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Film Independent Mon 5.2.2016

The Must-List: 5 Original Film Scores Every Film Fan Should Have in Their Headphones

Invariably, any hit film worth its mainstream marketing budget is going to spin-off its fair share of derivative media and merchandise: souvenir posters, pins, stickers, t-shirts, glassware, pewter statuary, etc.—any and every kind of useless tchotchke.

But no piece of ancillary cinematic memorabilia can stand apart as its own complete, discrete cultural product like a memorable and effective original score. Paradoxical, since classic films are so often inextricable from their signature musical cues.

Just try to imagine The Third Man’s sourpuss post-war noir without its jaunty zither counterpoint, or There Will Be Blood’s ominous ebony oil derricks without Jonny Greenwood’s dread-educing orchestral swells. Chances are you can’t.

From atonal dirges to soaring hero themes to bleep-bloop electronic minimalism, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way for filmmakers to incorporate original music—only what’s right for their specific film.

Putting aside pop-music soundtrack compilations (the subject of future column—stay tuned!), this week’s Must-List turns an ear to some of our staff’s favorite instrumental film scores; running the gamut of eras, styles and effect.

So dump out those spit valves, plug in the drum machine and get your fingers poised over the synthesizer. Here are five one-of-kind pieces of music from some of cinema’s finest loud and lauded aural auteurs:

Chariots of Fire (1981, score by Vangelis)

When I was little, my two best friends were Luke Skywalker (specifically from the “don’t get cocky” scene in A New Hope) and Eric Liddell, from Chariots of Fire. I think we were all friends mostly because we had similar haircuts. But we also shared similar interests—namely shooting things, blowing things up and running fast.

Skywalker was cool, but Liddell was coooooooool. Never fazed. Super confident and extremely good at what he did, which was sprint the 400-meter dash while feeling the pleasure of God. And Liddell’s cool is never more deeply felt than in the film’s famous title sequence. You’ve seen it: a bunch of young, good-looking British dudes dressed in white jogging on a beach—propelled by the film’s heroic, iconic synth score, created by the legendary Greek composer Vangelis (Blade Runner, 1492.)

It’s awesome. Some of the British dudes are laughing. Some are hyper-focused. All of them are sandy.  Liddell’s the only one wearing a t-shirt—rolled sleeves, wide collar. Fashionable as hell, but still: a t-shirt. Let the Cambridge rich kids have their half-zips, Liddell’s shirt seems to say, I’m gonna be comfy while I bask in His glow, goddammit!

Luke and I still keep in touch. But I always wonder what happened to Liddell. Maybe he and Luke are still cool, chillin’ together on that weird island from Force Awakens. Maybe Liddell grew a beard, too? Maybe they run hills together? Wherever they are, I hope Liddell’s still wearing his t-shirt, and that he’s still floating along to Vangelis.

-Will Slocombe, Senior Event Producer

Under the Skin (2013, score by Mica Levi) 

Mica Levi’s minimalist score for Under The Skin is revelatory. While most scores heighten the emotions of a scene or spark sense memory—like the themes to Star Wars or Jaws (arguably the two most famous pieces of music in popular cinema)— Levi’s work cuts deeper. Listening to her score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin, the world you know melts away. You find yourself on a plane void of simple answers or emotions. But Levi doesn’t offer chaos. She cultivates a deeper, meditative understanding of what it actually is to exist.

Levi’s brilliance comes in two forms. The first is the perfect pairing of composer and material. Used sparingly, Levi’s score transforms the essence of every scene it’s in. The film is full of long silences. But when the soundtrack finally kicks in, it pierces you and brings a new understanding to the scene, providing subtext and expanding the film’s universe. Levi’s angular electronic washes speak for Scarlett Johansson’s eerie extraterrestrial visitor in ways dialogue can’t—a form of primal, nonverbal communication.

The second reason is, the music works on its own in a way many film scores don’t. Instead of just reminding you of the movie, it changes the world around you. Next time you’re walking through an airport or buying groceries, put on Under the Skin soundtrack and see just how quickly things change—suddenly everyone’s suspect. The glance of a stranger feels sinister. Your environment—no matter how—has a sudden subtext of unease. That’s brilliance.

