Musicians in Film: Exploring the Evolution of Musician-Turned-Composer

Over the past few years, musicians and filmmakers have began collaborating with increasing frequency to create visual albums, blockbuster music videos and suchlike. Music creates indelible cinematic experiences, and a few notes from a score can embed themselves in our collective memory more readily than an actor's performance. So it makes sense that we’re seeing a new wave of musician-turned-composers: filmmakers are collaborating, not commanding, and musicians are no longer asked to conceal their stylistic distinctiveness. The ‘Original Music by’ credit is now almost important as the ones with their faces on the poster.

For artists, creating new music within the context of a different medium can be a compelling pitch. This year, ambient Swedish duo Gidge (Ludvig Stolterman and Jonatan Nilsson) returned with Lulin, a two-track piece and accompanying 24 minute short film. The film, made in conjunction with film production company Lampray and arts platform Norr, was filmed close to where Gidge recorded their debut album in Umeå. The haunting forests of the surrounding area provided inspiration for the project, which started taking shape six years ago “with a noise on the roof and subtle creaking in the walls”. 

Lulin Trailer from Lampray on Vimeo.

Tonight, Gidge will be debuting their distinctive, tender electronica at The Pickle Factory. To mark their performance, we explore other musicians who’ve made their mark on the big screen.

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO

Sure, we know him as one of the godfathers of Japanese electronic music and part of Yellow Music Orchestra, but Ryuichi Sakamoto’s prolific composing work makes up a vital part of his discography.

As he moved towards solo work in the late 1970s and 80s, Sakamoto saw cinema and thought ‘yup, I’ll try that’. In his very first soundtrack, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, he also co-starred in the film alongside David Bowie. For a month, the pair hung out after shooting everyday on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean. But, as he told FACT Magazine earlier this year, he couldn’t quite bring himself to discuss the soundtrack. “I totally hesitated,” he explained sadly.

Since then he’s hopped with ease between Japanese, European and Hollywood cinema, scoring projects as diverse as a Brian De Palma erotic thriller (Femme Fatale), a Japanese animated galactic saga (Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise) and a film tailored around helping Leonardo DiCaprio win an Oscar (The Revenant).

Sakamoto even won an Oscar for his stirring soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic biopic The Last Emperor – but he wasn’t alone, sharing the award with another off-beat musician…

DAVID BYRNE

It’s no surprise that Byrne’s constant search for new channels of reinvention pushed him towards the screen, but when you look at his track record, you scratch your head a bit. A multi Oscar-winning period drama (The Last Emperor, with Sakamoto), playful screwball farce (Married to the Mob), even sexually charged crime mystery (Young Adam) – he’s hopped directors, genres and sounds.

While that restlessness is in keeping with Byrne’s myth and persona, in his soundtracks you hear Byrne’s love and aptitude for a more classical register, new kinds of melodies and an awareness of the surrounding framework.

BLOOD ORANGE

Sometimes when news emerges about a musician scoring a film, you can immediately intuit the emotional landscape you can look forward. That was definitely the case when Gia Coppola picked Devonte Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) to soundtrack her debut feature, Palo Alto.

Coming off the back of the well-received Cupid Deluxe, which trafficked in similar tales of strays and outsiders, Hynes’ stock was deservedly high and gave a touch of credibility to a project that had a whiff of nepotism about it (directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, starring Val Kilmer’s son and Julia Robert’s niece and based on James Franco’s book). In a film lousy with big names, Hyne’s sensual but pensive tones found its own way to assert itself, washing over the viewer.

JAMES MURPHY

To put it mildly, the LCD Soundsystem frontman isn’t a fan of your usual cinematic scores (“the musical equivalent of a poetry slam”), but when Noah Baumbach approached him to write music for his film Greenberg, he saw a kindred spirit – two quietly confident, middle-aged and well-referenced New Yorkers who’ve found indie crevices in the mainstream. The pair were so in sync that, Murphy told Pitchfork, aspects of their conversations made it into the film.

You can imagine a Baumbach character throwing on an LCD Soundsystem record in a Park Slope apartment, self-reflexively commenting on Murphy’s myriad influences. In fact, the lyrics to LCD’s 2008 single ‘Losing My Edge’, teeming with the anxiety of ageing and the horror of self awareness, practically make up the plot to Baumbach’s later film While We’re Young. Oh, and that film was scored by Murphy too.

ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER

Daniel Lopatin’s dystopian soundscapes are particularly suited to cinema, so Ariel Kleiman enlisted the services of the electronic musician to score his debut film, Partisan. When you watch the trailer, it’s immediately electrifying hearing Oneohtrix Point Never’s jaggedly forward-looking sounds scoring craggy, post-Soviet landscapes. With an unknown director, having an acclaimed musician scoring the film gives it a certain weight – and it doesn’t hurt to have Vincent Cassel glower magnetically on screen too.

That’s not the extent of Lopatin’s work in film either – Sofia Coppola sought him out to work with longtime collaborator Brian Reitzell on her 2013 LA teen heist movie, The Bling Ring.

JÓNSI

Cameron Crowe’s interest in music is well documented (we get it, you corresponded with Lester Bangs), but seemingly uninspired by the prospect of mining the glory days of 1970s American rock again, for We Bought a Zoo and Aloha, he turned to Sigur Rós frontman, Jónsi.

It seemed a perfect fit and Crowe’s unending earnestness does, at times, marry well with the melancholic buoyancy of Jónsi’s material, but the resulting films haven’t quite hit the heights of either’s previous work.

THOMAS BANGALTER

While a Disney sci-fi sequel (2010’s Tron: Legacy) is Daft Punk’s sole contribution to the canon, it isn’t the pair’s only involvement in composing for the screen. One half of the duo, Thomas Bangalter produced the soundtrack to Gaspar Noè’s Irréversible, going on to release the soundtrack as a solo album. A world away from the exuberance of Daft Punk’s Discovery, released just the year before, the murky, nightmarish sounds of the score demonstrate how musicians can also use soundtrack duties to explore off-piste, away from the expectations and demands from fans and critics.

  • Bren Sritharan