Seven Rock Musicians Who Scored Movies

A movie’s music score is one of its most invaluable elements. Music can convey tone and mood, give a sense of place and punctuate a scene. While there are some really great composers who work solely in films (and deserve a list of their own), sometimes a great score is written when directors reach out to the world of rock and roll. Here are seven rock artists who can count a film score amidst their credits.

1. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network (dir. David Fincher 2010)


The most recent example on this list is a great one. Trent Reznor (otherwise known as the guy behind Nine Inch Nails) worked with band-mate Atticus Ross and they sublimated their anger and created a buzzy, lively, pulsating score. The music is all at once cold, determined and yet somehow very appealing. Anyone of those words could be used to describe the way Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg and that is most definitely not a coincidence.

Reznor had previously worked with Fincher where he remixed Nine Inch Nail’s most famous song, “Closer”, for the title sequence of Se7en. Reznor also worked with David Lynch in helping to put together the soundtrack to Lost Highway and he composed a few original songs for that as well.

Where It Fits Into Their Discography: Nine Inch Nails, with its layered, industrial sound, has always done a good job of establishing a sense of atmosphere in their work. Reznor and Ross’ score for The Social Network is an extension of sorts of Nine Inch Nails’ album Ghosts I-IV instrumental album that depicted a variety of soundscapes.

What He’s Up To Now: Scoring films is a logical continuation for Reznor and I’m looking forward to his score for Fincher’s film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which is coming out in a couple of months.

Album To Check Out: Pretty Hate Machine

2. Nick Cave & Warren EllisThe Proposition (dir. John Hillcoat 2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominick 2007), The Road (dir. John Hillcoat 2009)

In the case of scoring The Proposition, Nick Cave was the only man for the job, seeing as he also wrote the screenplay. His music effortlessly waffles back and forth between beauty and savagery and perfectly reflects the harshness of the Australian Outback and the difficulty of Guy Pearce’s character’s mission.

While he did not write the film, enough cannot be said of the elegance of his score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Driven sorrow-filled piano melodies and accented with violin strings, no other work encapsulates the feeling of melancholy, and it is one of the most key elements in the film, saying almost just as much as Dominick’s visuals.

Where It Fits Into His Discography: Nick Cave is known for his melancholy melodies and poetic, story driven lyrics that at first sound like sweet whispers and soon reveal themselves to be brimming with unsettling imagery. I once heard one of his songs described as being the most beautiful song ever written about smashing a man’s brains in. These qualities make him a perfect candidate to compose a film score, especially when the films are about complicated, hard men with a propensity for violence and deep-seated vulnerabilities. These soundtracks could easily be listened to apart from their films and appreciated as Nick Cave albums.

What He’s Up To Now: Next year sees the release of The Wettest County in the World, another film in which he wrote the screenplay for John Hillcoat to direct. One can only assume that he’ll be composing the score as well. That one’s about Tom Hardy bootlegging in the south during prohibition. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it will be amazing.

Album To Check Out: Tender Prey

3. Mark MothersbaughBottle Rocket (dir. Wes Anderson 1996), Rushmore (dir. Wes Anderson 1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson 2001), The Life Aquatic (dir. Wes Anderson 2004)

I sometimes forget that Wes Anderson films have actual proper scores. That’s not a slight on Mothersbaugh’s work; it’s just that Anderson is a master at picking out songs for his soundtracks. When I think of Rushmore I immediately think Cat Stevens. The Royal Tenenbaums: Nico and Van Morrison. The Life Aquatic: David Bowie. You get the idea.

That being said Mothersbaugh’s contributions are pretty great and his music is full of heart and filled with the same kind of bubbly, emotional emphatic energy that makes Anderson’s films special ones.

Where It Fits Into His Discography: Mark Mothersbaugh is the lead singer of DEVO and one of its founding members and main songwriters. DEVO is a band that is taken less seriously than they should be due to the overplaying and misinterpretation of their song “Whip It.” However, their early work is pretty great, and I can’t recommend their first album, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are DEVO! enough—It was produced by Brian Eno! Mothersbaugh’s score contain a bit of the same energy, it’s lacking the electronic bite that DEVO had.

What He’s Up To Now: Well, Devo just released a new album not too long ago, but it’s unclear if there was a falling out or not because Mothersbaugh has not scored Anderson’s last two films, The Darjeeling Limited and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mothersbaugh seems to be constantly working on various TV shows and other films. That said his work with Anderson is what he’ll be remembered for in the film world.

Album To Check Out: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are DEVO!

4. Neil YoungDead Man (dir. Jim Jarmusch 1995)

Dead Man is a special film and it’s exactly the type of movie that Johnny Depp doesn’t make anymore. A film most of his fans would probably hate. A surrealist Western shot in stark black and white, Dead Man is most definitely an experimental film, and Neil Young’s score fits right in with all that.  The score mostly consists of a mix of acoustic guitar, distorted guitar licks and lots of feedback. At first listen the music seems antithetical to what a Western score should be, but in the end it works amazingly well in the film.

