The Best Scores and Soundtracks
The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
This month’s question: What is your favourite score/soundtrack and why?
- Luke Lewis: Mass Effect
- Ash Beks: Suspiria
- Anthony Kellaris: Gravity
- Benjamin Plymin: Dead Man
- Richard S. He: Mulholland Drive
- Patricia Tobin: Rushmore
- Dave Crewe: Drive
- Bradley J. Dixon: A Clockwork Orange
- Simon Di Berardino: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Luke Lewis: Mass Effect
This song sends me straight back to 2012. I played through Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 back-to-back in preparation for the third installment. I’d play ME2 before, which made me want to try the first, and when the third was announced I dived in. That trilogy truly is the space opera it’s purported to be. It’s an experience I’m so grateful to have had. And it’s odd how much it means to me; I can’t bring myself to play through the games again, simply because I don’t want to change the story or ruin any of the sweet memories I have. The characters became friends; Garrus, Ashleigh, whom I betrayed in ME3 to be with my true love, Liara, and Wrex, and EDI, and Joker, and then all the others from the sequels.
The depth and detail of the universe (literally; you explore the entire universe), the incredibly written story, the multiplicity of dialogue trees, the gameplay itself (which isn’t revolutionary, but is definitely well thought out), all culminate in one of the greatest tales of modern entertainment, regardless of medium or genre.
But it’s the music, for me, that brings all the memories and, yes, emotions, flooding back. Hearing any piece of music from any of the three games puts me right back into bridge of the Normandy, into Shepherd’s familiar N7 combat boots.
Composed by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick, the music is inspired by the likes of Blade Runner, Dune and other sci-fi behemoths, whilst also slipping in some ambient kraut-rock elements, in the vein of Harmonia and Neu!’s more reflective moments.
I don’t think there’s any other medium that, through emotional power and investment, leaves one satisfied with memories alone: If I loved a film, I’d watch it again, same with the reading of an amazing piece of writing. But Mass Effect and its story, characters and music had such an impact on me that I really don’t want to alter any of it; it’s enshrined in the halls of my mind.
You see the story branches in hundreds of different ways; you can choose to be a woman or a man; the way you interact with the world is entirely up to you, from being a paragon of humility and kindness, to military neutralism, to blatant self interest and even cruelty, you the player decide how Shepherd behaves. Characters, big and small, live and die by the decisions you make, worlds are saved, gargantuan demigod organic robots thwarted or controlled. Change any variable and it won’t be the story I experienced. It’ll be similar, sure, but I wouldn’t be in it as I am in the story I helped create. All those elements hold their own weight and meaning to me. And they’re all tied together with such a well-executed, thematically nuanced score.
Though it has the setting of a massive, action sci-fi story, the score focuses on the fragility of the races that you encounter, the vastness and emptiness of space, and the melancholy, almost infinite sadness that extends throughout the universe. And it’s this that makes it so powerful; instead of just doling out heart-pumping set piece kill-fests, (which it does give you, in carefully measured doses), the soundtrack brings to light the quieter moments of the adventure, giving gorgeously composed pieces, like the one I linked to, that lend an intimate quality to an otherwise grandiose tale.
And so Mass Effect’s soundtrack is what a soundtrack should be; music that heightens the loud moments of action whilst enriching the quieter ones; music that stands tall when separated from its source; and music that flashes you back to a scene or a line of dialogue, or an entire month of your life where your housemates left for work in the morning to return in the evening and find you sitting in the same position on the edge of your seat in front of the screen.
Ash Beks: Suspiria
Horror movie soundtracks contain some of the most memorable and striking musical cues in cinema history. Bernard Hermann’s electrifying staccato violin for the shower sequence in Psycho is so notable that even those unaware of the film can place it in its correct cultural context. Similarly, the minor second piano interlude of Jaws’ stalker shark sequence has since become synonymous with fear of an incoming underwater attack. Though both of these musical cues shock and jolt the viewer during their respective moments within each film, neither maintain the sheer onslaught of horror captured by my chosen film’s soundtrack.
Being the wise man he was – at least, in the 70s – Dario Argento reenlisted the help of Italian prog-rockers Goblin to soundtrack Suspiria, the director’s first full-fledged horror film. Goblin and Argento had previously collaborated on the giallo masterpiece Deep Red and, despite being only paired for these two features, have since established a collaborative legacy comparable to that of Morricone and Leone or Hermann and Hitchcock.
Oscillating between jarring beauty and disorienting chaos, Suspiria is the perfect example of exactly what a horror film should sound like. At once coyly inviting and astronomically haunting; the sounds present in Suspira grab you by throat and slap you around in the kind of macabre way only Argento and his deranged cronies could design.
Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack suffocates under a chasm of tribal pummelling, progressive electronica, heavy metal, throaty chants and toy-box music. The result is the kind of surrealist nightmare perfectly complementary to Dario Argento’s unique, psychedelic visual palette.
