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Film

The 10 greatest Philip Glass movie scores

@Russellisation

Known as one of the greatest contemporary composers, Philip Glass has become a household name around the world both for his epic operatic numbers and understated ambient works of wonder. Having an impact on the world of theatre and cinema, Glass’ work reflects a consistently complex network of repetitive phrases and minimalist layers that often build up to an ethereal climax. 

Having long had an interest in the world of music, Glass was inspired by the work of his father who also had an impressive talent for composing. “My father was self-taught, but he ended up having a very refined and rich knowledge of classical, chamber, and contemporary music,” Glass stated in Words Without Music: A Memoir, adding: “Typically he would come home and have dinner, and then sit in his armchair and listen to music until almost midnight. I caught on to this very early, and I would go and listen with him”. 

Lending his influential sound to several iconic films of cinema history, Philip Glass has worked with the likes of Godfrey Reggio, Bernard Rose, Peter Weir, Richard Eyre and Stephen Daldry to help bring various stories of romance and grandeur to the big screen. Working with some of the finest names in music and cinema, let’s take a look into the ten best scores from the career of Philip Glass. 

The 10 greatest Philip Glass movie scores:

10. Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2007)

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that this film from Woody Allen released in 2007 even existed at all, with his modern filmography blending into a blur of throwaway projects and bizarre experiments. 

Glass’ violent orchestral score helps to elevate the film from a middling affair, taking the pace of Allen’s surprising thriller up a few notches whenever the director chooses to use it. Featuring the likes of Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins, this strange crime thriller is a total change of pace for Allen who usually prefers to stick to rom-coms and pre-recorded soundtrack.

9. Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011)

With his frenetic energy of Glass’ scores, it’s no wonder that his music lends itself so well to the thriller genre, with his work on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s dark psychological drama Elena providing the film with some much-needed gusto. 

Directed by Zvyagintsev with a screenplay by Oleg Negin, the typically brooding Russian film follows a housewife whose potential inheritance is put in jeopardy after a sudden illness and an unexpected family reunion. Though Glass offered to write the full score, Zvyagintsev chose to simply use his ‘Third Symphony’ to create an air of familial domestic drama and romantic tragedy. 

8. The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)

With his mix of epic scores and ethereal ambience, Philip Glass is the perfect composer for the classic Oscar film, providing all the emotional weight of a film that would classically go on to pick up the show’s highest awards. 

Gifted an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win for scoring this romantic drama of three women living decades apart who are inextricably tied to one person, Glass provides a consistent contemporary score to each part of the film, despite each taking place generations apart. Providing a through-line for Stephen Daldry’s film, Glass’ effect can certainly be felt in The Hours. 

7. Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

Providing the fuel for this romantic drama starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Simpson and Joanna Scanlan, Philip Glass’ tense, yearning score excavates the minds and souls of its lead characters. 

Nominated for an Oscar for his terrific work on the film, Glass injects the film, following a high school teacher who is having an affair with one of her young students, with mysterious romance. Creating a hotpot of swirling emotions, Glass helps to elevate this thrilling, crime drama by infusing the film with his iconic orchestral touch. 

6. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1999)

For all its comedy, ingenious drama and heart wrenching emotional core, there’s always been a strange ethereal truth to The Truman Show that rings evidently true in contemporary society. 

No doubt, it is the fantastic score from Philip Glass that allows this dreamlike truth to emerge, with director Peter Weir using ‘Anthem Pt. 2’ originally from Powaqqatsi along with several other original songs to create such a mood. Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney and Noah Emmerich, The Truman Show remains an iconic contemporary classic thanks to several well-oiled moving parts.

5. Powaqqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1988)

Arguably, Philip Glass should’ve left Godfrey Reggio alone after their iconic collaboration on the 1983 classic Koyaanisqatsi, as Powaqqatsi fails to capture the true power of the original film, even if it is a solid effort in its own right.

A very different musical experience than their first collaboration, Powaqqatsi takes the viewer through the Third World, treating each section of the film to its own specialised soundtrack including Chinese, African, Indian and Middle Eastern music. In line with Koyaanisqatsi, however, the music here well reflects the images on screen, once again creating an effortless link between audio and cinematography.

4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

Once again collaborating with Andrey Zvyagintsev following their success with Elena in 2011, Philip Glass helped to put together the director’s modern masterpiece, Leviathan by supplying a sublime score. 

In this tricky, intricate crime drama, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is forced to fight a corrupt mayor when he is told that his coastal home in Russia will be demolished. An emotional, urgently human drama, Glass’ bouncy, minimal orchestral score provides constant energy to Kolya’s fight against the authorities. 

3. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A true outlier in the career of Philip Glass, his work on Bernard Rose’s classic ‘90s horror film Candyman is an utter delight, having since become iconic in the world of the genre, providing the music for countless documentaries and the like. 

With songs such as ‘Music Box’, ‘Helen’s Theme’ and ‘Floating Candyman’, Glass created a score that remains creepy and classic as well as new and contemporary, well reflecting the themes of the film. Eerie and unsettling, Glass’ horror score stands beside the likes of John Carpenter as he makes the world of Candyman that much more terrifying.

2. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985)

In many ways, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader was the film that popularised Philip Glass’ music in cinema, with the composer scoring the epic 1985 film with a wondrous control over his own ability. 

Having since been used in The Truman Show and several TV documentaries, the sounds of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters are now recognisable across the world of cinema, though in their original form in Schrader’s film they are intoxicating. Turning the story of Japanese author and martyr Yukio Mishima into an opera, Glass had a considerable hand in the beauty of the 1985 classic. 

1. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983)

Truly, no other film other than Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic game-changer Koyaanisqatsi could top this list, with Philip Glass creating one of the most memorable soundtracks of the medium’s history with his wild symphony. 

Almost uninterrupted throughout the whole runtime of the film, Godfrey Reggio’s film is a music video for Glass’ staggering score, providing synchronised visuals, vibrant colour and unprecedented dynamism. Coming to an orgasmic climax in ‘The Grid’ at the conclusion of the film, Glass manages to provide a soundtrack for that which has no soul; the humdrum of the every day, the electricity of the city and the chaos of modern life.