Where It Fits Into His Discography: Neil Young’s score for Dead Man has the same heart and soul that his music is known for. While it’s obviously lacking his signature high-pitched vocals, it feels very much in the vein of the majority of his music, and is very reminiscent of some of stuff from the late 70s like the album Rust Never Sleeps.

What He’s Up To Now: Being Neil Young. Dead Man is an oddity in his career, as he has not recorded another score since.

Album To Check Out: Rust Never Sleeps

5. QueenHighlander (dir. Russell Mulcahy 1986)


This one’s a bit of a cheat, as Queen did not technically compose the score for Highlander—that duty belonged to the great Michael Kamen—but Queen did write all their songs used in the film specifically for it. Kamen also turned the ballad “Who Wants To Live Forever” into an instrumental theme that runs through the film. While most of the music is pretty hokey and pretty familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Queen, their title theme is incredibly badass and one that I’ve loved since I was a little kid watching the movie.

Where It Fits Into Their Discography: With all their other albums. In fact they released all of their songs for this film onto an album called A Kind of Magic.

What They’re Up To Now: Freddie Mercury is dead by AIDS. The other guys are probably around somewhere. I think Brian May played guitar for Lady Gaga recently.

Album To Check Out: Queen’s Greatest Hits

6. Peter GabrielThe Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese 1988)


Most people are familiar with Peter Gabriel from the song “In Your Eyes” that was used prominently in the film Say Anything when John Cusack porked Ione Skye for the first time, and later held the boom box over his head outside her window. But there is so much more to Peter Gabriel. His work with Genesis and his first few solo albums from the late 70s-early 80s are some of the best sounding albums (from a production standpoint and a musical one) around, and his songs from that era would play like gangbusters on a soundtrack.

As the 80s progressed, Gabriel became more interested in experimenting with World music and his score for The Last Temptation of Christ is rife with foreign flourishes, blending Rock and Roll with tribal music, creating a rich tapestry of sound that feels very uplifting and human. The Last Temptation of Christ is an interesting film, and one that is both an odd mark and an obvious one in Martin Scorsese’s filmography. The film attempts to portray the Christ myth as realistically as possible. He gives Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe of all people) doubts, fears and manly urges, and totally reimagines his relationship to Judas, making it a more complicated and interesting one. Peter Gabriel’s music fits the film perfectly emanating with hope and feelings of greatness. I’m not a religious person, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good yarn about a good guy doing some good stuff, and Peter Gabriel’s music just makes you feel good about yourself listening to it.

Where It Fits Into His Discography: Perfectly. The album release of the soundtrack is titled Passion: Music For The Last Temptation of Christ, and feels like a natural evolution from his first four solo albums (all officially titled Peter Gabriel, and unofficially titled after their cover art) sans vocals.

What He’s Up To Now: Peter Gabriel is releasing a new album soon, but he has not scored another film since The Last Temptation of Christ over twenty years ago.

Album To Check Out: Peter Gabriel 3: Melt

7. Bob DylanPat Garret & Billy The Kid (dir. Sam Peckinpah 1973)

The story goes that Bob Dylan got the job scoring this film when Kris Kristofferson (who played Billy the Kid) played Peckinpah a Dylan record and it made the (incredibly hard and tough man) cry. He impressed Peckinpah so much that he gave Dylan a part in the film as one of Billy the Kid’s men, unfortunately he’s not that great an actor, but he doesn’t hurt the film at all.

Dylan plays to his strengths with the score and it aspires to be nothing more than a great collection of Bob Dylan tracks. There’s a sense of wistfulness to it and like Nick Cave’s score for The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford it is not short on melancholy. It’s greatest achievement is most definitely “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” That’s a song that everyone’s heard a billion times, but let me tell you, listening to that in the context of the film for which it was written is like hearing it for the first time. Peckinapah is a master, and Bob Dylan is the icing on the cake in the scene.


Where It Fits Into His Discography: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is a Bob Dylan album through and through. It’s essential.

What He’s Up To Now: This is the only film of real renown that Bob Dylan scored, (he apparently scored a film he starred in from 2003, but I’ve never heard of it and it got terrible reviews) but it’s so good it doesn’t matter. As far as I know, Bob Dylan is being Bob Dylan right now.

Album To Check Out: John Wesley Harding

Did I miss anyone? Feel free to point out any other musician you feel should be recognized for their contribution to the world of film scores!


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Categories: Film, Music

Author:Colin Holmes

I love movies. I love watching them and I love writing about them. My taste ranges from Jean Pierre Melville to Jean Claude Van Damme and everything in between as long as it isn’t mediocre. I’ll take a crazy failure of a movie over a middle of the road one any day. I'm an American currently living abroad in Oz and am relishing how my accent makes me sound like a cowboy to everyone I meet here.

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2 Comments on “Seven Rock Musicians Who Scored Movies”

  1. 09.22.11 at 4:39 PM #

    80% sure Mark Mothersbaugh also wrote a bunch of music in the Rugrats TV series on Nickelodeon.

  2. Colin Holmes
    09.22.11 at 5:44 PM #

    You’re right. I totally forgot he did the music for Rugrats.

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