Music can make or break a film. Therefore, it is no surprise that many directors are highly cautious about original compositions and often prefer the works of familiar icons.
The importance of a good score is inarguable; it is as necessary as well-thought-out cinematography, acting, and dialogue. It can remind us of the period the film was set in or emphasise feelings of emotion provoked by the images on the screen. Music can make us uneasy; it can act as a motif for specific events and themes – music helps to transport us into the world of the film we’re watching.
From Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, many legendary rockstars are well-known in the film industry as pioneering composers. While talking about his personal icons, revered sound artist Hans Zimmer referred to Greenwood as his “favourite film composer”.
Including works by Broadcast, Ry Cooder, Thom Yorke and many more, here are ten incredible original film scores created by legendary rockstars.
10 greatest film scores by rockstars:
10. Arcade Fire – Her (2013)
Canadian indie-rockers Arcade Fire collaborated with musician Owen Pallett to create the music for Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance Her, resulting in an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. The score is relatively minimal, driven by droning synths and delicate piano to accompany the film’s theme of dystopian, doomed romance.
Arcade Fire demonstrate their versatility on their score for Her, sounding worlds away from their popular tracks such as ‘Everything Now’ and ‘The Suburbs.’ Sadly, the score was not released in its entirety until 2021. However, it is now available on streaming services as well as physical media.
9. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
When Nick Cave and Warren Ellis work on music together, you know it will be good. From their work together in the Bad Seeds to their incredible joint album Carnage, released last year, the pair have a talent for getting the best out of each other’s musical ideas. Cave and Ellis frequently use their skills to create film scores, including West of Memphis, The Proposition and La Panthére des Neiges.
Yet their frequent collaborations with Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik stand out the most. The duo created the captivating score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to much acclaim, showcasing Ellis’ mesmerising violin talents alongside melancholic pianos – a perfect fit for the Western epic. Dominik would go on to create two films about Cave, the most recent being the fantastic documentary This Much I Know To Be True.
8. Thom Yorke – Suspiria (2018)
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was enlisted by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino to score his 2018 film Suspiria. Paying homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, rather than being an outright remake, the film received mixed reviews from critics, notably for its pacing and length. However, one thing was undeniably great about the film – Yorke’s score.
Featuring hypnotic synths, haunting piano, and repetitive rhythms inspired by krautrock artists such as Can and Faust, the score is just another example of Yorke’s spellbinding musical talent. Discussing his methods of creation, Yorke said, “I kept thinking to myself that it’s a form of making spells. So when I was working in my studio, I was making spells.”
7. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network (2010)
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has made a name for himself in the film industry since he started producing soundtracks in the 1990s, beginning with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. He also provided a few original compositions for David Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997 and curated the film’s soundtrack, which included works by Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and Rammstein.
Reznor’s work with Atticus Ross on The Social Network soundtrack gained the musician near-unanimous praise. One of many collaborations with director David Fincher, The Social Network score remains perhaps Reznor and Ross’s best work. The pair won Best Original Score for their album at the Academy Awards and were praised for the way the music reflects the characterisation of Mark Zuckerberg – mixing ominous undertones with driving synths and industrial-sounding guitars that portray the Facebook mogul’s intensity.
6. Air – The Virgin Suicides (1999)
In 1999, Sofia Coppola asked French electronic/dream pop duo Air to write an original score for her debut film, The Virgin Suicides – and the resulting album couldn’t fit the movie any better. The leading track ‘Playground Love’ is a beautifully haunting piece co-written and performed by Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars, featuring mellow saxophone and piano that forewarn the film’s tragic events.
Each track fits perfectly into its given scene, with the rolling drums and catastrophic crescendo of ‘The Word Hurricane’ as the perfect example – alluding to the disastrous relationship between Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and Trip (Josh Hartnett). The score is now regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
5. Goblin – Suspiria (1977)
Italian prog rock band Goblin have become best known for their film scores, frequently working with horror genius Dario Argento. After scoring his 1975 film Profondo Rosso, Argento recruited the band to create an original score for his supernatural horror Suspiria.
The title track ‘Suspiria’ is a terrifying opener to the film, using an eerie music box sound alongside an ominous breathy chant and a repetitive drum beat, coming to signify danger throughout the film. In 2018, Goblin went on tour, playing the soundtrack in its entirety alongside film screenings to lucky audience members.
4. Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2014)
Performing in experimental pop bands such as Micachu and the Shapes and Good Sad Happy Bad, Mica Levi found critical acclaim for their album Jewellery (recorded under the name Micachu). But Levi found even greater success when they created the score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 film Under the Skin.
The boundary-pushing score was highly praised for its atmospheric quality that was crafted in collaboration with Glazer, with every track seamlessly blending with the film’s visuals. Levi uses sparse soundscapes with repetitive strings, synths, and percussion that sound like a slow descent into the void.
Levi described the score by saying, “Some parts are intended to be quite difficult. If your life force is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.”
3. Ry Cooder – Paris, Texas (1984)
Whilst performing with artists such as Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Randy Newman, and The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder was doing solo work, experimenting with older genres and updating past recordings he had found. Eventually, Cooder started making film scores, his best-known work being Paris, Texas.
Wim Wenders’ road movie starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski is arguably one of the most beautiful films of all time. Cooder’s score of slide guitars makes an ideal soundscape for the desolate Texan deserts and the overarching theme of isolation and melancholy. The score is simple yet evokes so much emotion within its twanging guitars.
2. Broadcast – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
British band Broadcast gained a cult following after the release of their three studio albums in the early 2000s, which blended psychedelia, indie rock, dream pop, and electronica. Tragically, in 2011, lead singer Trish Keenan died of pneumonia, leaving behind many unfinished musical projects.
One of these was the score for Peter Strickland’s horror film Berberian Sound Studio, which fellow Broadcast member James Cargill finished independently after Keenan’s death. The score comprised thirty-nine short tracks and was inspired by the music from Valerie and her Week of Wonders and Le Orme. It uses gorgeous flutes, bird sounds, harpsichords, and a Mellotron – all alongside echoes of Keenan’s voice. It is delicately creepy, both haunting and beautiful at the same time.
1. Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood (2007)
Not only is Jonny Greenwood Radiohead’s incredible lead guitarist and keyboardist, but he is also an established composer, having created nine original scores. Any of Greenwood’s scores could place on this list due to their sheer brilliance, particularly his experimental jazz record Bodysong or the excellent work on Phantom Thread. However, his score for There Will Be Blood remains perhaps his most outstanding achievement.
The powerfully atmospheric score perfectly accompanies Paul Thomas Anderson’s moody period drama set during Southern California’s oil boom during the late 1800s and early 1900s. With soaring and suspenseful strings that match the drive of the main character Daniel Plainview, the score is tense and dark, creating a perfect soundscape for the film.