The Best Film Music of 2011

The best film music this year featured strong scores from composers like Cliff Martinez and Mychael Danna, whilst also providing us with plenty of memorable moments in the shape of individual tracks.

Soundtrack releases are often treated like the ugly duckling relation to a movie – I’m still waiting for an official soundtrack for Somewhere from last year – as it can often be just another commercial tie-in to a movie or bogged down by rights issues.

But when it is done right, there is something unique about music on film: it can sonically charge your emotions whilst sitting in the cinema or viscerally remind you of a film when you fire up the iPod.

As always there is some overlap between the use of pre-existing songs on soundtracks and scores written especially for the film, but the picks below all stood out for how they enriched their respective movies.

Given the varied nature of online music distribution these days, you’ll be able to find the albums and tracks at iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other places online (if not just email me).

* N.B. As I haven’t yet seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I’ll have to reserve judgement on that score for the time being *

THE BEST SOUNDTRACK ALBUMS

Another Earth by Fall on Your Sword – Blending pulsating electronic elements with quiter atmospherics, this played a major role in reflecting the startling ideas and themes of Mike Cahill’s low budget sci-fi drama. More varied than a first listen might suggest, it is worth keeping an ear out for the mix of instrumentation.

Drive by Cliff Martinez & Various Artists – A fantastic blend of songs by artists like Desire and College, along with some pulsating, moody electronica by Cliff Martinez, helped make this one of the most distinctive soundtracks of the year. Not only was it central to the cool aesthetic of the film, given the lack of dialogue it was almost a supporting character in the movie.

Hanna by The Chemical Brothers – Joe Wright’s stylish thriller was given a pleasing jolt by the electronic beats on the soundtrack. Action sequences such as a prison escape and an extended rumble at a train station were given a real lift by the unusual instrumentation and sounds. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become influential in movie trailers and TV spots for other movies.

Hugo by Howard Shore – The score to Scorsese’s ingenious love letter to the early days of cinema was a playful and sometimes deceptively light concoction. But it fitted the visual delights on screen perfectly, whilst also accentuating the deeply emotional closing stages. I suspect this film will be revisited in years to come (after all the industry chatter about awards and box office) and that the score will be a key part of how people connect with it.

Jane Eyre by Dario Marianelli – British costume dramas can often be stodgy way of squandering public money as BBC Films pander to middlebrow taste buds. But this exquisitely realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel was well served by an atmospheric score which mined the psychological depths of the book and gave it an extra emotional kick.

Moneyball by Mychael Danna – Perhaps the most memorable score of the year was this electrifying companion to Bennett Miller’s marvellous adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. The subtle use of strings and piano cleverly contain the emotion throughout and the individual pieces ‘The Streak’ and ‘Turn Around’ accompany one the best film sequences I’ve seen in years.

Shame by Various Artists & Harry Escott – An eclectic selection of music added to Steve McQueen’s outstanding drama. Not only did we have Carey Mulligan singing “New York, New York” and Glenn Gould playing Bach, but there were also great uses of tracks from Blondie and Chic. Also listen out for music from a key scene that sounds just like Hans Zimmer’s Journey to the Line from The Thin Red Line (1999).

Super 8 by Michael Giacchino – J.J. Abrams’ homage to early Spielberg movies was boosted by this lush reworking of John Williams. Like the film, it was a fascinating example of an artist finding his own voice through the work of another. Reminiscent of Giacchino’s pioneering work in television with Lost (2004-2010) and his recent scores for Pixar, it provided a big emotional component to the film.

The Descendants by Various Artists – The first mainstream American movie scored exclusively with Hawaiian music was an unexpected treat. Its distinctive use of guitars and instruments native to the Aloha State and helped provide some unexpectedly touching moments. Like Payne’s film it avoided bluster and cliché, complementing the bittersweet nature of the film.

