My Top 10 Movie Scores by Rock Stars

The 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was supposed to have taken place on May 2 in Cleveland but was postponed due to the pandemic. The ceremony will now be taking place virtually on November 7 and will air on HBO. One of this year’s inductees, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, is now a member of an exclusive club: musicians who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have also won an Oscar. Reznor won his for writing the original score for The Social Network, which he wrote with Atticus Ross. Reznor might need to make even more room on his mantle after this year’s Oscars, considering he and Ross have also provided the music for two potential contenders, Pixar’s Soul and David Fincher’s Mank. Reznor might be the only person on the planet who’s actually having a good 2020.

In honor of Reznor’s achievements and well-deserved honor, I thought it might be fun to take a look at all the rock stars who have, like Reznor, turned their talents to movies after having first established themselves as musicians.

To narrow them down and make it totally subjective, here are my top 10 favorite movie scores that were composed by people who were or still are rock stars.

1. The Social Network (2010)
The best film of last decade was made so by the dark, atmospheric, and gorgeous score that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross laid underneath director David Fincher’s masterpiece about the digital age. Reznor, the founder and main player in the industrial alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails (and inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), is an unlikely artist to pair up with mainstream Hollywood, as Reznor is known for his dark, angry and often cacophonous songs about rejection, betrayal and disillusionment. While he may not be a perfect fit for Hollywood, he most certainly is for Fincher, a director whose films tend to explore the darker side of human nature, from Fight Club to Se7en to Zodiac.

The score for The Social Network is (of course) dark and atmospheric, which, in retrospect, works perfectly now that we can fully grasp the overall cultural and societal effect Facebook would really have on the world. But it is within the story, which is about Facebook’s creation and how its founder, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), alienated everyone in his orbit with his single-minded obsession with making a mark on the world, where the score reveals themes of longing, isolation and ambition that mirror both the character and the world he lives in.

My favorite of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays (which won the Oscar), The Social Network is a piercing indictment of one man’s lack of humanity, while also extolling the possibilities of a new era—the digital age was an undiscovered new world, and only those who were out fast and first to plant their flags in the open virgin spaces would be the ones to flourish. Reznor and Ross’s sometimes melancholy, sometimes mournful, sometimes eerie compositions played perfectly on both the anxiety and excitement of venturing into this brave new world, and all its possible consequences.

Reznor’s music in his day job is defined as industrial, and there is no more perfect companion to industry than invention, and the invention of Facebook was truly one of the most defining, if not THE defining moment of our post-industrial, technology-driven new age. When I think of scores that truly make a movie, even though The Social Network is pretty much perfect without it, with it, the movie becomes a masterpiece.

2. Thelma & Louise (1991)
When people think of composer Hans Zimmer, they might think of his 11 Oscar nominations, his one win (for scoring The Lion King in 1995), or his iconic scores for the Christopher Nolan Batman films. His scores for Gladiator and Inception are also beloved and well-known, but, for me, my absolute favorite Hans Zimmer score isn’t an animated film, a superhero film, a period piece or a twisty thriller. Instead, the score that first put Zimmer into my movie-loving world was Thelma & Louise.

Zimmer, who was a member of the ‘80s innovative synthesizer band, The Buggles, whose ‘80s-defining one-hit-wonder, “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the very first video ever played on MTV (August 1, 1981), launched into movie scoring in 1984 and landed his first Oscar nomination for the Barry Levinson-directed Best Picture winner Rain Man in 1988. The next year, Zimmer would first work with director Ridley Scott on the crime thriller Black Rain, and they would pair up again two years later on Thelma & Louise, an iconic film that would come to take on a life of its own, both for its quality and for its content. Written by Callie Khouri, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Thelma & Louise was about two women, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, whose weekend getaway turns into a nightmare as they have to run from the police after one of them kills a would-be rapist.

