The bands who know the (film) score

Grizzly Bear, Daft Punk and Phoenix are the latest acts to compose music for films, bringing their hipster cachet with them. It's a mutually beneficial collaboration, says Gillian Orr
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Next time you find yourself at the cinema watching the latest hip feature, pay a little attention to the film score: there's every chance an equally cool musician has composed it. Films such as The Social Network, Tron: Legacy, Somewhere and the upcoming Blue Valentine all have scores by bands or pop stars rather than traditional film composers.

A film score, as opposed to a soundtrack, is the instrumental music that accompanies a picture, setting the overall mood and tone. Written specifically for the film, it is not designed to stand out but rather to complement the action. Indeed, film-makers often say that the sign of a good score is that the audience doesn't even notice it.

In the past, film scores have become some of the most instantly recognisable pieces of music ever written, such as Vangelis's score for Chariots of Fire or John Williams's soundtrack for Star Wars. And it's quite usual for the more prolific composers to become household names and recognised artists in their own right. So why the current trend to hire a hot, young band over a composer?

First and foremost, it's about an exchange of core values. Blue Valentine, a superb, low-budget film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple who have grown to resent each other, has been scored by indie favourites Grizzly Bear. The Brooklyn quartet is riding high, enjoying a reputation for being hip and credible, and their involvement lends these assets to the film. The band stands for emotion, truth and experimentation over big budgets and the obvious. Fans of Grizzly Bear might consider themselves to be more discerning than the average pop listener – in other words, exactly the sort of person who might go and see a film like Blue Valentine. It's a pretty neat marketing device.

Aesthetically, the two also suit each other perfectly. Grizzly Bear's rousing, soaring instrumentals are only used in the scenes that flash back to when the couple first meet and fall in love, the score perfectly demonstrating the dizzying effects of infatuation. When we return to the present, to a desperate couple stifled by marriage and the choices they have made, the music ceases. The only score is the couple's tears and raised voices.

The film's director, Derek Cianfrance, says, "For nine of the 12 years that I was working on Blue Valentine, I imagined the movie to Vangelis's score for L'Apocalypse des Animaux. Then, my friend and former film professor, Phil Solomon, introduced me to the music of Grizzly Bear. It seemed so cinematic. The music seemed classic, yet somehow very modern and iconic. And they were writing about relationships. I found a kinship with their music. I started seeing the movie whilst listening to their songs. Soon I began writing to it and it began inspiring the script. I never once had writer's block when it was on."

In a mutually beneficial deal, the band also gets kudos for contributing to a film that is likely to receive great acclaim and even get to recapture some of the cool points that they might have lost along the way by, say, lending their song "Two Weeks" to a Peugeot commercial.

Another reason that more pop musicians are getting involved in film is simply because it represents a new challenge. The French indie band Phoenix may seem an obvious choice to score Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere – their lead singer, Thomas Mars, is the director's partner, after all – but they relished having a new, refreshing way to work. Mars says, "In music, everything is possible. When you're in the studio to record an album, you have almost too much space, too much freedom. I guess it's nice sometimes to have guidelines and direction. To work within a frame and to do something very specific can be a nice change of pace. It's like learning a new skill."

Somewhere follows an unhappy movie star called Johnny Marco, whose life has become a blur of booze, pills and strippers. We are introduced to him as he drives his Ferrari round and round a track; his life is simply going nowhere. For the score, Coppola asked for something moody and sad, a theme for Los Angeles, and pointed to the band's instrumental song "Love Like a Sunset" from their last album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, as a starting point.

Inspired by minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, the sparse beats of the score melt with the sounds of the film, including the Ferrari's engine that features so prominently throughout. "We don't manage to work on tour usually," Mars observes. "But with this we could just get on with it. It was easy because we would sit down in the afternoon, look at the music and get inspired. It happened very fast."

Score work can also be a way for a band member to move away from their day job. The French electronic duo Daft Punk have had a life-long fascination with the 1982 film Tron, so when they were approached by the director of the new sequel, Tron: Legacy, to do the score, they could hardly turn down the opportunity. The result is a 22-track epic score, taking in synthesisers, beats and an 85-strong orchestra. "It's by far the most challenging and complex thing we have ever been involved with," Thomas Bangalter, one half of the band, has said.

Jonny Greenwood has also been spending down time away from his duties as Radiohead's guitarist to score films. His tense, unsettling pieces for Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood were well received in 2007. He has just completed the score for the upcoming film adaptation of Haruki Murakami's wildly popular novel Norwegian Wood. Both scores incorporate classical music and orchestras, a sonic departure from Radiohead.

Elsewhere, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor used his commission to score The Social Network (with composer Atticus Ross) as an opportunity to experiment with new genres. Neglecting his rock and metal roots in favour of electronica, the result is a series of dark, moody pieces that at one point even deconstructs Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King". Reznor wrote on his website, "I was planning on taking some time off and spend this year experimenting. Well, that plan didn't work out so well. David Fincher started inquiring about my interest in scoring his upcoming film. When I actually read the script and realized what he was up to, I said goodbye to that free time I had planned... I couldn't be happier with how it's turned out. The entire process has been challenging and truly enjoyable."

For pop and rock musicians, who go from the studio to the tour bus and back again, scoring a film can provide not just a welcome break from their usual routine, but the chance to explore new territory. And a collaboration that really works can also bolster opinion of both the artist and the film, meaning everyone's a winner.

'Somewhere' is out today. 'Tron: Legacy' is out next Friday. 'Blue Valentine' is released 21 January. 'Norwegian Wood' is released 18 March

In tune: Musicians at the movies

James Murphy, Greenberg

To have the man behind LCD Soundsystem (above left) score Noah Baumbach's film (starring Ben Stiller, above right) was a natural collaboration. The cutting-edge musician and the independent film-maker appeal to a similar demographic.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, The Road

Who do you turn to for scoring the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic, bleak novel 'The Road'? Step forward Nick Cave, purveyor of all things dark and depressing.

Goldfrapp, Nowhere Boy

More of an unusual one: Goldfrapp wrote the film score for 'Nowhere Boy', Sam Taylor-Wood's film about the young John Lennon. It was recorded, appropriately, at Abbey Road Studios.