-Joshua Wilmott, LA Film Festival Filmmaker Relations Coordinator

 Fargo (1996, score by Carter Burwell)

Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Bros.’ Fargo is the perfect aural expression of the 1996 neo-noir’s theme of hardscrabble Midwestern dignity in the face of a cruel and violent modern world. Fun fact: Burwell lifted the main melody from a Norwegian folk song; appropriate, given the immigrant heritage of Fargo’s Minnesotan setting.

But then, the opening credits unspool. A lonely snowplow crests the horizon of an isolated, ice-swept country road. Here the music swells into a stately funeral dirge, epic enough to mourn Paul Bunyan. It then leaps up into a major key for one brief, yearning moment, before crawling back under the sad snowdrift of melancholy. It’s the ideal accompaniment for cinching up the parka to step outside and face subzero temps. Not because you want to, but because it’s your duty—dammit—and there’s no sense questioning it.

Elsewhere in the film, Burwell’s cues are equally sad and subdued; signaling the fact that, comic interludes and outsized characters aside, this story—and these people—are intended to be taken seriously. But Fargo’s tragedy isn’t its lengthy trail of dead bodies. It’s Marge Gunderson’s gradual awakening to the fact that there are wicked forces at work in the world that can’t be faced down with plainspoken decency or common sense. Burwell’s music is her soundtrack. But at the end of the day, only one question remains: how hard it is, exactly, to tune a wood chipper to D flat?

-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager

The Godfather (1972, score by Nino Rota)

Because I have a father who’s both a New Yorker and 100% Sicilian, many songs from The Godfather era were a staple in our home. He even had a few compilation CDs titled things like “Mob Hits” simply because they featured the kind of old-school needle drops that he’d grown up listening to. On one of these CDs was (of course) the stunningly haunting “The Godfather Waltz” as well as “The Godfather Finale,” both composed by Nino Rota.

This means that ever since I was a small child, I could hum the entire eerie melody of the famous Godfather score. I fell in love with the iconic film’s music years before I was actually old enough to see the film itself. When I did eventually experience The Godfather, I was amazed by the power that came with pairing the perfect cue to the perfect moment. Nothing was more captivating than watching Al Pacino and Marlon Brando’s performances move in time with the somber jazz and classical pieces. And no—my family was not in the mafia. But we had the soundtrack for it. 

-Kaia Placa, Institutional Giving Coordinator

 Requiem for a Dream (2000, score by Clint Mansell)

Even if you’ve never seen Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, there’s a good chance you’ve heard at least part of Clint Mansell’s iconic score. For a couple years there in the early 2000s, Requiem’s signature theme “Lux Aeterna” was everywhere. Especially in ads for epic videogames and action movie trailers and TV spots, most memorably in the media campaign for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Typically, these secondary appropriations used a turbo-charged, fully orchestrated version of “Lux”, but the original Requiem version is still the best—just listen to it. Over a ragged mid-tempo techno beat, the always-awesome Kronos Quartet wrings every last bit of psychodrama out of their 16 collective strings, the deep resonance of their instruments spotlighting the open space around the margins of Mansell’s composition. The effect is one of doomed loneliness—a pre-credits warning that the film’s foursome of sad, misguided junkie protagonists are headed nowhere good.

At other points in the film, Mansell (and his Kronos cohorts) stab, soar and float to create moments of tension, romance, beauty, hope and horror. It’s a diverse range of moods and emotions, but the remarkable thing is how aesthetically consistent it all is. Put this in your ears and life instantly becomes more dramatic. Addictive. (Matt Warren)

Are you typing these titles into Spotify yet? Why not? Chances are no matter what your mood, there’s a film score out just waiting to turn your daily routine into an epic drama. Besides, how many more times can you listen to “Lemonade,” really?

What’s your favorite film score? Let us know in the comments, or share your picks with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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