The film proved to be a touchstone for the times and is now considered an iconic feminist film. What I love the most about the film, and the score which works so perfectly, is the character building and the multiple moods and genres it traverses. Part buddy comedy, part road movie, part action adventure, part crime thriller, part social commentary, Thelma & Louise proves that a movie can be everything and still be about something. The performances from Davis and Sarandon are career-defining for both, and the direction from Scott is warm, beautiful, captivating and personable, and he and Khouri don’t cop out at the end, a controversial decision that deserves to be applauded, still today.

But it is Zimmer’s score, with hints of country twang, guitar riffs and sweeping melodies, that frame every emotional moment in this film, of which there are so many. The emotional landscape of this film is multi-layered, and the score is quiet when it needs to be, and soars when it needs to. The soundtrack is also wonderful, but the score is one of the key elements that makes this film the cinematic legend it is.

3. Hanna (2019)
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, better known as the Grammy Award-winning big beat electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers, have only worked on one movie, but that one score was ultra-memorable. Joe Wright’s Hanna is an explosive, fast-moving, pounding thriller starring Saoirse Ronan as a child assassin who is on the run from those who want to capture her. The score grabs you from the start, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw the film, the scene when Hanna escapes from a monolithic, maze-like concrete structure, the pounding soundtrack that accompanied the frenzied action made every nerve ending tingle and I was hooked.

The score has an eerie mix of child-like lullaby vibes mixed with heavy bass-driven electronic rage, mirroring the frantic action that is so brilliantly choreographed by Wright and performed by Ronan.

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
When you think of rock stars who have become film composers, the first name you think of is Danny Elfman. Former front man and founder of the ‘80s new wave band Oingo Boingo, Elfman has gone on to score over 100 films, earning four Oscar nominations. He became a full-time film composer in 1995 when hearing loss forced him to leave rock music.

Best-known for his multiple collaborations with director Tim Burton, Elfman’s first film score was for Burton’s first film, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. They continued to work together on 16 films over 30 years, most memorably on Beetlejuice, Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and my favorite of all of Elfman’s scores, Edward Scissorhands. While most of Elfman’s scores in the early part of his career felt more cold and unfeeling, the score for Edward Scissorhands had a warmth and romance to it, something he continued to explore in the beloved score for Nightmare Before Christmas.

There is perhaps no better example of the Burton/Elfman collaboration than Edward Scissorhands, though, which stars Johnny Depp as a Frankenstein-like man whose creator dies before he can finish him, so he is left with scissors for hands. As Edward discovers the world (a typical pastel-and-bouffant Burton confection) and falls in love, he also learns about pain, loneliness and heartbreak. The film is moving and heartfelt, but still maintains a touch of darkness and quirkiness that is emblematic of the Burton vision. Elman’s tender and delicate score heightens the emotions and allows the viewer to connect with a creature who is misunderstood and lost.

5. The Proposition (2005)
Australian rock musician Nick Cave, founder, leader and front man for the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, has “dabbled” in film since 1988. The medium serves Cave well, as his music has always been dramatic, poetic and storytelling. Much like Elfman, Cave’s partnership with a director brought him into the world of film composing. In Cave’s case, his collaborations with director John Hillcoat have been significant to both artists. Cave’s mournful and moody scores have served the thematic and cinematic purposes of most of Hillcoat’s films, which include The Road and Lawless, which Cave also wrote. For Cave, his work with Hillcoat allowed him to work with other directors, including Taylor Sheridan and Andrew Dominik. Cave’s scores, co-written with Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis, for Sheridan’s films Wind River and the Best Picture-nominated Hell or High Water, earned critical acclaim from across the industry. But Cave and Ellis’s most beloved score is for director Andrew Dominik’s thoughtful western, Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

While all of these scores are brilliant, my absolute favorite of all of Cave’s scores is the one that came in 2005, for Hillcoat’s gritty Australian outback crime thriller, The Proposition. Like Lawless, Cave also wrote the screenplay for The Proposition, and, because of this, the score becomes like another character. Punctuated by Ellis’s haunting violin, this score is, like this movie, tragic, dramatic, mournful, dark. But it is also strangely beautiful, finding its way into the deeper crevasses of your soul, just like all of Cave’s music.

