Scoring the Silver Screen

This past year was no doubt a good one for Radiohead. The internet exclusive, pay what you want download release of its seventh album garnered enough media attention that even mentioning it again seems pointless. Still one of the most interesting, partially overlooked news to come out of U.K.s best export is guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s venture into film scoring.

There Will be Blood technically opened towards the end of 2007 in select theaters, but is just now getting a wide release. The long anticipated fifth film from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) is not only one of the finer films you’ll see but features a bizarre yet stirring score from Mr. Greenwood.

Greenwood has in many ways always been the core of Radiohead. Sure lead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrics and musical visions are monumental to the band’s success but it’s multi talented Greenwood’s ambitions and constant desire to change what sound means to music that makes him the driving force of the group. The classically trained musician seems right at home conducting a full symphony orchestra for the scoring of There Will Be Blood possibly because part of his brilliance is taking any instrument or musical medium at his disposal and completely stretching the limits of its range and sound.

While There Will be Blood’s score may not win any awards this season the likes of which generally fall towards household pioneers such as John Williams, Howard Shore or Thomas Newman, Greenwood’s step into film scoring is exciting because this venture may be the start of a long career into cinema.

If done right film scoring can be an amazing part of the cinematic experience. A good score is as important to the story and overall feel of a film as the actors themselves, adding to the allure of the escapism of film. The greats are still adored, hummed and applauded even today. John Williams’ minimalist nightmare crescendo from Jaws, Max Steiner’s beautiful medley for Gone with the Wind, or Bernard Herrmann’s universally known frenzied string score for Psycho or his slow burning moody jazz cuts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, among others, are some of the most memorable scores in history.

Greenwood’s take on PT Anderson’s film of greed, corruption, and the birth of ruthless modern capitalism compliments the films frenzied, chaotic themes while also adding flavors of early 20th Western movie lore musicology. Perhaps its wishful thinking on my part but I hope this is just his beginning. Since I’m a sucker for moving film scores I decided to compile a list of recent film composers that continue to stand out in my mind and are destined to go down in history as some of the greats. Please feel free to add.

Hans Zimmer–I begin with Hans Zimmer because, like Greenwood, Zimmer began his career in popular music and transferred his unique talent over to silver screen scoring. As a keyboardist for The Buggles (80s one hit wonders responsible for the iconic/ironic MTV premiere music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star”) he got a taste for the popular music industry but clearly was destined for bigger things. From his sublime score for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (seriously download this if you’ve never heard it), to Rain Man, True Romance, The Lion King, Gladiator (a beautiful score to an overly hyped film), Black Hawk Down and most recently taking on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Zimmer remains one of the most innovative scorers working today. His continued collaborations with siren vocalist Lisa Gerrard should also be noted. Key Tracks: “Journey to the Line” (Thin Red Line), “Gortoz A Ran J’Attends(Black Hawk Down), “Elysium” (Gladiator)

Gustavo Santaolalla–This Argentine classical guitarist first made a splash after his haunting instrumental piece “Iguazú” was featured in the soundtrack for the shamefully overlooked 1997 film, The Insider, and later on countless other film’s, television shows, and commercials. Since then he has partnered up with Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzaléz Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), provided moving scores for The Motorcycle Diaries, North Country, and is set to score Walter Salles’ upcoming adaptation of On the Road. Still his finest work yet is also the one that was ruined by public satire. Despite being an overall beautiful film, Brokeback Mountain has one of the finest scores in recent years but somehow countless Youtube parodies of the film’s themes have ruined what is an extremely moving score. Other Key Tracks: “El Otro Lado Del Rio” (The Motorcycle Diaries), “Can Things be Better” (21 Grams), “Tema + Atacama” (Amores Perros)

Trevor Jones–While this South African composer’s heyday was during the early nineties, he produced possibly one of the finest scores to ever pair up with a motion picture. His epic compositions (co-credited to Randy Edelman) for Michael Mann’s film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans were the perfect musical backdrop for the film’s vast natural settings and intense chase storyline. He also collaborated with Mr. David Bowie on the soundtrack to the dark muppet tale, Labyrinth. I know there are some “Magic Dance” fans out there. Key Tracks: “Promontory” (Last of the Mohicans)

Match Made in Heaven: Some of the most notable composers working today are the ones that continue to team-up with equally unique filmmakers. Film after film these gifted duos always seem to find that special artistic bond. Clint Mansell’s work on all three of Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain), rock hipster Jon Brion’s collaborations with indie film hipster P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), Cliff Martinez’s longstanding work with Steven Soderbergh (King of the Hill, The Limey, Traffic, Solaris), veteran maestro Angelo Badalamenti’s dark yet hauntingly beautiful work with surrealist David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) and finally jazz trumpet extraordinaire Terrence Blanchard’s ongoing partnership with Spike Lee, most notably his moving requiems for the must-see HBO post-Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke and his score for the films Clockers and 25th Hour. Also lets not forget Howard Shore’s long standing partnership with David Cronenberg, which has now spawned a Broadway musical adaptation of Cronenberg’s gross out 80s horror classic, The Fly. Key Tracks: Besides seeing all the great films mentioned, check out this innovative and unique group of composers wherever you acquire music.

Ennio Morricone–This is cheating since Morricone is a veteran scorer, still for those who are not familiar with his work he is hands down the greatest living film composer. This Italian legend has contributed to over 400 projects and has created some of the finest pieces of music out there (whole symphonies are devoted to his scores). While he’s most well known for his work with Spaghetti Western filmmaker Sergio Leone–his scores for A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West–Morricone’s best work can be found in the forgotten masterpiece, 1986s The Mission. Also worth noting are his scoring for The Untouchables, Days of Heaven, Cinema Paradiso, and State of Grace. Key Tracks: “Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio” (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), “Falls” (The Mission), “The Harvest” (Days of Heaven)