Having come up with a Top Ten Classic Synth Film Scores list, I couldn’t resist doing another one for more recent film scores.
So, I trawled my memory (and my album collection) from the last 20 years, to see what synth gems could be unearthed. And it was just as tough to decide on a final ten as it was with the Classic list.
Again, I’m sure you’ll have favourites I’ve missed or disagree with the order of my top ten. Feel free to comment!
10. Run Lola Run | Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek
Tom Tykwer’s a little bit of a modern day John Carpenter, in that he writes, directs and composes. And he does all three very successfully.
Run Lola Run was effectively his breakthrough film and, back in 1998 (it’s the oldest film in this list), captured a zeitgeist of hi-energy, MTV style editing, techno-backed, filmmaking that was very much being propelled along in Hollywood by the success of Tony Scott. All done with a quintessentially Berlin twist.
As the title suggests, the film features long sequences with Franka Potente sprinting through the city streets trying to retrieve the money to save her boyfriend’s life. To accompany these frenetic scenes, Tykwer and his team devise a soundtrack that is full of frantic beats, dynamic basslines and hi-octane synth sequences. It’s all about pace and rhythm.
Whilst much of it is very “of its time”, there are also some more cinematic sequences (which are predominantly percussion based) that still hold up. And it’s difficult to imagine another approach to the score that would have fit the themes and style of the film so well. There’s also the intriguing use of lyrics and vocals in some of the tracks, more akin to the dance music it was emulating than what would be expected from a film score.
Tykwer has moved on to more traditional scoring in recent years (again frequently with Heil and Klimek) and I’m a big fan of both The International and Cloud Atlas soundtracks.
Favourite track: Running Two
9. It Follows | Disasterpeace
Here’s the thing I love most about the soundtrack to It Follows: it’s almost entirely done with Massive. Yes, Massive.
It follows (no pun intended) in the footsteps of many early 80s slasher flicks and so it makes your brain assume it must use synths of that period but, no. Humble old, completely digital, traditionally linked with dubstep and noisy dance music, Massive.
It’s a crunchy, atmospheric and claustrophobic score. Dripping with lo-fi menace, but with a subtle, modern edge; well clear of parody, beautifully fitting with the harsh, detailed and desaturated feel of a film that clearly takes numerous cues from all those inventive, low budget “video nasties” of 30 years ago.
In fact, it is probably this whole digital homage to analogue sound that makes the score stand out. It’s noisy, woozy and unsettling. But it’s a little more clinical in its style and sound, utilising more modern sound design techniques.
And man, is it creepy.
Favourite track: Jay
8. Gone Girl | Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a book as much as I did when I started reading Gone Girl. I got maybe five or six chapters in before I realised I didn’t care for a single one of the characters and, therefore, the solution to the wife’s disappearance didn’t bother me one bit.
Having said that, I do like the films of David Fincher (especially Zodiac) and am a huge fan of the sound of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ film music. They are seriously clever guys. I wouldn’t say their approach is avant garde but, they do seem to enjoy trying to undermine the norms of film music and playing with the audience’s preconceptions.
In Gone Girl, there’s a host of laconical, almost ambient synth pads, swelling and weaving in and out, as tiny little odd, modular noises creep about underneath them. This creates a very unsettling vibe. Like sitting in the vanilla, sterile calm of a dentist’s waiting room, occasionally catching a snippet of the sound of drills hacking into someone’s jawbone.
The lush synth pads (with their modulation and minor chords), in particular, bring back fond memories of listening to chilled out house music in the mid 90s. Then come the drills… the banality of evil. Clever clever stuff.
Favourite track: What Have We Done to Each Other?
7. Tron: Legacy | Daft Punk
When it came to scoring a neon-lit, futuristic, video game style film, full of panache and dazzling spectacle, the be-helmeted French dance duo were an obvious choice. Ably assisted by the orchestrating and arranging skills of Joseph Trapanese, Daft Punk’s score is a fulsome blend of analogue synths and lush orchestra.
And whereas with M83’s Oblivion score (again with Trapanese), the synths and the sound of the electronic act don’t get swallowed up. Here, they are triumphantly to the fore; underpinned with strength by powerful brass chords and racing string arpeggios.