The Ides of March by Alexandre Desplat – This moody score provided a suitable backdrop for George Clooney’s political drama. Although the sound design and use of ‘musical silence’ is striking in places, the heavy use of strings suits the film like a glove. Clooney seemed to be channelling his favourite films of the 1960s and 1970s (especially Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet) and whilst it wasn’t on par with Michael Small’s classic minimalism, it was in its own way a powerfully understated score.

The Skin I Live In by Alberto Iglesias – Another memorable score from Iglesias was for his regular collaborator Pedro Almodovar. It was something of a departure for the director, as he descended into Cronenberg territory and the music reflected this, creating a marvellous atmosphere of unease. There was also a dash of Bernard Herrman (although not as much as 2004’s Bad Education) which added to the mix.

The Tree of Life by Alexandre Desplat/Various Artists – The story of music and this film is an interesting one as Alexandre Desplat wrote a score which director Terrence Malick mostly replaced with classical selections instead. Pieces by Ottorino Respighi, Bedrich Smetana and John Tavener were just some of the composers whose music helped make the film utterly transcendent.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Alberto Iglesias – It was a surprise to see Pedro Almodóvar’s regular composer score this rich and haunting John Le Carre adaptation. But along with the brilliantly executed technical aspects of the film, the subtle use of strings played a big part in recreating the pervasive Cold War atmosphere. A version of Le Mer as the film reaches its climax stands out as perhaps the best ever use of Julio Iglesias in a movie.

Win Win by Lyle Workman and The National – Perhaps the single best use of a song this year was including The National’s Think You Can Win over the closing credits of Tom McCarthy’s quietly brilliant film. But the score also provided a rich musical accompaniment with acoustic guitars creating a tangible mood that suited the bittersweet nature of the comedy-drama.

PLAYLIST OF TRACKS

  • Fall On Your Sword – The First Time I Saw Jupiter (from Another Earth)
  • Desire – Under Your Spell (from Drive)
  • Dario Marianelli – Wandering Jane (from Jane Eyre)
  • Mychael Danna – The Streak (from Moneyball)
  • Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations BWV 988: Aria (from Shame)
  • The Chemical Brothers – Escape 700 (from Hanna)
  • Julio Iglesias – Le Mer (from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)
  • Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest (from The Descendants)
  • ELO – Don’t Bring Me Down (from ‘Super 8’)
  • Zbigniew Preisner – Lacrimosa (from The Tree of Life)
  • The National – Think You Can Wait (from Win Win)

What film music did you really respond to this year?

> Best DVD & Blu-rays of 2011
> Best Film Music of 2010

Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack Sampler

Trent Reznor recently released details and samples from his upcoming score to David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

On his official website, he wrote:

For the last fourteen months Atticus and I have been hard at work on David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. We laughed, we cried, we lost our minds and in the process made some of the most beautiful and disturbing music of our careers. The result is a sprawling three-hour opus that I am happy to announce is available for pre-order right now for as low as $11.99. The full release will be available in one week – December 9th.

You have two options right now:

VIsit iTunes here where you can immediately download Karen O’s and our version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” when you pre-order the soundtrack for $11.99.

You will also be able to exclusively watch the legendary 8-minute trailer you may have heard about (no purchase necessary obviously). We scored this trailer separately from the film, BTW.

Or…

Visit our store here. We’re offering a variety of purchasing options including multiple format high-quality digital files, CDs and a really nice limited edition deluxe package containing vinyl and a flash drive.

In addition, RIGHT NOW you can download a six-track, 35 minute sampler with no purchase necessary.

