those influences sprung out in full force in 2000’s harrowing ensemble drama “Requiem For A Dream,” and its signature song, “Lux Aeterna.” Performed by the Kronos Quartet, the song and leitmotif for the film infiltrated mainstream culture in an immense way, popping up in commercials and explosive movie trailers – interesting, considering how menial the events initially were in ‘Requiem.’ Still, Mansell didn’t mind — the score’s success lent him what he called “some career latitude” for the next few years. “‘Lux Aeterna’ was first used on the scene when Jennifer Connolly had slept with her psychiatrist for money, there’s a big flash of thunder and she just throws up into a waste bin,” the composer told Empire. “We both looked at each other and went, ‘Fucking hell! It works!’ We used to call it ‘Marion Barfs’. At that point I just had the nuts and bolts of it – literally three chords and maybe the ‘da-da da-da-da-da.’ I’d never seen anything like it, but that approach worked every time. It was a moment of transcendence, where the music, the movie and the story just came together.” Listen to that moment of convergence in the track below.

Mark Mothersbaugh – “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
Credit to Adam Sandler — he knew what he was doing when he tapped Mark Mothersbaugh to score “Billy Madison” in 1995. Also, if he hadn’t, Wes Anderson may have been without a key collaborator for the next decade. The former Devo frontman slipped into scoring duties with “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” peculiarly enough because he saw Danny Elfman’s success on the program and became inspired; he called it “the perfect show, because I could do mash ups between classical and polka and metal and punk and opera and bachelor pad music… and it was all acceptable.” After seeing Mothersbaugh’s work with Sandler, Anderson asked him to contribute his talents to “Bottle Rocket”; the influence was certainly felt, as with his next film “Rushmore.” Anderson said, “The tone of [the film] wasn’t there until Mark’s music was there.”

Naturally the two men reached their apex and breakout success with 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” as Mothersbaugh intuits Anderson’s complex breakdown of a dysfunctional family with completely disparate interests. He crafts unique themes for its members by drawing upon a number of historical musical periods—baroque, jazz, and ‘60s pop—and often Anderson pushes the score up front and center in the action. “By the time we got to The Royal Tenenbaums,” Mothersbaugh recounts, “I would write pieces of music when I was reading the script and send them to him in New York, so he could have them on his headset while he was filming. He would already be into the sound of the film, and his editor would have rough music to cut to.” It was a process that paid off — alongside the film’s more signature cuts, like Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay” or Nico’s “These Days,” Mothersbaugh provides a thematic backbone that coheres the film tremendously. Below, listen to the track “Mothersbaugh’s Canon,” which displays that blend of harpsichord, strings, and flute that forms that throughline.

Cliff Martinez – “Narc” & “Solaris” (2002)
Once you’ve been asked to play “giant blue babies levitating over the mountain like Fred Asparagus dangling through the teacup,” you’re probably pretty set for any musical arrangement around. Such were the sort of directions given by psych rocker Captain Beefheart to Cliff Martinez — session drummer for Beefheart at the time, and later for the Red Hot Chili Peppers (joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the band as a result) before hitting a continued hot streak composing for films such as “Drive,” and “Spring Breakers.” Once a member of such rock bands as The Weirdos, Lydia Lunch, and The Dickies, Martinez first caught the composing bug from the Universal Elfman Connection: “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” In fact, it was the involvement of Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh on the show that convinced Martinez to send in a tape of sound collages. Hired for one episode, that credit led Steven Soderbergh to hire Martinez for his first film, “Sex, Lies And Videotape” – an occasion that would trigger a long-standing partnership lasting as recently as 2011’s “Contagion.” Like Albarn, one of the main intersections between Martinez’s pop past and future cinematic direction occurred in 2002, actually with two works: “Narc,” Joe Carnahan’s gritty glimpse at Detroit police work starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, and Soderbergh’s “Solaris.” The former a dark, drum-driven ambient swirl, the latter a subtle, meditative effort that aims for Brian Eno in space, both announced Martinez as a reliable and inventive voice in film music. 

