(“Photograph” by Arcade Fire is not available on Spotify)
I’m not the biggest music person. I don’t really care for the most recent hot album. I have my set of indie rock songs from my early high school days and my momentary stages of EDM heavy listening, but the only type of music that has been a mainstay of my life over the past five years has been film scores — not to be confused with soundtracks (think “Inception” vs. “Guardians of the Galaxy”).
I adore movies, so maybe I just love film scores so that I can think of my own life as a dramatic movie, but I genuinely think that they somehow capture more than a lot of today’s mainstream music. Film composers seem to experiment with instruments and sounds more than most, even creating new instruments to help perfectly capture the essence of a film, resulting in complex, rich themes. Without great film scores, films would suffer immensely in their efforts to evoke emotion. These kind of musical creations hold so much weight and deserve more dues than they get.
Here are 10 technically complex and emotionally profound pieces from film scores that have helped make their respective movies phenomenal, and that deserve endless praise:
Hans Zimmer — “Where We’re Going” from “Interstellar”
What Hans Zimmer does so well with his “Interstellar” score is thoroughly capture and manifest the themes of the film: love, hope and human progression. And no other piece in the score does this as well as the final one, “Where We’re Going.” Beginning with a low and subdued, yet rumbling organ, the song recalls the moments in which Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) says goodbye to Murph (Mackenzie Foy) at the beginning of the film and creates an anticipation of whether or not he’ll see her again. The introduction is capped off by a breath-stealing crescendo, and the soft notes that follow represent everything that it means to be a father.
In fact, the score holds that precise authenticity; before telling him the genre of the film, director Christopher Nolan asked Zimmer to compose a piece from the spirit of fatherhood, and Zimmer drew inspiration from his relationship with his own son. We can feel that essence in every echoing organ note, as well as within the cries of silence in between. And as Cooper accepts his journey, Zimmer layers the piece endlessly, finding a source of progress in the wondrous, overwhelming build of cosmic organ chords. We may travel far into the wonders of space, but “Where We’re Going” — and “Interstellar” in general — posits that love and humanity are just as grand.
Mychael Danna — “It’s a Process” from “Moneyball”
Mychael Danna’s score for “Moneyball” is unfortunately underappreciated, but it is genuinely the drive behind the film’s sense of perseverance. And as the title of the piece suggests, “It’s a Process” is about just that. Seamless layers of breath-y string instruments, pacing along like steps in a process, and minimalist piano notes masterfully score Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) process of helping the little guys fight the Goliaths. “It’s a Process” confirms exactly what Billy Beane repeats throughout the film: it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
Steven Price — “Gravity” from “Gravity”
It’s difficult for a score to create extreme fear without villainizing or making an enemy out of something. Yet, that’s exactly what Steven Price does with his Oscar-winning efforts for “Gravity.” It’s a disaster movie with no source of evil, instead simply emanating a sense of the survival of the human spirit.
And the title piece “Gravity” encompasses just that. After beginning with a single note echoing for nearly a minute — allowing the swarming noise of Earth to hold the stage — Price introduces a choir and a violin, an ingenious decision that captures a sense of hope and the power of the human will. Layered in behind is a subdued, toneless strum, representing the grandiosity of this space journey. And as Sandra Bullock’s character slowly begins to rise to her feet, Price amps up the use of the human voice, eventually opting for a single singer to belt the heartfelt and triumphant notes. The film “Gravity” relies on its music, and the title piece ends the story on a strong note.
Ryuichi Sakamoto — “The Revenant Main Theme” from “The Revenant”
Though it was shamefully disqualified from the Oscar competition — because of too many composers working on it (why is that a rule?) — Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto’s score for “The Revenant” is haunting. Sakamoto’s piece “The Revenant Main Theme” is especially breathtaking; it quite literally resembles a breath, and thus, a beating heart. The orchestra wanes in and out like a grasp for air, just like Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) icy heaves as he climbs back from near death. The tone of the piece resembles tragedy, but there’s something hopefully persistent within the rhythm of the violin. The lengthy spaces between notes hold nearly hollow echoes, but that simply imbues the song with a sense of a breath that’s hanging on — a perfect musical background for a stunning, spiritual survival epic.
Jóhann Jóhannsson — “Kangaru” from “Arrival”
Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is all about communication and the opportunities for peace, love and progress it affords, so it makes sense for significant parts of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score to include the human voice. “Kangaru” is the pinnacle of that concept. It’s difficult to tell the difference between an edited human voice and an instrument in this piece, let alone to find many sounds of instruments at all. Jóhannsson brilliantly blends such beautiful chorus hums with almost tribal and ancient — or even alien — dialectical, language-esque sounds. It’s an ambitious approach to craft a melodic, hopeful tune from mainly the human voice, but Jóhannsson has conquered that task stunningly.
