This started because I tried to find suggestions for movie scores to jam out to whilst doing something sexy like calculating how much income I should be putting into my 401K. Every article and post talked about the stuff everybody already knows. John Williams does movie music good. Did I just blow your mind? You know what they say: If you want something done, you have to do find a young person or worker struggling to make ends meet and drastically underpay them for their services. Or do it yourself.
So, apologies, J Dubs, but this ain’t about your Superman theme or Darth Vader’s march. It’s also not about Elmer Bernstein, Danny Elfman, James Horner, Howard Shore, Bernard Herrmann or Hans Zimmer. Hell, it’s not even Trent Reznor (but don’t tell him I said that, dude has crazy eyes). It’s about mentioning some lesser-known composers and scores that you should totally blast while doing erotic things like sorting through your condiments to throw out the expired ones.
The Fountain – Clint Mansell
I almost didn’t put this one on here because Mansell is actually a pretty big deal by now. But then I remembered that you’re not the boss of me, and I can do what I want. Besides, The Fountain is easily one of the best scores ever made by human beings for human ears. Auteurs like Darren Aronofsky seemingly mate for life with one musician, and his union with Mansell has spanned six perfect movies. While most people consider Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan to be Mansel’s signature work, for me, it will always be The Fountain, which remains Aronofsky’s most underrated. With tracks titled things like “Death Is a Disease,” the sound is more than a little heavy.
Music has always served as a storytelling shortcut, a crib sheet for audiences to know how they should feel. Here, that’s no easy task. The sound had to be the highest high of love and the lowest low of death at the same time. He had to make the end of life simultaneously terrifying and absolutely magical. For personal reasons, The Fountain devastated me beyond simply what was going on inside the movie. And maybe part of me gives Mansell’s score extra brownie points for that personal connection. But hey, making someone feel a deep emotional bond is, you know, kind of the point.
Track to try: “Death is the Road to Awe”
Drive – Cliff Martinez
A movie so rico suave it briefly (very briefly) allowed scorpion jackets to become a thing, Drive is 90% aura and 10% content. Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie is all about feel, to the point where, the first time I watched it, I had to restrain myself from screaming “Talk already!” at Ryan Gosling. That’s only strange because I don’t think most people would have that in their top five things to yell at Ryan Gosling. The point is, Martinez’s score was asked to do the work of dialogue Refn didn’t write.
Yes, there’s the veneer of coolness, the faux-1980s swag that permeates the entire film. But there’s also a sadness there, lurking beneath Martinez’s smooth notes. The score also backs up the Zen-approach of our nameless driver. It is meditative and pulsing…right up until it isn’t. Jagged edges slip out from behind smooth surfaces, as the score reaches its zenith with “Bride of Deluxe.” I don’t even know what the hell that means, but that sounds cool as shit, right? “Bride of Deluxe.” I think I’m naming a kid that.
Track to try: “Skull Crushing”
Under the Skin – Mica Levi
Keeping with the “scores that have to do work” theme, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is only able to function thanks to Mica Levi’s work. That isn’t to say that Glazer’s visual palate isn’t striking and that Scarlett Johansson’s magnum opus isn’t compelling as hell. But, again, this is a largely dialogue-free affair, with mood taking the front seat and making “coherent plot” ride on the roof.
Levi’s score is deeply unsettling in the most listenable way. The discordant, twitchy sounds should be only displeasing but somehow they are also incredibly alluring. Under the Skin is a film that doesn’t have sexual subtext, it is all sexual. And Levi’s music feels very, very sexual. From the flirtatious strings to the pulsating pace, it combines lustful sounds with ominous, foreboding warnings about the significance of it all. What I’m saying is, it’s definitely music about doin’ it you probably don’t want to put on to set the mood.
Track to try: “Love”
Sunshine – John Murphy
I love Sunshine. From its stupid premise to the third act shift into a full-bore psycho-slasher horror movie, everything in Danny Boyle’s film clicks for me. I guarantee you’ve heard Murphy’s “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor), as it has been reused in countless other trailers (X-Men Days of Future Past for example, commercials (including one for NASCAR) and television (even on TV’s top show, “The Walking Dead”). That track alone makes the score an all-timer. It is piercing, haunting, inspiring, depressing, enthralling and plenty of other “-ing” descriptors. Throw it on in the background and whatever task you’re doing suddenly feels like the fate of the world depends on it.
What’s impressive is that, just as Boyle’s film operates as a genre mash-up, so too must Murphy’s score be malleable. Horror movies have a certain way of musically putting you on edge. Murphy had to do that while also demonstrating the awe of outer space and the desperation of the team’s mission. It always surprises me after hearing the overwhelming talent at work here that Murphy hasn’t been more prolific. Maybe that’s by choice or maybe that’s because all the good gigs these days seem to go to the same few folks. Who knows? At least we’ll always have Sunshine.
Track to try: “Surface of the Sun”
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour
I’m so totally and completely cheating on this one. This isn’t a score. Sorry. It’s a soundtrack. And sure, I could have waited until I found time to do a whole write-up of baller soundtracks, but I wanna talk about this one now! AGWHAAN is a singular experience, and so very much of that depends on the music. Technically, yes, Amirpour only curated other people’s songs, but she did so in a way that certainly felt like a composition. Most tracks aren’t in English or don’t have lyrics either, so they very much serve the same function, (he justified to himself).
If you’ve seen the film, you understand that the music actually serves the plot at several moments. That’s how vital it is here. The affection between characters literally only makes sense because of the music that accompanies their interaction. Outside of the film itself, the collection is just the coolest. I promise, you bump this as you’re driving, and you will feel like the coolest new wave bad-ass. Actually, if you put this into a playlist with the Drive score and mix them up… BRB, some things can’t wait.
Track to try: “Dancing Girls” by Farah
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dan Rohmer and Benh Zeitlin
Even if Beasts wasn’t my favorite movie, I’d love it’s plucky, precocious score all the same. Somehow, Rohmer and Zeitlin made a score that would tell the same story with the same feelings completely absent of any dialogue or visuals. You feel the coming of age, the loss of the older generation, the nature, the culture, the relationship of the individual to the larger universe. It’s breathtaking art independent of the film that birthed it.
I think my favorite thing is how completely nonderivative it is. Nothing sounds like the Beasts soundtrack. Once you’re familiar with it, you’ll realize how often you’ve heard it in other movies or commercials because it is so distinct. It doesn’t bow to the typical conventions in any respect. Hell, there’s a weird Cajun hoedown in the middle of it! The biggest compliment that you can give to any artist is that they have made you truly, deeply feel. I put on this score more than any other. And every time, without fail, it moves me in a way few other works of any medium can. My biggest complaint is that I don’t have more Rohmer and Zeitlin music to listen to yet.
Track to try: “The Bathtub”