Jon Brion – “Punch Drunk Love” (2002)
It’s not a criticism to say that Jon Brion absolutely bullies his score onto the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic drama “Punch Drunk Love” – in fact, the director rather preferred it that way. Distracting, percussive, and chaotic, there’s a parallel storyline happening with Brion’s work in the film next to Adam Sandler’s rage-ridden character Barry, and viewing the film is a fantastically exhausting attempt to figure each thread out. Together, Anderson and Brion achieved a new expressionistic form with a film score, down to the instruments used on-screen and behind the scenes. The broken harmonium that Barry decides to fix was planted in Anderson’s mind before the script was even finished, and as it turned out, Brion recalled a harmonium that he fixed with duct tape before going on tour with Aimee Mann – a situation which ended up in the final film. Mann was a large part of Brion’s personal and professional life in the early-‘90s, featuring him in her band ‘Til Tuesday while he took other gigs with The Wallflowers and power-pop group Jellyfish. During that time, he also branched out into production, working with Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, and Eleni Mandell, but it wasn’t until the request to hop on “Magnolia” in 1999 that any form of film composing entered the scene. The wait was probably worth it though – what other director would let his lead actor play along to a composer’s score in the film, as Sandler does in “Punch Drunk Love”? Brion’s score also features a complete about-face from the atonal insanity, with the introduction of Emily Watson’s character. Then, Brion utilizes a melodramatic waltz number, one worthy of Douglas Sirk at his most ideally saccharine. It represents an avenue for Barry out of his own head, a chance at a more peaceful future – and also, if you choose a more bitter read – a transition into the melancholy “Theme” waltz from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” 

Nick Cave, Warren Ellis – “The Proposition” (2005)
Unlike his foray into big-budget screenwriting with a legendary draft of a sequel to “Gladiator”—which featured an anti-war thematic throughline and Maximus as an “eternal soldier” who ended up in Vietnam—Nick Cave landed into a project as natural as breathing in 2005 with John Hillcoat’s neo-western “The Proposition.” What with the film being a rugged, bloody tale of retribution and brotherhood in 19th-century Australia, there’s a reason why: it’s been in his DNA forever, or at least since Hillcoat entertained the idea of an Outback western to Cave around the time of his first feature, 1988’s “Ghosts… of the Civil Dead.” Cave, who also worked with him on that score, made a pact to pen the score to that film when it was eventually made. Flash-forward 18 years, and Cave ended up pulling double duty on “The Proposition,” taking the screenplay reins when Hillcoat found himself in a rut as well as fashioning the score, completed in only three days, with Bad Seeds bandmember Warren Ellis and his violin work. “The dialogue was very rhythmic and lyrical and there were actual music cues in the script itself,” Cave said about his work on the film. “But really, when it came to doing the music, it changed immeasurably because of Warren Ellis… It’s very much him, a lot of violins. He had an enormous part in the music and took the score somewhere special.”

The result is indeed a stunning modern classic of the genre, starring Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone as two flawed men on opposite sides of the law headed toward a violent intersection, a direction enacted when Winstone proposes Pearce kill his outlaw brother or pay the cost himself. The song that plays over this predicament, “The Proposition #1” is an ambient wave of foreboding, heavy on the atmosphere that Cave and Ellis would return to with their scores for “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” and “The Road,” and led out by Cave’s whispered singing. 

Underworld (w/John Murphy) – “Sunshine” (2007)
In-between the incessant “BRAMM” stings heard in your local cineplex previews, it’s a good bet you’ve also heard a particularly epic slice of “Adagio in D Minor” by composer John Murphy and Underworld, aka London duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. Countless films, trailers and advertisements have used the song, taken from director Danny Boyle’s 2/3rds brilliant 2007 sci-fi “Sunshine,” but none have matched its original usage, taking place during an incredibly tense untethered space walk between two ships.

The moment is a fitting victory lap for Underworld and John Murphy – both groups found success with Boyle separately, with Underworld’s tracks used in “Trainspotting” and Murphy’s scores to “28 Days Later” and “Millions,” and so it was with a degree of anticipation that trailed their collaboration on “Sunshine.” “Trainspotting” was certainly Underworld’s breakthrough showcase, with “Born Slippy.NUXX” and “Dark & Long (Dark Train)” being used. But those were more the product of Boyle and his music supervisor elevating the scenes with sourced music. It wasn’t until “Sunshine” that Hyde and Smith took a central role in shaping the film’s sound with Murphy, translating the high-stakes narrative of astronauts charged with rebooting the sun into an emotional, thrilling and atmospheric electronic score. Rick Smith liked the gig so much that he went on to score Boyle’s latest effort, the pulpy heist thriller “Trance,” but his work with Hyde on “Sunshine” was enough to cement him as one to follow in the film world. Also, check out our feature on the music in Danny Boyle’s films for many more examples of the director’s talent for a well-placed tune.

Trent Reznor – “The Social Network” (2010)
Even when Nine Inch Nails lead singer Trent Reznor wasn’t around for David Fincher’s projects, it still proved impossible for him not to project some influence onto the director’s work. As author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel of “Fight Club,” to which Fincher soon applied an extra dose of nihilistic glee in 1999 with Brad Pitt, he claimed that one record dominated the stereo — NIN’s 1994 album The Downward Spiral and its lead single “Hurt.”