Clint Mansell — “Welcome to Lunar Industries” from “Moon”
Clint Mansell is an unrecognized genius — a master of the art form — and one of his greatest scores comes on one of the smallest yet most phenomenal films of recent memory, Duncan Jones’ “Moon.” The entire score bleeds with suspicion, pain and wonder, but “Welcome to Lunar Industries” is the most staggeringly affecting piece. Other than some soft electronic percussion sounds and stellar echoes, the first two minutes contain not much more than a very simplistic piano theme, which is a sign of a great composer — it’s the most difficult job to make the simple into the most profound. And while actual drums are added in soon after, the remaining piano grasps hold of the ears until the piece fades to twinkling echoes for the final three minutes. The combinations and complexities created out of such simple means — much like the movie itself — lend themselves to a piece that will stick with you long after the movie ends.
Arcade Fire — “Photograph” from “Her”
Out of the band-to-composer stunts of recent years, there have been few to make the transition as well as Arcade Fire did with its “Her” score. Music from the score is utilized within the world of the film during key scenes, so the task was huge. But Arcade Fire — working with director Spike Jonze, who had used the band’s songs in skateboard videos that he’s directed — creates music that is utterly heartbreaking yet never depressing, extremely emotive yet always sincere.
Take a look at the scene where Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly hears “Photograph” for the first time. There’s a small moment right after Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) starts playing her song where Twombly’s body shifts with his instant recognition of the song’s infinite beauty. It’s hard not to have the same heartstopping reaction to the classically inspired, profoundly nostalgic piece. Samantha speaks about how the song is their photograph, and somehow the song does hold a quality of breaking the bounds of music and becoming an all-encompassing piece of art.
“Photograph” is never more than the piano, but the way the fluttering notes pick up more and more speed, accompanied by heavy, low-toned chords, and then fades almost suddenly to a very flowing, nostalgic slow-paced end shows that one instrument can do so much.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — “Hand Covers Bruise” from “The Social Network”
While I may contend with the Academy Awards’ decision to give the Best Original Score trophy to these guys over Hans Zimmer for “Inception,” I cannot deny Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ masterful brilliance in their “The Social Network” score. And the song that seems to stand out the most is “Hand Covers Bruise.” Opening with an almost chaotically reverberating, seemingly electronic string mixture, the piece then takes the simplistic route, introducing nine piano notes, played in their singularity one after another in an arrangement that evokes the entirety of the deceitful, groundbreaking, tragic story of Facebook’s rise. As the copped undulation builds in intensity, echoing an almost horror-like sound, the piano drops down to its lowest, rumbling note and does the legwork of building the world of betrayal, innovation and, most importantly, friendship that is integral to the film.
Daniel Pemberton — “Revenge” from “Steve Jobs”
Nearly everything from “Steve Jobs” is criminally undervalued, including the madly genius work from composer Daniel Pemberton. Pemberton uses computer sounds freely, crafting an electronically-infused score that perfectly tones the progressive journey of the tech world in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Pemberton also realizes that “Steve Jobs” is a massive Shakespearean story, and that Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs is a tragic man — so he doesn’t shy away from grandiose orchestration when required. In the most electric scene of the movies of 2015, where Fassbender’s Jobs and Jeff Daniels’ John Sculley argue about their pasts, Pemberton creates the score’s greatest piece — “Revenge.”
Pemberton immediately jumps into the Shakespearean, introducing an operatic voice merely five seconds into the piece, accompanied by an arrangement of high, yet falling piano notes to represent the stature and situation of these men. The piece then progresses in tempo and builds in complexity, offering crescendo after crescendo in the most purely epic form. Pemberton allows “Revenge” to fall back down to soft moments, but capitalizes on those moments, leading almost every return to intensity with different arrangement and instrumentation focus. The scene itself is a hot fire for nearly 10 minutes, and Pemberton never fails it, keeping beat and choreography with the dialogue and guiding the pacing and influx of emotion masterfully. “Revenge” is a song for the decade — an operatic, orchestral masterpiece that will leave you breathless at its end.
Justin Hurwitz — “Epilogue” from “La La Land”
The music from “La La Land” is a landmark of 2016. Even when considering the musical genre, many hold the instrumental pieces (the score) as high as the sing-and-dance numbers (the soundtrack). And that’s because composer Justin Hurwitz struck gold — a pure, unwavering magic. Of course, the magic comes to its pinnacle in “Epilogue,” the piece that accompanies the breathtaking “what if” scene at the end of the film. As Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian sits down to play what seems to be the beginning of “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” the song quickly and literally manifests itself on the screen.
“Epilogue” captures vignettes of each moment between Mia and Sebastian, acting like memories to a long and beautiful life while also painting a whole new picture to the heartbreaking “what if” of it all. If nothing else, the song puts Hurwitz’s efforts on full display — piano melodies as rhythmically catchy as the dance moves of the leads, trumpet notes as heartfully energetic as their artistic ambition, waning violins as heartbreakingly sad as the emotional conflict at their core, all chaotically coalescing in signature jazz-like form.
But as the song fades back to a very minimalist version of “City of Stars,” “Epilogue” evokes something more than just musical genius. These are real pains, real emotions at the center of the film, found directly in the music. “Epilogue” shows the perfect, happy-ever-after “what if.” But in its final fade back to the echoing piano, wrapping up with chords from that original “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” the piece then changes its form entirely. Love, no matter how honest and vulnerable, sometimes just doesn’t work out. But that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real. Despite reality and its circumstances, “Epilogue” upholds that truth.