Two words said it all. Moments after winning a Golden Globe for his score for The Social Network last year, Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor tweeted “Holy shit!” Industrial rock singers aren’t in the habit of winning Golden Globes for film scores, and certainly not their first one. But the landscape has changed in recent years – and is still doing so, fast. Two cinema releases this week alone have had their scores composed by singers: Sigur Rós‘ Jónsi has done the honours on Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo, while Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh is responsible for 21 Jump Street.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon: notably, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler hit big with 1983′s Local Hero, and Tim Burton changed Danny Elfman’s life after plucking him from his band Oingo Boingo for 1985′s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. However, boundaries are now being smashed by a generation of directors looking for entirely different sounds, and the likes of RZA, Underworld and Clint Mansell are providing them in spades. Today’s film-makers, reared on rock, techno and everything in between, are looking for more contemporary aural accompaniments – a world away from the traditional orchestral set-up. And audiences’ tastes have evolved with them, says Mothersbaugh, on the phone from his LA Mutato Muzika studio. “There’s obviously a place for traditional scoring,” he says. “But the palette of what people wanna hear has really opened up. And it’s been beneficial to people who grew up on music through bands; it’s given them much more of a voice.”
In many cases, it’s the result of a director being a fan and mining the potential. David Fincher, who used NIN’s instrumental Ghosts album as temporary music for The Social Network before hiring Reznor, said the decision was a no-brainer. Jim Jarmusch, who employed RZA for Ghost Dog: The Way Of A Samurai, was a Wu-Tang fan for years, while Joe Wright, a long-term Chemical Brothers fan, thought their sound lent itself perfectly to what he wanted for last year’s Hanna.
“Someone from Sony called me,” recalls Mothersbaugh of his score for Wes Anderson‘s debut film Bottle Rocket, “and he said, ‘This guy’s really brilliant, but he’s really hard to work with, he’s driving the producers crazy and you’re the only guy he’ll talk to for scoring.’” On The Life Aquatic, the pair sat together in Mutato, Mothersbaugh working on ideas while Anderson was still writing the film. “He said, ‘I’m thinking about putting a composer on this boat. Things haven’t been going good for them, so they haven’t bought any new equipment since 1979, what would that guy be writing music on?’ And I said, ‘Well that sounds quite Devo!’ So we went downstairs and I found these old synths I’d written our albums on, fired them up, and that’s where a lot of that came from, an old Oberheim TVS-1 that had this little 8-step sequencer.”
Directors are taking advantage of these artists’ sensibilities. Cameron Crowe talks of Jónsi providing him with soundscapes he’d “never had in a film before – bells, strings, cymbals, toy pianos, even melodies played through a small dictaphone”, while Jarmusch has said RZA told him to “use hip-hop style” with the music he gave him, to cut and change it as he saw fit. Australian director John Hillcoat, who has used Nick Cave to score all of his films, agrees that contemporary musicians offer something different. “It depends on the band, there have been successes and failures,” he says. “There needs to be an understanding of that world, an intuitive connection to visual storytelling. Radiohead showed a real affinity to being bold with visual imagery, so it came as no surprise when Jonny Greenwood did There Will Be Blood.”
Hillcoat’s also in LA, where he’s completing Wettest County, a prohibition-era gangster drama starring Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, and written by Cave. He and Cave have been collaborators since around 1980, when they were part of what Hillcoat says was a vibrant Melbourne scene, full of “cross-fertilisation, where people were making short films, everyone could be in a band, everyone was intersecting.” Since The Proposition, Cave has scored Hillcoat’s films with long-term collaborator Warren Ellis, and Hillcoat says Wettest County is a departure for them. “They’ve really extended themselves, it’s very ambitious. It’s using a lot of songs that are almost treated like score, and then there’s score that’s like songs.”
‘In film it’s not a serious score unless it’s orchestral; to me, that’s bullshit. This is the mentality I’m fighting against’ – Mike Patton, Faith No More
The opportunity to move on creatively via a film score is a big pull for musicians. Sometimes they just want to get away. Clint Mansell told me in 2000 that he quit Pop Will Eat Itself because he was 33 and didn’t feel comfortable with it any more; a chance meeting with Darren Aronofsky gave him his new career. Similarly, Massive Attack’s 3D told State.ie that the Jet Li/Bob Hoskins film Danny The Dog “wasn’t the film you’ve been waiting all your life to do” but the band wanted a break from making Massive Attack albums.
“More and more people are gravitating towards it, and it’s no surprise,” says Mothersbaugh. “For me it seemed very logical that writing songs to go on the radio wasn’t the be all and end all of being a music composer. Besides, having children really changed my perspective of touring. I dislike it so much now. Devo did 70 shows last year and I don’t like being away from home that long because I’ve got a seven- and a 10-year-old. When you’re 20, touring’s really cool. When you’re 60, not so much.”
With the record industry in flux, it’s also beginning to look like a much safer career opportunity. “Bands are actively seeking more film involvement,” says Hillcoat. “Because the days of recording albums and MTV, and even touring to some extent, are gone.”
But while the internet and digital revolution may not have made your local HMV very happy, technology has opened doors for artists. “Now, you don’t have to have orchestras,” says Hillcoat. “I’ve known [Trent Reznor's scoring partner] Atticus Ross from way back, and he can do that big-sounding stuff from DJ technology and sampling. He doesn’t need the Hans Zimmer huge orchestra and what that costs any more.”
In most cases, the new breed has been welcomed with open arms by the open-minded, but that’s not to say there’s been no industry resistance. Faith No More’s Mike Patton, who spewed up a delightfully noisy score for 2009′s Crank 2 and is currently working on Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, told Scorenotes.com he’d faced some obstacles. “In film music culture it’s not a serious film music score unless it’s orchestral, and to me, that’s bullshit,” he said. “This is the mentality I’m fighting against. I’m a fuckin’ rock guy. And I’m doing soundtrack music. I just think there’s much more that can be done.”
When I spoke to Mothersbaugh he hadn’t yet heard the final mix for his 21 Jump Street score. “I know there were some people fighting,” he says. “I married electronics to orchestral in a way suggested by the directors, and they loved it, but I know there were other people at the mix who were tying to pull in as many of the elements of a Jerry Bruckheimer film as possible. I did do big bombastic orchestra stuff for chase scenes, but to them I think the electronic side was distracting.”
Daft Punk also married electronics to orchestral for Tron: Legacy but, before they began, Disney sent them to meet a handful of more traditional A-list composers. And when they were asked who they’d like to work with, they stood their ground and said they’d do it themselves. I ask Hillcoat if, as each of his films have attracted bigger-budget stars, he had encountered any similar concerns about Cave. He hasn’t, he says, to some extent because Cave’s writing work on The Proposition earned him a lot of respect. “But you’re right,” he says, “the bigger the budget, the more these discussions take place. When we did The Road there were some unusual conversations about a power ballad being written by someone else, but that wasn’t really appropriate to the film, and we won. There will still be the odd note from financiers: ‘too dark.’ It sorts itself out by the nature of the material. There will always be that struggle between art and commerce, but so far we’ve been quite fortunate in winning out.” Long may they continue.
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