Music is an essential component of cinema; an auditory counterpoint that can enhance, contradict, or elevate any scene or image.
But of course you already know that, it’s why you clicked on the link. Or perhaps you clicked it because it’s something of a challenge. ‘Twenty soundtracks I haven’t heard’, I hear you grumble, ‘not likely’. And, you know what, maybe it isn’t. These aren’t really that obscure, and even if they were, there’d be a few of you who’d still defy that peremptory title. What would you have me do? Entitle it ’20 Soundtracks You May Have Heard Already But There’s a Decent Chance There Are At Least a Few You Might Not Be Familiar With’? A more honest title, but I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation (interaction? Address?) if I’d gone with it. What’s important is that we’re all here now. Enjoy the music:
1. Le Mepris, Georges Delerue
To kick off the list, here’s a piece you’ve either never heard, or you’ve heard it far, far too much. Godard’s Le Mepris (which moonlights as Contempt in the Anglosphere) is a film defined by its beauty while at once constantly resisting its own elegance. Georges Delerue’s score is lush and melancholic, its strings searing and its melodies precious, sad. Only Godard decides to repeat this score incessantly throughout – beauty becomes banal. It is a little similar to the Mamas & the Papas tune that repeats in Chungking Express. The same song, once symbolizing love and affection, becomes irritating and blaring when played too often. The substance is the same, only you are different.
2. Mishima, Philip Glass
Philip Glass is a well-known name in the world of minimalist composition, and for good reason. His repetitive, arpeggiated melodies seem to contradict their formalist and academic nature in building to truly moving swells, connoting an intensity and a ferocity that even Wagner might want for. In Mishima, he is at his most remarkable, with a soundtrack that builds on a single theme throughout, modifying instrumentation, timbre, and arrangement as according to the furcated narrative of the film. The Kronos Quartet perform with enviable precision, building to a conclusion that matches the intensity of the accompanying film. For those who haven’t seen it: very intense indeed.
3. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Michael Nyman
Another minimalist with close ties to cinema, Michael Nyman’s collaborations with the idiosyncratic Peter Greenaway have been particularly fecund. Operating in the perhaps oxymoronic subgenre of ‘baroque minimalism’ (as according to me), Nyman makes use of dense and brassy textures to create a warm and organic sound despite the mechanical repetition at the centre of his musical technique. His sound might be less precise and clarion than Glass, but the emotive impact of his work is not. ‘Memorial’, the below track, communicates all the grandiloquence of a Handel piece, churned through the cyclic and enmaddening reel of a minimalist structure. The saxes croon, the cellos rumble.
4. 8½, Nino Rota
If the harsh and consuming mien of minimalism is coming to grate, enter its funnyman uncle. Nino Rota, superlative composer known best for his soundtrack to The Godfather, is perhaps more notable for his extended collaboration with Italian madman Federico Fellini. While Fellini is renowned for his arthouse cinema, often moving, often funny, his love of the circus is perhaps his most recognizable trait. 8½ twists this love into a striking surrealistic conclusion, in which its protagonist sees all the characters of his life marching to the beat of Rota’s clownish score. A wonderful consummation of the absurdity inherent both in Fellini’s cinema and life itself.
5. Macbeth, Jed Kurzel
For a slightly more contemporary entry – Jed Kurzel’s sorely overlooked score for Justin Kurzel’s sorely overlooked 2015 adaptation of Macbeth. Like the film, it is towering and expressive, forgoing subtlety in melody or structure for swelling crescendos and atavistic tone. Its strings bend and declinate much as the film’s titular hero, a creeping evil inherent in dissonant chords.
6. Jackie, Mica Levi
A year later, Mica Levi’s score for Jackie took on a similar approach. However, where Kurzel’s score is direct, even simple, Levi prefers interweaving tones and uncomfortable, discordant structures. Her strings move at an unsteady largo, each rise and fall somehow furtive, suspect. Much like Jackie’s own disturbed and fractured narrative, the music is insecure and wandering. Bright woodwind becomes piercing and incongruent, and an unsettlement pervades all.