Tron: Legacy is bristling with sumptuous analogue sounds. Besides the myriad of coruscating sequences and basslines, there is also room for some very fine synth melodies, bringing in a wealth of thematic material that could easily have just been handed over to the orchestra.
There are nods to the style of the original Tron film score here and there; certainly the tone of the synths is firmly in the classic, analogue mould. But there is also an epic modernism, a symphonic nature to the electronic score (not just that provided by the orchestra) that elevates the soundtrack above and beyond what might be expected of a dance band taking on a film.
Might I even dare suggest it is Daft Punk’s finest work to date?
Favourite track: Solar Sailer
6. Sunshine | John Murphy & Underworld
Everyone, but EVERYONE, knows Adagio in D Minor from this score. Along with Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream (or at least the subsequently souped-up version of it), it is one of the most over-used pieces of music in film trailers.
And whilst, yes, it is a very lovely piece, it would be a crying shame if people were not as equally familiar with the rest of this amazing score.
In a similar manner to that of Daft Punk and Joseph Trapanese’s collaboration, Underworld initially produced a score for the film, that was then handed over to John Murphy to polish, embellish and (in some ways) complete.
Sunshine is one of my favourite “under the radar” sci-fi films, alongside the much darker Event Horizon. It is a sumptuous piece if film-making by Danny Boyle, with a terrific cast and some great thematic material, even if does rather fall away in the final third with a slightly silly and confusing “against the clock” engagement with an antagonist.
The soundtrack is a highly original work, melding sound design, synths and orchestra in a way that is considered the norm now but, was a little more tentatively experimental at the end of the 2000s.
There are some truly beautiful moments with some glossy synth pad structures. And there are terrifyingly dark, noise-based twists and turns. Often the two intertwine, edited together in a deliberately and intelligently confounding manner.
Favourite track: The Time – Commander of the Icarus
5. K-Pax | Edward Shearmur
Another of those “where did that come from?” soundtracks, with a very original style. Whilst the many piano-lead motifs throughout the score have a more traditional, if slightly ambient, vibe; it is the fact that they are surrounded by little synth riffs and soundscapes, as well as punchy, electronic drums that causes surprise.
It’s an intriguing meld of filmscore drama and chillout music that I will confess I’ve heard very little comparable film soundtracks, either before or since. And whilst it couldn’t be described as unique, it’s not often a film soundtrack comes along and does something different that isn’t born in borrowing heavily from somewhere else.
K-Pax is a very emotive score. The piano and synth melodies are slow and melancholic, as are the electronic soundscapes that float around them. So, it is often a surprise when a fairly forthright drumbeat pounds underneath them. An interesting juxtaposition for sure. But not done in a way that clashes, always done to support.
And it has to be said, there are some very lovely evolving, digital synth pads and arpeggios throughout this score.
For such an original score, it’s strange to see that huge success didn’t seem to follow for Shearmur. His catalogue of work is eclectic and esoteric, but a little “under the radar”, and the originality and colour of K-Pax doesn’t seem to have either stuck or progressed in a way that I’d personally have liked to have seen.
Favourite track: Taxi Ride
4. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo | Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
This is a little bit of a controversial choice for me. I’ll explain why. I love the music Reznor and Ross produced for this film. I think it’s eerie, enticing and evocative. I just don’t think that it was used particularly well in the film.
Similarly to their work with Fincher on The Social Network, much of the score was written prior to the film being edited (or even shot). And whilst this worked fairly seemlessly with The Social Network, here it is much more clunky and noticeable. I’m not sure why. There are moments when the more drone-based cues get completely lost amongst the film’s sound design. And then, at the other end of the scale, there are more dramatic pieces that are edited in such a way as to clumsily telegraph an upcoming moment of action or drama.
It is a strange thing, as listening to the soundtrack on its own reveals a hugely tense, splenetic and creative collection of music that should work extremely well with Fincher’s vision for his interpretation of the Swedish novel.
The music itself is a glorious mishmash of noise, distortion, weird synths, organic soundscapes and detuned piano. Utterly unpredictable, occasionally sublime, but more often than not downright odd; which in this case is a good thing.
Favourite track: Perihelion
3. Drive | Cliff Martinez
Although the films have been a little hit and miss themselves, the relationship between director Nicolas Winding Refn and composer Cliff Martinez has resulted in some wonderful music. Drive is the pinnacle of their collaboration for me, on many fronts.