Of course, the first union of the Reznor and Fincher came about with the uncomfortable and iconic opening credits to “Seven” and its tweaked use of NIN’s “Closer,” but 2010’s “The Social Network” offered more creative freedom and, at the same time, a greater challenge: how do you effectively score an internal character, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and a host of extended dialogue scenes? Fincher first gained some ideas by listening to Ghosts I-IV, a 2008 collaboration between Reznor and musician Atticus Ross, and then called in the two men to watch 40 minutes of a rough cut before creating more. Somewhat burned out from touring with NIN and his other band How To Destroy Angels, Reznor brought an intense passion to the project to match Fincher’s; combined with Ross’ talents at piecing together his and Reznor’s concepts, the stage was set for an unconventional and rewarding partnership – one that has continued through Fincher’s remake of “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and his forthcoming adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl.”

Jonny Greenwood – “There Will Be Blood” (2007)
Given that Radiohead polymath Jonny Greenwood was helping steer the band into uncharted territory in the early aughts – his multi-instrumentalist abilities including viola, glockenspiel, ondes Martenot, banjo, computer-generated sounds and sampling on top of guitar and orchestral arrangement duties – it was likely only a matter of time until this immense talent got into film scoring. While his career in that filed began in 2003 with the documentary “Bodysong,” it really wasn’t until Paul Thomas Anderson had the utterly inspired idea to tap Greenwood for his masterwork “There Will Be Blood” that it all really came together. A departure for both artists, moreso the filmmaker than the composer though, Anderson’s vision for his spare, haunting turn-of-the-century greed drama was initially to be as silent as possible (the filmmaker said he had dreamed of making a film with no dialogue and the quiet opening 20 minutes of ‘TWBB’ was as close as he’s gotten). PTA’s direction to Greenwood was seeing the movie as a horror, and referencing Penderecki’s score for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” But even then when the score was returned to the filmmaker, he didn’t know what to make of it. “It was funny, because some of the stuff that Jonny came back with initially didn’t make any sense to me at all,” he admitted to EW in 2008. “And he was smart enough to avoid me for a few days, so that I could let it all settle [in].” Green even admits he was thinking of backing out at one point he was frightened by it all. But clearly there was confidence in the end to create this bold, unnerving score full of atonal and discordant textures. While there are striking score moments (“Future Markets,” Convergence”), what’s perhaps most arresting about “There Will Be Blood” and its score is its patience, use of silence and how minimalist it can be, cellos eerily rising and falling like shallow breaths. Green’s done four scores since “Norwegian Wood,” Lynne Ramsay’s haunting “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” PTA’s oblique chamber drama “The Master” and his upcoming psychedelic detective movie “Inherent Vice,” but ‘TWBB’ kick-started it off and the composer hasn’t looked back since.

Karen O – “Where The Wild Things Are” (2009)
If one were to assume that multi-instrumentalist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase were the musical geniuses behind the Yeah, Yeah Yeah, all one would need to be disabused from that notion was a copy of the “Where The Wild Things Are” soundtrack. Directed by Spike Jonze, the filmmaker’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic novel is a wonderful depiction of beauty and pains of childhood. O wrote all the music (some pieces co-written with the film’s traditional composer Carter Burwell and Nick Zinner) and enlisted a terrific crew of musicians to her realize her sonic vision (both rambunctions and hopeful, but also terribly melancholy at times). Those who worked on the album – with O as its musical director under the name Karen O & The Kids included her Yeah, Yeah, Yeah band members, YYY touring guitarist Imaad Wasif, Deerhunter‘s Bradford Cox, LiarsAaron Hemphill, The Dead Weather‘s Dean Fertita, and Jack Lawrence from The Raconteurs. Quite the supergroup as it were. “The idea was to write songs that didn’t pander too much to kids in a conventional way, but rather, write emotionally honest music that kids could really identify with and grasp,” she said in an interview around the time of the movie’s release. Much like the movie, “Where The Wild Things Are” the soundtrack can be exuberant and lively, but also quite heartbreaking too. Though it’s sweet and soft tenderness makes it absolutely must-listen emotional comfort food if you’re in need of a serious hug; probably something Jonze and O were going for. For some reason, the movie didn’t connect with audiences on a mass scale, but we bet this one becomes a hardcore cult classic down the road.