7. Napoleon, Carl Davis
Strictly speaking, (most) silent films don’t have a soundtrack. Hence the name. Some did, however, have a score, but most of these are long lost to the cruel vicissitudes of time. The result is a lot of surviving silent films without a lot of surviving music. The solution? New composition. In doing so there are two modes of working. The most popular is imitative – an attempt to recreate the conditions of the typical silent score. Carl Davis is perhaps the master of this form, his soundtrack for Napoleon meeting the original’s technical needs (a scene featuring a hurdy-gurdy), conforming to 1920s style by and via constant quotation of classical music (especially Beethoven, who long admired Napoleon), mixed together with original themes of his own. The below track is largely Davis’ own contribution; that it stands so tall besides the luminaries of orchestral composition is high praise indeed.
8. Man With a Movie Camera, The Cinematic Orchestra
Alternatively, a modern silent film score might reject the old for the current and contemporary. New life for old blood. The Cinematic Orchestra’s soundtrack for the superlative Man With a Movie Camera could be described as such, invoking nu-jazz and downtempo music against a film that far predates either. The breakbeat drumming and pizzicato ostinatos suggest a pace and activity equalled by a film that, despite its age, has never lost its footing.
9. Good Time, Oneohtrix Point Never
Keeping contemporary for a moment, pace and energy might also be the bywords of Oneohtrix Point Never’s progressive electronic score for The Safdies’ Good Time. An acid-soaked neon-toned declivity into criminal incompetence, the film’s tenor is met by its score: bassy, distorted, and high pulse. Where the film sometimes slows, the music makes up the slack, ensuring a tension that builds until it can build no more.
10. Aguirre, Popol Vuh
Oneohtrix Point Never is a popular and acclaimed musician beyond his dip into film scoring – the same is true of Popul Vuh. Exponents of krautrock and neoclassical new age, they are another long-term collaborative act, in this case with the singular Werner Herzog. Their score for Aguirre is perhaps an example of two artists peaking simultaneously; it is ethereal, otherworldly – a choir of synthesised voices that give form to the abstractions of power and madness deep in the Amazon rainforest. The music creeps subcutaneous, its substance an atmosphere of implacable mystery, of alien grandeur.
11. El Cid, Miklós Rózsa
Returning to more traditional soundtracks, Miklós Rózsa is a name all film music connoisseurs would surely recognize. A multiple Oscar-winner and one of Hollywood’s most celebrated composers in his day, his reputation has sadly waned in recent years, whereas those he influenced – not least Lawrence of Arabia‘s Maurice Jarre – maintain their lofty station. In El Cid, Rózsa proves the height of his talent, with sweeping and truly epic composition that more than equals the scale of Mann’s towering medieval vastity. A heroic, virtuosic, and magisterial musical achievement.
12. Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev
On the theme of historical epics, Eisenstein’s (in)famous Alexander Nevsky, his first sound film. And what luck it was sound – the score is composed by none other than Prokofiev, one of Russia’s greatest composers. More than a curio or lesser work, this soundtrack is remarkable throughout, combining Russian folk music, choral chants, and the conflagrating bombast of a full orchestra to accompany the sinisterial Teutonic knights and their defeat atop the ice of Novgorod. Incredibly loud, occasionally unsettling, always exciting; a battle in its own right.
13. Nebraska, Tin Hat
The sound/fury of Rózsa or Prokofiev is all well and good, but listened to for protracted periods can result in tachycardic heart and pulsating pate. For those who need to unwind, there is little better than Tin Hat’s relaxed score to Nebraska, which combines elements of chamber jazz and folk to provoke a homely, rustic, and soothingly organic sound. A clarion trumpet leads in the track below, a piece warm and inviting, though one that equally suggests the journey at Nebraska’s centre.
14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Of a similar timbre, if darker tone, is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score for the film whose title I’ll type out again for exercise: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Little work out for the fingers there. Built around a series of repeating motifs, Cave/Ellis’ soundtrack is simple in arrangement but moving in texture, capturing the fading light of a cruel man and the mythic anti-romance of his life with suiting tragedy. Like the scores of Phillip Glass, it is built around developing themes: earthy bass and plaintive melody rising to efficacious crescendo.