6. Gladiator (2000)
My second-favorite score by Hans Zimmer, the score for Best Picture-winning Gladiator, is everything you want a score to be. It elevates every emotion of the film, from the high energy of the battles to the sorrowful moments of death, and does it with perfect balance and scope.

But what sets Gladiator apart from every other Zimmer score is the collaboration with Australian artist Lisa Gerrard, a musician and vocalist who is best-known as being one half of the alternative, dark wave, gothic rock duo Dead Can Dance. Gerrard’s contributions to the Gladiator score elevate it beyond the ordinary or traditional. Gerrard’s ethereal vocals and subtle medieval influence on the melodies turned what could have been an ordinary gladiator movie into one about a man fighting for his place in the world, making a movie about revenge into a movie about destiny. Zimmer was wise to collaborate with Gerrard, and their magnificent and gorgeous collaboration earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win (the film’s only one).

7. TRON: Legacy (2010)
Tron, the 1982 futuristic sci-fi thriller starring Jeff Bridges, featured a groundbreaking score by trans musician Wendy Carlos, one of the great innovators in synthesized and electronic music. So it is fitting that the 2010 sequel, TRON: Legacy, directed by Joseph Kosinski, would feature a score by the leading electronic music/synthesizer band of the early 21st century, Daft Punk.

In a perfect representation of “what’s old is new again,” Daft Punk’s scoring for TRON: Legacy is what makes this otherwise disappointing sequel truly memorable. The Grammy Award-winning French duo, known for their glossy, video-friendly, pulsating electro-pop sound, was the perfect choice to provide the mood and emotional resonance for this film that mostly takes place inside a video game. TRON: Legacy is still, to date, Daft Punk’s only original film score, but it certainly is a memorable one.

8. Phantom Thread (2017)
About this phenomenal score by Jonny Greenwood, a member of the alternative rock band Radiohead, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times put it best: “The insinuating and expressive score by Jonny Greenwood — with its blend of Minimalist-like riffs, eerie harmonies, alluring melodic lines you don’t quite trust, and piercing chords that leap about aimlessly — conveys both the posh glamour of the designer’s world and his inner obsessions.”

Greenwood earned an Oscar nomination for this score, one of four collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Again, there seems to be a symbiosis between director and composer here, where they are on the same wavelength, artistically. While most look to Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score as the ultimate collaboration, my favorite of Greenwood’s scores is the more delicate one for this much more delicate yet emotionally chaotic film.

9. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Writer/director Taika Waititi not only brought a fresh perspective and much needed mischievous tone to the Marvel Universe with this uncharacteristically playful installment in the Thor superhero franchise, but he brought with him a composer with a history of his own for playful, fun and brilliant artistry. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh, a member of the iconic and influential ‘70s and ‘80s electronic band Devo, started composing for movies and TV in the late ‘80s. His first score was for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise in 1987 and he’s been working nonstop ever since. Not always associated with the most highly-regarded of films, Mothersbaugh has always brought a sense of light-hearted artistry to his work. He also has several collaborations with a single director, this one being Wes Anderson, whose whimsical cinematic flair is a perfect complement to Mothersbaugh’s style. The two worked together on the films Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou, but it is his work on 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok that stands out to me as the one Mothersbaugh will be remembered for.

10. The Princess Bride (1987)
This one has to make my list, if just for the sheer “who knew??” factor. I’ll give you ten bucks if you knew the score for Rob Reiner’s beloved 1987 fantasy romantic comedy The Princess Bride was written by the lead guitarist of Dire Straits. Yes, Mark Knopfler, the same guy who wrote “Money for Nothing” also wrote the music for Buttercup, Westley and Inigo Montoya. Is your mind significantly blown? Mine was. Knopfler hasn’t done a lot of movie composing—he also wrote the scores for The Last Exit to Brooklyn and Wag the Dog— but it has to be his work on one of the most beloved fairytales of all time that will take its place as one of the biggest artistic odd couples Hollywood has ever known and that, if for no other reason, makes it deserving to be on this list.