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From singles to soundtracks: how pop stars bought a ticket for the cinema

With high-profile new movie albums, Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood are leading a growing Hollywood shift, writes Si Hawkins

American rapper Kendrick Lamar is behind the ‘Black Panther’. Reuters
American rapper Kendrick Lamar is behind the ‘Black Panther’. Reuters

At first glance, there are few similarities between the movies Black Panther and Phantom Thread. One is Marvel’s new superhero epic, based in a fantastically futuristic African nation. The other is the latest cerebral masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson, about an obsessive dressmaker.

The link? Both soundtracks were created by artists more familiar with rock festivals than symphony halls: rap icon Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

The era of great symphonic scores may not be over yet – John Williams and Hans Zimmer remain busy – but Hollywood is casting a wider net for the next generation. And with some success: Greenwood’s score is now Oscar-nominated, while Lamar’s soundtrack is adding even more buzz to that hotly anticipated blockbuster.

Check the credits on many major recent movie and TV releases – from Netflix’s new sci-fi originals Mute and Altered Carbon to Fargo and Logan Lucky – and some diverse rock and pop names crop up.

Those artists generally fall into two camps: stars who dabble with soundtracks then return to their regular stuff and musicians whose film work takes over. Greenwood is increasingly in the latter category, with a cinema resumé so successful that his rock career is now arguably secondary – which is impressive, given that Radiohead is one of the world’s most popular bands.

So what makes a successful crossover act? Many of the new breed have sprung from a perhaps surprising source: uncompromisingly left-field rock bands. Film music is all about compromise, after all. The director’s word is final.

Some of these transitions can be slightly bizarre. The score for Marvel’s previous film, Thor: Ragnarok, was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, who made his name in anarchic new-wave band Devo. His screen breakthrough? Music for the children’s cartoon Rugrats.

But then the idea of anarchic rockers composing scores at all can seem odd. Alex Maas, for example, leads The Black Angels, a much-loved Texan band recently described by The Chicago Tribune as “brilliant purveyors of sonic mayhem”. Offstage, he now scores indie films and documentaries – but perhaps those worlds aren’t so different.

“It can be a bit chaotic, and deadlines are always ‘yesterday’, every single time,” Maas says of cinema work. “You completely have to check your ego at the door anytime you work in that world – [which is] probably a good thing to do anyway. I’ve found it so rewarding.”

Healthy collaboration is clearly key. Maas – whose new project, Mien, is a psychedelic supergroup – evidently enjoys being part of someone else’s project. “It’s about what the director wants,” he says, “and how we get there together.”

It is noticeable how many rockers-turned-composers have flourished thanks to strong partnerships with a particular director. Mothersbaugh went on to score several films for the brilliantly quirky Wes Anderson; Nine Inch Nails’ infamously intense Trent Reznor has a firm bond with David Fincher, and worked on brooding backing for films such as The Social Network and Gone Girl. And Clint Mansell, formerly of Reznor-approved dance-rockers Pop Will Eat Itself, stumbled on a film career by working with then-unknown directors.

First came Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah), whose debut film Pi featured an unplanned Mansell score, which he threw together to replace electronica cuts they couldn’t obtain. Then, Duncan Jones, from which Mansell crafted a hypnotic atmosphere for his debut film, Moon, and has now scored the quasi-sequel, Mute. Jones should be a good judge of maverick musicians: his father was David Bowie.

These musician/director dynamics can be rather like songwriting partnerships. Quietly becoming the hottest name in American TV music right now is Jeff Russo (Altered Carbon, Star Trek: Discovery, The Night Of), who previously found fame in post-grunge duo Tonic. His screen break arrived via a similar partnership with writer/producer Noah Hawley, showrunner for Fargo and X-Men spin-off Legion. “I very much feel like we’re a band,” Russo admitted.

Greenwood is arguably the hottest name in movie soundtracks, meanwhile; he also scored recent thriller You Were Never Really Here, a second collaboration with director Lynne Ramsay. But his work with Thomas Anderson is already one of the great movie pairings: the music for their first film together, There Will Be Blood, would also have been Oscar-nominated but for an eligibility glitch. Greenwood was always more classically inclined than most, having studied music theory before joining Radiohead, and his beautifully elaborate Phantom Thread score might smash some preconceptions about long-haired rockers.

Sometimes a musician’s style is ready-made for the big screen. Ólafur Arnalds was once a heavy-metal drummer back home in Iceland, then began making beat-laden neo-classical cuts, and is now a sought-after soundtrack composer. He can even afford to be “a bit hard-line” when choosing projects. “I might lose some jobs from it, but eventually it means that I am only offered projects that suit me,” he says. “I would advise other people the same: be flexible, but keep your personality.”

It certainly seems successful: he worked in Hollywood, won a Bafta for TV series Broadchurch and is now back in solo mode, with a world tour that has already sold out big, legendary venues. Soundtracks still appeal though. “I love hearing my music on the big screen. Every time.”

As for Lamar’s soundtrack debut, he was actively courted by Black Panther director – and fan – Ryan Coogler. But Coogler only wanted a couple of tracks, originally. The rapper and his co-producer, Sounwave, then “watched quite a bit of the movie”, says Coogler. “The next thing I know, they were booking a studio.”

Their album’s first single, All the Stars, is certainly memorable – but Black Panther’s actual score that you will hear during the movie was created by Coogler’s regular composer, Ludwig Göransson, albeit with several Lamar tracks woven in.

That approach has numerous precedents. Prince produced an album “from and inspired by” 1989 movie Batman (Danny Elfman composed the score). Jay-Z created a companion album to American Gangster (2007), then executive produced Baz Luhrmann’s soundtrack to The Great Gatsby (2013), while Lorde “curated” the soundtrack to 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Marvel did commission an eye-catching full score in 2016, though, from A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, for Netflix series Luke Cage, alongside composer Adrian Younge. A fine collection it was, too.

A high-profile composer can also help sell a movie. Daft Punk’s soundtrack to 2010 sci-fi sequel Tron: Legacy was arguably the best thing about it: futuristic synth-funk, augmented by a 90-piece orchestra. The French duo even appeared in one scene, as robot-helmeted DJs, with no CGI required.

Soundtracks are often a long-term goal for techno artists, such as Northern Irish DJ/producer David Holmes. He openly courted that world – his first album was This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats – before embarking on a lengthy alliance with Steven Soderbergh, beginning with a memorably funky score to heist romance Out of Sight (1998).


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Their working relationship continued with Logan Lucky last year, and even survived creative trauma. Soderbergh reportedly replaced Holmes’ whole score for the 2006 film The Good German with a new one by Thomas Newman (cousin of legendary songwriter Randy, who now scores Pixar movies). That might sound dramatic, but is not uncommon. It even happened to Reznor, on the film One Hour Photo. “You’re scrapping stuff you love all the time,” Arnalds admits. “One of the most important things is to learn to let go.”

Imagine having to tell Reznor that. Now that would be a tricky call.

Updated: February 8, 2018 06:31 PM