Audio/Visual: A Decade of Music in Film

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a scanner darkly

It’s time to get the real party started. I’ve whittled down what I prefer to think of as the “critical darlings” of my top ten best scores of the past decade. From this point on, it’s all subjective. The next three scores are personal favorites that I feel are real standouts from the hordes of disappointingly functional soundtracks I’ve witnessed. Before I continue, let me clarify a few things. I chose these scores (and this is so for the previous picks) not just because they suited their respective films; this they did well. I am highlighting them because they are also, standalone, great music that isn’t content to merely assist the visual action. At times, these soundtracks may even overwhelm the film itself, though this is a rarity. I love them because it’s not until you hear them outside their natural habitat that you realize how phenomenal they are.
The score for Dave McKean’s MIRRORMASK is a great example of this. The first time I heard this score, I was mildly intrigued but I couldn’t figure out why it stood out, because so much of the film fought with it visually. If you’ve never seen MIRRORMASK, it’s a starkly rendered treat that isn’t quite CG but not at all an animated film so it’s no surprise that I had to sample the score on its own to grasp its appeal.
Like the movie, the soundtrack is a dark carnival of eccentric textures, though one particular facet is notable. Iain Ballamy, a close friend the director and cooperator of their shared record label, was brought on to compose, having worked in the past with David Bowie on a musical film. Much like LOST IN TRANSLATION, this is again an example of a director working closely with the composer, adding his own ideas to the mix and enhancing the accuracy of what is portrayed through the music.
What you get really is very unique. Ballamy, an immensely talented saxophone player, keeps traditional instruments in the forefront, bringing to bear only a few layers of sound and the occasional electronic trimmings. Consequently, the music is hauntingly minimalist; even the lighter pieces feel unsettled and spectral. What Ballamy wasn’t afraid to do is to really explore; the score traverses just about every landscape imaginable, from twisted whimsy to psychedelic ambiance transforming into a frenetic, percussion-driven rush. It must’ve been difficult to keep up with the film itself in terms of creativity and spectacle, and yet he churned out a distinctly brilliant gem that glitters darkly alongside the film itself, hidden but vivacious and keen.
To this day, I still don’t know what to make of the score for A SCANNER DARKLY. I’m not familiar at all with the composer, Graham Reynolds, or his Golden Arm Trio. They’re really about as enigmatic as it gets. Which is a crying shame, because this is a sucker punch of a score. While the MIRRORMASK music was subtle like a tight rope performer, A SCANNER DARKLY has a capably menacing atmosphere that never quite lets up. Much like Jonny Greenwood’s work with THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Reynolds utilizes a subtle blend of electronics and strings, but rather than screech with discordant dread, A SCANNER DARKLY chooses to shimmer with a glossy noir gloom that is really tantalizing.
What really sticks in my head about this score is how chilling it is. The blend of deep, bluesy noir, percussive electronics, and dramatic strings is dosed perfectly. They could’ve erred on the side of computerization and come out too inhuman, or they could’ve bent too far into the noir realm and risked undermining the warped, frantic transformations the film throws at the audience. Instead, there’s a perfect balance in place, resulting in a body of sound that I would describe as a late night stroll down the dark, rain-soaked memory lane of hacked and scrambled supercomputer. In other words, perfect future noir.
TAXIDERMIA is a film I’ve never seen. But I’ve listened to the score hundreds of times. I feel this score is one of the strongest of the entire set for that reason alone. I will admit that, having heard these soundtracks alongside their visual components influenced my take on them. That I have no doubt of. That I am so enamored of Amon Tobin’s work on TAXIDERMIA should indicate just how strongly I feel about this music. The fact is, out of all three of these, this score stands out the most, and while many fans of traditional film scores will scoff at it, I love it to death.
To begin with, its produced and composed by one Amon Tobin. Unlike the two other artists mentioned in this article, I am a fan of Amon Tobin. I discovered him via his excellent soundtrack for the Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory videogame, then became enamored of his whole discography. To discover that he scored a film was exciting enough. The fact that it’s a hypersurreal Hungarian body-horror flick that could make Cronenberg blink is a fact I find amusing at least.
What matters here is how very unique Amon Tobin’s style of scoring is. Tobin is the master of sampled percussion and he does not temper his taste for razor sharp beats here. What he does do is to take his eclecticism to a whole new level. Utilizing the expensive and precise studio setup he made his “Foley Room” album with, he drives a thousand microcosmic samples through a computer and produces a dark spectrum of murky, lurching, hallucinatory tunes throbbing with a rhythmic backbone of his flawless beat manipulation. The soundtrack includes one of the best songs of all time: “Here Comes The Moon Man”, a piece of music that is as alien as it gets.
And that wraps up the penultimate chapter of the top ten scores of the past decade. There’s only two more soundtracks to go. I won’t give away what they are just yet but I will hint for amusements sake. One of them is composed by a popular and critically praised composer yet is still a score often overlooked, one you likely have heard or have heard of. The other is the work of a single man producing his debut film by himself that premiered as Sundance to critical mockery despite being wholly original and stunningly rendered. Join me later today, just prior to the end of the year, as I announce the last two of the best film scores of 2000-2009.

Born in the suburbs of Saint Louis, the son of a letter carrier and a Western Union operator. A nonidentical twin and born geek, raised on a healthy diet of Super Nintendo, Ray Bradbury, and early Santana (involuntarily). An aspiring writer of all things strange, dabbling in electronic music, working overnights at the local grocery. Helping the environment by not driving anywhere. Lower your expectations.

1 Comment

  1. Gaylene Coutant

    March 14, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Wonderful post in addition to good layout, is this a normal template?

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