Trent Reznor’s music always had a bit of orchestration. Whether it was the brighter synthetic buzzes of Pretty Hate Machine, the harsh ambient tones of The Fragile, or the lush experimentalism of the Ghosts album series, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were never simply a rock band playing industrial music.
Reznor gained a well-earned reputation for arrangements that had as much to do with classical techniques and established film scoring as they did with popular music. But like any good professional, Reznor decided he wanted to diversify his portfolio outside of popular music.
After a somewhat disastrous hodgepodge of sounds created for Oliver Stone’s maximalist Natural Born Killers, Reznor returned to NIN and waited for the perfect collaborator to return to the world of film. As it turned out, he would find someone’s whose dark undertones and furious intensity matched his own in the form of David Fincher.
Reznor’s work with Fincher is rightfully celebrated, both on this list and in the wider cinematic diaspora, but it’s not always indicative of the types of scores he’s able to create with fellow musical genius Atticus Ross.
The pair can also be silly, jazzy, funky, retro, and even traditionalist at times, descriptors that very infrequently come up when discussing his day job in NIN. Film scoring is a great way for Reznor to show he’s more than the doom and gloom king of industrial rock, so let’s take a look at some of his best work in that medium.
Trent Reznor best film scores:
The Social Network
The score composed for The Social Network laid the template for all of Reznor’s future arranging work: sparse, heavily electronic soundscapes that owed as much to ambient music as they did to traditional orchestral soundtracking.
With musical partner Atticus Ross, Reznor was able to find a unique musical identity separate from his work in Nine Inch Nails, although pieces like ‘In Motion’ and ‘Carbon Prevails’ retains the glitchy techno stylings of NIN’s late 2000’s output. As Reznor’s first foray into film scoring, The Social Network score is still moving and timely as its parent movie.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A mammoth three-hour tour de force, the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Reznor working at his most detached from what we normally think of as film scores.
Prickly, deeply ambient, and about as chilly as electronic music gets, the score certainly matches the suffocating and, at times, dreary tone of the film. Just like its parent film, it’s also too long and at times too cold, but as a challenging piece of accompaniment, it holds a number of rewards for those willing to get lost in it, including some left-field covers of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ and Bryan Ferry’s ‘Is Your Love Strong Enough?’
Reznor’s third collaboration with director David Fincher indulges in the pair’s well-established formula: synthetic instrumentation, ambient-meets-industrial composition, darker tones than what most scores would sound like. But somewhat atypically, the Gone Girl soundtrack also lets in lighter moments, like on ‘Sugar Storm’ and ‘Appearances.
Perhaps because the film itself is a twisty mystery, Reznor’s melodic lines bubble with curiosity and occasional optimism, the kind that work as a sort of auditory illusion with the film’s context of an apparently perfect marriage hiding much more sinister realities, it’s the first example of Reznor purposefully diversifying his sonic palate to fit the mood of the movie.
Jonah Hill’s lone directing credit, Mid90s, is a highly evocative, deeply indie A24 film about growing up among L.A. skateboarders and hood rats in the titular time period. Hill himself supervised most non-diegetic musical accompaniments, favouring hip hop and alternative music that fit the movie’s contemporary setting. Still, a few pieces from Reznor found their way into the film as well.
Mostly consisting of just Reznor playing piano, the Mid90s soundtrack is a beautiful step back for the NIN frontman, reconnecting with his initial classical training and embracing acoustic elements for the first time.
His contributions only total about ten minutes of music, but those ten minutes would have a lasting effect on Reznor’s future scores.
With Mank, David Fincher presented Reznor with a challenge: to evoke a time and place so far removed from his futuristic comfort zone that he would be forced to put away his beloved synthesizers and soundscapes.
Reznor responded with an honest to God orchestral score, complete with all the traditional symphonic elements you would find in a period-correct 1940’s studio production: authentic percussion, real strings, charts written for session musicians.
By forgoing everything that had become expected of his style, Reznor and Ross created a soundtrack that actually eclipses the film it accompanies. Mank can be ponderous and pretentious, but its score never is. The real celebration of all the best parts of Old Hollywood cinema are found in Reznor’s playful tootling horns and bouncy jazz-era references.
While Jon Batiste focused on the jazzy original tunes performed throughout the film, Reznor and Ross keyed in on the more esoteric aspects of Soul, namely the detachment of one’s identity and the finding of one’s true calling.
The result is as wide open as any of the pair’s previous soundtrack work, with trippy sequencers often being the only elements to keep the score from floating off into space.
Noticeably brighter than their previous work, the Soul soundtrack is goofy lark that opens the doors for Reznor and Ross to explore lighter, more optimistic films in the future.