Iconic Entry: Danny Elfman – “Batman” (1989)
In choosing one musician-turned-film composer titan, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman were neck and neck for some time. Both played in pop-rock groups in their early days—Zimmer with The Buggles, Elfman in Oingo Boingo—and now they reign over the film scene via partnerships with top directors like Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton. But looking over the list, it was clear to see how much Elfman and his work on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” meant to composers gaining attention now – an acknowledgment that they too could make the transition from stage to screen.Oingo Boingo originally started as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a new-wave performance art group, and as the band shifted over to a new name and sound in the late-‘70s, Elfman and his filmmaker brother Richard decided to pay tribute to their past by making a film based on previous stage performances, “Forbidden Zone.” Elman took a cheeky role in the film as Satan, but more importantly he penned his first film score. Little did he know that Tim Burton and Paul Reubens were fans of both the band and the film, and in 1985 both approached Elfman about coming onboard “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

“When I got asked to do ‘Pee-wee’, I hadn’t written in about five years, and considering that I’d only been writing for five or six years… When we started we were basically a street band and did everything by rote, and then after about three years I was like, this isn’t going to work anymore, and I had to start writing things down. So when Tim called for Pee-wee, my first reaction was that I couldn’t do it, that it was outside my abilities. And then I decided, “Well, fuck it, I’ll just do it.”The “fuck it” that launched one of the greatest director-composer duos, Elfman and Burton repeatedly turned in memorable work on “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice” three years later, but it wasn’t until 1989 with “Batman” that their names and collaboration hit the mainstream as one for the ages. “There was nothing to tell me what type of film ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ was going to be,” Elfman said. “ ‘Beetlejuice’: nothing. The same for ‘Batman’. They wanted it to sound like John Williams‘ music but I don’t do that – only John Williams can do John Williams – so I had to find another language for it.” He did so by locating a darker tone to match Burton’s vision, including a creepy waltz theme for the Joker and of course, that signature theme that, rightfully so, remained top of the superhero crop until Hans Zimmer crept along with his work for Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Elfman may not have quite hit record highs with Burton recently (“Big Fish” is probably their last great score), but listen to his “Batman” theme below and see if you don’t get suitably riled up.

Honorable Mentions
Aside from Damon Albarn, we chose to mainly focus on musicians with more than one major film score to their name, but as usual there are a number of amazing works that we could’ve easily fit in. Isaac Hayes had way more brilliance in store for “Shaft” other than just the theme song, while on a similar blaxploitation beat, Curtis Mayfield’s soul/funk score for “Superfly” transcends its entertaining yet dated roots. In the pop-rock realm, Queen configured the entire score for the immortal sci-fi classic “Flash Gordon” and later contributed songs to “Highlander”; David Byrne collaborated with pop musician Ryuichi Sakamoto for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film “The Last Emperor”; Eric Clapton can claim scoring duties on the entire “Lethal Weapon” series; and Peter Gabriel was behind the scores to 1984’s “Birdy” and Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ.” Also, in two rather strange pairings, Joe Strummer lent his talents to “Grosse Pointe Blank,” and Scott Walker turned in a suitably bonkers, chaotic score to Leo Carax’s “Pola X.”

Leading toward a more recent, electronic sound, Daft Punk warmed up for their latest album by creating a score for Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” – a feat taken on a much darker path in 2002, when one-half of the band, Thomas Bangalter, scored “Irreversible.” The Chemical Brothers turned in an outstanding and essential aspect to Joe Wright’s “Hanna” with their propulsive efforts, while Belfast techno artist David Holmes has consistently set the tone for Steven Soderbergh films like “Out of Sight” and the “Ocean’s” films, as well as Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” Explosions in the Sky (“Friday Night Lights,” “Lone Survivor”) should probably be ranked on this list, but it’s hardly a surprise – the band’s work was destined for the big screen before they ever hit “record.” We have Radiohead producer and Atoms For Peace member Nigel Godrich to thank for his hyperactive contributions to Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Nathan Johnson is lead singer of the rock collective Cinematic Underground, but his scores for “Brick” and “Looper” proved his way around a score alongside his cousin Rian. Regular cellist for the Elephant 6 Collective in Athens Georgia, Heather McIntosh has played with an astonishing number of acts including Animal Collective, Cat Power, Superchunk, and Lil’ Wayne, but she turned heads with her score for 2012’s “Compliance,” which led to gigs on a number of upcoming films including SXSW horror “Honeymoon.”

It’s a testament to the quality of composers’ outputs that we feel like we could continue mentioning more picks all day —alright one more, Basement Jaxx with “Attack The Block—but let us know where we’re missing out with musicians-turned-composers, and what some of your favorite tracks from them are. As evidenced above in this honorable mention section, we could easily do a part two here. — with contributions from Rodrigo Perez.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.