Rockers turned film composers: Ten names to know

by Garrett Tiedemann
February 10, 2014
Larger view
Joaquin Phoenix in "Her" (Warner Bros.)


Among this year's Academy Award nominations is a nod to the wondrous score for Spike Jonze's film Her. The music was composed by Owen Pallett and William Butler and performed by Butler's band Arcade Fire. There has yet to be an official release of the score, but the music has been leaked and has been appearing, then quickly disappearing, in various places online.

Rock songs and movies have been tightly connected since Blackboard Jungle (1955) made Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" a hit and, by general consensus, marked the dawning of the rock 'n' roll era — but instrumental scores are a different beast entirely. Scores must speak to layers of nuance and narrative complexity; they must be intimately linked to the action onscreen, and their arrangement is often highly complex, frequently featuring classical instruments or even a full symphony orchestra. It's not every pop musician who can make the transition to writing film scores — even so, many have.

Frank Zappa and Randy Newman were pioneers in moving between rock music and film scores, along with the likes of Tangerine Dream & Stewart Copeland. Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer got their career starts in pop bands (Oingo Boingo and the Buggles, respectively) before becoming two of the busiest and best-known modern Hollywood composers; and in the last couple decades rockers such as Jon Brion, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Trent Reznor, Johnny Greenwood, Mark Mothersbaugh, Daft Punk, Explosions in the Sky, Cliff Martinez, Clint Mansell and Peter Gabriel — just to name a few — have broken through and made huge waves with dynamic works.

In their wake an evolution has taken place in the composition and use of film scores, and by extension original television music. Orchestras are no longer a necessity, but one among many options; an entire film's musical glue can be created by just one or two people in a room. The increasing presence of pop musicians among the ranks of film composers has brought unprecedented popularity and recognition to the art of film scoring, helping to shine new light on the field's historic greats.

Beyond the well-known names above, here are ten more superb composers who have transitioned from making pop music to writing — and, in many cases, peforming — film scores.

Heather McIntosh

Heather McIntosh has been the house cellist for Elephant 6 Collective and a staple of the Athens, Georgia music community for years, with contributions to artists near and far such as Of Montreal, Apples in Stereo, Faust, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Superchunk, M Ward, Bright Eyes, Washed Out, Dr. Dog, Gnarls Barkley, and Lil Wayne; she has combined these efforts with composing for film and video since 2004. The most recognizable film title she's been involved with is 2012's festival darling Compliance, though her catalog is vast with many more films on the horizon.

Nancy Wilson

Half of Heart, Nancy Wilson has had a vibrant career scoring for films, most notably for her ex-husband Cameron Crowe. His early films such as Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, and Elizabethtown would not be the same without her tender, contemplative compositions adding depth, often creating cohesion amongst the many disparate elements of Crowe's films.

Damon Albarn

Mastermind behind bands Blur, Gorillaz, and countless others; in 1999 Damon Albarn worked with famed classical composer Michael Nyman on the film Ravenous. It was a first attempt in film composition that led to one of the most important scores ever produced, an inventive score that was ahead of its time (and, still, ours) in its presence and purpose.

David Holmes

Where would the Ocean's trilogy be without David Holmes? His signature blend of classic organics with electronics and sampling defined those films beyond their narrative confines. In addition to working with David Soderbergh on the Ocean's trilogy and a few others, he has also written for films like Hunger, he's had his DJ work featured in films like Pi, and he's produced bands like Primal Scream.

Neil Young

In 1995 Jim Jarmusch made a small, black-and-white western. Despite the presence of Johnny Depp in a starring role, it made barely a drop in the pool of American cinema at the time. Its status has grown over the years, though, due to the talented cast and the identity of the man who composed and performed its score: Neil Young. It's not the first or only film score that Young has done, but the ambient textures built upon guitar reverb, found sound, and various other instruments make for a unique soundscape unmatched by anyone.

Climax Golden Twins

Session 9 was the first work by Climax Golden Twins for film, and it's one of the scariest works ever devised. Recently the duo — whose varied music projects cross worlds from indie rock to classical and jazz — lent their talents to Chained (a new product from the mind of David Lynch's daughter) and have continued to release records of great complexity. Their talents for mixing found sound with orchestrations is unparalleled.

Nathan Johnson

Nathan Johnson is now best known for his film work, but he's also worked as a rock producer, songwriter; he leads the indie-rock collective called the Cinematic Underground. His music is the defining sound behind all of Rian Johnson's films (Brick, Brother's Bloom, and Looper); his talent has grown immeasurably over the last few years with continued evolution and commitment to craft.

Lisa Gerrard

Her career began as part of the group Dead Can Dance, but over the years Gerrard has become well-known in the film world, especially for her voice. Whether it's Gladiator or the recent film I, Frankenstein; her voice is pure and eloquent and reaches to your gut. However, she is also a composer and has done impeccable work for films like Layer Cake, Whale Rider, and The Insider.

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman

Wendy and Lisa are well-known to Minnesota music fans as members of Prince's seminal 80s band the Revolution, but in recent years, Melvoin and Coleman have been changing the sound of television, crafting incredible arrangements for shows like Heroes or the prematurely cancelled Prime Suspect. Their rock origins are often revealed by their use of hard-hitting guitar and drums, but they've earned very serious cred as composers.

Stuart Staples

Tindersticks leader Stuart Staples has been the sound behind Claire Denis's films for a very long time, crafting elegant works that push her films as far as they can go. The most recent collaboration Bastards (Les salauds) is one of the best scores of 2013.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!