It’s an unusual thing, is the Drive soundtrack, it has a brooding ambience to it. Dynamism yet calm; much like Ryan Gosling’s protagonist. Much of the score is subdued, tersely atmospheric. Yet there are moments when rippling synths and filtered basslines flutter in and out, adding a hint of raised tempo.
And in all of this it is gorgeous. A collage of the tempestuous and the pretty; various lush electronic soundsources lifting each other up and intertwining.
It’s a work of genius. In less careful hands, a more bombastic and “Hollywood” style of soundtrack could have smothered the mood of the film. What this ambient approach does is add a tension, because you spend much of the film anticipating chaos and violence to break out. The way Winding Refn directs, and the manner in which Martinez’s music supports his direction, is to keep you guessing, waiting, on the very cusp of exploding. So that when it does come, you’ve been repeatedly teased and lulled into a false sense of security, as all the usual scoring signals have been jettisoned for an uneasy pacificity.
This approach also means that throughout the sequences of cold, ambiguous, almost neon-noir art house storytelling, the soundtrack doesn’t have to change tack very much. There’s precious little difference between how scenes of apprehensive romance and bristling hostility are scored.
That is also sounds absolutely gorgeous is the icing on the cake.
Favourite track: On the Beach
2. Ex Machina | Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Now this is a serious synth enthusiast’s score. Deep and dark, lush and spacey; it’s all there and it’s all dripping with glorious analogue synths.
Ex Machina was a real breakout hit in 2015. A small budget, sci-fi, with essentially just four characters, it relies heavily on our trying to work out the relationships between them (two of whom are human, the other two artifical intelligence) and who is playing who. It’s directed by Alex Garland, who wrote the script for Sunshine (see no. 6).
It’s sparse and stylish, and has a soundtrack to match. There’s an organic quality to the synths (which are occasionally embellished with soft electric guitar and a glitchy music box). They move and breathe in a manner that epitomises the intriguing juxtaposition between the human characters and the AI, the sterile laboratory interiors and the lush, mountainous woodland it sits in. From mere machines comes an unexpected warmth, colour and character: much like Ava, the AI at the centre of the story.
Dissonant soundscapes pulse alongside vibrant, widescreen pads; retro, atonal sequences worm their way in and out; all of it creating a tension and beauty that puts doubt in the viewers’ minds. What is everyone’s motive? What are their objectives? Whose side are we on? And what does humanity actually mean in this context?
Brooding, pulsing, warping… the whole experience is invigorating. It’s such a treat to hear analogue synthesizers at the forefront of a score like this, being utilised for their qualities and not as a crutch for something else. Beautiful stuff.
Favourite track: Falling
1. Monsters | Jon Hopkins
Be still, my beating heart. I have such a deep love for this curious, British indie film and its beautiful soundtrack.
It’s such an audacious piece of filmmaking. Gareth Edwards not only writes and directs it, but acts as cinematographer, production designer and visual effects artist. It had a crew of just six people, was filmed in five different countries and utilised locals as extras and minor characters, having their purpose in scenes explained to them moments before the cameras started rolling.
It’s a beautiful film. Just staggeringly gorgeous to watch. And the visual effects (especially the alien creatures) are a marvel, given that Edwards pretty much worked on them alone with an absolute shoestring budget. If you haven’t seen it, rectify that immediately.
Jon Hopkins had worked on film scores before, having collaborated with Brian Eno on The Lovely Bones for example, but here he grabs the opportunity to lead and delivers a moving, ambient and enveloping cloud of sweet synth strings, wistful textures and forceful glimpses of tension and anxiety.
And at the heart of it all is a simple, melancholic piano refrain that grabs at your heart strings and longfully pulls them hither and thither. Every time I hear it I am affected by it. And yet, it is so incredibly simple.
That is one of the greatest achievements of the Monsters score, that it conveys so much via such simple ideas. It is very much a delicate and elusive soundtrack, hinting rather than telling. Even when there are action scenes in the film, Hopkins’ music never relies on punching percussion or aggression, but stirs a muddied pool of dissonance and foreboding.
It’s an ambient masterclass and I love it to bits.
Favourite track: Monsters Theme