Some of the greatest songs ever trace their origins to movies: “Pure Imagination”, “Over the Rainbow”, or anything written by John Williams. These classics have become so recognizable one doesn’t even need to have seen the films to know the songs, and they’ve all made a genuine impact on general audience’s relationship to both mediums.
Today, music has seemingly suffered a drop off in priority in film making with scores, more often than not, being threadbare and serviceable. They don’t generally captivate audiences the way the Star Wars or Jaws theme had in their prime because modern scores are understated, used to compliment an already established tone rather than helping to create or enhance one.
We can still find good individual tracks here and there, but the great scores need to do more: they were intrinsic elements to the film’s storytelling and were so integrated that some scenes leaned on its music for it to be memorable.
Even though it’s not as common anymore in bigger films, ther have been a handful of movies that I feel have done an amazing job capturing and displaying the true power of a score to modern audiences.
For using the score to aid in telling the story or adding that much-needed punch that wouldn’t be there without them, these are five soundtracks from the year 2000 to today that I feel do that:
5. LA LA LAND by Justin Hurwitz
Reviving an antiquated genre, La La Land separates itself and adds a new refreshing layer of realism by grounding its sappiness in reality. As the title suggests, the main theme of the movie is achieving or striving to achieve dreams, and the music, being part of actual scenes, manages to sell the struggle faced with it. Like a later entry on this list, its strongest element besides its composition is its use of dissonance. When the music abruptly ends, it feels like you’re waking up from a cozy dream: the person you’ve been in love with for years isn’t on the same page as you, or accomplishing your dream wasn’t what you had in mind.
The absence of score can be as memorable as its presence. During the peak of emotional conflict in the film, a familiar, upbeat motif to the score plays on a record and grows increasingly dissonant with the dialogue and conflict between the central characters. Right at the emotional crescendo, the record ends abruptly but instead of providing a catharsis or release, it heightens the tension to its breaking point like the whistling of a tea kettle growing louder.
Creative decisions need a diligent director who knows how to use sound and music to tell the story, and these decisions codify La La Land as a true musical for the millennial generation. A minor and admittedly personal downside was having the actors do their own singing. While Emma Stone has a sweet, wispy timbre, Ryan Gosling is monotonous, flat, and can be a drag to listen to.
STANDOUT TRACK: City of Stars — Justin Hurwitz ft. Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling
4. YOUR NAME (Kimi no na wa) by RADWIMPS
Your Name isn’t a Hollywood film and I’m cheating by including it, but I couldn’t help myself. In my defense, the film itself is making waves in Hollywood as J.J. Abrams announced plans to remake it, so it should still count.
One could argue that this anime film’s international success is at least in part due to the energetic score and soundtrack by RADWIMPS. The pop-rock sound with upbeat tempos, high-pitched male voices, and punchy electric guitar riffs might be a turn off to some, but the film is intrinsically designed around it. The energetic music exudes a youthfulness in a story that’s about teenagers maturing as they build a relationship that transcends impossible barriers.
In an interview with a Forbes Contributor, Yojiro Noda of RADWIMPS describes the process of scoring the film:
“It took almost a year and a half to make the whole entire score. We talked with the director and the producer more times than I can even remember. The songwriting process was moving forward at the same time with the animation so it influenced each other. The music changed the story, the lines, and if the new scene was created, we changed the music. It was a creative process… We weren’t able to see the actual animation until it was all finished so we focused on the script and director’s words. And just kept imagining.”
Makoto Shinkai’s direction is determined to take advantage of the score to punctuate the most important moments in the film, once again through abrupt silence. We see evidence of Noda’s comment in the strongest moment of the film. In it, the soundtrack abruptly cuts to silence on the leads characters mid-sentence the way you’d cut off a song on the radio after shutting the engine off and opening the door. Without giving away too much, the music expressed the thematic separation that takes place on screen and reinforces the tone in an almost painful experience for the audience.
The collaboration and attention to detail, as well as the ability to set the tone so effectively and actively take part in the story is why this soundtrack finds itself on this list, and is easily one of the best use of music I’ve seen in a long time.
Standout Track: “Katawaridoki” by RADWIMPS
Insert Song: “Zenzenzense” by RADWIMPS
3. The Shape of Water by Alexandre Desplat
From the moment we wade into the opening scene and are greeted a sleeping Elisa, dreaming as she floats in her submerged apartment, Desplat’s score wraps us in the feeling of bubbly wimsy and warmth through flutes and accordions. The camera continues tracking at a speed complimented by the tempo of the track until Elisa wakes up and her flooded apartment falls back into place. In the theatre, I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face and I knew I was in for a magical experience that wouldn’t let go until long after the credits wrapped.