You can also listen to selected tracks here:

Dragon Tattoo Sampler by ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

The full track listing is:

1. Immigrant Song
2. She Reminds Me Of You
3. People Lie All The Time
4. Pinned and Mounted
5. Perihelion
6. What If We Could?
7. With the Flies
8. Hidden In Snow
9. A Thousand Details
10. One Particular Moment
11. I Can’t Take It Anymore
12. How Brittle The Bones
13. Please Take Your Hand Away
14. Cut Into Pieces
15. The Splinter
16. An Itch
17. Hypomania
18. Under the Midnight Sun
19. Aphelion
20. You’re Here
21. The Same As the Others
22. A Pause for Reflection
23. While Waiting
24. The Seconds Drag
25. Later Into the Night
26. Parallel Timeline (Alternate Outcome)
27. Another Way of Caring
28. A Viable Construct
29. Revealed In the Thaw
30. Millenia
31. We Could Wait Forever
32. Oraculum
33. Great Bird of Prey
34. The Heretics
35. A Pair of Doves
36. Infiltrator
37. The Sound Of Forgetting
38. Of Secrets
39. Is Your Love Strong Enough?

Sony also recently released this 8-minute trailer, which is quite an interesting thing to do before a major release like this:

The film opens in the UK on Boxing Day.

Official site
Mouth-Taped-Shut
> Trent Reznor

John Williams 1990 Concert

In 1990 Steven Spielberg hosted a TV special dedicated to the music of John Williams.

For a special edition of a WGBH programme called Evening at the Pops, Williams conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra as they played some of his most famous themes.

Spielberg introduces each segment and those played are selections from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, 1941 and E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

Although there were more scores to come (Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List) it is a nice tribute to one of cinema’s most enduring creative partnerships.

> John Williams at Wikipedia
> Steven Spielberg at MUBi and TSFDT

How Led Zeppelin influenced John Carpenter

John Carpenter recently revealed the major influence on his memorable score for Assault on Precinct 13.

In a recent interview with Simon Reynolds for Vision Sound Music, he talks about his early musical influences and how Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song and Lalo Schifrin‘s Dirty Harry theme influenced the score for his 1976 film.

Immigrant Song was the opening track on Led Zeppelin III, which was released in 1970 so it is entirely feasible that Lalo Schifrin was listening to it when Dirty Harry was in production during 1971 before being released in December of that year.

Notice how the theme which accompanies any scene involving the villian Scorpio (Andy Robinson) features a similar riff to Jimmy Page’s guitar, which influenced Carpenter’s main theme for Assault on Precinct 13.

It just goes to show how everything is a remix.

> John Carpenter at Wikipedia
> Watch the full Vision Sound Music interview with Carpenter
> Buy Assault on Precinct 13Led Zeppelin III and Dirty Harry from Amazon UK
> Lalo Schifrin’s official site

The Great Dictator meets Inception

Hans Zimmer’s Inception score makes for a stirring backdrop to Charlie Chaplin‘s climactic speech from The Great Dictator (1940).

Chaplin’s first talking picture was ahead of its time: a stirring condemnation of Hitler and facism, it was initially banned by the UK government due to the appeasement policy with Nazi Germany, although later became a hit, partly due to its wartime propaganda value.

There were many odd parallels between Chaplin and Hitler: both were born in April 1889, Chaplin’s Tramp character and Hitler had a similar moustache and both struggled in poverty before reaching global fame.

Chaplin’s son later described how his father was haunted by the similarities:

“Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination.”

The film was bold in its ridicule of Nazism and its depiction of an anti-Semitic authoritarian regime.

Watch this appreciation by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody from earlier this year:

In addition to writing, directing and producing, Chaplin played the titular dictator ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ (a thinly-veiled substitute for Adolf Hitler) and a look-alike Jewish barber persecuted by the regime.

At the climax of the film, the two have swapped positions and Chaplin directly addresses the audience in a speech which denounces facism, greed and intolerance in favour of liberty and human brotherhood.

A YouTube user DerPestmann had the idea of combining it with Hans Zimmer‘s epic track Time from the Inception score.

See what you think:

> Find out more about The Great Dictator at the IMDb, Wikipedia and Criterion
> Buy The Great Dictator on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon
> Buy the Inception score from Amazon UK or iTunes