15. Underground, Goran Bregovic
More earthy, less plaintive. Underground, the unhinged masterwork of Emir Kustarica, is a film enmired in Balkan detail. Not least the soundtrack, which embraces the inescapable energy of Balkan brass. Played with a drunken virtuosity and woozy swagger, the below track can hardly be imagined severed from its original context – even by those who haven’t seen the film. A Yugoslav bar, boisterous men, proclivitous drinking, fighting, dancing, more drinking. Good lark all round.
16. Hana-bi, Joe Hisaishi
Better known for soundtracking some of Studio Ghibli’s finest works (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), Joe Hisaishi has a storied career beyond, and just as good. In one of his many collaborations with pulp/family director Takeshi Kitano, Hisaishi again examples his melodic abilities, combining soft woodwind with swelling basal strings. His music dives and climbs in these modes, one contrapuntal to the other. Met with the lush orchestration typical to Japanese orchestral scores, it is little less than enrapturing.
17. The Thin Red Line, Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer might seem the strangest inclusion on this list. Not only is he Oscar-feted, but perhaps the most popular film composer around. But his very best soundtrack seems lost in the heavy bass of his more recent work – it is The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s third masterpiece, in which Zimmer would best show his quality. The below track is an exemplar of the Zimmer style – the melody is in the bass, the arrangement is simple yet moving, the crescendo grand, noble, if touched with dejection. But it is in this crescendo’s relative brevity – and its contextual relevance on screen – that the score reveals its strength. It is in the build and the fall, less than the peak, that the vertiginous centre is made most clear. The coda, a yearning violin section, then reflects on that which it consummates. Like Malick’s film – a moment beyond the bombast of war.
18. The Last Emperor, Ryuchi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su
Written by pop genius-cum-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra fame), with additional contributions by post-punk legend David Byrne and traditional composer Cong Su, the soundtrack to The Last Emperor is this list’s sole Oscar winner. And in a rare twist for that venerable organisation, a deserving one. In the below track, a simple melodic line is accompanied by an arpeggiated bass, before another melodic line incurs. It is rhythmic, forthright, if occasionally abrupt, and reflects the various competing and colluding lines of imperial deceit on which the film is set. A pleasant meeting of content and form.
19. Kagemusha, Shinichiro Ikebe
The filmography of Kurosawa is long entwined with that of the Western. A fan of the oldschool American films of the 40s, they inspired his own burgeoning cinema, which in turn inspired the Western revivalism taking place in the West at the time. There were two remakes, one authorised (The Magnificent Seven, after Seven Samurai), one not (A Fistful of Dollars, after Yojimbo – the lawsuit following enriched Kurosawa more than any other of his films). This West/East communication met its peak with Kurosawa’s late-period Kagemusha. Based on the life of the Japanese warlord Takeda Shingen it failed to achieve sufficient Japanese funding, but production was rescued by George Lucas (his own Star Wars deeply influenced by Kurosawa, especially The Hidden Fortress) and Francis Ford Coppola. More than Western backing, the film also features a soundtrack of distinct Western heritage. Its lone, almost mariachi trumpet calling into emptiness toward the close is perhaps as close to Morricone as a Japanese composer ever got. An excellent soundtrack, and film, often lost in Kurosawa’s enviable back catalogue.
20. Dead Man, Neil Young
To close the list out, another Western of sorts, albeit different in sound and content. Jim Jarmusch always has something of a musical current running through his cinema – Tom Waits starred in Down by Law, and Iggy Pop has a cameo in Dead Man itself. The soundtrack is true to this theme, featuring a score by Dadrocker extraordinaire Neil Young. A simple acoustic guitar lays the groundwork, before a distorted electric enters, overcome by its own reverb. The traditional, undone by emerging, loud technology. It’s like a Western itself. Only despite the effects-laden sound, a melody is still decipherable, the delicate acoustic and growling electric playing in concert. Despite Young’s proven talent, this direction was unexpected, and totally welcome.