During a montage, we’re treated to another track that would function as “Elisa’s Theme” as she carries out her morning routine and by then I could feel my cheeks cramping — Elisa begins to whistle her own leitmotif as if the score was diagetic and that was it for me. I spent the car ride home listening to the soundtrack on spotify on repeat.
Desplat’s attention to detail with the score was soulful and his love for the film manifested itself In bold creative decisions. He excludes a percussion/rhythm section in his recording booth to add a floaty peacefulness likened to being underwater, and the tracks were timed to the constantly floating camera movement in the film. Particular care in the composition, timing, and use of instruments ensures that the music fit the period with no electronic arrangements and nothing felt out of place. In a film with water as a backdrop, he sold the joy of being underwater and in love like our main character.
To supplement the score in key scenes, he also used insert music for key moments in the film. Elisa listens to jazz records and introducing her aquatic demigod love interest to music is one of the first ways they bond. The film also plays a curated selection of music, epitomized with La Javanaise by Madeleine Peyroux as heard in the trailer and uses it to create one of the sweetest, romantic, fairy tale-esque scenes in modern cinema.
It’s impossible to not to smile when listening to soundtrack on its own; whistling along to the titular theme is a need. With careful attention to detail and love for the craft, the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat is without doubt one of the greats and earns its Oscar.
The Shape of Water was Guillermo’s masterpiece, and its score Desplats.
Standout Track: “The Shape of Water” by Alexandre Desplat
Standout Insert Song: La Javanaise by Madeleine Peyroux
2. The Fountain by Clint Mansell
Mansell has been the default composer for every one of Darren Aronofsky’s films, with the notable exception of ‘mother!’ His track, “Lux Aeterna”, for Requiem for a Dream has been played in every epic trailer for a film since its release, but I’d argue his peak came with 2006’s The Fountain.
Employing Mogwain and the Kronos Quartet, while also adhering to his influences in ambient-post rock, he manages to craft a unique, dreamy score unlike I’ve ever heard before. It’s also surprisingly minimalist. Many tracks stick to short, easy to remember melodies and rely on a single instrument, and the music becomes more complex and layered as the film progresses.
Darren Aronofsky is the sort of filmmaker that likes to use every facet of filmmaking to its fullest potential to tell its story, and the score is never an exception. With The Fountain, eternal recurrence is another idea that the film peddles, and Clint rises to the challenge. His minimalistic leitmotifs needed to hold up to repetition while remaining engaging, but also evolve them throughout the film.
With a huge emotional peaks and valleys along the way, the film and score coincide to gradually build into the climactic moment at the end of the film that features a supernova. The music similarly explodes into the final and grandest iteration of its central leitmotifs to create one of the most memorable moments in 00s cinema. The influence isn’t hard to find too — search up any emotional, spiritual, or revelatory YouTube video and you’ll like find “Death is the Road To Awe” being used in it.
Clint Mansell has put pen to paper on many score sheets over the last two decades, penning haunting soundtracks like Aronofsky’s Black Swan as well as Duncan Jones’ Moon and recently Rupert Sander’s interpretation of Ghost in the Shell, but none of them compare to The Fountain.
All it takes is one listen to find out why.
Standout Track: Death is the Road to Awe — Clint Mansell, Kronos Quartet, Mogwai
CLOUD ATLAS by TOM TYKWER REINHOLD HALL, JONNY KLIMEK
Large, ambitious, messy, and undeniably beautiful, the film’s premiere in 2012 was met with divided reception. The score did not share the same reaction and instead garnered critical acclaim for its composition; the film’s central motif — heard in the debut trailer — being singled out among an already strong soundtrack.
Tom Tykwer, the leader of the composer trio, is also one of the three directors of the film, directing three story lines out of the six that form the film’s narrative. This makes him unusual among his contemporaries but gives him an edge on the score because he has an unparalleled understanding of the story since he is the one telling it.
With over two hours of music and the film averaging 45 minutes longer than that, a lesser soundtrack would be hard-pressed to keep its audience attention. It could easily become grating on the nerves and harm the film’s experience given how central music is to the film. If the music was awful, it could crash the film. Tom Tykwer and his team however, are not lesser composers. Bringing his experience in directing/scoring Run Lola Run, the trio not only deftly avoids these pitfalls, but crafts a score so elegant and heartwarming that it arguably elevates the weaker moments of the film and sells the strongest moments.
The score is more than just a tone setter. It behaves like connective tissue by bridging the gap between scenes that might appear dissimilar in the edit at first blush by providing an emotional through line and expressing themes through repetition. It’s not difficult to err on the side of cheesy when working with themes this grand and cinematic, but he sells the film’s sincere belief in the themes it’s trafficking in.
Elevating a film is what every score should try to do, and Tywker proves that, at least in my eyes, in the 00 and 10s, he is unparalleled in his ability to do just that.
Standout Track: All Boundaries are Conventions — Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Hall, Johnny Klimek