As if the music itself wasn’t shocking enough, the sound designers for Suspiria mix the soundtrack to be front and centre for the duration of the film, making Goblin’s music far louder than the film’s dialogue or sound effects. Those privileged enough to have seen Goblin score Suspiria live would undoubtedly understand just how crucial loudness is to the films experience. It is fair to say that you haven’t experienced Suspiria properly until those garbled screams, fierce synthesisers and pummelling drums can be felt moving through your ear canals, destined to tear apart the very bindings of your soul.
In Suspiria, the music is a character. It creeps in unannounced and dominates with its foreboding presence, like some mysterious aural alien. It thrashes the body with walloping drums, pierces the skin with shrill high notes, and annihilates the soul with screams – the perfect example of unnerving visual and aural harmony.
Anthony Kellaris: Gravity
I’m not sure that it’s my favourite, but the score that gets the most repeat listens from me is Steven Price’s Gravity. Whenever I’ve got a review that’s on its way to being overdue it’s my go-to source of anxiety-induced motivation, and for the next 71 minutes I’m piggybacking Dr Ryan Stone on my to emailing a finished review to Simon.
Benjamin Plymin: Dead Man
There are plenty of healthy options when it comes to choosing a favourite score or soundtrack. But when it comes down to brass tax, Neil Young’s memorable soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man is without a doubt the pick of the bunch. Not only is his score intoxicating, it has a unique and fascinating backstory to its development.
A haunting western set sometime in the 1800’s, Dead Man depicts the spiritual journey of accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) after he kills a man and is on the run with a Native American man conveniently named Nobody (Gary Farmer).
They gallivant through the Californian wilderness escaping the industrial town of Machine and its deranged residents. Honestly, Jarmusch’s film is a pretentious filmgoer’s wet dream, but for the regular folk (without the prerequisite knowledge of obscure spiritual concepts and William Blake’s poetry) it’s well worth watching to experience Young’s accompanying music.
Whilst writing the film, Jarmusch listened to Young’s instrumental work in his band Crazy Horse as inspiration. Once finished he mailed Young the script and asked if he was interested in composing the music. Young politely refused to read the script but agreed to watch a rough cut of the film once it was shot. It didn’t take long before Young took over creative control and was alone in a recording studio with an electric guitar and pump organ. He spent two days improvising this extraordinary soundtrack in real time as one long track whilst viewing the rough cut.
Young’s powerful soundtrack accompanies Jarmusch’s visuals perfectly, and at times overshadows them. As the audience watches this passive man get thrown into the pits of hell they experience the quiet, desolate landscapes of the west besieged by these loud and ferocious electric guitar riffs. Much like the sound of the train Blake arrives on, there’s an industrial and mechanical awareness to the music juxtaposed with long pauses and muddy vibrato with no sense of timing or structure. The soundtrack could easily accompany a film about a conservative businessman in the 80s who’s mistakenly ended up at an AC/DC concert.
The soundtrack to Dead Man simply can’t be exhausted. I find it inspirational during all occasions, whether it’s writing or washing the dog. The film often plays at Astor Theater in Melbourne and I highly recommend you experience its music via their exceptional sound system. Plus you can’t look past a cameo by Iggy Pop playing a crazed transvestite!
Richard S. He: Mulholland Drive
At their worst, soundtracks are purely functional. For better or worse, they pull an emotional weight that can't be achieved by editing or acting alone. The greatest scores tease out a chemistry that's already implied. Mulholland Drive's tells you what you can only begin to realise.
David Lynch's films are often casually referred to as mindfucks, but the man never lies. You might be confused by the plot, but the music and sound design are always emotionally honest. His longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti's most iconic work might be the Twin Peaks theme. It spirals upwards into hope, but always returns to the same subdued, comforting place. The Mulholland Drive theme is just as circular, but it deliberately goes nowhere, an endless stretch of highway. He's the only person who's ever made real orchestras sound like analog synth strings, a degraded copy of the real thing. It's the sound of slitting your wrists in a warm bathtub.
Why is Mulholland Drive's emotional climax, that extraordinary Club Silencio scene, set to Roy Orbison's “Crying” in Spanish? Because, as sung by Rebekah Del Rio, the song is so honest it summons repressions the characters can't bear to confront. You know the melody, even if you don't understand the words. Just as Mulholland Drive's development process – having gone from failed TV pilot to film – accidentally created the film's entire conceit, Del Rio didn't even know she was being recorded at the time. It's a scene about unreality, where the singer doesn't know there's an audience, and until Del Rio falls to the ground, her voice still ringing out, the audience doesn't know there's no singer. It's all an illusion.
It's not that hard to superficially “explain” Mulholland Drive. Plot summaries are easy. Every emotion's already right there, in the music. And yet, it remains equally unknowable. You can deconstruct every creative decision Lynch made, every link between the film's plotlines, but it's endless – and somehow, endlessly rewarding. Roy Orbison sings for the lonely. In the end, that's all there is to it.
Patricia Tobin: Rushmore
If there was one filmmaker you'd like to make you a mixtape, it has to be Wes Anderson. He's chiefly influenced by British Invasion tunes, especially in Rushmore, a film about an overly ambitious teenager, Max. The Rushmore soundtrack is produced by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, and it features beautiful music that truly encapsulates Anderson's authorial style. From French musician Yves Montand's romantic “Rue St. Vincent” to Cat Stevens' “Here Comes My Baby”, it is just instantly listenable and has all around good vibes. And of course, the best scene from Rushmore is its revenge scene set to The Who's “A Quick One While He's Away”. Rushmore utilises music perfectly, which makes the soundtrack all the more memorable.
Dave Crewe: Drive
I feel ill-equipped to answer this question because, honestly, film soundtracks tend to escape my attention. I take Matt Zoller Seitz’s point that when writing about film, talking about form is imperative, but I find myself so rarely consciously aware of a good score (while a terrible one is impossible to ignore). Great scores burrow under your skin, seep into your consciousness and shape your reaction to a film with a careful complement to the narrative and visuals. The best soundtracks I’ve heard are the ones that that I don’t even remember hearing.
Ah, but the question is to identify your favourite soundtrack or score, so perhaps I can disregard this obstruction. The first score that comes to mind is nigh impossible to ignore; Bernard Hermann’s last composition, his soundtrack for Scorsese’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver. Those horns! It’s anxiety incarnate, blaring and guffawing and creating an unnerving, paranoiac prism through which to filter Travis Bickle’s warped worldview, his panicky heartbeats found in the staccato drums. I hated it on first listen; I love it now. Nonetheless, for all its effectiveness, it’s hard to justify choosing a score imbued with such immanent, intentional unpleasantness.
Instead I must select the only film whose soundtrack has made it on my regular music rotation, from a film that shares with Taxi Driver a solitary male protagonist with a propensity for violence and half of its title. I refer, of course, to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, memorably scored by Cliff Martinez (amongst others). Where the jaggedness of Hermann’s Taxi Driver score is an assault, buffeting and jolting the viewer, Martinez provides a languorous humidity. The synth-driven score is sticky seduction, laced with a sinister undercurrent only surfacing as the film steers towards bloodshed. It’s perfectly suited to the film’s influences, French New Wave cinema and American New Wave music alike.
The most memorable moment comes towards the middle of the picture, where Desire’s “Under Your Spell” is employed as a throbbing accompaniment – both lyrically and musically – for the burgeoning bond between our unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) and his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned from jail. The music, a yearning synth-pop masterpiece honed to knife-edge perfection by Martinez, thumps through the Driver’s walls, an uncontrollable pulse of desire.
The choice to score a scene of repressed romantic longing to a song with the chorus lyric “I do nothing but think of you / You keep me under your spell” (from a band called Desire, no less!), is hardly a subtle one. Drive’s soundtrack is far from subtle, but it’s also far from sincere. The film might end with the repeated refrain “a real human being / and a real hero” but it’s clear from every element of the film – from narrative to the delicately ominous score – that this is no hero’s journey. Much like the film itself, the soundtrack plays with the audience’s expectations, building something dark into something shiny. I remember Martinez’s score because it is overt, yes, but also because it finds a way to burrow under your skin, to keep you under its spell.
Bradley J. Dixon: A Clockwork Orange
I am, as you might expect of someone who writes on both music and film, naturally interested in where these two art forms intersect: the soundtrack. A good soundtrack or score complements a film and helps evoke mood; a truly great one works on a whole other level to transcend mere accompaniment and become an inextricable part of the film experience.
There are several such scores and soundtracks — Psycho, The Third Man, The Great Escape, Jaws, The Godfather, Halloween, This is Spinal Tap, Drive, the work of Ennio Morricone, the work of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Firstly, it’s just an excellent collection of classical music and early synthetic electro pop courtesy of Wendy Carlos. It is singularly dramatic, even when removed from the context of the film.
But more than any other soundtrack, A Clockwork Orange is an iconic representation of the themes of the film: classical music is electronically distorted and shape-shifted to become something sinister and, honestly, scary, just as it became an oppressive, torturous experience for Alex after undergoing the Ludovico Technique.
Of course there are many films that would be much less effective without their particular soundtrack, but A Clockwork Orange is one of the greatest films ever made thanks in no small part to carefully selected music.
Simon Di Berardino: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Ennio Morricone’s score for Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is so entrenched in popular culture mythology that it’s probably not even worth writing about. From the howling wails of the opening bars of the first piece, you know where you are and what you are doing, even if you didn’t know the specifics. Morricone’s music is at least 50% responsible for the iconic status of Leone’s operatic western opus, and possibly even more with its blatant disregard for genre boundaries, its clashing of tonal beauty and atonal calamity and its effortless sense of grandiosity. It is a monumental achievement in the marriage of image and sound. Morricone would go on to score hundreds of other films, many of them as beguiling and beautiful as this, but none would crystallise themselves in the public cultural identity as much as this one, and with good reason; it was mythic from the beginning.